One of Singapore’s greatest assets is its wet markets, full of exotic, authentic food and where every day some of the nation’s oldest butchers and fishmongers chop, cut, scale and fillet fresh foods any way you desire. And among the most colourful of these bastions of all foods fresh and local: Tekka Centre in Little India.
Tekka Market has been the heart and soul of Little India since the early days, when the area was called Kandang Kerbau after the buffalo slaughterhouses operating on what is now Buffalo Road. Organised by type of food, the market is easy to navigate and explore. Today’s food walk will make a loop around the market, starting at the steps fronting Serangoon Road where you will immediately come upon the hawker centre section of the market.
Staying to the left side of the complex, you pass many hawker stalls selling predominantly Muslim and Indian prepared food – likely to give you a sudden craving for briyani. So start your food walk with a plate of this turmeric-laced rice dish at the popular Allauddan’s Briyani (#01-232). Select chicken, fish or mutton from the enormous steel vats on the counter, add a side of zesty curry gravy, and dig in. It’s hard to find a better version of this dish in any hawker centre.
Continue down the aisle picking and eating your way through savoury Indian treats like samosas and flat breads and several sweet stalls. At the end, bear to the right as the pathway leads toward the wet market.
Just how do you navigate a large, bustling wet market packed with flora and fauna you don’t recognise? First and foremost, don’t be timid. Second, having a grocery list will force you to find the areas of the market which most interest you and will open a Pandora’s box of items you had previously never considered. You’ll be pleased by the much lower prices than you pay at Western-style supermarkets. Third, talk to the vendors about unusual items, how they taste and how to prepare them. Chances are you’ll receive a sample and a whole lot more.
Prices tend to come down the better a vendor knows you, but you can always ask for the “best price” by frowning at the salesman while blurting out in your best Singlish, “Wah! So expensive!” Finally, say hello to people even if they don’t know you. Smile and laugh at yourself and they will laugh with you (not at you!). In other words, become a regular and discover the joy of walking through a crazy, crowded wet market with people waving to you, shaking your hand and offering tastes of things you’ve never seen.
Entering this section you first reach the poultry area, where whole chickens line glass cases and the vendors await your cutting instructions. Or just buy your chicken whole, which here means intact from head down to gnarly toenails. Beyond, you will see the market’s wide main aisle, with numerous fishmongers on the right and butchers on the left. It is in this area where the term “wet market” lives up to its name, and the floors can be slippery from periodic hosing to wash away the fishy, fleshy detritus of a totally authentic market. For some of the biggest selection of the sea’s bounty, visit Lee Yit Huat Trading (#01-53/8) where if they don’t have it, you don’t need it.
If it’s meat you’re looking for, be sure to visit Ali Sabry at M.A. Osman- Premium Grade Air-flown Goat Meat (#01-130); for over 25 years he’s been selling goat meat air-flown straight from Australia. He also sells mutton and lamb alongside the many other butchers in the market, all of whom carry varying grades of this luscious red protein-of-choice (see Lamb Versus Mutton) of Singapore’s Indian community.
Continuing down the aisle you’ll pass Indian spice stalls, where you can get masalas and curries custom-blended to your personal preference, along with dried goods and exotic spices. Down one aisle on the left you’ll see stacks of eggs, the best being the minimally processed kampong eggs at P&M Eggs (#01-102). Back on the main drag, stop at the roasted meat stall to pick up some bulk cuts of char siu or siew bak pork or a roasted duck or chicken to take home. Then follow the sounds of soothing jazz to the far end of the market and Chia’s Vegetables Supply (#01-129), where Victor Chia and his brother will guide you to the very best imported fresh items that are not found in most markets. If it’s a hard-to-find vegetable and you need it, Victor probably has it.
Continuing your loop through the narrow aisle of green vegetables and past stalls piled high with fresh tropical fruits, you come back to the market’s large hawker centre hugging an open courtyard with bright sun and cooling breezes. This courtyard separates the predominantly Muslim and often halal food offerings on the left side from the more Chinese stalls on the right.
On the left side, be sure to visit Prata Saga Sambal Berlada (#01-258) for a fresh-made roti prata that is so good the Culinary Institute of America flew the prataman to America to teach their chefs how to make it. One bite of the flaky dough dipped in his tangy gravy and you will understand why.
If you didn’t grab a plate of briyani when you first entered, there are many other options available, including Haniffa’s Briyani Specialist (#01-256) where mammoth vats of steaming rice and meat await under their cloth-covered lids.
Nearby is Haji Johan Temasek India Rojak (#01-254), which offers a wide selection of vegetables, poultry and seafood char kueh dough fritters in their trademark orange batter. Must-tries are the giant prawn vadai, consisting of large, whole prawns in a moist doughnut of flour and spices, and the tiny prawn vadai, handfuls of baby shellfish fried to a bronzed clump of goodness.
The numerous stalls along the right side of the courtyard offer Chinese selections, including fresh juices, dumplings, roasted meats and deep-fried bananas. On the far right side is Heng Gi Goose and Duck Rice (#01-335), one of those special places that informed foodies surreptitiously flock to for exceptional, old-school duck and assorted pork parts. Don’t let the sparse décor fool you; the tender duck is cooked to perfection, served over flavourful rice and doused with an earthy, profoundly rich braising broth unlike any other. Order it with a side of tofu, a tea-stained egg and a garnish of coriander. Or be daring and try their slippery duck feet or braised pig face – it’s better than you think – and graduate to the ranks of those who know where to get the really good stuff. But if duck is not your thing, step over to Swee Heng Teochew Porridge Rice (#01-332/3) for seafood porridge, fishcakes and a host of other classic Teochew dishes. Wandering past the other stalls in the parallel aisles, you’ll find so much good food that you will want to return for more.
Your loop path ends back where you started; but before you leave, take the escalator to the second level, where stalls of vivid Indian fabrics, clothing and family goods will amaze you. Back on the street level, the market’s perimeter is ringed with often-overlooked shops selling everything from kitchenware and jewellery to music and food. They include Sri Komala Vilas, a venerable institution famed for its chicken masala, fish curries and thosai.
Wet markets are found in many neighbourhoods dotted around the island and are part of Singapore’s very social fabric; but Tekka, arguably the best of them all, is a cultural and culinary whirl that you will never forget.
Lamb Versus Mutton
Both come from sheep: the difference lies in the age of the animal, which affects the tenderness, flavour and price of the meat. Lamb is a sheep under one year of age; a spring lamb is under the age of three months. Once a young sheep gets its first two teeth, it finds itself in that awkward, teenage period when it’s referred to as hogget. Two years later it graduates to adulthood and is now full-blown mutton, with rich, intense red flesh and gleaming fat.