“What should we eat for lunch today?”
While the NUS campus may be somewhat inaccessible, there’s hardly any need to head out for good food. With many dining options scattered around the campus, students and staff at NUS definitely find themselves spoilt for choice when satisfying their cravings.
The NUS Best Food on Campus Contest, held on the NUS Kent Ridge Alumni Day (15 August 2015), pit contestants against one another to clinch the 8 awards up for grabs. These eateries/ stalls include:
- Reedz Café (Mochtar Riady Building, School of Business)
- Astons (Flavours@UTown, Stephen Riady Centre)
- Hwang’s Korean Restaurant (Town Plaza, University Town)
- Ayam Penyet (Frontier, Faculty of Science)
- Yong Tau Foo (The Deck, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences)
The contestants dished out their signature dishes with an added visual flair before facing a panel of judges from diverse and reputable backgrounds. Among them was MediaCorp heart-throb Tay Ping Hui, a former NUS student (Class of 1996).
These are the winners – do you agree with the judges’ decision?
Looking at the list sure felt like a food trail was waiting to happen. In light of the recent contest, my stomach could not resist the temptation to fulfill my role as a foodie and sample the winner’s fare myself. So off I went…
1. Astons, Flavours@UTown, Stephen Riady Centre
Operating hours: 11am – 10pm daily
Representing the western food stall at the Flavours @ UTown food court, Astons has been dishing out affordable comfort food since its inception. The Astons brand has grown from its humble coffeeshop beginnings to the many outlets and restaurant outfits across the island – you could say Astons has indeed spread everywhere, with an outlet located right on our campus.
The brand has certainly won the hearts of many western food aficionados and is synonymous with affordability and quality. While I wasn’t surprised by the long queue during lunch hour, my stomach was growing impatient.
Fortunately, I did not have to wait a long time. The stall emphasises efficiency – upon placing your orders, you get a buzzer that will prompt you to collect your food from the counter. Within ten minutes (a perfectly reasonable waiting time considering the staggering queue), my Grilled Fish With Herbs (NUS $7.50, Public $9.50) (with a choice of Mac & Cheese and Garden Veggies as my side dishes) was ready.
The fish was crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. The sauce, however, I didn’t like too much; it was too viscous and lacked flavour to complement the fish. The dish would do just as well without the sauce.
But the sides were thoroughly enjoyable – the pasta was cooked al dente and the vegetables well cooked.
All in all, with the exception of the sauce on the fish, I couldn’t have asked for a better meal.
With my western food craving satisfied at a lower price compared to other Astons outlets, I will return for another affordable meal again.
The Good: The waiting time was adequate and I was spared the agony of watching my friends eat their food first.
The Not-so-Good: I was a little disappointed with the sauce that accompanied with the fish as it lacked flavour and was too thick for my liking.
2. Hwang’s Korean Restaurant, Town Plaza, University Town
Opening hours: Monday – Saturday, 10:30am – 10pm (last order at 9pm)
This place never fails to draw the crowd and can get really packed during the lunch hour. The variety of food and drinks, coupled with its affordability, contribute to its overwhelming popularity.
Serving traditional dishes from Dak Bulgogi (spicy marinated chicken) to Dolsot Bibimbap (stone bowl mixed rice), this is where you should go to get your quick fix of authentic Korean food.
Do note that you have to decide on your preferred dish before you join the queue. The staff’s efficient service means your order will be taken as soon as eye contact is made from a reasonable distance away.
So although the queue appears long, it moves at a quick rate which means you’re able to get your food within a short period of time.
Dak Bulgogi (NUS $5.50, Public $6.50), or spicy marinated chicken, is definitely one of my recommendations when you’re dining at the restaurant. Besides a generous amount of chicken, the set also includes seaweed soup, a bowl of rice and two side dishes of kimchi and seasoned anchovies.
The chicken, each piece a mixture of spiciness, sweetness and saltiness, were also accompanied with sliced onions to give each bite an additional texture and flavour. What’s more, the dish was served on a hot plate, keeping my food hot while whetting my appetite as it sizzled.
The Good: The serving size was just right, so I was delightfully full!
The Not-so-Good: The dish could probably be served with more onion slices to better accentuate the taste of the marinated chicken (though this is up to your personal preference!).
The Dolsot Bibimbap (NUS $6, Public $7) is perhaps one of the most definitive dishes in Korean cuisine. Literally meaning “stone bowl mixed rice”, the proper way to eat it is to mix the vegetables, egg and rice together with the red pepper paste. What you get in each mouthful is a rich blend of flavours and textures.
Hwang’s take on this dish consists of handfuls of four different types of vegetables, with chicken pieces and a serving of fried egg atop white rice. Served in a sizzling hot stone bowl, the rice at the bottom of the stone bowl turned golden and crispy, while keeping the other ingredients hot while mixing it.
An alternative version that’s served in a metallic bowl (Bibim Bap) is also available at a slightly cheaper price (NUS $5, Public $6). Similar to the Dak Bulgogi, the dish is also accompanied with a small serving of kimchi and seasoned anchovies.
The Good: The vegetables are freshly prepared and offered a good crunch even after mixing with the other ingredients.
The Not-so-Good: The serving size could be larger, especially the amount of rice.
3. Ayam Penyet, Frontier, Faculty of Science
Operation hours (term time):
Monday – Friday: 7:30am – 4.pm (several stalls operate till 8pm)
Saturday: 7:30am – 3pm
Located at the corner of the Frontier (also known as the Science canteen), this Indonesian Panggang Uncle Penyet Fusion stall never fails to draw a long line of hungry students seeking to satisfy their deep-fried food craving.
This is especially so during lunch hour, when its queue often intertwines with that of other stalls’. Do be sure you’re at the right queue; you wouldn’t want to end up queuing for a fruit juice instead – a common mistake for people new to this canteen!
The stall does not just serve greasy food; it also caters to the needs of the slightly more health conscious (and thriftier) individuals with dishes like Steamed Chicken ($3) and Bakso (Beef Ball Soup) ($2.50).
As for myself, I couldn’t resist ordering one of their deep-fried dishes, and chose the stall’s renowned Ayam Penyet, which clinched the Grand Winner for Best Food on Campus Contest award.
The stall’s rendition of Ayam Penyet ($4.30) comes atop a bed of salad (lettuce, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes) with a piece of fried tofu and a portion of white or brown (for an additional $0.10) rice covered with curry sauce.
The fried chicken was cooked to perfection, the skin adequately crispy and the meat tender. Moreover the crispy bits of batter atop the chicken gave the dish additional texture, which accompanied well with the rice.
Apart from the chicken, another highlight of the dish was the stall’s iconic chili sauce, which would normally be served with the rice. But this sauce is not for the faint-hearted because of its intense spiciness – in fact, there used to be a sign saying “WARNING: CHILI IS VERY SPICY” placed at the cashier. In other words, it’s possibly highly ranked on the Scoville Heat Scale and shouldn’t be underestimated!
As someone who can take the heat, I did not find the chili overpoweringly spicy – in fact, it gave the dish a good kick, and its absence would certainly diminish the overall experience. That being said, those who are unable to tolerate too much spiciness should start with only a tiny bit of the sauce first; don’t set your mouth on fire!
The Good: Definitely the fried chicken.
The Not-so-Good: The greens and the fried tofu were a little dry for my liking.
4. Yong Tau Foo, The Deck, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences
Operation hours (term time):
Monday – Friday: 7.30am to 4pm (several stalls at The Deck operate till 8pm)
Saturday: 7:30am – 3pm
Situated at the entrance of The Deck (also known as Arts canteen), the Yong Tau Foo & Laksa stall is hard to miss. It is even harder to miss it during the lunch hours when there’s a long queue (or two) in front of the stall!
With a wide variety of ingredients to choose from, as well as being easy on a student’s wallet, it is no wonder the stall attracts students from all over the campus.
Yong Tau Foo is a Hakka Chinese dish which, unlike its name, does not solely consist of Tau Foo, or Tofu (bean curd). In fact, the amount of ingredients ranges from vegetables like bok choy and tomatoes, to fish balls and fried wonton. Although the ingredients may vary by stalls, typical choices also include eggplant, quail egg and stuffed bitter gourd.
There is a particular way to order your food at this stall. There are two queues, with the one on the right for selecting your ingredients. Once you have handed your order over to the cashier, join the queue on the left (which is usually longer) and wait for your turn to pay and collect your food. Rest assured that you’ll receive the right order!
Do look out for the yellow A4-sized paper located on top of the ingredient shelves to aid your order. It will give you a breakdown of your costs and inform you of the available carbohydrate accompaniments.
I decided to have an early lunch to avoid the lunch queue (which has been known to stretch past the entrance of The Deck), and arrived at the stall at around 10am. There were only about two students in front me for the right queue, and only five on the left.
I have to admit that this meal was one of the most value-for-money food choices on the my entire trail. Priced at $2.80 for 8 pieces of ingredients ($0.30 per piece) and a bowl of rice ($0.40), it definitely made both my tummy and wallet happy!
The highlight of the dish, well-agreed by many supporters of the stall, is the stall’s unique soup base. Flavourful without being too salty, it gave my vegetables a sweetness that helped accentuate their individual flavours. One would certainly enjoy drinking the soup without the all-too-familiar thirst that accompanies dishes rich in MSG.
The rice was also cooked just right, without the grains clumping together. As for the condiments, the sambal chilli sauce was not too spicy, yet giving enough heat; while the black sauce was sufficiently sweet.
The Good: Without a doubt, the soup base will certainly keep me coming back for more!
The Not-so-Good: The fried wanton that I had order was not re-fried, and was soaked in the soup, giving the dumpling skin a soggy texture.
Having sampled the food of the contest winners, I can definitely say that they deserved their respective titles. It is crucial in the food business to ensure that quality remains consistent. These stalls have achieved that and more especially in terms of service and affordability.
Congratulations to the winners of the NUS Best Food on Campus Contest!
Credits: All photos by Nicholas Ong. Infographic from the Office of Campus Amenities’ Facebook page.