|The main event at Joo Chiat Prawn Mee|
Joo Chiat in Singapore’s East Coast is all about food, which naturally makes it one of my favorite neighborhoods on this island of culinary treasures. Originally developed for growing coconuts and spices, it 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. So take a two hour foodwalk for a little taste of some of the best of the best.
|Geylang Serai Food Center|
Begin your trip exiting the Paya Labar MRT station. And come hungry, because you’re not just touring a fascinating neighborhood, you’re foodwalking, so you're going to eat. 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. Next door is the massive Gelang Serai Food Center, consisting of both wet market and excellent hawker center. Grab a cup of kopi to start your day and stroll around reading about the history of the area on many posters and murals upstairs. But then, at Geylang Serai/Joo Chiat intersection, cross the street onto Joo Chiat Road. Welcome to food heaven.
The street is lined with shops ranging from bicycles, household supplies, clinics and, of course, restaurants. On the left near the corner of Joo Chiat Terrace you’ll come to Kway Guan Huat Coffeeshop (95 Joo Chiat Rd.). If it’s the weekend you’ll see in the open air storefront, a few old guys standing over hot griddles, dabbing dough to make popiah skins – those paper thin wrappers for Hokkien-style spring rolls. With a handful of loose, wiggling dough they touch it on the griddle and pull it back. The sheen which sticks to the hot surface cooks for a couple of seconds, transforming into the skin. The critical element to truly excellent popiah is the skin and these guys make it look so easy, but it requires a skilled hand to touch with just the right pressure and twist of the wrist to get the perfect thickness and texture.
Next door the popiah itself is made, with a slather of mashed garlic and soy syrup beneath a delicately cooked melange of turnip, 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, the second generation owner who, with her infectious smile, has been making them here for over forty years. And when you taste them you will understand why all the fuss.
Across the street at the Masjid Khalid mosque you can peek into a no-frills, working man’s temple before heading to Sha Zah Confectionery (105 Joo Chiat Rd.) for Malay curry puffs. Unlike those ubiquitous half-moon versions, these are flat, flaky layers of pastry enveloping savory mutton, chicken or other fillings, handmade from scratch right there and sold over an open counter on the sidewalk. It's best not to look all too closely in the kitchen out back, because the amount of oil in the savory mutton filling will make your cardiologist double his rates. But try a fresh one warm from the oven and you'll want take more home so when you wake in the middle of the night craving it, they’ll be there.
|The curry puffs are definitively not dietetic at Sha Zah.|
Work off your snack at Changi Junk Store (125 Joo Chiat Rd.), where you can squeeze around thirty years’ worth of Chinese furniture, pottery, clocks and random items including a dried sawfish snout. It’s a cluttered treasure trove of, well, junk that is somehow alluring to sift through. The store’s name is well-suited.
|The Lotus Shophouses|
At the corner of Joo Chiat Place make a left. This street is lined with old Peranakan shophouses hugging the sidewalks and precarious open rainwater trenches. Local businesses mix with little restaurants and residences in this mixed area. At Everitt Road sits the Lotus Shophouse Collection, a tidy row of white shophouse residences, each with identical shuttered doors and windows and symmetrical, raised relief tiles reminiscent of old Peranakan architecture. In fact it's a row of attached condos which on their other side form and internal courtyard oasis of grassy lawn and palm trees.
|At Fei Fei - this is all you need to know.|
Across the street is the Sin Wah Coffeeshop (62 Joo Chiat Place) housing the Fei Fei Noodle stall and, interestingly, just next door is the flagship Fei Fei Coffeeshop -- both of which serve some of the most well-respected wanton mee in old-school hawker rooster bowls. Ask for chili 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 to order the wanton soup on the side. The minced pork wantons with a perfect little prawn inside float in a delicate broth. This meal is as good as it gets – for about $5 – so slurp your noodles loudly! If you like noodles (and who reading this doesn't?), you'll love Fei Fei.
Much as you will want to order another bowl at Fei Fei, don’t. Because just a few doors back toward Joo Chiat Road is Kim Choo Kueh Chang (60 Joo Chiat Pl.). 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.
|Making Bak Chang rice dumplings.|
Inside they're making them fresh by hand, scooping the filling from large bowls, stuffing them in the sticky rice, and folding them artfully into perfect pyramids, large and small. Variations of fillings are marked by colored 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 Tembling Road and stroll the neighborhood. At Koon Seng Road hang a right and pass rows of old Peranakan shophouses adorned with colorful facades and tiles. Some of these residences are renovated; others not, but they're all are authentic, with beautiful tiles, plaster reliefs and gentle, pastel colors. Don't miss this picturesque little block.
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. In fact all through this neighborhood you'll notice old architecture and a sense of old local culture continuing on in the face of modern change.
|Pure, whipped D-24 durian for the puffs|
Old meets new as you approach bustling East Coast Road. But first you’ll come to Puteri Mas Durian Puffs (475 Joo Chiat Rd) – perhaps the best place to reexamine your feelings about the king of fruit. Here they fill delicate choux pastry (used for profiteroles) with creamy durian and chill it. That's it -- durian and delicate pastry. Just two bites finishes this treat as the sweetness of the choux mingles with the subtle brie-and-garlic flavor of unadulterated, creamy fruit. Think you hate durian? Think again.
A few steps further and you’ve reached East Coast Road in the heart of Katong and the end of this foodwalk (watch for my upcoming Foodwalkers posting on that fabulous strip of laksa heaven). From here you can head back, perhaps -- if you're still hungry -- stopping at Joo Chiat Prawn Mee (15 Crane Rd.) along the way. Their perfect noodles, sweet, tender prawns and magical liquid sauce that pulls it all together will make you swoon over this unassuming little hawker stall hidden off the beaten path.
Or save it for a future foodwalk – I’ll lead the way – because there’s so much more amazing food to fall in love with in Joo Chiat!