Originally developed for growing coconuts and spices, Joo Chiat became a getaway for the wealthy in the 1920s. Now it’s a national heritage conservation area, with some of Singapore’s finest pre-war architecture and shophouses. And fantastic food. Take the following “foodwalk” – you’ll need to set aside a couple of hours – for a great taste of the unique culinary offerings in the area.
A good place to start is the Paya Lebar MRT station. Cross Sims Avenue, walk to Changi Road and turn left to stroll past the Malay Village, a collection of kampong huts and rundown bungalows housing souvenir treasures. At the next main intersection, turn down Joo Chiat Road. Welcome to food heaven!
The street is lined with shops selling everything from bicycles to household supplies, a variety of clinics, and, of course, restaurants. On the left near the corner of Joo Chiat Terrace you’ll come to a shophouse restaurant, Kway Guan Huat (“Joo Chiat Original Popiah & Kueh Pie Tie, since 1938”; 95 Joo Chiat Road). If it’s the weekend, you’ll see several older men in the open-air storefront, standing over hot griddles and dabbing dough into popiah skins – those paper-thin wrappers for Hokkien-style spring rolls.
Next door, the popiah itself is made, with a slather of mashed garlic and soy syrup beneath delicately cooked turnip, sliced carrots, prawns, egg, crispy dough bits and crushed peanuts. It’s all wrapped, stretched and rolled tight in the featherweight skins and cut like a sushi roll by – if you’re lucky – Zita Quek. Zita is the second-generation owner who, with her infectious smile, has been making popiah here for over forty years. When you taste them, you’ll understand the fuss about this place.
Across the street at the Masjid Khalid mosque, you can peek into a no-frills, workingman’s temple before heading to Sha Zah Confectionery (105 Joo Chiat Road) for Malay curry puffs. Unlike those ubiquitous half-moon versions, these are flat, flaky layers of pastry enveloping savoury mutton, chicken or other fillings, handmade from scratch right there and sold over an open counter on the sidewalk. Try one warm from the oven, or take some home so when you wake in the middle of the night craving more, they’ll be there.
At the corner of Joo Chiat Place, make a left. This street is lined with old Peranakan shophouses hugging the sidewalks. At Everitt Road sits a tidy row of shophouse residences, each with identical shuttered doors and windows. Across the street is the Sin Wah Coffeeshop (62 Joo Chiat Place) where, inside, Fei Fei Coffeeshop is the place to try wanton mee, served in old-school hawker rooster bowls. Ask for chilli sauce with your noodles; it will come in a Chinese spoon resting on top. Stir it all together, pulling the liquid in the bottom of the bowl throughout the perfectly al dente noodles. And don’t forget the wanton soup. The minced pork wantons, each with a perfect little prawn inside it, float in a delicate broth. This meal is as good as it gets – for about $5 – so slurp your noodles loudly!
Much as you may want to order more, don’t. Because just a few doors back toward Joo Chiat Road is Kim Choo Kueh Chang (60 Joo Chiat Place). Sample their classic Nonya bak chang dumplings – glutinous rice pyramids wrapped in bamboo leaves and steamed – containing treasures of pork, chestnuts, mushrooms, salted egg and soy. Variations of fillings are marked by coloured ribbons, and you’ll want to buy a box of mini-dumplings for another midnight snack.
Continuing back toward Joo Chiat Road, turn left onto Tembeling Road and stroll the neighbourhood. At Koon Seng Road, hang a right and pass rows of old Peranakan shophouses adorned with colourfully tiled façades. Now go left and continue down Joo Chiat Road, passing Chinese herbal clinics, great restaurants and countless local storefronts. At Joo Chiat Lane, gaze up at the dragons on the corner for more of Singapore’s architectural past.
Old meets new as you approach bustling East Coast Road. But first you’ll come to Puteri Mas Durian Puffs (475 Joo Chiat Road) – the best place to re-examine your feelings about the king of fruits. Here, they fill delicate choux pastry (the kind used for profiteroles) with creamy durian. Just two bites finishes these chilled treats as the sweetness of the choux mingles with the subtle brie-and-garlic flavour of the unadulterated fruit. Think you’ll hate it? Think again.
A few steps further and you’ve reached East Coast Road. From here you can head back, perhaps stopping at Joo Chiat Prawn Mee (15 Crane Road) along the way. Or save it for a future foodwalk – I’ll lead the way – because there’s so much more amazing food to try in Joo Chiat.
Kevin F. Cox is a writer and culinary explorer with a passion for Singaporean food. As our Foodwalker, he will wander Singapore’s neighbourhoods, forging the path for you to make your own great food discoveries.
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