[SG] Journey to Chinatown Complex, Singapore - Part I

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Having spent 6 years living in UK and returning to a Singapore enveloped by international and local franchise restaurants, the nostalgia for local food precedes my 'makan' radar today. With a reputation for being a food paradise, Singapore has our local hawkers everything to thank for their dexterous culinary efforts in defining our food heritage, one which Singaporeans can proudly acclaim worldwide. It is henceforth no surprise that a food expedition to the heart of Chinatown beckons!

<'Uprising' - a snapshot of the trend in Singapore nowadays. Low-rise buildings and the old in general are being surpassed by the uprising generation (represented by the modern tall buildings in the backdrop), comprised of young professionals and foreign talent. Is this the direction for the nation as a whole to heed to achieve that sparkle?

The lives of the old in today's society; collecting cardboards, lack of business in traditional chinese herbal drinks stall (compare this to queues at bubble tea outlets) and amass of folks playing chinese chess or simply just chat their afternoons away. 'Passe?'>

Strolling down Smith Street nestled in the heart of Chinatown brought us to Chinatown Complex, an old building that sells general apparels, linens and even some fruit stalls on the ground floor, but a level up has an entire floor of food stalls, each with their signature dishes to boast.

The queue for the delicacies of this stall started before the shutters were unveiled. Only opening for business from 5pm onwards till sold out, the smile on the uncle shows how much he enjoys himself.

Steamed Taro Cake (Yam Cake)

(+) The yam used was very fresh, and very refined which gives a very smooth texture.
(+) Drizzled with self-concocted sweet sauce, it enhanced the natural taste of yam.
(+) The fragrant white sesame seeds sprinkled provided crunch to the soft cake.
(+) Very soft and delicate, melting in your mouth.
(+) Despite the softness, it does not appear a complete mess on the plate which upsets one's sight and appetite.
(+) The chili was a complete knockout, spicy enough to wake your senses and appetite but not overwhelm.
(+) Extra plus points for the chili not being overly soaked with garlic which stinks up your breath.
(+) Overall a very complete and well-balanced dish, with or without the chili.
(+) Very affordable, offered at either S$1/S$2 per plate.

(-) Would be real perfect if some chopped scallions were scarcely scattered to relish the fragrance.

Verdict: 8.5/10

Steamed Radish Cake (Carrot Cake)

(+) Healthy option to the other variations, be it pan-fried for dim sum or the typical carrot cake local-style.
(+) Tastes almost the same as the taro cake in terms of texture, since both are prepared with same methods.
(+) Radish being less dense than taro henceforth tastes even softer.
(+) Chili used and price charged were exactly the same as for taro.

(-) Different from typical HK dimsum, no shitake, Chinese sausage and dried shrimps.

Verdict: 8.5/10
Peanut Porridge

(+) Classic Cantonese-style porridge, boiled till its very 'mashy', and rather 'soupy'.
(+) The peanuts were crunchy which complements the soft porridge.
(+) The porridge on the whole was very fragrant and a simple treat at S$0.70.
(+) Elongated plastic spoons for the porridge, which is narrower than usual and not as sharp on the edges. 
(+) It was very thoughtful for it helps customers, especially old folks to drink their meal.

Verdict: 8.5/10
Ah Lo Cooked Food, #02-003
Chinatown Complex, 335 Smith Street, Singapore 050335

Chwee Kueh
Chwee Kueh is a popular accompaniment dish in Singapore, usually ordered to share among diners. Made out of rice flour mixture with water, this steamed rice cake is served with preserved radish and enjoyed simply as such.

(+) The preserved radish is very finely diced, with the soft rice cakes makes it easy to bite and swallow.
(+) The slightly salty radish was just nice to complement the plain rice cakes.
(+) The rice cakes are petite sized which suit my preference and very affordable, 4pcs for S$1/-

(-) The amount of oil which emits from the preserved radish kinda put me off and I ended up eating only half piece.
(-) The chili was good but nothing spectacular to rave about.

Verdict: 6.5/10 (penalized for the excessive oil)
Bedok Chwee Kueh, #02-043, 
Chinatown Complex, 335 Smith Street, Singapore 050335

Sea Coconut with Ice Jelly

(+) The sea coconut was very chewy, prepared and served the way it should be.
(+) The shaved ice was very refined and even, so you do not dig through a coarse patch.
(+) Ice jelly has a slight 'curd' touch and tastes very smooth even on its own.
(+) The refreshing lime juice sprinkled synthesized the addictive sugar syrup into a wholesome sweet treat.

A chat with the uncle while waiting for the auntie to prepare shaving the ice revealed that he had been selling desserts for 40+ years. It was a hearty conversation and was interrupted when a regular customer in his 50s walked over to place his order and remarked how good the desserts tasted and had been consistently so since he first tried in his teens years. It would be worthy to note how refreshing and cooling his homemade sour plum lemon juice tasted. He even prepared the concentrated versions in bottles for sale. I could spot strands and pieces of sour plum in the drink as I gluttonously sipped it all up. Sedap!

Verdict: 8.0/10
雪花飞昌记 Hot and Cold Desserts, #02-104,
Chinatown Complex, 335 Smith Street, Singapore 050335

Chinese Desserts and Herbal Soup - Please click here for comprehensive review in Chinese.

Barley with Gingko Nuts
(+) Very thick barley soup, almost like porridge, just the type I have been hunting for!
(+) The barley beans were boiled till very soft, so swallowing them was no problem.
(+) Classic combination with fresh gingko nuts, not the canned ones laden with syrup.
(+) Overall a delicacy that is not overly sweet.

Verdict: 8.0/10

Black Sesame Paste
(+) Very thick and rich, maintaining the smoothness and not viscous like typical sesame paste.

(-) The fragrance of the black sesame was lacking and that failed to stimulate my appetite before trying.
(-) Wanted the almond paste but it was sold out, so this was a substitute.

Verdict: 6.5/10
二姑糖水, #02-104
Chinatown Complex, 335 Smith Street, Singapore 050335

With a sugar high, I was scurrying the streets of Chinatown seeking for more snacks, desserts to satisfy my sweet-tooth cravings. Considering this is the first time in about a decade that I set foot on Chinatown (the last time being a volunteer event there), I was pretty much a tourist myself. I suddenly realised how close I was to Ann Siang Hill! Some random thoughts surfaced which correlated to the outset of this entry discussing the transformation of Singapore's culture and current generation from the old.

'Transition?'- Separated by just a tiny alley, leftwards from the orange building leads to Chinatown while the opposite direction leads you further up Ann Siang Hill. Notice the lonely street down to Chinatown while the 'hippy' Ann Siang area gets increasingly populated as the evening continues.

'Which side is brighter?' 

The journey started at Chinatown, a place where many Chinese strive and started trades of their own. It was a shame that I found at least 70% of the diners at Chinatown Complex to be old folks and I do not see the legacies of the legendary hawkers being succeeded by the younger generation. Will we eventually lose our food heritage, the Singapore culinary culture? 

I do not have an answer to that, but what I can offer is a trip down Ann Siang Park to PS Cafe for more good food, fingers crossed!

Song for the moment: 'Coconut Tree' by Mohombi ft. Nicole Scherzinger.

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