Hougang is a part of Singapore that I am not particularly familiar with. I envisioned that venturing this far north would bit a little bit like entering 1980s East Berlin. It’s about as close as Singapore gets to being a hotbed of political dissent (after Potong Pasir and Aljunied, of course), being one of the few constituencies to have swung from PAP to WP in the 2011 general election. A bellwether for change? Or just a bunch of reactionaries. Who knows. All I know is that is irrespective of whether the flags being flown are red (with a yellow hammer) or blue (with a red lightning bolt), there is a very prominent green one that appears to be one of the brightest beacons of vegetarianism in the north of Singapore: Divine Realm.
To my surprise (being a political battleground ‘n all), Hougang actually turned out to be a really pleasant place. Lots of pot plants and faux brickwork, and a palpable sense of community. And with a door-to-door bus service connecting Chateau Vegetus to Divine Realm (the unbeatable 147), I was hoping that this could be the beginning of a blossoming patronage. Hoping being the operative word, of course.
Such hopes were not unfounded (they never are!). The Hungry Ang Mo raves about this place; apparently it’s the best thing since sliced bread (and by “sliced bread” I am, of course, referring to Gokul). In all fairness, Divine Realm does have a good reputation, and is clearly a very successful eatery. It has a large frontage, zillions of dishes on offer, lots of seats, and well-stocked-self-service-sauce counter, and a steady stream of patrons. It’s famous for its noodles, which apparently used to be handmade, but not any more. But they’re still front and centre of most orders, and I was more than happy to go with the flow and see what all the fuss was about.
Before tucking into the noodles, I couldn’t help but try and titillate the tastebuds with a shandong vegetable pancake (or “jianbing”) (SGD 2.00), which was served sliced (sixthed, to be exact) and cold. It would have been so much nicer warm. Really. The vegetable filling was greasy and chewy and remarkable tasteless, and needed a liberal dousing of vinegar to bring it to life. It would have been perfect after a boozy night of beers, but came across as a little plebeian after a morning on the oolong. If there’s any such thing as a “disappetiser”, then this be it. But anyway, I didn’t come here for the ‘cake. Moving on…
The hor fun (SGD 3.50) was for me an easy choice; what better dish to test the hypothesis that Divine Realm’s noodles are, well, divine, than hor fun? Sound logic, yes! It came in a huge dish (this was the small size – I can only imagine how big the large size must be!) and was scaldingly hot. As you can see, lots of ingredients and colour and movement. A culinary kaleidoscope, you could say. The chef even did that fancy thing with the carrot; thinly shredded but attached at one end, turning it into something resembling a carrot broom. Very clever. I was impressed.
Unfortunately I found all the mock stuff rather repulsive as usual (rubber, rubber, rubber… why bother?), and the sauce watery and rather tasteless (which, for the record, was also my impression of the teh si I ordered to mollify my mouth). But the noodles! Oh, the noodles! The shining star in an otherwise sombre, overcast sky! They were big and buttery and deliciously wok hei in every way imaginable. Hurrah! Next time I’ll ask them to hold the ingredients and the sauce, and just give me a plate of those wonderfully wokky noodles instead. And I would strongly suggest that you do the same as well.
Finally, the preserved vegetable pork rice (SGD 4.50) was the most expensive dish, and the worst. It looked grotesque (really, it did). Congealed brown gunk with a big wedge of fake pork fat on top (why?!). Lovely. It actually smelled quite aromatic (the Chinese five spice and aniseed working their exotic charm), but ended up tasting weak and watery. The texture was dry and stringy and really quite disappointing. If anyone’s in the mood for this stuff, they would do well to hop on a bus (the 147!) and go to New Fut Kai instead.
Divine Realm? Hmm; I wasn’t sold. Maybe Hougang’s wonderfully imitative Divine Vegetarian Family Restaurant has more promise. Or divinity, for that matter.
Divine Realm Vegetarian Restaurant
501 Hougang Avenue 8
Open 07:30-21:30 daily
Hungry Ang Mo’s 2014 review
Hungry Ang Mo’s 2009 review
Mr and Mrs Vegan’s review
Miss Tam Chiak’s review (Chinese)
Chubby Botak Koala’s review
The Curated Black Book’s review
Food Clappers’ review