With a promise of tasting around 40 various dishes of Singaporean food, how could I not go on the Betel Box weekly food walking tour of Joo Chiat when I was staying with them last week? Aside from eating, the tour promised to tell visitors all about how Singaporeans live, play and pay, so quite a bit of the tour was culture focused.
Our group of a dozen travellers, half staying at the Betel Box hostel and half staying elsewhere, began the tour with owner Tony by heading up to the 17th floor of a nearby HDB (Housing Development Board) development to see the sunset — and the twinkling lights of both Indonesia (Batam Island) and Malaysia in the distance.
Then we were off to explore the streets of Joo Chiat, an intriguing historical — and in parts heritage-protected area — on Singapore’s east coast. Tony has led these tours more than 400 times, but still shows an amazing passion for explaining Singaporean culture and lifestyle to people, and for answering endless questions. (His waistline has ballooned from 28 to 34 inches since starting the tours, he jokes, but after seeing how much food is laid on, I’m surprised it’s not much more.)
To begin, we stopped off at a fruit shop for a primer on tropical fruits. If you’re a seasoned Asia hand, you may not hear anything new here, but I for one tried durian for the first time in many years and was converted — so unexpected surprises may occur.
We made a stop at a bak chang joint to see the glutionous rice dumblings being deftly assembled — spiced, braised pork, mushroom, preserved duck eggs, among other condiments nestled inside — ahead of hours-long steaming in bamboo leaves. This dish is a staple of Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine, the food of the descendants of Chinese migrants to the British Straits Settlements (Penang, Melaka and Singapore) who married local Malays.
Tony collected some already made for takeaway and we also made stops at various other restaurants around Joo Chiat — Kim’s Place for chilli crab and black pepper crab, Just Greens Vegetarian Food, and others — before setting up camp at Chilli Padi Nonya to eat our foraged meal, plus additional dishes from their kitchen as well.
And here, finally, was our spread:
The food was more than enough for 11 starving tourists, and ranged right across Singapore’s food groups, from the everyday (mee goreng) through to the unusual (vegetarian prawns, anyone?). My favourite was the ayam buah keluak, or chicken stewed in black nuts, a fairly standard dish I hadn’t tried before, and the black pepper crab, less sweet than the chilli crab I had also tried separately a night earlier.
The range of desserts was also yumm-o. I always find I never really want Asian-style desserts, and will hold out for something conventional and Western (did someone say chocolate addict?) — but whenever made to eat them, I vow to commit more seriously to them. The walk was no exception — soursop, sago, and fake green worms all made an appearance, and were all refreshing (though I’d pass again on the pineapple biscuit tarts in future). Somehow the slightly acidic fruits combined variously with ice, coconut cream and palm sugar conspire to balance out the heaviness of the main course perfectly.
And just when we wanted to tumble into bed to coma off our meals, Tony dragged us out and off into the Singaporean night.
First stop: a supermarket, to explain a little about how Singaporean eat and shop for food in day-to-day life. We at Travelfish.org tend to be supermarket addicts, so this was a highlight for us. There’s an emphasis on the fresh with it comes to Singaporeans and their seafood, as in the seafood must be LIVE when bought, so the array of tanks under the harsh flourescent lights at close to midnight kept us alert, to say the least.
Tony picked up an array of snacks to fill any remaining room in our stomachs, and we were off for a walk through the pin-drop quiet midnight streets of Joo Chiat, and back through an HDB. Seeing an HDB is how you really get a sense of how the average Singaporean lives, Tony told us, explaining how they are regularly upgraded, which floors are the most popular to live on, why cars are more of a status symbol than apartments, and so on.
At the HDB we settled in outside for a munch and a beer, while Tony regaled us with more stories of Singaporean life — money, sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll all featured. And it’s not quite the Singapore you might expect.
By Samantha Brown
Last updated on 17th March, 2015.