This month’s food walk centres around Singapore’s oldest housing estate, Tiong Bahru. Amid its 1930s Art Deco buildings you’ll discover culinary treasures and a sense of history.
A desirable residential area for the moneyed class before World War II, Tiong Bahru was also notorious for being home to the mistresses of rich men. For that reason, it was nicknamed Mei Ren Wuo (Den of Beauties).
A mix of Art Deco and Straits settlement architectural styles, it is now appreciated for a different type of beauty: the 30 low-rise blocks of flats built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (predecessor to today’s Housing Development Board or HDB) have rounded balconies, flat rooftops, spiral staircases and light wells, and are increasingly popular today with arty and literary types.
All roads in this historic area lead to your starting point: the famed Tiong Bahru Market. Since 1955, it’s been the epicentre of what feels distinctly like a compact village hidden deep within the towering development of the Lion City’s central business district. The first self-organised hawker centre in Singapore, it’s mainly a morning market and is well designed for its purpose.
Start at the second level of the hawker centre with a helping of chwee kueh at Jian Bo Shui Kueh (Stall #02-05). The ladies there will slide tender, steamed rice cakes onto a sheet of paper, plop a dollop of radish sautéed with garlic, soy and herbs on top and slip a heaping spoon of dense, not-too-hot chilli in the middle. They’re four for a buck, and with just one bite you’ll understand why so many claim this stall to be the best. From there, head along to Tiong Bahru Pau (Stall #02-18) for a freshly steamed pork bun, silky prawn dumplings and delicious shiu mai.
Downstairs in the wet market, wander the aisles of fishmongers on the far end, their catch neatly iced for freshness. Off to one side comes pork – perhaps the best in town – followed by fresh vegetables, eggs and fruit. On the other side are chicken, fishcakes and vegetables, and fresh-cut orchids and other flowers brilliant in the morning sun.
Though you’ll want to stay and enjoy the market, head out the main entrance to Seng Poh and Eng Hoon Streets. As you look around at the atmospheric architecture of this town centre, you may feel drawn to the opposing corner, where excellent curry rice with pork chop has been available since 1946 at Loo’s Hainanese Curry Rice (Blk 57 Eng Hoon Street #01-88). But make a left instead and work off your starter snack on the way down Lim Liak Street, passing orderly rows of low-rise housing, inviting lawns and coconut palms.
At the end, turn left onto Kim Pong Road and stroll along Kim Tian Green. As the road curves, continue on Yong Siak Street, where rows of flats offer an authentic glimpse of yesteryear; among them is the Tech Lee Leong Huat general store (#01-18 Yong Siak Street).
By now it’s time for a hot drink, and the new Forty Hands coffee shop near the corner of Chay Yan Street (78 Yong Siak Street) is just the place. The atmosphere is mellow and inviting and the coffee is made with great care and respect for the 40 hands required to bring it from seed to steaming cup.
Next, head up to the corner and make a left. You’ll pass the oldest part of Tiong Bahru, and the housing project that was the forerunner of the HDB’s highly successful tower-block developments throughout the island. Hang a right on Guan Chuan, then a left down Tiong Poh Road. At the corner of Eng Hoon Street, check out the 90-year-old Qi Tian Gong Temple, Singapore’s oldest temple honouring the Monkey God, who bestows blessings and protection, eliminates bad luck and grants longevity and prosperity. Turn right and stroll Eng Hoon Street to see a mix of old and new; cooking schools, shophouses, ancient sewing supply stores and a specialist egg-seller.
Back at Tiong Poh Road, head right toward the corner of Tiong Poh and Tiong Bahru Road. A left on Tiong Bahru Road brings you to Glacier Pastry (Blk 55 Tiong Bahru Road) for colourful kueh and other local desserts. You’ll want to sample a few and take home even more.
After satisfying your sweet tooth, continue along Tiong Bahru Road to Sin Hoi Sai to survey the live seafood for a future cze cha feast. At the corner with Seng Poh, cross right to the old Tiong Bahru Bird Arena, where Chinese men spend early mornings hanging cages of songbirds and quietly gambling over which are the most melodic.
Are you ready for lunch? Walk back up Seng Poh toward the market until you reach Old Tiong Bahru Bak Kut Teh (Blk 58 Seng Poh Road #01-31) and treat yourself to a peppery bowl of their namesake pork-bone soup – it’s an old neighbourhood institution, so you know it’s good! And if that doesn’t tickle your taste buds, cross back over to the market for roasted meats with rice at Original Tiong Bahru Golden Pig & Roasted (Stall #02-68). Or try one of the other excellent hawkers up there – join the longest queue – to discover more great food in the Den of Beauties.
The nearest MRT is Tiong Bahru (EW17), about a ten-minute walk down Tiong Bahru Road to the market; every taxi will know it. For drivers, there is a large car park on the roof of the market. So you have no excuse not to go!