Kampong Glam is old. Really old. It was already a site associated with Malay royalty when Stamford Raffles arrived, which is why this former gelam tree forest is the centre of one of Singapore’s oldest cultural communities: the Muslims. But the indelible mark of history was made here by the Arab traders who have called this area home since the 1850s. Today it still echoes with the history of Singapore’s beginnings. Shophouses line narrow streets, many with colourful and ornate façades. It’s a largely Muslim neighbourhood, with Arab and Malay working alongside Chinese and Indian – so naturally it has great food!
Start your foodwalk at the Bugis MRT station; if you arrive by car there is ample parking in the surrounding buildings. Walk up Victoria Street and, once you’ve crossed Ophir Road, you’ll see the Victoria Street Wholesale Centre, with Singapore’s largest array of dried ingredients for cooking or medicinal purposes. Peruse the aisles, gawking at dried creatures from land and sea: sponges, seaweed, fish, clams, fungi, chillies and more. But see it soon because – tragically – it’s been scheduled for destruction to make room for the Rochor Road underpass.
At the far end of the market is Arab Street, the unofficial namesake of the entire neighbourhood. Make a right, cross over busy Victoria Street and continue one block until you reach the corner of North Bridge Road. This is the heart of Arab Street, as evidenced by the large mosque across the road.
Continue up Arab Street, admiring the colourful Early- and Late-style shophouses. It’s a mix of old and new here and still remains the epicentre of Muslim commerce and activity. Textile stores line the street, filled with colourful bolts of fabric from floor to ceiling. Persian carpets are sold here, too; Sarvan’s Carpets (49 Arab Street) has a wide, open storefront festooned with carpets, standing like rolled-up sentries or laid out in flat piles of beautifully patterned woven wool.
Just a few doors up the street, put some hair on your chest with a cup of excellent Turkish coffee at Café Le Caire (39 Arab Street), offering authentic Egyptian and Middle Eastern food at very reasonable prices. To fortify yourself for your walk, order the mezza platter: fresh warm pita and an assortment of starter-sized classics: hummus, babaganoush, tahini, raita, and, of course, marinated olives and pickles. Resist the temptation to scrap your foodwalk and stay all day – or perhaps save that plan for another time.
Go back down Arab Street a few metres and turn right onto narrow, crowded Baghdad Pahang Street, where you’ll pass interesting basket vendors and street-side tables where people relax with shisha, the traditional ornate silver hookah, from which they smoke sweet, molasses-infused tobacco known as Mu’assel.
Halfway down the block on your left is Bussorah Street, a picturesque pedestrian promenade lined with palms and restored shophouses (Early Style on one side; Late Style on the other). Interesting shops and Arab or Middle Eastern restaurants line both sides. Poke around the Malay Art Gallery (31 Bussorah Street) with its interesting collection of keris – the Malay and Indonesian daggers used as weapons and talismans. Down the block, Grandfather’s Collection (42 Bussorah Street) has a playful clutter of antique toys, telephones, bottles and other collectibles.
At the end of Bussorah Street is the anchor of the neighbourhood: the Masjid Sultan. This largest of Singapore mosques was built in 1928 as part of the residential property of the Sultan of the area. It’s still Singapore’s most important Islamic mosque and stands as a spiritual and visual beacon to all in the area. At designated times, calls to prayer ring out beneath the large gold dome, minarets and arches.
A pathway leads right from the front of the mosque down tiny Muscat Street to Rumah Makan Minang on the corner (18 Kandahar Street), where you’ll find an excellent selection of Indonesian nasi padang. You can’t go wrong with the quintessential beef rendang, or one of the chicken or fish dishes topped with robust belado “salsa”. It’s a great place to explore this most popular style of eating.
Turning right on Kandahar Street, directly across from you is the Malay Heritage Centre (at the end of Sultan Gate). The large yellow building within the complex is Istana Kampong Glam – once the Sultan Hussein’s home. It’s now an oasis of walled-in lawn, palms and Arab and colonial architecture, and that has been converted into a museum and cultural centre. Currently under renovation, it’s due to re-open in June.
Continuing on Kandahar Street, you’ll pass shophouses with a mix of old businesses – like Amir & Sons (91 Kandahar Street), claiming to be Singapore’s oldest Persian carpet company – and new enterprises; plus cafés and excellent restaurants, such as Le Pont de Vie (26 Kandahar Street) for casually elegant French cuisine or the well-respected Bumbu Restaurant for Thai and Indonesian dishes (44 Kandahar Street).
Next, make a left at Baghdad Pahang Street. It’s here that Arab Street’s diverse village feel is best expressed. At Box n Sticks (14 Aliwal Street), you can get a serious selection of casual Japanese food, ranging from sashimi and bento boxes to cold tofu salads and braised Japanese pork belly with onigiri. The décor is minimalist, and the pleasant street-front verandah is a perfect place for a soft-shell crab sushi roll and an iced green tea.
Walk down Aliwal Street, passing the impressive arched windows and sweeping red roof of Alsagoff Arab School (111 Jalan Sultan Road), built in 1912 and still one of Singapore’s few exclusively Islamic religious schools. You quickly reach North Bridge Road, where you can cross over and either turn left or – if mosques are your thing – continue straight (on Jalan Klapa) for a quick excursion to the corner of Victoria Street and the interesting Malabar Mosque (471 Victoria Street), in its all-blue tile and lustrous, gold-dome glory. Turning left onto North Bridge Road, you will pass a numerous short side streets on the right, each one bearing the Malay name of popular fruit: klapa (coconut), kledek (sweet potato), pisang (banana) and pinang (areca nut).
Down North Bridge, near the corner of Arab Street, is Singapore Zam Zam Restaurant (699 North Bridge Road), undisputed master of the murtabak, or stuffed flatbread. Stop by the open window and watch the prata man stretch and spin piles of oily dough into paper-thin sheets before stuffing them with egg, cheese, mutton or spicy chicken, slapping them on the large tavi griddle, and transforming them into golden squares of goodness. Then rush inside and order one, along with a fresh-squeezed lime and ginger juice.
Sufficiently gorged, cross over North Bridge Road and then Arab Street, and head to Haji Lane, where you will make a left into what is said to be Singapore’s narrowest commercial retail street. Lined with small boutiques and knickknack shops, Haji Lane is considered the bohemian shopping strip. Offering unique clothing, cafés and even bicycle stores, it’s a groovy place for browsing. It’s also a good place for a final snack, whether Egyptian, Middle Eastern, French or even Mexican.
At the top of the street, facing Beach Road, make a right over to the corner, then turn right again. Following the walkway is miniscule Bali Lane, where you’ll find the Blujaz Cafe (11 Bali Lane) and a number of shops. The street ends at North Bridge, where you can bear right back to Arab Street, then to Victoria Road and the end of your foodwalk.
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