Sunday, September 13, 2015

Eat Love Singapore - 5 Hawker Centres to Visit

Now that I’ve been blogging for five years, it’s interesting to think about how much it’s kind of embedded into my personality, my identity and how it affects other areas in my life I might not have expected it to.

Take travel for instance. I’ve always enjoyed eating while travelling, but now when I am overseas, it’s a focus. So many more hours are spent researching on the newest, or the best and it feels like there are excited expectations to eat like a mofo, so others can live vicariously through my adventures. 

Prior to my week long trip to Singapore (it was supposed to be Singapore and Bangkok, but unfortunate things happen, and my friends and I prioritised staying safe), I had so many people telling me to check out this hot new place, and that place, and that place too. My list was long and it was almost stressful to look at. Especially with the dollar where it is at the moment, I knew it would be more expensive than I’d like it to be to. Then there was the question or scheduling; how was I going to get the most for my buck, and time? Should I be making bookings? Bookings for one? Or should I try and wrangle people I haven’t really talked to for a while into meals with me?

Being the planning control freak that I am, it was actually getting kind of stressful.

A few days before I left, I caught up with Daisy, and was talking about the trip and how I was really not sure how to plan my time or what to do. Her off hand comment of: “Just relax, do whatever you feel like, you know, eat drink love whatever?” was almost revolutionary to me and, surprisingly, the permission I needed to just relax. To do what I wanted to do! Isn’t it bizarre? 

And so although there was still a fair bit of research thereafter, it was a lot looser, no strict times, no reservations. I just knew what suburbs I wanted to go to, and the different cafes and hawkers centres I wanted to go to. 

When you’re travelling on your own, it really does let you ‘eat, drink, pray, whatever’. I’m the sort who can stop at every other shop to peer through the window, touch and look at things in shops, and just observe people bustling around me. Perhaps that’s how I ended up chatting with a very fit 50 year old expat about his love life for 2 hours at the Tiong Bahru bakery, or with the adorable Singaporean grannies at the hawker centre who kept making sure that I don’t give my husband all my money because men can’t be trusted. 

Also helps that I look like a freakshow of an Asian with the blonde hair going on! 

So. One week. What does one eat? 

I think for me, this trip has reminded me that I simply must plan to visit Singapore or Malaysia at least once a year. As these places just have my soul food. My Asian soul food. I visited 5 Hawker centre’s this trip, and even doubled up at some…because why not? There are so many stall’s and just not enough tummy space. 

Hawker centre’s are really the heartbeat of Singaporean food. All hours of the day, doesn’t matter which one you’re at, there’s an immense energy, buzz and liveliness. I love that all walks of life are here, from the young kids with mum and dad, to the old Grandpa’s, who’s suspenders have come undone, and they’re moving along at about 2 steps a minute in their walker…but dammit. They’re here for good food too. There’s so something so bad ass about it. 

When I thought about it, it’s such a shame there’s no real equivalent to a hawker centre in western culture. Not so much for the fact that you can get lots of different food in one place, but more for what it stands for in the community. Somewhere for the old folks to get out to and hang out. Have a beer in the middle of the day, their coffee in the morning; metal spoons clanging against glass mugs as their stir up their condensed milk, and gasbag to whoever’s around for the moment. 

It always amused me that no matter which hawker centre I was at, anytime you saw a caucasian…they were always ordering a fruit juice from the drink stalls. No sense of adventure? 

Although I guess I can’t blame them either, the hawker centres can be intimidating if you’re not sure what you’re in food. What kind of food is this? Which one of these are good to go to?

Well, here are a couple of suggestions from the hawker centres that I visited…

Tiong Bahru Hawker Centre
83 Seng Poh Rd, Singapore 168898

Ting Bahru is the upcoming hipster central of Singapore, you are likely to find yourself here to actually have some form of espresso coffee, and possibly some eggs followed by a cupcake from one of the many bakeries in the area. 

However, they’ve also got a totally banging hawker centre as well. Located on the second floor of the Tiong Bahru market, I was quite surprised how big it was, and how clean it was. It’s definitely one of the newer centres, and probably makes for a good starting spot for anyone dipping their toes into hawker centre exploration. 

It’s quick to see the favourites here, especially on the weekend when queues can be easily 10 deep. One of the first queues I joined was for the Jian Bo Shui Kueh (#02-05). Although there’s a myriad of other bits and pieces they offer, everyone is really here for the Shui Kueh, silky smooth steamed rice cakes topped with preserved radish and a health glob of chilli oil. It is quite oily, but also light at the same time, and for just a few bucks for a couple of pieces, would be so easy to share with a few friends.

But I was alone, and washed mine down with a hot milk teh instead. You will find that I have teh, which you pronounce ‘tea’ when you ask for it from the drink stalls, at pretty much every hawker centre, because it’s like the best morning drink ever. Richly steeped tea and condensed milk. Um. Heaven?

This peanut pancake at the market was only 80 cents, but had obviously been made earlier in the morning and left out for a while already as it was quite tough and not so fluffy. Sad!

The next line I joined, which took a lot longer to get through than the Shui Kueh line, was for Hong Kee’s Cantonese roasted duck rice. It easily took about 20 minutes to get through the 5 people in front of me, who all seemed to be ordering enough to feed a small army, all which was chopped to order. I was amazed at the tenacity of the lady chopping non-stop, one duck at a time. The cleaver looked heavy, surely it’s tiring work! 

My duck rice was amazing value at just $3, which included rice, a couple of thin slices of duck, a generous dollop of rich dark sauce and some cucumber on the side. Compared to the roasted duck we get in Melbourne, it didn’t wow me as much as I wanted to, it certainly didn’t have the fat content that our duck gets so was a bit on the dry side for me…however, there was a lovely smokiness to the flavour that I really enjoyed. Still worth trying…especially for $3!

The stall next to the cantonese roast duck stall, were making ‘Youtiao’, which are sometimes known as Chinese doughnuts, but translate directly to ‘oil sticks’ from scratch. I take it as a good sign when the display is empty, and the orders are getting filled directly from the fryer. Was a bit too full to try myself though!

Don’t forget to pop down to the Tiong Bahru Market afterwards to wander around and digest. All that fruit, all that veg, and all the fascinating little stores of dried goodies and other delicious munchies you can come across. It’s an easy way to wander around and walk breakfast off so you can have some lunch…. 

Albert Centre Market and Food Square
270 Queen St, Singapore 180270

Located in the heart of Bugis Junction, if you love a bit of super local, super cheap shopping…you’re bound to find yourself here eventually. Bugis Street is a very popular shopping location with the youth of Singapore, and the tourists, but if you need a break from the throng of people, the hawker centre here is a bit of relief. 

For dinner, I tucked into some poh piah, which was a bit expensive than it should’ve bene really, because it was absolutely tiny…but the cicama inside was so, so good. 

What was better from the small stall though, was the little ‘pie tee’. Crunchy shells filled with radish, generously topped with peanuts and with a chilli sauce that unloads the bang. I told myself I wasn’t going to finish all of it originally…but I did. 

Some fishball noodle soup also did beautifully to satiate my need for something piping hot and comforting in my belly at the end of the day. The broth in this was just delicious. 

Another little tip for Bugis Street, is to pop by the stand making the pancakes…literally in the heart of Bugis Street. I initially overlooked it, due to my bad pancake experience at Tiong Bahru Market, but gave the crispy ones a go after a bit of prompting from Lianne…and they are yum! And cheap. Even better!

Maxwell Hawker Centre
11 South Bridge Rd, Singapore 058656

The Maxwell Hawker Centre is well known, and well loved. Situated next to Chinatown it’s got options for all hours of the day. It’s not one of the biggest hawker centres, but there are still plenty of options and has some of the most well known options, since Anthony Bourdain visited during one of his ‘No Reservations’ episodes.

Although Tian Tian Chicken Rice is one of the most famous chicken rice stores here, I unfortunately rocked up on a Monday when they are closed. Doh!

I fortunately did know that though, so I was here specifically for Zhen Zhen porridge (01-54#), also equally popular. I had steeled myself after reading lots of reviews that the wait was long, prepared to wait the 20 minutes…but when I rocked up for breakfast at 10am…there was no one there. 

That’s the trick guys! 10am on a Monday apparently. 

The options are limited, making the decision quick, a $3 fish porridge it was. The auntie moves quietly and quickly, motioning to her husband to scoop up the porridge and running on automatic while dressing it. 

Oh it is glorious and so heartwarming. The kind of thing you’d want to eat at home when you’re sick as a dog…and even when you’re not, it just warms the soul, especially in the morning. This ain’t a watery rice broth at all, this porridge is thick and so dense, absolutely filled with tiny batons of warming ginger, crunchy shallots and salty little bits of fish. Just copious amounts of flavour and comfort with each mouthful. A very good breakfast indeed. 

To also make up for the dry pancake I had at the Tiong Bahru hawker centre the day before, I tried a pandan pancake filled with red bean from stall 26…oh and it did not disappoint. All my favourite Asian flavours in a soft and fluffy bun, rolled around rich and generously thick red bean paste. Oh goodness. There’s also another version with crushed peanuts…but red bean guys!

Clementi Food Centre and Market
448 Clementi Ave 3, Singapore 120448

After staying pretty much in the heart of town with my friends for a couple of days, I headed out west to stay with my family for a bit. I used to kind of hate heading out that way, because it is a bit of a trek to get towards Orchard and the more bustling parts of town, maybe 40 minutes or so by public transport.

However this trip, I kind of loved it. 

The helper at my aunt’s house has been with the family since we were little kids, so whenever I visit my family, I end up spending a lot of time with her, as she acts as a translation bridge between my grandma and I, since they can both speak bahasa and I just keep her company because my aunt and cousins are often either sleeping or out and about elsewhere. 

This trip, we made a couple of trips together to go to the market, and also to Clementi Food Centre just to have food. 

Can I just say, the old ladies at Clementi Food Centre are just the cutest. Shortly after sitting down to eat and drink whatever we were having, it wouldn’t take long for someone to join our table and start dishing out advice on how to deal with husbands, and to make sure that I didn’t let my husband take all my money… etc. etc. So cute.

I loved the vibe at Clementi was so local. The market was right there, boxes of ramputans one day, gone the next, the hawker centre right there…definitely no caucasians out this way! 

The pisang goreng, fried banana fritters, at Snow Mount (#01-14) are totally and utterly delicious. The pisang raja in particular, which is the variety of banana, is so small, but damn sweet. I love that the batter around it is also so light, crisp and crumbly, some places can have a tendency to do it a bit thick, but not here!

Also a hot tip for those who take a liking to ‘teh’, which I mentioned earlier, I started seeking the drink stalls that were manned by Indians, as it’s at these stalls where you will get ‘teh tarik’, where they ‘pull’ the tea, giving it the lovely little frothy bubbles at the top, and a lighter texture to the whole drink. The best guys. Really.

We popped by another morning for another round of breakfast a few days later, where I try the char kway teow from stall #01-34. It satisfied my craving, with the lovely char of wok breath, and squishy juicy little cockles (the absolute best)…but it also had me wigging out a bit. Malaysians would never throw in these other random yellow wheat noodles…what are they doing there?! 

I forgot which stall number it was, but we got the most delicious cendol drink from there, and also enjoyed these lovely baked treats. The round ball is a bit like a banana bread, and the pastry is obviously made with plenty of fatty goodness as it was so lovely and flaky. Yummo.

Jurying West Food Centre (Blk 505)
505 Jurong West Street 52, Singapore 640505

My last hawker centre adventure was even further out west in Jurong West. 

We headed out this way, as this is the market of choice it seems with my grandma, when she was still able to go herself, and the family’s help. 

We didn’t actually end up eating much here, but man, if you want to see a proper market running…head on down here. You can definitely see why in Asia they’re called ‘wet markets’, and it gets awful cosy, with people squeezing by with trolleys, amongst fresh produce and carefully balanced boxes. 

But fortunately once you’ve done your shopping, you can escape to the outer ring of the market, where the hawker stalls are, and indulge in one of the best Chee Cheong Fun's ever, thick rice noodles with a thick, dark and sweet sauce, kind of like hoisin and shrimp paste. At the Jurong West hawker centre, the sauce was a little more red, and a little less salty than what I've had before. It's a bit sweeter instead, and totally moreish. 

You then have to have a nuclear pink and green ice cacang for just a couple of bucks to refresh the palate after. What I loved about this particular stall as well, is that they cook their own red beans, scooping them straight from a hot pot at the back of the stall and onto the mountain of shaved ice. Lots of places just use canned ones, and you enjoy the flavour when they’re fresh so much better! 

So in conclusion

Hawker Centres are so easy to get to, particular the first three mentioned in this post, with plenty of buses and trains in close proximity. Catching the bus was so easy using the tourist sim and google maps, and also generally much more convenient as they almost moved faster than the trains and always took you closer to where you needed to be.

I personally loved doing my read up before going and beelining to the things I read that were good…but I also found great enjoyment in the spontaneity and variety available and just giving things a go. 

But more than that…I was surprised how much I enjoyed being at the Hawker Centres on my own. I feet like if I was there with Brad, or someone else, we would have just eaten a few things and left quite quickly, but many of my trips were half an hour or longer, as I slowly scoped out my options, observed the people around me and slowly enjoyed my food…like many of the uncles were!

Keep an eye for my next post on Singapore where I’ll cover all the slightly more contemporary spots that I popped into to check out as well….

1 comment: