From A Foodie: Singapore Chinatown Hawker Adventure!!!

Read other From A Foodie installments:
From A Foodie: Tasting Japan & Its Shokunin Spirit 
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From A Foodie: Tasting Taipei — worn, but lovely 
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From A Foodie: California Dreamin’
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Hello fellow foodies, it has been a while ; ) COVID-19 has made certain food adventures impossible for most of last year. But since my impromptu walk to Chinatown after work last week, my foodie soul has reawakened with a fervency that cannot be ignored. In my dreams, I picture myself eating oyster cake.

So my friend KW and I decided to do a food trail in Chinatown. We diligently researched and mapped out all the places we wanted to try with the meticulousness of cartographers — especially the hawker stalls we’ve heard so much about — and in a single day, we covered over ten food places (under $30/pax), explored the largest hawker center in Singapore (with 260 stalls spread across a gigantic complex), traversed several food streets and ate till we surrendered inevitably to the limits of our metabolism.

Here’s how the food adventure unfolded (ft. pictures galore and our best attempt at ratings). >:)

Chinatown Complex Food Centre

168 CMY Satay (60¢/stick)

First dish we tried: a meaty appetizer. I haven’t had satay in ages but I’m a huge meat-lover so it worked for me. Dipped in peanut sauce and interspersed with cucumber and onion slices, the skewered charred pork and chicken were skinny and not greasy at all. I give it a 7.5/10, which might be inflated because I didn’t eat breakfast and deflated because I was waiting for KW to return to the table and the freshly grilled meat chilled in the interim.

Hawker Chan — Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle 香港油鸡饭面 ($3.00)

Ordered this for the hype: this is apparently the world’s CHEAPEST Michelin-starred meal. Hawker Chan, the founder of the stall, is also the first hawker to be awarded a Michelin Star in the world. Now his Soya Sauce Chicken can be found in other countries, as a sleek restaurant chain.

Our verdict? 7/10. Not too oily; better than other soya sauce chicken dishes that KW has tried before. But for non-soya sauce chicken lovers (like me), Hainanese Chicken Rice might be a more satisfying choice.

If you’re looking for a better dining ambience, Hawker Chan has also opened a roadside restaurant right below the Complex, with air-conditioning and higher prices.

Zhong Guo La Mian Xiao Long Bao 中国拉面小笼包 (65¢/Xiao Long Bao; 50¢/Hong You Chao Shou)

The XLB is WAY better than Din Tai Fung and cheaper too. Each bite is a revelation. If it were bigger I would give it 10/10. The skin is not too thick, the soup not too oily, and the meat incredibly fresh. Because I’m difficult to satisfy, I give this 9/10.

Sichuan-style wontons is also 9/10. Not too spicy with a dash of vinegar, each wonton is wrapped in smooth slippery skin. Quote KW, who ate this for the first time in her life, each bite was “mind-blowing” (she is still reminiscing about it ten hours later).

Old Amoy Chendol ($2)

Generous heaps of red bean, pandan jelly, coconut milk and gula melaka, the chendol was satisfying even for a non-chendol lover. For chendol lovers, I think this would hit all the right notes.

The two of us give it a 7/10 for the wallet-friendly price and the nice hawker who thought we were professional food vloggers because I couldn’t stop filming everything.

Pan Ji Cooked Foods 潘记刹骑马

Sachima freshly handmade every day. What more can a dessert-lover ask for? This is one of the last places in Singapore that still handmakes sachima—frying fluffy strands of batter, binding them together with sugar syrup, and slicing them fresh for the queue of customers.

They sell out so fast that I had to come back three times just to finally bring home a packet. Although my parents found it a bit too sweet, I love how fresh it is. You can taste the human touch. 7.5/10.

Keong Saik

Keong Saik Bakery

KW had the Two-face Burnt Cheesecake ($8.50), which is creamy cheese atop matcha cheese. Oozing, rich, crustless, dense. Each bite is a guilty pleasure. She rates her first bite as 8/10 but detracts a mark overall because it got too heavy for the palate towards the end. Kind of overpriced for a cake that she couldn’t finish.

I ordered the Matcha Burnt Cheese Cruffin ($6.50) which was a 9/10. I had this with ice-cream and tea from Apiary and could only heave a happy sigh. The bittersweet matcha syrup gushed over the flaky crust and creamy center like lava. Each bite was indulgent.

Apiary ($4.20-$5/scoop)

Possibly the best ice-cream place in Singapore. With flavors like Blue Milk, Ferrero Rocher, and Baileys & Brownies, there is no shortage of creative options. I went for Blue Milk (milk based ice cream infused with blue pea flowers and seasoned with a pinch of Himalayan pink salt) and a pot of Yuzu Pear Blossom tea while KW went for Sicilian Pistachio in a cone. We unanimously award 9/10 for both flavors. I loved the milkiness and the floral undertones, which mixed perfectly with the cruffin from Keong Saik Bakery. The hot tea in a dainty pot diluted any cloying sensation.

Maxwell Food Centre

Tong Xin Ju Special Shanghai Tim Sum ($4 for 8 pieces)

I DECLARE THIS THE BEST DUMPLING PLACE IN SINGAPORE. Best dumpling of my life, aside from my dad’s. No dumpling beats my father’s but this one comes close. This was the last stop of our day and we swore that we could only eat 8 dumplings. Then, immediately after splitting the first plate, we couldn’t resist ordering the steamed version.

I would go out on a limb and say that the steamed dumplings were even better than the fried ones. They are ultimate comfort food on a rainy day, a sunny day, and all the days in between. The San Xian filling with well-marinated meat and chives were addictive. Made fresh daily, the dumplings deserve 9/10 for the fried, 10/10 for the steamed.

What a pitch-perfect ending to a tummy-filled, 10,000-step day. There are few other places in Singapore where you can get such a concentration of handcrafted, intergenerational recipes within a ten-minute radius. Chinatown, beyond its temples and tourist-favorite Food Street, has many age-old surprises waiting for you. Try before they disappear!

Hawker centers are one of the places where daily dedication to taste and economical prices coalesce. Where else can I find food this cheap that tastes better than most restaurants around the world? The adventure continues.

A stroll at dusk: Chinatown

This is the 100th post on the blog and the first post of 2021. Here’s the full Chronicle. Thank you for being here, thank you for allowing my stories to enter your life : )

I love walking. The best way to experience a city is, partly, to be a flâneur: passionate wanderer, aimless saunterer, happy stroller. Grid-like Manhattan with its broad avenues, paved Gion streets lined with machiya and shrines, Beijing hutongs, the sloping city of Chongqing and the steep cobblestone steps of Jiufen, dingy Kamagasaki and raucous Dotonbori, Cairo with its reckless drivers and friendly locals, railway tracks in Hanoi, tea fields and rice terraces in Bali, Charles River at night and Massachusetts Ave in the day on H-mart runs…

And there’s my island home, Singapore. A Friday evening walk on a whim takes me to unseen corners and colors. How often do you feel like a tourist in your own country?

At 5:36pm, I leave the Treasury building at High Street, where the Prime Minister’s Office is located. The Supreme Court is right across the road with its UFO-shaped dome; the Parliament House sits at a diagonal angle; the National Gallery readily beckons, blue cupola in the distance.

Down North Bridge Road I go—steel and glass skyscrapers bearing familiar bank logos tower on Singapore River’s faraway bank—and over the white boxy Elgin Bridge (named after Lord James Bruce Elgin who was the Governor-General of India), which strides atop one of my family’s favorite riverwalk restaurants, JUMBO Seafood.

Past Doctor TJ Eckleberg’s eyes, for the new ages.

Past the infamous Hong Lim Park with its Speaker’s Corner (the only venue in the country where public protests are allowed), a meadow of peace that idles in the bustle of the commercial district. Strangely empty though the sidewalks are strewn with white-collars, it’s a green oasis in a concrete jungle.

As skyscrapers peter out, the new recedes, usurped by the past. A single traffic junction demarcates two different eras of architecture. Behind me: tall public housing blocks, office buildings and a WeWork storefront. Opposite: rows of multi-hued shophouses. Strings of cartoon zodiac lanterns hang over the drone of traffic, for miles and miles. Each zodiac animal is a pufferfish-like emoji. Beside me, an old couple pauses to capture photos. Festivity of the Lunar New Year dots the blue skies.

I cross. The junction, fittingly, is called Cross Street. From now on it’s solidly Chinatown. A swirl of cultures in a melting pot.

The ambling continues past the pastel green minarets of Masjid Jamae, one of Singapore’s oldest mosques.

Past the Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple. Its ornate five-tiered gopuram on Pagoda Street is lined with figurines: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, Shiva the destroyer. I spot Sepoy soldiers in their khaki uniforms, harkening back to the time of the British Raj.

At the Chinatown Food Street, I buy pineapple tarts from Kele—traditional sunflower shaped ones and cheese-flavored pineapple balls. Conan is also there, buying durians. Hee.

Past the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, South Bridge Road opens up into a four-lane boulevard. Ahead, the 50-storey Pinnacle@Duxton, the world’s tallest public residential buildings, stand erect like dominoes.

To my left is a nondescript open-air complex, whose plain beige walls belie its true status: pure food heaven because it’s Maxwell Food Center—the mecca of hawker centers. All thoughts of no-dinner diet are promptly forgotten. Tian Tian Chicken Rice is worth breaking my intermittent fasting for. So are the fried sanxian dumplings, washed down with lime juice. The entire meal costs only $9, all effortlessly paid by scanning QR codes. I’m about to buy Fuzhou oyster cakes to bring home but the uncle tells me that everything is sold out for the day. And it’s only 7pm.

Belly full, I weave through the void decks of an old HDB and emerge onto another street of Art Deco-style and colonial-era shophouses. Two rights, one left, past boutique hotels, hip bistros and artisanal bars, and I’m at my final destination. Basque burnt cheesecakes to go at Keong Saik Bakery. A gem in a modern village full of old-world charm.

For the first time since the pandemic began, I clock 10,000 steps in a day. Right before I enter the mouth of the MRT station, I spot the brutalist mustard-yellow and green People’s Park Complex, windows blazing in the darkness. I think back to the time when I was thrown off its premises and forced to return under the cover of the night to report on its lift breakdowns (People’s Park Complex residents plagued by hour-long waits for lifts, The Straits Times). I grin.