Joo Chiat Food Tour

May 26, 2007

Last night, we took a food walking tour of the area where we’re staying, Joo Chiat. The owner of our guesthouse, Tony of The Betel Box, acted as our very competent tour guide. As our numbers were small – only four participants – we only got the condensed version of the tour, which still ran over four hours!

The Joo Chiat district is one which few tourists visit. Located in the eastern part of Singapore, the neighborhood is home to much of the country’s Malaysian population. Pastel-painted shophouses line the streets of Joo Chiat Road and, in many ways, it feels like we ended up right back in Penang.

Our tour began with Tony providing a succinct history of the neighborhood. Once an area occupied by Singapore’s indigenous Malay population, Joo Chiat served as the weekend retreat for the country’s early European and wealthy residents. The district grew affluent from coconut plantations and still houses wealthy Singaporeans, the president included (more on that later.)

dsc03111.jpgTaking a ride up the elevator of the Joo Chiat Complex, an apartment building on the north of Joo Chiat Road, we received a bird’s eye view of the neighborhood. Red-roofed shophouses criss-crossed in uneven grids with the apartment complexes that dominate Singapore’s landscape. Tony explained that land prices in this area are on par with London, and that a dilapidated, run-down shophouse can start at around $1 million SGD. Given this, most Singaporeans live in apartments like the one we visited.

After our orientation, the gorging began. We started with curry puffs. A yellow crust covered a mixture of curried mutton, potatoes, and vegetables. While the curry filling was wonderful, I appreciated the different textures best: the crispy, flaky crust, the chewy mutton, the soft potato. We got two curry puffs each, a flat, patty-like puff and a soft roll.

Moving on, we stopped for Peranakan-style dumplings at Kim Choo, where they specialize in sticky rice-based snacks and desserts, with adsc03114.jpg variety of different fillings. While I enjoyed the sticky rice coating, some of the fillings I didn’t warm to immediately, for example spicy dried shrimp paste or sickly sweet coconut sugar. We also tried otah-otah, a neighborhood specialty, which I can only describe as spicy mackerel steamed in banana leaves. According to Tony, they go great with a cold beer.

Passing some tempting Chinese seafood and Nonya restaurants, we arrived at our next destination, Just Greens, a place specializing in vegetarian Chinese. This may seem like an oxymoron to most Americans, whose image of Chinese food is spicy kung pao chicken or succulent pork ribs. Given that one of China’s major religions in Buddhism, however, vegetarian Chinese food really isn’t that odd. Just Greens’ specialty is not only veggies and tofu, they also cook up faux animal products, like the cashew “chicken” and deep-fried ”shrimp” that we ate. To be honest, I’m not a fan of fake foods. I don’t like fat-free ice cream or Diet Coke or baked potato chips, and I especially hate soy-based dairy and meat products. While the sauces, veggies, and tofu at Just Greens were really fresh and flavorful, I just couldn’t stomach the rubbery shrimp, especially after Tony told us that they use all kinds of chemicals to produce the shrimpy taste and texture. Nevertheless, it was an altogether new Chinese dining experience for me.

By this time, our guts were bursting. Between two curry puffs and five sticky rice dumplings each, and five shared Chinese veggie dishes, we had eaten a day’s worth of food in one meal. But the adventure wasn’t over. Waddling down the streets of Joo Chiat, Tony took us to a Eurasian museum that highlights who these people are and the role that they have played in Singapore’s society. Descended from, you guessed it, European and Asian parentage, the Eurasians add another dimension to Joo Chiat’s cultural mix, with many still celebrating traditions and eating foods that their English, Portuguese, Dutch, and, of course, Singaporean ancestors did. Like a similiar community in Malacca, they also speak their own unique language, Kristang, although I imagine it wouldn’t be very widely spoken.

Before heading over to the Dunman Food Centre for dessert, we passed the president of Singapore’s house. And guess what? He was at home, sitting in his den on the second floor, reading, as he often does, Tony told us, in a white wife-beater. Now, when I tell you we passed the president’s house, perhaps you’ll imagine a sprawling estate with armed guards flanking an impenetrable iron gate. But, no. His was an unassuming, two-story house, with a small driveway, only yards from the road, with one guard standing at attention in a booth. I could never imagine any American president living so close to ordinariness. There was something really appealing and refreshing about walking by the head of state as he sat around the house in a wife-beater.

dsc03115.jpgOn to Ken’s Delights for a dessert of various shaved ices. We played musical sweets, passing around bowls of shaved ice with various fruit toppings and fillings like coconut milk, condensed milk, sago (like tapioca) pearls, etc. My favorites were the soursop with longan and honeydew with sago.

Last but not least, we partied at a local bar, 57 Chevy, on East Coast Road. Owned by a Eurasian, the bar features live music on most nights. Tony told us that on some nights, a Filipino guy performs Indian Bollywood music, expertly singing both the male and female parts. Besides the Bollywood music and friendly, local atmosphere, 57 Chevy’s other draw is country line dancing. About seven middle-aged ladies dominated the floor, line dancing to country songs that I had never even heard of. I had to pause for a moment and appreciate the irony that the first country line-dancing bar I’d even been to was in Southeast Asia.

With stomachs at the bursting point, we tripped back to the guesthouse, with Tony pointing out all of the neighborhood highlights that we had unfortunately missed, such as the board game café, where patrons can choose between 100 games, and the places we had fortunately missed, like the bakery specializing in durian puffs. (Durians, for those who aren’t in the know, are cantaloupe-sized, spiky fruits that smell like decaying roadkill and have a creamy texture.)

Overall, a delicious evening that will stay with me for a long time, mostly around the stomach and hips.

There are two kinds of travelers: those who like Singapore and those who don’t. I, for one, like Singapore.

The detractors say Singapore has become too sterile, gentrified, Westernized, draconian. Taking an informal walking tour of Chinatown yesterday, I can understand their point. Once the heartland for Singapore’s overwhelmingly Chinese population, the district now feels like an EPCOT showpiece. With brightly colored cookie and tea shops lining the street, stereotypical Chinese red lanterns crisscrossing overhead, and more foreign tourists than actual Singaporeans browsing through cheesy chinoiserie like silk placemat sets and your-name-written-in-Chinese-character posters, the place has lost the distinctly chaotic but colorful atmosphere exuded by most living Chinatowns.

Singapore also has a bad rap for its harsh laws against relatively pedestrian crimes. We’ve all heard about the country’s infamous chewing gum ban or 1994 caning of American Michael Fay for vandalism. The Singaporean government frowns upon anything disordered, from crummy buildings in the city center to jaywalking.

Nevertheless, I like it here. The streets are relatively litter-free and well-tended landscaping lines the sidewalk. In little Singapore where land is scarce, most people live in apartment blocks. However, the buildings wear a fresh coat of paint, parks and greenery are interspersed between complexes, flyers advertising community activities lie in neat rows on local bulletin boards, and, in general, the neighborhoods seems less bleak than similar set-ups in Japan or America. Most people dress well, if a bit unexcitingly, and I haven’t seen any beggars or homeless people since I’ve been here.

With that said, Singaporeans share two of my passions: shopping and eating. From food courts to trendy cafes, the choice of delicious food is endless. Yesterday, we tried to eat lunch at a hawker center in Chinatown. Browsing the aisles, savoring a visual feast of spicy bowls of noodles, rice porridge with arrays of side dishes, steamed dumplings, curries, we actually left because choosing only one seemed an impossible task. The plague of the indecisive.

And that’s just the local food. Besides that, there’s also the chic restaurants featuring nouveau Japanese, gourmet dim sum, Vietnamese fusion, Italian, barbeque ribs. Most five-star hotels lure sugar-hungry customers with high tea buffets, featuring curries, puffs, pastries, cakes, tarts, and, of course, tea.

Finally, there’s the shopping. Starting on Friday, the country will break into shopping fever with their annual Great Singapore Sale, two months of glorious consumerism. Almost everything on the island goes on sale, it seems, and shoppers come from all across Asia. They can choose between the shopping malls every mile or so around the city, or if that’s still too inconvenient, flock to Orchard Road where, for a mile, every building on both sides of the street is either a five-floor shopping mall or an international class four- or five-star hotel. Some may call it excessive; I call it a challenge.

On the agenda for tomorrow: I’m hitting the pre-sale sales in part one of a two-part shopping bacchanal. Given my propensity for walking away when faced with the pressure to choose, I figured it was probably best to give myself two opportunities to restock my wardrobe.

At least that’s how I’m justifying it.