Grain Bowl Shops Are Superior
Not just for taste, but also as a metaphor for the modern day. A series of thoughts I had while having really good sous vide chicken breast yesterday afternoon.
There’s a time and place for everything, and it’s easy to see how this applies to types of food, too. Sometimes a rushed lunch in between class calls for quick and dirty hawker fare, other times, a Friday evening hangout calls for a round of drinks and noise that lasts well into the night. You wouldn’t pull out your laptop to do last-minute work during a dinner reservation at Odette, nor would you do your Meatless Monday lunch at a K-BBQ. (Then again, this is just my opinion, you do you.)
However, there is one genre of F&B that defies all the shoulds and should-nots, and that’s precisely why it’s my favourite. I’m talking about the humble grain bowl.
You’re probably thinking, “Jolie, WTF?” and I understand. Grain bowl shops are designed to be commuter-like where everything’s ready-to-eat and half of them serve the same 10 foods (name me a place that doesn’t have broccoli on the menu). Sure, there’s reason to like them but is there really reason to love them?
After all, these shops are hardly an experience. They’re not local like your hawkers, not bougie like your Michelins. It’s congregants of the upper-middle class who swarm these dime-a-dozen shops in the business district, willing to splash $10++ on what is basically exotic mixed rice that you could make at home. Dining is beautifully impersonal — usually, you fill up an order chit to DIY, pick your carbs/proteins/veggies, pay (sometimes not even at the cashier) and collect your food from the counter yourself.
Rarely do you think of these shops as a place to loiter or chat or order seconds, it’s a place for you to chow down on your brown rice/chicken breast/whatever and get moving. The shops themselves know this, which explains the often bare-bones seating (if there is even any in the first place — I’m looking at you, Omnivore) and marketing position (“Clean! Fresh! For those busy days!”).
Also, everyone in line is some variation of the person in front of them. White-collar corporate professional? Gym rat? White-collar professional dressed as a gym rat? No matter the archetype, everyone there kind of looks like they would rather be anywhere but here. What’s so interesting about that?
But maybe the grain bowl value proposition doesn’t end at being fuss-free and healthy. Maybe it is precisely the clipped, come-and-go nature of the grain bowl shop that provides a backdrop for a plenitude of versatile experiences. It is precisely that expectation of the mundane which makes it so special. Let me try to take you through it…
Sights & Sounds of the Grain Bowl Shop (Weekday Lunch Hour Ver.)
It’s 11:50AM. The office crowd goes absolutely apeshit, pouring out of the numerous surrounding buildings and forming a queue that can rival the outside of Foot Locker 8 hours before some new Yeezy drop. But easily half of them are doing takeaways, and it’s not that difficult to find a seat after ordering. I like crowds about as much as the next person, but this is like golden hour, where the magic happens.
- If you’re at a well-lit place like Grain Traders, there are window seats at the glass panels that face the road so you get a perfect view of the street crowd, a ripe opportunity for people-watching. It’s easy to pick up on the little things. A group of interns lunching together by sheer virtue of their jobs, three of them are bantering and the other two are awkwardly following behind. That one gweilo with his mask off among everyone else who still wears it outside. Some al fresco diners stand around outside, and you can read that one dude’s lips as he says the word “metaverse”.
- If sunlight does not hit your eyes, turn your attention to the crowds within the store. Among this snaking queue at Daily Cut, who stands out? At least four of these ladies are wearing Love, Bonito. What company are those lanyards from? Can’t squint too hard if not they’ll look at me weird. Do they look like a [company name] type of person? Dunno.
- On my left is a bigger group of colleagues with their supervisor. There is one person Clearly Trying to Kiss Ass and you can tell he’s not really succeeding because everyone is looking down at their food. People say go to college to prepare for the real world, but does that mean college prepares you to be that guy in Wafuken, sesame spinach salad stuck in your teeth while you talk about “disruptive innovation”?
- A duo is sat on my right at Wheat Baumkuchen and they are engaged in a conversation that is loud enough for me to hear (not that I meant to, but I can’t help myself). “What do you do for fun outside of work?” “I don’t do much outside of work actually… I can’t find the time or energy to.” Some practical advice is exchanged (like “Don’t wait till you quit your job to explore what you like”), but minutes later they’re gone and you don’t know what to do with the borderline TMI things that you have just learnt about this stranger. These are bite-sized conversations that teeter on having meaning, yet only last as long as an office lunch break allows. Not necessarily enough time for a thorough introspection, but therapy is expensive and sometimes, all we can muster is acknowledgement towards the state of ennui that humdrum working life tends to bring with it.
Everyone in the crowd, whether dining-in or takeaway, is spending double digits on food because really, what else do you have to look forward to if you have to be at your desk for half the day? But looking at the way these people dine ‘n dash, you have to wonder, are they really enjoying the experience at all?
Grain bowl shops are a microcosm of the working class, where the focus is not exactly on the taste. A place where people think about everything but the food — weighing the opportunity cost of their time and money, minimising the sacrifice to health, optimising their calories or macros. Behind the faceless group representing the “CBD lunchtime rush” problem are people just doing what they have to do, guzzling their sous vide eggs in a partially depleted and semi-guarded form. All the more does that make the unassuming grain bowl shop a good place to ask if others are living the good life — and consequently, ask yourself if you are, too.