Surprisingly, my Singapore 2010 trip isn’t about the food. I choose more than a few eating places that leave a lot to be desired and I kick myself for such miserable eating experiences. Every meal, but most especially meals while I’m traveling, are limited and there’s barely any (stomach) room for mistakes.
Note: Sedap means “delicious” in the Malay language.
My Singapore 2006 trip here.
Since my last trip to Singapore, kaya toast and kopi have enchanted me so much so that I want to try a traditional kopi tiam (coffee shop) this time, one that doesn’t have several branches such as Killiney’s, Toast Box, or Ya Kun. My research points me to Tong Ah Coffee Shop, noted for its fragrant tea and coffee. Apparently, the owner uses coffee beans and tea leaves supplied especially to him which then undergo a highly-guarded processing procedure before transforming into a customer’s cuppa.
There’s no menu to be found here and after wandering around the tiny store, I finally head to the counter and hesitantly ask, “Um, kopi and kaya toast please? With eggs?” A middle-aged man with two days’ worth of shadow suddenly appears at my side. “Hot kopi?” He barks. “With milk?” I freeze but manage to open my mouth. “Yes, yes.” I pause. “And boiled eggs, please. Two.” I hold up my fingers in the customary “v” sign. The man grunts and motions for me to find a table.
My order takes much longer than I expect. The same man brings my kopi, a quarter of its contents have sloshed onto the saucer — no wonder it’s common to see people drinking from them. The coffee lives up to hype, it’s thick and sweet with a slightly burnt flavor. I like it but I would like it more if I could enjoy it with my kaya toast. Arriving almost as an afterthought, coffee almost gone, the toast is traditional white instead of brown bread sliced thin and heated on an electric grill, as opposed to a charcoal grill which imparts a tastier, more customary flavor.
The kaya is a disappointing veneer, yes, that’s exactly what it is ”“ pale and green and smeared all too lightly; it’s a parody beside the thick slab of cold butter. From what I can taste of the kaya, I appreciate that it’s not too sweet, the pandan is refined and tastes like itself. Though I leave somewhat disgruntled with my experience here, I’m charmed with the neighborhood where Tong Ah sits, a triangular corner of an aging pre-war building in Chinatown.
Tong Ah Coffee Shop
36 Keong Saik Road, Singapore
Open: 6.30am to 10pm, alternate Wednesdays 6.30am to 2pm
In any country, Chinatown ”“ I believe ”“ is always one of the most colorful and diverse neighborhoods. Uniquely different but retaining the feel of its counterparts the world over, Singapore’s Chinatown comes alive after 2pm and especially on a Sunday. Its historic buildings speak of a past era punctuated by fortune tellers, roving medicine men, and storytellers. Some are still here, outnumbered however by food hawkers and a sprawling street market.
The market, officially known as Chinatown Night Market (although I’m here during the day), houses 160+ stalls spanning Pagoda, Trengganu, and Sago Streets. Though Smith Street is generally known as “Food Street,” other food stores and little eateries abound everywhere. One of these is Tong Heng, a pastry shop originating from Guangdong, China. For the past 90+ years, it’s Tong Heng’s egg tarts that are coveted. I don’t exaggerate when I say that they’re the best I’ve eaten. Ever. A traditional hot water-lard crust flakey beyond belief, cradles a just barely-set custard; it actually wiggles as I bite into it. One gentle bite initializes a crust breakdown that shatters into a million pieces, opening a “gate” that sends an egg wave cascading into my mouth; custard kissed by sugar exudes its eggy essence before it slithers down my throat. It’s knee-weakening (truly!) and requires an order of another two egg tarts. My Bin, so enamored is he with the curry chicken puff and the bbq pork crisp that his eyes close with every bite. You must understand, this isn’t typical behavior of my husband ”“ he keeps his eyes open when eating.
I’m convinced that it’s destiny, fate, kismet, providence, predestination and its ilk that bring me to 101 Durian which, as its poster proclaims is, “Love @ 1st Bite” and “King of the King’s Durian.” (!!!)
So stoked am I by such come-ons, and especially because it is durian, that I coerce my Bin into making a special trip back to the Chinatown Complex on Smith Street. The centre houses a wet market on the first floor and tiangge-style shops selling a panoply of goods. But I’m here for what I presume to be the best durian I’ve eaten in my 35 years, so I’m single-minded in my determination. The signs tell me where to go and I follow.
As seen in the photo, 101 Durian prominently displays signs ”“ “branded,” “small seed,” etc; I call it “guided lust.” Curiously, the majority of the signs have the words “Mountain Cat” ”“ perhaps not the most tempting of monikers but I have to ask. “Is from Malaysia. Is the best.” Replies the curly-haired man with the menacing machete in his hand. “One. For me, please,” I tell him. “To eat here.” Machete man gamely poses for a photo with me and my durian-for-one which I enthusiastically pay (SGD) $20 (about P660) for.
Fronting 101 Durian are tables and stools flanked by large plastic trash bins. Like-minded peeps such as myself with similar taste buds hunch over plastic baskets, hands stuffed in disposable gloves, eating in an almost rhapsodic state. Ironically, I’m not surprised that most of us, including me, are alone at our separate tables. Abandoned by our partners (my Bin has conveniently fled, ostensibly, to find bottled water), we don’t mind our communal alone-ness. For me, eating a durian and the subsequent enjoyment of ”“ is after all, heightened by blissful solitude. This is no convivial food unless everyone is a durian lover. But like all durian lovers, I’m loathe to share my durian.
Mountain Cat durian or “Cat Mountain King” is a literal translation of its Chinese name, Mao Shan Wang. (Perhaps one of you readers can read the characters in the photo?) Possessing very small seeds from which the flesh practically slips off of, the fruit is almost unbearably creamy-buttery and sweet with a bitter, slightly onion-y finish.
My Bin returns as I’m finishing the last two seeds. Looking at me with barely concealed disgust, his face is slightly turned away from me. “My god, you’re really enjoying that,” he murmurs almost to himself. “Is it really sweet?” I brazenly thrust a seed out to him, it’s inches from his nose. “You want to try?” His repulsion is almost instinctive, and he half-jumps off his seat. I laugh maniacally. “Guess it’s more for me, then,” I say happily, settling down to my last seed. I feel an odoriferous, monster of a burp coming on. Seeing me swallow, my Bin warns, “And don’t you dare go burping! I’m not kissing you, either.” As an answer, I pucker up and draw my mouth close to him, blithely ignoring his abject expression of terror.