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

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Following our previous visits (Part 1 and Part 2)  to the heart of Chinatown, we could not help but developed a nostalgic feeling about the place. Somehow, the Hokkien and Cantonese speaking old folks, the traditional local food and the mix of tourists and locals alike had a very alluring influence.

We dedicated the visit to just Chinatown Complex, which itself housed a food centre, wet market and shops selling sundry goods. The old folks particularly, formed the majority of the diners during the post-lunch period when we visited. With growling stomachs, we had just one thing in mind, 'FOOD!'

Sar Kay Mah (Ma Zai in Cantonese)

Being one of the vanishing traditional Chinese snacks, Sar Kay Mah which translates to 'Sweet Egg Squares' originated as Manchurian food offered at ancestors remembrance ceremonies. 'Sar Kay' in Manchurian equates to 'cut' and, 'Mah' to 'rearrange'. Henceforth the name was a literal description of the making procedure. Apparently, people in Hong Kong referred to this mildly sweet snack, coated with malt sugar as 'Ma Zai', which in Cantonese meant horse-racing. Owing to superstition, punters would eat 'Ma Zai' prior to placing their bets, in the hope of drawing good luck.

According to an article by KF Seetoh from Makansutra, it was reported that the entire process which included kneading, rising, cutting, frying, cooling and coating took a good nine hours, which explained the reason why Mr Pan only sell a handful number of packets displayed at his shopfront.

(+) All the pastries were hand-made with a single hand owing to Mr Pan's deformed hand.

(+) Crisp surface with a crunchy and chewy texture.
(+) Much more fragrant compared to the mass-produced packet types typically found.
(+) Authentic and generous amount of malt sugar evenly applied.
(+) Densely packed. You could feel its weight, certainly not a miser with ingredients.

(-) It was slightly too oily for our liking.

(-) The sweetness, coupled with the oiliness might make one feel full or gelat rather easily. 

This 'Sar Kay Mah' won hands down when drawing comparison with the mass-produced ones typically found in supermarkets or even some bakeries such as those in Hong Kong. The fragrance, texture and freshness were but a few key elements which those commercialized 'Sar Kay Mahs' failed to measure up. It would be good though to have a pot of tea ready to go along with this afternoon snack or to satisfy one's late night sweet-tooth craving to aid digestion.

Verdict: 8.0/10

Char Kway Teow (CKT)
I was most definitely drawn to this stall due to the big 'hums' or clams on display.

(+) Very fragrant and was by our books an ideal plate of CKT.
(+) The 'wok-fire' was sufficient and strong enough to bring out the flavours.
(+) Good portion of clams indeed, and particularly enjoyed the abundance of bean sprouts which gave the crunch and the Chinese sausage enhanced its aroma.
(+) Was not overly oily (Let's face it, this was afterall not a healthy dish..)

Verdict: 8.0/10

Mixed Meat Platter (Roast Pork, Char Siew (Barbequed Pork) and Sausage)

Roast pork was probably the best among the 3 types of roast meat ordered but it was nowhere as crunchy or good as the ones we had in Malaysia, at Hao Bi or Famosa.  Overall a very mediocre plate of mixed roast meat on rice. I had to admit that I tended to be more critical when it came to reviewing roast meat dishes for I am a huge fan of it. On this occasion, I was certainly not impressed with the quality. Worse still, the accompanying soup had to be self-scooped. Not that I would ever drink the usually MSG-laden soup, but I could certainly see the 'What? Seriously? You gotta be kiddin' me look' on the two customers in front of me when told by the serving uncle to help themselves to the soup.

Verdict: 6.5/10

Pear and Apple Pork Ribs Soup (Sheng Xi Soup)

(+) Our 2nd visit to this stall and the quality certainly held up to standard as expected.
(+) The pork ribs were tender and soft and love the crunchy tendons especially.
(+) The soup was mildly sweet, owing to the natural sweetness of pear and apple.
(+) Very appetizing and could not stop scurrying my spoon for another mouthful!
(+) Despite the wholesome and rich flavours, did not leave us thirsty, i.e. no MSG.
(+) The soup was luscious, nourishing and full-bodied to say the least.

(-) The ribs were tender but not quite as much compared to our last visit, though I had to include that our last visit was done in the evening, which probably allowed the meat to simmer for a couple more hours. That being said, I could probably attest to the fresh ingredients used. 

Interested readers might wish to know more about their soup via their website here.

Verdict: 8.5/10

Almond Paste (二姑湯水)

(+) The paste was smooth, i.e. no grainy bits that clog your throat.

(-) The almond paste was however too bland and 'watery'. Expected a much richer taste.

(-) Lacked the 'hit-in-your-face' aroma and fragrance.

Apparently a popular dessert for this stall (during our last visit, this was sold out), but this was definitely a huge disappointment. 

Verdict: 6.0/10

Barley with Gingko Nuts

(-) Compared with the same dessert ordered previously, thus paled largely in comparison.
(-) The soup was very bland in taste, nowhere close to the rich and viscous texture.

On the whole, the traditional desserts sold at 二姑湯水 was good in the sense that none of her desserts were overly sweet. However, it might be worthwhile to give it a shot only later in the evening and not in the afternoon, which could perhaps give the desserts slightly longer time to simmer in the big metal pots to allow a richer flavour as experienced during our initial visit. On a side note, the auntie tending the stall was very jovial and friendly on both the occasions that I patronized. Having a soft spot for kind aunties, it would be harsh not to return for another visit, for their Barley with Gingko Nuts was one of the best I had tasted, but certainly only in the evenings.

Verdict: 6.0/10

50s Generation Coffee and Toast

It would be hard not to notice this coffee stall located in the middle of Chinatown Complex. With a grinder to the rear of the auntie manning the stall, the roasted coffee beans would be poured into the grinder, ready for her to perform her 'tarik' (pulling) act on the coffee and tea. It was no wonder that there was a persisting queue for the coffee at all times of the day. On this instance, the gentleman in front of me ordered 8 cups at one go!

My 'kopi-o-kosong' (Black coffee without sugar and milk) was a high roast, full bodied cup of fresh brew that was rich yet smooth and did not leave my throat dry. It was definitely a surprising cup of mellow coffee, and at 90 cents per cup, it was definitely much better than the ones offered at high-class cafes from S$4 up. The 'kopi' (coffee with milk) was equally rich but having drank 'kopi-o-kosong' my entire life, it was a challenge for me to appreciate a brew with additives. 

Verdict: 8.5/10

(-) The milk tea however was somewhat lacking, whereby the taste of milk overwhelmed the aroma and fragrance of the tea. 

Verdict: 6.5/10

(-) Lack of fragrance from the coconut milk and pandan flavour was barely delectable. 
(-) The toast was too thick, which deprived the flavours of the kaya from being heightened at first bite. 

Verdict: 6.0/10

Hong Kong Mongkok Tim Sum

This was probably the only stall in the entire Chinatown Complex that used the numbering system for ordering food. Basically you would need to go collect a number card at the stall and after serving the current customer, the lady would press the bell which should show the number for the next customer. Only then would your order be taken and the cycle continued. All dishes were priced at S$2/- each, so get your purple notes ready! In fact, we were really full by the time we saw this stall, unfortunately, gluttony got the better of us..

The dim sum here were all hand-made on the spot by the two gentlemen in the above picture while the lady attended to the queue of customers.

Siew Mai (Pork and shrimp dumplings)

(+) Juicy and succulent. The siew mai had juices bursting out in my mouth upon the first bite.

(+) Very flavoursome, especially the pork, which was very well seasoned.

(-) Depending on individuals, this was acceptable by our standards as a rather soft, tender type of dumpling as opposed to the more commonly preferred crunch (primarily due to the prawns)

Verdict: 7.0/10

Char Siew Bau (Barbecued Pork Bun)

(+) Loose fatty meat were chosen which went very well in fact.
(+) The bun itself was very tender, literally 'melt-in-your-mouth' since it was freshly served to us from the bamboo steamer.
(+) Lingering tinge of rose-wine which enhanced the aroma and taste.

(-) The rose-wine that was added gave it the unique standing among the other bau-makers out there. That being said, it might not appeal to everyone.

The Char Siew Bau and Siew Mai were good enough for us to 'dabao' (takeaway) extra servings, so that itself could warrant more credit if anything.

Verdict: 8.0/10

Chinatown Complex is one of Singapore's largest hawker centres with over 200 stalls, though it would be worth noting that due to the majority of the clientele being the elderly, most stalls' opening hours are early morning 7+ till just after lunch time. Also, the labyrinthine warren of concrete and fluorescent lighting at the complex makes navigating around for stalls quite a challenge. Be sure to walk around all corners of the 2nd floor so as not to miss any hidden gem!

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