Some travellers dismiss Singapore as “Asia lite”: sanitised, commercialised and dull. Dispel such silly notions with a visit to the wet market at the Chinatown Complex where some of the produce is so fresh it’s still hopping.
With ground level stalls selling cheap souvenirs and sundries, the Chinatown Complex doesn’t look like much from the outside. If you explore further you’ll discover that the second level is a sprawling hawker centre and the basement is home to the most exotic wet market in Singapore.
We’ll get to the wet market in the basement in a second, but first, grab the escalators up a floor to what is Singapore’s largest hawker centre. With somewhere between 600 and 800 individual stalls (so we were told — we didn’t count them), if you can’t find some local food here to satisfy you, chances are you’ll come up empty anywhere.
The centre is enormous — and don’t make the mistake of thinking the area around the escalators from the main entrance is all it has to offer — keep wandering — it is massive. We’ve had claypot rice in one back corner, there’s a boutique beer house (yes really, but we were sworn to silence) and enough carrot cake and chicken rice stalls to, well, fill up your belly.
As with any hawker stall in Singapore, prices are extremely reasonable — as long as you’re not drinking alcohol you’ll have change from S$3 for a meal — S$4 if you’re hungry — and despite this being located right in the heart of Singapore’s tourist centre, foreigners are few and far between.
There really is a tremendous variety of stalls — keep an eye out for Super Mummy stalls — the owner is apparently a millionaire — solely off the back of her hawker food prowess. There are some good viewing points over the streets and if you’re just looking for somewhere to escape the heat without paying inflated tourist cafe prices, this can be a very good bet.
Once you’ve finished scoffing upstairs, it is time to head downstairs to see where what you ate just came from! While more Singaporeans do their grocery shopping at modern supermarkets, those who value freshness buy their veggies here. In addition to the usual cabbages, carrots and cucumbers, you’ll find vegetables used in Chinese cooking like bitter gourd, lotus root, and kai lan (delicious when stir-fried with garlic). Most of what you’ll see has been imported from Malaysia, but some of the leafy greens are grown locally at the farms in the Kranji countryside.
Follow your nose to the fish section where they’re scaled and sliced up at lightning speeds. The fish heads may go in a separate pile, but they’re not destined for the trash – fish head curry is considered a delicacy in Singapore (try it for yourself at the Banana Leaf Apolo restaurant). This area isn’t for the squemish — on our last walk through a fish vendor was busy beating a large fish to death with an equally large piece of wood. Thunk thunk thunk … thunk, thunk — we hope it didn’t take him that long every time!
There’s a separate section for shellfish like clams, shrimp, cockles and tiger prawns and they’re priced by weight. If your guesthouse has a kitchen, you could cook yourself a seafood feast for a fraction of restaurant prices.
Bigger critters like crabs and lobsters are still alive and kept in plastic crates. Their claws and pinchers are not banded shut, so watch your fingers!
No, this isn’t the pet section – these frogs are for dinner. There’s not a lot of meat on a frog, but it’s very lean and tastes like chicken. In Singapore, frog meat is often served with rice porridge or simmered in a clay pot with veggies and spices.
Not all of the wet market is a nightmare for animal lovers, as you’ll find some stalls selling home-made tofu and mock meat. The stall in the photo sells ingredients to make your own yong tau foo, a popular and healthy hawker dish.
In Asia you get accustomed to seeing cooked chickens with heads and feet still attached, but this was my first time seeing whole preserved ducks — they may have been a special item for the Chinese New Year season.
By Tanya Procyshyn.
Last updated on 1st February, 2017.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.