When I think of Chinatown, I think of thick sweaty crowds amidst narrow lanes in the darnest most uncomfortable humidity.
The tedious process of getting stuck in and wiggling through a sea of unknown human bodies is rather unappealing to an adult. But somehow kids love it. I only say it because I used to fancy getting lost. It was scary but oh so exciting. God only knows how many times I've gotten lost. That is just so telling of what kind of child I was. Call it a hunger to explore or pure playfulness if you will; only one thing is certain in these scenarios - adults hate it. And you must understand that kids relish anything that adults hate. Perhaps it's that thrill of being away from your naggy parents (come on, don't tell me you enjoyed the constant repetitions of 'hey, stop that', 'get back here!', or the usual 'you'll get it from me when you get home!') and the sheer excitement of being able to go whereever you want.
But as with all things exciting, once you realise that you might indeed get lost for real with no chance of getting home (highly unlikely here in Singapore though, it's such a small island!), then you'll start to panic. At this point, excitment turns into anxiety and gleeful eyes turn red and glossy, and your breath quickens as you try to retrace your steps. I am sure that most of you have gone through this at least once.
Getting lost is by far no laughing matter especially when your 3ft tall (or short for that matter) frame is at a disadvantage, amidst a sea of tall, lengthy adults. Perfect example - visiting Chinatown during Chinese New Year. Now that's what I'm talking about. Swarmed with tourists, locals, mums, dads and kids all checking out the various goodies ranging from bak kwa (barbecued minced meat), melon seeds, love letters, pomelos, white rabbit candy (i know it's now a god-damn poison carrier but hey i loved it! i can still remember the creamy sweet chunk of goo wrapped in edible rice paper, one that i lovingly ate before popping the entire sweet into my mouth), etc.
At that time, I believed that a Chinatown experience should be what the Chinese term as being 热闹. The noisier the better, the more crowded, the more fun it was. The Chinatown crowd is especially fierce during Chinese New Year. Chinese New Year is also not Chinese New Year without that annual trip to Chinatown during the festive period.
I still enjoy strolling down the streets of Chinatown and I still get do get lost sometimes but that usually happens only when I head down to the area during Chinese New Year, and Mid-Autumn festival. That's when the place gets busy and becomes untolerably congested. So congested that you can't see where your feet are and where you're headed to.
Chinatown has changed quite a bit since my childhood days. It's cleaner, the roads are wider and even the food centres have undergone an overhaul, making it less dingy and more sanitary. I like the present day Chinatown and I love the fact that it's chockful of great food at cheaper than cheap prices. Hawker centres (or food centres) are indeed a great blessing. That's one thing I'm glad we have here in Singapore.
There are a few hawker centres in the Chinatown area but my current favourite is the one located right smack towards the end of Smith Street. Oh wait, I just did a quick Google search, it's at 335 Smith Street. And the proper name's Chinatown Complex Food Centre. It is apparently also one of the must-visit hawker centres recommended by the Singapore Tourism Board.
The last I heard, there are a mind-boggling 200 stalls at this food centre. You can work up an appetite just thinking about it, or actually visiting the glorious food haven to see for yourself what the hawkers have to offer. You have to trust me when I tell you that it is an ultimate buffet spread. There's everything you can possibly imagine. I reckon that this would be the best place to visit if you have a craving (well even if you don't, just checking out the stalls will make you salivate).
So just what do you crave for? Dim Sum? Yes they have it. Claypot rice? Check. Porridge? Check. Kway Chap? Check. Popiah, fried Hokkien mee and Guo tie? Check. Duck rice? Chicken rice? Banana fritters? Beef noodles? Minced pork noodles? Thick peanut butter toast? Pumpkin sago? Xiao long bao? Yes this place has all of the above.
I would love to continue that list but I won't. I will not spoil the experience for you. That's because part of the fun lies in getting lost in the maze of food stalls there. No kidding. You have to remember which route you took or else you'll get lost. I'm speaking from experience.
On Sunday, after a very early morning mass (I usually go for the afternoon or evening one but Mum tempted me with a Chinatown brunch adventure of sorts and oh how could I resist? :D ), my mum and I headed down to the said food complex to have brunch.
I knew I was going to have an interesting time from the moment I stepped foot into the food centre. I could tell. I saw plenty of queues and you know what queues mean :)
Very much intrigued, I was determined to go round the entire food centre at least once to suss out the 'hot' stalls plagued by incessant queues. I did all this exploring while my mum did the queuing at one 'hot' stall. You know a 'hot' stall when its queue is ridiculously long. I can say for a fact that this stall had one of the longest queues, and the average waiting time varies from 15 to 30 minutes.
My mother first read about this famous stall in the papers a couple of weeks back. Since then she has been patronising the food complex in search for it. She was very determined to try a bowl. I mean come on, yong tau fu is one of the simplest dishes you can find. Isn't it just some noodles mixed with a broth with pieces of tofu? I thought the exact same thing. I found it silly that my mother would want to queue that long for just some plain yong tau fu. Little did I know that I would soon join the fan club.
The draw I believe, is in how they prepare the noodles:
Or rather, the condiments they serve the noodles with. Most patrons usually request for the rice vermicelli (bee hoon). I went with the thicker flatter rice noodle (kway teow) because I wanted to be able to get more mouthfeel. Their yong tau fu is unlike any others. Order it dry and you'll be surprised to see none of that maroon-ish, brown sweet sauce usually served with yong tau fu. Instead you get lightly oiled noodles topped with crisp fried ikan bilis. In the above photo you'll see a pool of chilli. It's usually served separately but trust me, it goes better when thrown in together with the noodles. Very reminsicent of those served with Hainanese chicken rice, this chilli sauce has plenty of zest and omph factor. I finished up two saucers of it. It goes well with the yong tau fu pieces too of course.
Gogo Beanz must have some of the most delicious soybean combinations I've ever seen. You can have red bean with your soymilk, or aloe vera, or pineapple or candy jelly, or oreo or peach. I tried the one with red bean, which I liked. Well I like anything red bean anyway!
I promise that she wasn't trying to throw that huge aubergine at my mum. But I am sure she was gesticulating while my mum tried to bargain for a better price.
I also came across a few vegetables I did not recognise. Maybe you could help? The lady tried to explain it in Chinese. She said that it's usually a garnish for fried prawns and meat. Alas she could not remember the name. My guess is that it belongs to the spring onion or scallion family:
This vegetable bewildered me. It looked like something that belonged to the ocean, or perhaps another planet. I thought it resembled a coral. Beautiful ain't it? Care to guess what it was? You'll find out... soon.
For local tomatoes, they looked pretty good. And hey, she sells banana leaf, curry leaf and laksa leaf too...
I know some people have trouble finding those leaves so I thought I should highlight this fact. Now you know where to find them.
That's the entire stall. Such a jovial chatty lady. I will be back for sure.
After grocery shopping, mum and I (being the gluttons we were), had to get some dessert. We shared a green tea snow ice dessert with red beans.
Mum kept insisting that it looked like a pile of vegetables. Well yes it did, but it tasted nothing like it of course. This was a light and refreshing dessert, perfect for the two of us. I forgot to take down the name of the shop. All I know is that it's the famous warm dessert shop that's known for their mango pomelo sago as well as their walnut cream, almond cream and black sesame cream. Oh and Cantonese dumplings. It is quite easy to find this shop if you know where the CK departmental store is. The shop sits on the same street that CK is on, and it's at the start of that street. I'll update when I find out the exact name and location.
Back to Exhibit A. Did you manage to guess what it was?
Perhaps this will help:
Ah-hah! It's actually Romanesco broccoli. Mind you, I did not know what its exact name was, until my smart cousin told me on Facebook. I had posted up the a photo of the beautiful broccoli and before I knew it, he pointed out Romanesco broccoli! Thanks Nigel! :)
If you're ever bored of the countless malls and cannot take one more chill-out session at Starbucks or Spinelli's, then you should try heading to Chinatown for a fun day of good and cheap eats. Don't forget to get lost along the way. That is after all the essence of Chinatown - to stumble upon treasures you never knew existed.