Chinatown Blues

A few days ago, I brought mum to Chinatown because she had a hankering for an old family favourite – Soya Sauce Chicken Noodles at Chiew Kee Nphoto 2 (1)oodle House on Middle Road.

Going to Chinatown every couple of months or so is a family tradition. When I was little, a holiday treat would be to trundle in a bone-shaking public bus with my Uncle William to Chinatown. There we would order Hainanese Beef Noodles, Dim Sum or Chicken Rice, followed by my most-loved desserts of iced jelly or sesame and almond paste.

After lunch, we’d traipse through the streets to visit the antique shops. Now these are not the new-fangled tourist traps that you see today on Pagoda Street, hawking wares in artfully decorated surroundings that seem sadly identical and wanting.  The antique shops of the seventies and eighties were musty dark caverns that looked more like junk repositories. There were shelves upon shelves or treasures, jammed together all higgledy-piggledy, and only the stout of heart would rummage through the rusty and oxidising chaos to find something worth buying.

I loved those shops.

While my uncle nattered on to the invariably Cantonese shop owners, I would be picking through the pieces and letting my imagination run wild. Over here, a little traditional iron that used hot charcoal instead of electricity (at least 90 years old), there a pair of tiny slippers for bound feet, and over there a whole shelf dedicated to elaborate Chinese teapots. I could spend hours in those shops, but indulgent Uncle William would only let me linger for about 15 minutes before marching me to Tai Tong, the venerable Chinese bakery famous for its Mooncakes, to get egg tarts and other pastries for the family.

Chinatown is an indelible part of my childhood and even my working life. For a number of years, the ageImagency that I work with was based in a shophouse on Pagoda Street. It was a beautiful office, complete with polished wood floors, loft and skylight. And when it came to lunch time, we had all the variety of foods we could wish for just downstairs. The Kopitiam across the street sold the best kopi in the world – according to my based-in-California VP. Two streets away, we had Kreta Ayer hawker centre, boasting hundreds of stalls selling many local hawker faves. Round the corner was Lim Chee Guan, producers of Singapore’s best bak kwa, or roasted sweet meat. As such, my family has developed a taste for only the best. To this day, it is a standing order from my son that I buy a kilo of Lim Chee Guan’s roasted yummies whenever I make a foray to Chinatown.

Back to Soya sauce Chicken noodles. While walking with mum down Middle Road, I noticed a few empty shops. These used to house Chinese Medicine stores, the kinds that would feature every appendage of every endangered animal known to man. Okay, while it’s good that there are a few less shops dealing in the cruel and profane, I was sorry  to see the forlorn, abandoned spaces. There was nothing now. While eating our delectable noodles that cost only $3.50, I asked the lady boss why the shops had closed down. What she told me saddened me, confirming that Singapore is indeed becoming the most expensive city in the world.

Rentals. At $19,000 good ones per month, how many plates of $3.50 noodles would she have to sell? She complained that it would only be a matter of time before she throws in the towel. Just three streets away, another street hawker had the same grouse. At close to $4,500/month just for a cart, she’d have to sell a whole lot of key chains and chopsticks just to cover the rent.

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After 68 years, Chiew Kee still stands strong, but for how long?

I am afraid that soon, all my beloved eating haunts will be going the way of the dodo. This is not just in Chinatown. The same issue of high rentals is forcing all the good, true-blue local eateries to hang up their woks and spatulas. To foodie Singaporeans, this is a tragedy, but to me, greedy landlords and the economic machinations of our city-state will inevitably chip away at our heritage, and what makes us authentic and uniquely, Singapore.

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Via La Tropica

I walk the dogs every morning around my estate. This takes place about 7 am after the school chauffeuring run, before the madness of the day starts and the heat sets in. ImageWhat started out five years ago in a bid to keep both dogs and owner from piling on the pounds, has brought unexpected side benefits.

I’ve gotten to know the neighbourhood aunties and uncles who are also out on their morning jaunts. There’s a nice down-to-earth, kampung vibe to my little estate, and most people will nod and smile hello. Awww.

Before you non-Singaporean folk wonder what I’m going on about, you must know this. It is something you do not see often in fast-paced Singapore – the smiling passer-by. People are more likely to avert their eyes and look studiously down at the ground when walking towards you. Worse still, they will look at you incredulously if you grin at them, with that “Siao ah, lu kua simi?” (Hokien for “crazy nut, watchu lookin’ at?!!) face.

Secondly, like a kampung, the residents are very good about using any spit of government land outside their houses to plant their fruit and spice gardens. So my walks have often turned into expeditions to collect the aromatics for the dish I intend to cook that day.

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Clockwise from left: Curry tree; Pandan; Kaffir Lime.

Want curry leaves for chicken curry? No problem, take your pick of the many, many trees growing along the way. In fact, I just helped myself to a couple of the fragrant sprigs just this morning.

Feel like making nasi lemak or chicken rice? Pandan leaves are in abundance in the hood. I’ve counted at least twenty plants growing along my usual route. Of course, if they appear to belong to a neighbour, ask nicely first. You have no idea how fierce aunties can be when guarding their home grown treasures.

Need one or two Kaffir Lime (Limau Purut) leaves for a sambal dish? There are a few growing wild just up the hill. They must be one of my favourite spices. A leaf or two sliced finely or pounded adds an instant zing to any recipe.

Fruit trees are in abundance in the neighbourhood too. Now I don’t help myself to those, as the fruit are either the pride and joy of the owner, or food for the few mynahs and orioles that also share our space.

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I took a few pictures of the fruit I saw on my walk this morning. There are many more varieties of fruit but here are a few of the less common ones you may see in Singapore: the Custard Apple, the Jambu Ayer, the Chiku and the Noni tree.

Okay, maybe the Noni is not that uncommon. There seems to be a special affinity for the Noni to the pretty awful soil we get here.  Two small Noni shrubs are growing happily along the crumbling crevices of the retaining wall I share with my neighbour, and are fruiting away.

And no, don’t ask me if I’ve made Noni juice yet. I’ve read up recipes online and they all involve fermentation of some kind and sound ghastly to me. Maybe I should, and if I do, I’m sure it will make for an interesting post in the future.

Exotic Edibles in Singapore

My parents have green fingers, and thanks to them, I know a little bit more about the exotic edibles that you can find in odd nooks around Singapore. That is, if you look hard enough.

Mum grew up in rural Taiping, a sleepy town famed for its lake gardens in the north of Malaysia. She spent her childhood out and about, eating wild berries and fruit from the tropical rainforests while looking for firewood. She used to tell me that one of the highlights of her youth was to climb up her neighbour’s Mangosteen trees. There she would sit on their branches and devour dozens of luscious, juicy white sections of that queen of fruits, straight from the trees.

Her father managed a durian plantation too, and to this day, nothing brings mum more pleasure than to tuck into a durian or two.

Through mum, I know a bit more about the fruit that grows wild in little corners of rabidly urban Singapore. I have passed these on to le kids too, so that a bit of rural rubs off on my city slickers.

Buah Susu (Milk Fruit translated directly from Malay, don’t ask me why)

photo (11)While out on after-dinner walks with the family around our estate in Singapore, I watched and learned as mum paused by a weedy fence to gather Buah Susu, a tinier cousin of the passion fruit. The bright yellow balls that are slightly larger than marbles are shrouded by delicate green mists of netting.  I remember them to be sticky and death to insects, but mum would brush them off for me, breaking open the yellow shell to reveal a burst of piquant, sweet seeds.  Sucking them straight from the shell, the juice and seeds would melt in the mouth in a tiny, but delectable riot of sweet and sour.

If you ask me, I’d say that these little Buah Susu balls put the passion fruit, its bigger, more sour, cousin to shame.

Dwarf or Miniature Holly (Singapore Holly)

ImageAnother plant mum pointed out to me was the Dwarf Holly. These used to grow wild around my estate and were a great favourite with the birds. Like its temperate cousins, the leaves are thick and slightly prickly, but the tiny red fruit was a source of fun for me and my sisters. They were tiny berries and not so easily visible, so it was always a minor triumph to find one. The berry is tiny and mostly seed, encased by a sliver of flesh. It’s not the greatest in terms of taste but hunting for the berries is a game in itself.

Even now, my kids hunt through the Dwarf Holly in grandma’s garden whenever they drop by, just for the pleasure of popping those elusive red beads in their mouths.

Rose Apple, the Fragrant Fruit

ImageWhen I moved to my current place in Bedok, I wondered about the tree that grew by my gate. It had white flowers that looked like foamy tutus and were hell to sweep up when they wilted, leaving behind yellowish-green fruit that grew in clusters and looked a bit like the Guava.  An elderly neighbour passing by told me that it was a Rose Apple tree and encouraged me to try one.

My goodness, I was eating roses!

The flesh is not particularly juicy but the fragrance is astounding. Subtle, aromatic, I would challenge perfumers to create a blend as complex and delightful.

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The hot weather has been awful, but it has also forced the plants in my garden to flower and fruit in abundance. The Belimbing Wuluh, Banana, and Starfruit are all going gangbusters. So while I pray for the rains to come, I also count my blessings that perhaps I may have somewhat green fingers after all.