Makansutra: Cheap and good steamed fish dishes at Golden Mile
Go early to catch the fresh and cheap fish dishes at Golden Mile Food Centre
The first thing a curious auntie asked as I was about to devour my steamed sea bass was whether it was fresh.
One usually gets this query from fish experts - they know that only fresh fish can be steamed. You deep fry or grill them if they have sat longer than comfortable in the fridge.
It was my second time at Zhi Le Ma, and I told her it was just as good as the first time.
Had my favourite kopi lady and sometime-food whisperer not given me the heads-up, I would not have paid much attention to this humble stall at Golden Mile Food Centre.
It offers just three fish dishes - Steamed Sea Bass, Golden Pomfret and Garoupa.
They come with rice, a bowl of smooth chawanmushi (steamed egg custard) and two slices of watermelon.
During my first attempt, the lady boss barked at the queue - "Only sea bass left!" - just so the last customer could hear her. It was only 12.30pm.
I ordered that and decided to return the next day. I was second in the queue and she barked the same message, at 12.25pm.
All the fish are personally bought by boss Xiao Ma, who hails from Fujian, China, from wet markets in Whampoa (where he lives) and Marsiling (when there is good supply).
The amazing thing was not just the fresh, juicy and perfectly steamed sea bass doused with a light soy stock, shallot and ginger sauce, but the price.
I have no idea how he turns a profit from the $5 price tag for the entire set.
He steams the fish as you line up and anticipates the demand, so the five-minute wait for your order is bearable.
I noticed he gingerly pokes a thin chopstick through the fish to check for doneness.
He practises such diligence because he used to work at Japanese restaurants and "freshness is important".
It was third time lucky for me when I revisited at 11.30am and his wife did not bark that dreaded phrase, allowing me the chance to tear into his other two fish dishes.
The Golden Pomfret (a whole fish at $5) was on point, like how some Teochew or Cantonese restaurants would do it.
The soy chilli dip provided vintage comfort, but he also offers a self-made crispy mala chilli dip that is arrestingly addictive.
The final assault on my senses was a whole fresh garoupa priced at a ridiculous $6. If you know your fish prices, you will be baffled too. It was too good to be true, but it truly was.
Zhi Le Ma
01-87, Golden Mile Food Centre, 505 Beach Road
10.30am to 2pm (or till sold out) daily