13 March 2014
This morning we continued catching up with the family having a nice chat with Adam’s sister and family. Then it was off to our now usual coffee shop, Chye Seng Huat Hardware, before beginning our major activity of the day, eating mass quantities of food.
Our lunch target today took us out to the far suburbs of Singapore, we took a trip out to the Bedok neighborhood to try the Hill Street Fried Kway Teow, which is the hawker stall owned by the brother who runs Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle. It was a nice stroll in the mid-day heat of 91+ from the metro station which started at block 207 to block 16 where we arrived at appropriately named 16 @ Bedok. Really it was not a long walk, we have taken longer treks in this heat, but I do enjoy being dramatic.
Along the way I even found an elliptical in the exercise park for the building, so I managed to try to fake a workout, which would prove to be beneficial as we will be taking a food tour this evening, but more on our gluttonous ways later (Don’t you like how we’re talking about going on an evening food tour right in the middle of discussing lunch? This has pretty much become our new normal).
Look at the crazy white girl trying to work out in 90+ heat
The short walk did not disappoint, these two brothers sure know how to cook and both of their hawker stalls have been a highlight of eating tour of Singapore thus far. While enjoying our delicious meal we couldn’t help but think why hawker centers are not popular in the states, we were surrounded by school kids, young workers and seniors from all types of backgrounds, so it seems like a perfect solution for the current foodie trend in the states. Sure we have food trucks and food truck gatherings, but they really don’t deserve the comparison as these hawker stalls are legit. These stalls feature one maybe two dishes and are made to perfection, sold cheap, $2 to $5 for a meal that could easily be your one meal of the day without any frills.
I love food; food, food, food
On the metro ride back to our hotel, it did strike me as very odd when we went by a section of town that was all two to three level story homes and it looked very similar to a neighborhood you would see in the west. As I astutely pointed out it looks really ‘neighborhoodly’ (it’s now a word since I said it and Adam understood the context). In the land of ‘let’s tear down and rebuild’ it really stood out. Unbeknown to us at the time, this was the exact area (formally known as Joo Chiat) we’d be exploring on our food tour later in the evening and learn that this area has a historical designation and because of this very strict new build/building modification codes.
After a short break at our hotel it was on to the Joo Chiat/Katong food walk. We have previously been on a food tour in Rome and felt that it was one of the highlights of our time there, so we felt like this tour would have a lot to live up to.
On our way to start the tour
This street was just too photogenic
And the local cake shop features gremlin cakes!! Sara, can I put in an order for one of these when we get home?
Little did we know what we were in store for! Calling what we went on just a food tour would be a severe understatement. The tour covered everything from the history, culture, laws, business, geography, public policy, as well as sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Oh yeah, there was also the main reason we were there, the food. So much food in fact that it made that nauseating full feeling you get after a Thanksgiving dinner (if you don’t feel like throwing up you obviously didn’t eat enough pie) seem like nothing at all. Just to give you an idea of the amount of food we consumed on this tour take a look at the photo below and look at all those empty plates.
Looks like a decent amount of food right? That was our reaction as well until our guide told us to make sure we save room for the next few places as this amounted to only about 30% of what we’d be eating that night. Needless to say we should have worn stretchy pants.
Before we got to eat all that food though, our tour started off with our guide giving us a history lesson on Singapore, covering everything from being established as a British colony, development, independence, cultural background, challenges facing the country (mainly water, food, and land supply) as well as some unique facts of the country. It was all thoroughly entertaining and provided a great overview of the country. After wrapping up with the overview it was off to our first stop of the night, the tallest public housing complex in the neighborhood to take in the last bit of the sunset and discuss the housing situation in Singapore. Some of the more interesting facts we learned (or at least the ones we remember) include:
- It was only about 30 years ago that people in this area still lived in homes made of bamboo erected on stilts over the water
- 85% of the population in Singapore lives in public housing
- Each floor will have the same breakdown of ethnicities as the general population. For example if there are 10 units on the floor 8 will be Chinese, 1 Malay and 1 Indian, and if these people want to sell their unit they have to sell to the same ethnicity which due to supply and demand issues can result in different prices for identical units right next to each other.
- There is a wait list of over 3 years for new public housing
- At the bottom or now on the seventh floor of public housing developments there are void spaces. These are open areas so that people in the community can use the area for all sorts of functions and not have to worry about renting a hall or restaurant. Our guide mentioned that on some days you can see a void wedding going on next to a funeral. People here are just used to living on top of their neighbors so personal space isn’t really a thing here.
- While homelessness wasn’t really addressed as the focus of the tour was on citizens, we have seen in the Little India area shopping carts filled with personal possessions but no one around, so we could only assume that there is a population of working poor in this very expensive city, where only citizens can own homes (or rent out to non-residents) in public housing, which is the most affordable housing option
Take note of the now empty space that was once home to a Malay culture center. In just a few short years in will be a mall, hooray!
And in the very far distance the orange-ish lights from Indonesia
From the top of the housing complex we were afforded a great view of city below as well as Indonesia off in the distance. It was very hazy tonight (due to the slash and burn farming happening in Indonesia), but even with that you could clearly see the orange-ish lights out in the distance and it really put it into perspective how close Singapore is to its neighbors. We learned one other interesting fact on our elevator ride down to the bottom, our guide pointed out a plastic strip that went all the way around the base of the elevator. Interestingly enough, they were sensors that were there to detect urine. Since it is illegal to pee in public, if these sensors go off the elevator will stop, an alarm will sound and the police will be dispatched. Now this all started because as people moved from the rural suburbs to the city, in the rural areas you went to the bathroom where no one could see you. So logically an elevator was a nice secluded spot. But in true Singapore style, explaining to the people why that was not right is not enough; they have to create a punishment. And therein lies the reason why you are fined if you get caught peeing in public.
Now that we’d worked up a decent appetite it was off to our first food stop of the evening, a local hawker center for a variety of different foods. You already saw the outcome of that meal, and there are far too many dishes to list, but we had everything from soups and curries, to fish, bone marrow, different drinks, and desserts and there was not a bad dish on the table. It was great (outside of the discomfort from our waistbands) to be able to try so many different and unique dishes in such a short amount of time.
After finishing up at our first stop it was time to get moving and create some room in our stomachs for our next restaurant where we would shovel more food into our mouths savor more unique flavors. But first we had a quick stop at a fruit stand to pick up some dessert and learn some history about offerings at Malay religious ceremonies.
We arrived at our next restaurant and sat down for what would be our main feast. The restaurant started bringing out dish after dish filling up the lazy susan in the center of the table, while our guide announced that he had to go off and pick up more specialty dishes (because obviously we didn’t have enough food) from some other restaurants close by. Again I won’t try to list out all the dishes mainly because I don’t remember them all, but the highlights were definitely the salted egg crab (essentially a crab covered in a seasoned egg batter and then fried to perfection) and the chili crab (crab doused in a sweet spicy chili sauce).
Look at that happy group
Now who is ready for dessert, especially that durian the “fruit of the gods”
After somehow managing to get through the main course without throwing up it was now time for fruit and desserts. We managed to find some additional room in our stomachs and eat the various fruits including a few that we’d yet to try (one tasted like caramel), as well as sample the nine different desserts available. It was great fun though watching the first person take a bite from one of the desserts which contained durian. If you’re unfamiliar, durian is a fruit that for lack of a description tastes and smells horrible (it smells so strongly that it’s actually illegal to bring onto the metro, and this description from Wikipedia sums it up nicely ‘The smell evokes reactions from deep appreciation to intense disgust, and has been described variously as rotten onions, turpentine, and raw sewage’). We had heard previously that durian can be an acquired taste and had sampled some durian a few nights prior in a durian pancake thinking it would be a good introduction, I mean its fruit in a pancake, how can it not be good? It wasn’t. It’s impossible to describe the taste, there is simply nothing to compare it to. The only description I can give is that your first reaction when it hits your taste buds is a slight revulsion followed by a millisecond of a sweet taste, then followed again by bitterness. We now got to sit back and watch this process play out in whoever tried the dish. It was great fun watching the reactions go from ‘oohhh dessert this looks good’ to ‘oh my good what the hell did I just put in my mouth.’
After finally finishing up with the eating portion of our tour it was off to another housing complex to relax in the common area and discuss some more interesting facts about Singapore.
- Brothels are legal, but prostitution is not because it is considered solicitation
- The country makes its money thru investments; they take the money from their version of a general fund and have purchased companies such as the London’s taxi cabs, telecom companies in Australia and a variety of others which has allowed for such rapid growth in the last 30 or so years.
- Singapore has 4 official languages (English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil) with all signs in those languages and everyone learning 2 languages in school, English and the language of their descendants. Sorry Indian kids, even if your family does not speak Tamil, the government has decided that is what you are learning….And fun fact, before a cop can shoot at you he must yell stop in English and the assumed language of said soon to be victim.
- In the 1970’s long hair for men was inappropriate and while that hasn’t completely gone away you will not find many people with long hair (just those being slightly rebellious)
- You can drink/carry a beer around in public spaces
- To keep a cap on the number of vehicles on the road you need to purchase a permit in order to be able to purchase a car. As these permits are in limited supply and are sold in an auction setting the price can sometimes be astronomical. For example you can go to a Toyota dealership and purchase a brand new Toyota Corolla and said permit for the car for the small sum of roughly S$130,000. That is just over 100,000 U.S. Dollars.
Another great thing about these group events is they make it very easy to meet fellow travelers and have conversations with others. As much as we enjoy each other’s company it is refreshing to chat with others! It was quite remarkable that most of those on the tour this evening were from the US, we met a couple from DC, who also ‘retired’ at 25 (clearly smarter than us as they beat us by 5 years) and live in Australia for the last four months and supported themselves working on a farm and other odd jobs. And now they were off to Indonesia to dive before heading on a roadtrip around the US. They too will have to come out of retirement, the guy got a 9 month LOA and the girl quit her job, and they loved farming so much while in Australia they just might start their own back in the US. It is just so much fun to have conversations with those on a similar path and just become inspired by them. We also had an older couple from Michigan and the guy had really retired at 42 and traveled extensively and was so encouraging and proud of what we were both doing.
With our heads spinning with so much information about such a young and prosperous city in the heart of SE Asia and our bellies asking us why we had to eat so much our tour came to and just after 1:30am. Needless to say, we had an absolutely phenomenal time on our tour and would recommend it to anyone who comes to Singapore.
As we were dropped off by the cab (who gave us a slightly different perspective on the ‘yes sir’ culture of Singapore as he was an immigrant from India) on the opposite side of the hawker center across from our hotel, we wandered thru the packed hawker center at 2am on a Thursday night. Clearly this is a night loving town and now explains why nothing opens around here until at least 9am. And another funny thing happened as we crossed the street; we jaywalked right in front of a cop. I thought for sure we were going to get a ticket, I mean this is Singapore after all, but luckily the cop did not care and we were on our way. As it was way past our bed time you would have thought we would be sound asleep, but nope that little 8 oz sugar free Red Bull that we decided to split to keep us up was working overtime and we just lied in bed in a bite of pain and waiting for the caffeine to wear off.
Today’s Travel: Around Singapore, Bedok area and the Joo Chiat area
Accommodations: Kam Leng Hotel. Room 216 – Since we decided to stay longer we had to switch rooms and we got a bit of an upgrade. The room is much larger, just a little smaller than an average US hotel room, but that came with a $20 increase. But the ease of just moving upstairs and knowing how to navigate the neighborhood was worth it.