Sunday, November 25, 2007


Once upon a time, not so very long ago, my father tried to make a reservation at one of the nonya restaurants on Joo Chiat Road, PeraMakan. My family members (my immediate family, plus my aunt) turned up at the restaurant at the appointed time, only to find that it was closed. What was going on? My father called again the next day and was told that it had shifted across the island, to Keppel Club.

Katong's loss, Pasir Panjang's gain. The restaurant had shifted because its Joo Chiat Road premises was just too small to cater to its growing clientele. And this, mind you, excludes the people who stopped going there because they didn't like seeing ladies in very short skirts standing outside the bars in the vicinity. We went to PeraMakan recently to celebrate my father's birthday. Indeed, the excellence of the meal only served to rub in the fact that our patronage would be restricted to only the occasional meal/ special occasion.

Ah yes, this is a special restaurant indeed as it has slightly different dishes to offer than the normal Peranakan fare. The husband manages the waiters, the wife the kitchen. She was originally from Penang and so there are a few Penang-ish dishes on the menu too. So here are some shots of the Jantung Pisang Kerabu (banana bud salad), their ayam buah keluak with its thick, rich gravy and the apom which was eaten with banana sauce. We actually did order many, many more dishes (beef rendang, otak, and the extremely yummy durian pangab) but I got tired of stopping my eating to take photos. That's just how good this place is. Sedap sedap.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Conservation and Destruction

En Bloc fever is raging in the small little corner of Singapore around Amber Road, Katong. New condominiums are replacing old (20-40 year old?)properties. "Seaview" has replaced the old Seaview hotel. "One Amber" and "Esta" replaced the old Maryland Park. Amberville too is being torn down. Rose Garden, Paramount Hotel, are on offer; Amber Park has the 80% required for the site to be offered for sale. King's Mansion is said to be on the way out. And 2 more smaller sites are being built up now. Thus we will see the transformation of Amber Road. It used to be a charming place to live, but it is certainly not too pleasant now with all the construction going on.

Now most of the buildings being torn down are fundamentally sound. So it is ironic that some near ruins are being "preserved" for posterity. The former Grand Hotel on Still Road is a conservation building. Built in 1917, it was indeed a beautiful, stately building (see the URA walking guide link for more information). There are two main buildings, one on either side of Still Road. The first was operating as a hotel for many years, it has only recently been turned into what I understand is a storage area. The second is deserted and has been for years. It is practically a ruin. I really can't see anyone investing the money needed to make it habitable, far less restoring it to its former glory. The only way would be for the adjoining plot to be sold off together with this building for a condominium development and then some of the profits could be used to restore the house.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Penang Food Trails

Now, it may appear a little odd that I am posting entries on Penang in this blog about Katong. But to me there are many linkages. Penang is about family, food and Straits Chinese heritage, which is really what I associate Katong with too. Of course here in Katong the Eurasian factor comes in as well. Anyway, that is why these posts about Penang are on this blog.

Assam laksa, Penang Kway Teow, Chendol, Lor Bak! We visited Penang with a clear and serious intent: to eat our way through as many delectable hawker goodies as possible! Well, we can say that we have visited a number of good stalls but alas, there are so many places we did not manage to get to.

When eating in Penang, it is essential to have a clear goal and strategy in mind:
  • First, work out which stalls you wish to visit and plan your route accordingly.

  • Second, remember it is about sampling. No point stuffing yourself at the first place. Order a small helping, preferrably to share. Don't gorge even if it is good. There will be more good stuff later on too.

  • Third, don't worry about introducing variety. Remember, it is also about comparison purposes. You'll never know if you had the *best* Penang laksa if you haven't tried a few stalls.

  • Fourth, share drinks. The coffeeshops require you to buy a drink from them. So you could get filled up on all that liquid.

  • Fifth, take notes. What will you do if you forget where they are by the next time you get to Penang?
Here is my food tally:

Bee Hooi Coffee Shop at Kimberly Road - Penang Kway Teow, Yong Tau Fu. The YTF was just so that we could have something wet to go with our kway teow. We did not realise until we checked the old review that we had actually selected a well-known kway teow stall. But I certainly appreciated the large and fresh prawns which accompanied the dish. The kway teow was tasty too, perhaps a tad wetter than the Singapore rendition of Penang Kway Teow. BTW, this photo was taken on my mobile phone rather than my camera. Note the size of that prawn!

Guerney Drive - 2 samples of assam laksa, kueh pie tee, some lok lok, 1 sample of Penang kway teow. The kway teow (although it was also supposed to be famous) was not really up to par. The laksa from the first stall we tried had well-flavoured stock, and I noticed then that the noodles tend to be much softer (cooked for a little longer?) than the al dente version served in Singapore. I thought also that the blend of condiments was just right, with the ginger flower adding just the right twang to the dish. I was however a little surprised with the pie tee as there was no little shrimp on top and the chilli was not fresh chilli but some sauce.

Malay Street (at the corner of Malay and Carnavaron)- The best Lor Bak we had. Juicy, succulent meat in the crispy wrap.

Penang Road - Lor Bak and Prawn Fritters from a famous hawker, cooked with style and panache. Here he is at his wok. Further down the road, at Lebuh Keng Kwee, we ate yet another serving of assam laksa (rank 2 of the 3 samples we had) and truly yummy chendol.

Apparently, the green worms in Chendol are not just made of flour coloured green the way it is done in Singapore. It is made of a special herb which gives the jelly that green colour. The Penang variety of chendol is made with the gula melaka syrup poured over the crushed ice, before the diluted coconut milk, green jelly worms and kidney/red beans are poured on top. This particular hawker was famous! Every time we asked for directions to Lebuh Keng Kwee, we had problems. We asked for "the chendol stall" and everyone knew where it was. We found out upon coming back to Singapore that he has branches across Malaysia, including Johor Bahru.

Lorong Chulia - We also had one meal at a small local Hainanese restaurant, pork chop, itek tim (duck soup with preserved vegetables), lor bak and mixed vegetables. The shop has many regular local clients and the jovial proprietor clearly knew them all. Wearing a neatly tied apron, and with a little hat on his head, he discussed their orders rather than just took them. There is no menu in any case. You have to talk to him or his mother (?) to work out what is available. It was a hearty, homecooked meal.

Penang is where you regret that you have only one stomach. I must admit that I've probably had enough laksa, kway teow to last for a few weeks but very soon I'll be BACK at the penang food stall in Marine Parade...!

Return to Penang

It has been many years since I was last in Penang. I was there in 2001 (on work), and some 4-5 years before that, I was there for my great-grandmother's 100th birthday. That was indeed a memorable family visit. I went with my father's brothers and sister, and we spent a most enjoyable 3 days there. We did not go sightseeing around Penang (my relatives had seen it all before). Rather, the fabled hawker food of Penang was the main object of our stay.

I remember especially how some 6 of us piled into my father's cousin's car, and how he took us out of the city centre and drove us into the surrounding hills and countryside of Penang, looking for durians (didn't find any) and the best Penang Char Kway Teow, chendol and laksa (ate lots of these). Then that evening we went to a beachside restaurant for the birthday dinner - dish after dish of fresh seafood and extremely tasty food. My favourite was the steamed fish served with bee hoon that had completely absorbed the flavour of the gravy....

Of course, it was also extremely awe-inspiring to meet my 100 year old great-grandmother again (not that she could really recognise me any more) and to see my cute little second cousins (or whatever they are called). And to visit our family home where I took this photograph of an amazing family photograph of 3 of my great-grandparents and my great-great-grandmother!

Now, my father's father's father married a Penang girl. They are the two seated on the left of her mother, the old matriarch in the middle of the photo. Then, their oldest son married his cousin. Her mother is seated third to the right of the matriarch. Theirs was a Penang peranakan family, as can be seen from the kebayas worn by the ladies. And perhaps by the little bow tie around my great-grandfather's neck. My grandparents are not in this photo, unfortunately, and I do not see my father either.

I do not have many memories of my great-grandparents. My great-grandfather died when I was 1 year old, his wife when I was 6. And my other great-grandmother lived in Penang. I remember her visiting us in Singapore when I was very young and us visiting her in Penang a few years later. Similarly, I did not see my other Penang relatives regularly, except for one who came down to Singapore every now and then.

Last weekend (5-7 Oct), I went to Penang with my cousin. She had not joined us on our happy holiday the last time round and was looking forward to a similar foodie experience. Whilst my great-grandmother passed away (I think at 102 years), my cousin still wanted to see our ancestral home. We felt a little diffident, however, at ringing up and saying "Hi! Guess who?", given that we had not seen our relatives for years.

We had booked ourselves a suite in the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, the Raffles of Penang. Now this may not seem like typical behaviour for either of us (pair of skinflints). But we thought we had a good deal with the hotel's "Return to Elegance" package. Indeed, when we checked in on Friday evening, we truly appreciated our beautiful suite with its high ceilings, comfy sofa and lovely bathroom (with its two separate sinks). When we opened our window we could hear the sound of waves pounding against the seawall.

The next day, we went on a walking trail around the old part of Penang. We walked down to the Padang area. One side of the Padang is bordered by the sea, and the Esplanade. On the other three sides are the State Assembly house, the Town Hall, the City Hall and Fort Cornwallis. Indeed, the British do build to a plan. The commercial street, Beach Road, leads off from the Padang and some banks still have their presence there today.

We walked down Beach Road through the small little roads - Market Street, or the "Little India" of Penang, Chulia Street, King Street, Lebuh Ah Quee (? not exactly a typical name for this area) down to Armenian Street and Cannon Street, down to Malay Street. We walked to our family home on Malay Street and stood in front. We had debated earlier whether to knock and go in but were advised that the house had been sold following my great-grandmother's death. So we just took a few photos, had a cup of coffee and some lor bak in the coffee shop across the road.

We then went back to Armenian Street and visited the recommended "vanishing trades" shop there, which sold Nonya beaded shoes or "manek manek". Now these shops are very common in Malacca. They are ready-to-wear, and there are many designs, many colours to choose from. This was the image in our mind when we walked down Armenian Street. We did not expect to find a small shop with two men sitting and chatting in it. It did not have any distinguishing features whatsoever, except for a small cabinet on the side of the room, which, upon closer inspection, did have a few pairs of beaded shoes in it. We were to learn that in Penang, the shoes are customised for each person. No ready-to-wear and with no immediate plans to return, no point ordering either.

As I walked through the streets of old Penang, the similarities and differences between Penang and Singapore struck me. The two cities must have been so similar in the 1920s and 30s. The street names, the shophouses with their very similar architecture, even the very layout of the city. But over the years, Singapore has undergone a process of urban rejuvenation. Many of the old buildings (too many, perhaps?) have fallen victim to the wrecker's ball and modern skyscrapers have replaced them. Whilst there are many old shophouses left, particularly in the Chinatown area, they are now completely different - filled with retail outlets. In Penang, this process of rejuvenation has yet to take place. Time has stood still and alas, the main feeling is one of decay. It is difficult to walk along the five foot way because they are used in many instances as a parking lot for motorcycles, just as cars park along the narrow streets. Except for Little India, the shops were not bustling - largely quiet and in some cases, the shopholders seemed surprised to see us peering in. Heritage markers have been erected here and there, pointing to an active tourist authority, but the hard work has yet to be done.

Of course, this was just in this particular part of Penang. Other areas, for example the Penang Road stretch, bear visible signs of being made over. New pavements, in one place a pedestrianised road with restaurants on each side. And of course, down Guerney Drive, the new hawker centre and Guerney Plaza, and the new "g" hotel, are indeed bringing in the crowds. (We came away from Guerney Plaza with tonnes of shopping!). So it will be interesting to see what changes are made the next time I get round to visiting Penang.

P.S. More Penang photos here!

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Sugee Cake

Sugee Cake
Originally uploaded by Taking5
Sugee cake!

Sugee cake is a Eurasian specialty, where everything depends upon the texture. It is made from semolina (which accounts for the grainy texture), almonds, and loads of eggs and butter.

This particular cake was made by my cousin for my and my grandmother's joint birthday party last month. It had a great texture and was just a little moist.

The amusing thing about this dinner was that we had a great dessert spread. That's what happens with pot lucks! The cake was planned but I didn't realise we would be getting bread pudding and thai jellies as well. Oh well, the calorie limit was busted anyway.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Father's Day at Princess Terrace

The King's Hotel (now Copthorne King's) has been THE place to eat Penang food for the longest time. Its legendary Penang buffet has been delighting me and my family (plus many many other Singaporeans) for years and years.

We came here on Father's Day because it is one of my father's favourite buffets. Also, he has a discount card for the place... hehehe. We heard from one of the restaurant captains that the original chefs for the restaurant had left to ply their skills in London. However, the hotel had continued to bring in new chefs from Penang to delight the tastebuds of Singaporeans here. It does seem to me sometimes that the quality of the food has changed slightly. But its still pretty good.

So what is so different about this buffet? Well, there are the Penang salads, or kerabu, characterised by their sambal belacan and lime dressing. Then there is the otak-otak. Simply sedap! The steamed otak-otak sets a very high bar for any grilled otak-otak to reach. Rich in flavour, yet melts in the mouth. Except for the chunks of fish of course! The otak-otak and the satay used to run out quickly. So it is important to get what you can, when you can. My uncle used to know one of the chefs at the restaurant. So when we had our extended family meals here, we would get sticks of freshly cooked satay brought to our table.

The main courses are excellent too. I had the lamb and fish gulai (curry) with the nasi kunyit (glutinous tumeric-coloured rice). And then of course there are Penang hawker delights - penang kway teow, prawn mee, and the absolutely unique Penang assam laksa.

Assam laksa is one fiddly dish to make. It was one of the signature dishes made by Ah Ling Zhe, the lady who used to look after my great-grandmother. When my great-grandmother died, she stayed on to maintain the family home. Every now and then, she would make vats of laksa for my father's extended, extended family. We would get a call one day to inform us that Ah Ling was making Penang laksa the next weekend. We would go down and find a vat of noodles and one of laksa gravy, side by side. On the table would be the array of toppings. My family members would fill their bowls with the noodles, pour over the assam gravy with the little chunks of ikan parang inside it. Then they would top off with the prawn paste (hae kor), cut red chilli, mint leaves, pineapple chunks, shredded cucumber, bunga kantan etc etc. I still remember one of my many granduncles telling me that this was the best Penang laksa in Singapore. Of course I, as a young child, was perhaps not fully able to appreciate it (in the first instance, not that good at taking chilli). Even so, I do recall eating my own small bowl of it.

My cousin tried to make Penang laksa once. It was a valiant attempt but alas, it did not quite meet Ah Ling Zhe's high standard. And (as mentioned earlier) this is a fiddly dish to make. So - when you find a place in Singapore (where lemak laksa is the norm) which sells a decent assam laksa, make a careful note of it. One place is Marine Parade (see last post), and another Princess Terrace.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Makciks Rock

Picture this: A Makcik, sunglasses perched firmly on her nose, legs astride her supersize tricycle, shopping baskets fore and aft, cycling between the row of shops in Marine Parade Central. I whipped out my cameraphone to take a shot. But thanks to the glaring sunshine, and the bike movement, this was all I got:

But Marine Parade Central is a veritable makcik paradise (and here I mean makciks of all races). My dear mother, for example, loves to explore the sundry shops here. All sorts of things are on sale here - containers of all shapes and sizes, plants, clothing and footwear (including these fun flip-flops) and even mahjong tables (guess where I got mine?). There is a small supermarket which is surprisingly busy considering that NTUC, its big competitor, is just 5 minutes walk away. I've patronised a pet shop here which has a good range of kitty litter. If you need kitty litter which clumps well and has odour control, by all means choose Fussie Cat.

The food is good too. There's a pretty decent hawker centre here (with stalls selling "Pontian" wantan noodles and one of my favourite comfort foods, beef noodles). But at the coffeeshop just at the end of the promenade is "Penang Delights", a little shop selling Penang hawker fare like Penang Kway Teow, Assam Laksa, Lor Mee etc. My father finds it great value for great Penang food. He once ate both the Kway Teow and Assam Laksa at one go (which he admitted was a little much) which just shows what a fan he is.

I'd eaten the Penang laksa before and enjoyed the assam stock and the generous flaked fish. The scent of the laksa broth was scenting the air when I came by today, tempting me to have another bowl. But I had decided to try out the Penang Kway Teow. And it was good - two fresh, nicely cooked prawns, well-fried noodles, but not exceptional.

What I really enjoyed, however, were the minced pork and chive dumplings! Not really a Penang specialty. But the skin was soft and transluscent, so we could see the juicy, meaty dumplings inside. They were served with a tasty chilli-garlic-vinegary sauce. I'll definitely come back for this and the Penang Laksa.

p.s. Now I have mentioned before that strictly speaking, Marine Parade is not Katong. I still stand by that. But sometimes its good to be flexible :-)

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Another Gem of Joo Chiat

This is not supposed to be a food blog, but if you live in Katong you eat in Katong and so entries about food are inevitable. We went to a relatively new restaurant, Tasty Buds, the other night and had a really good meal! It has been reviewed by ieatishootipost - in fact the review had been printed out and put up outside the restaurant - but I found that there were so many other things to say about the place that I thought I would write it up too.

Tasty Buds is a clean, bright white restaurant, with the walls adorned by sprays of flowers alongside pictures of the food (by ieatishootipost). Service is pleasant and the food comes fairly quickly.

We had four dishes, the beef rendang, squid in special sauce, pork ribs and papaya curry and ladies' fingers with a hae bee (dried prawn) topping. Three of the four are captured in the photo collage - I've started using Picasa which has this rather handy feature. In brief:
  • Rendang - beef was tender, moist, in the tasty thick rendang curry gravy. However, it is not really that unique compared to the other three dishes.

  • Squid in special sauce - squid were cooked just right, no hint of rubberiness. Sauce was quite tasty, too.

  • Ladies fingers with hae bee topping - a winner here! The hae bee was pounded with shallots and sprinkled with lime juice. Pounded chilli was served on the side so you can add as much as you like.

  • Pork Rib and Papaya Curry - my favourite dish of the night. The curry gravy had the distinctive taste of laksa leaves, with a little hint of assam and lemon grass. The papaya was sweet and succulent and went surprisingly well with the curry. I'd absolutely want to eat this again.
The ladies' fingers and the pork rib curry are a little more unique and not quite the run-of-the-mill perankan food served in restaurants here. It certainly has the stamp of authenticity in the subtle blending of spices and flavours in the sauces and gravy of the food. I sense (but am not too sure) Penang influences? Certainly the slightly more assam/limey flavour of the last two dishes suggests it.

In short - Tasty Buds is certainly a welcome addition to the Joo Chiat food scene, especially since we now bereft of Peramakan which has moved to larger premises in Keppel Club. The best time to go to this restaurant is probably on weekdays. The car parking situation is terrible on weekends. It's situated near the cluster of foodie joints mentioned in an earlier post.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Sayang Sayang

Yesterday evening I was at the Esplanade and caught the second half of a free performance at the Esplanade Concourse, “It’s Time for Sayang Sayang” by the Golden Girlz of Katong. It was a charming little skit, with two nonyas (beautifully dressed in their kebayas) teaching a new (but not young) nonya bride about the traditions of the Peranakans.

I missed the section on food but was present when the new bride was learning about the marriage gift exchange practices. These do appear a little complicated. Some gifts, you have to give half back. So if you get 8 oranges, give 4 back. Sometimes you have to give a gift, only to get it back three-fold. And then there is the brandy – which is apparently not for the bride to drink (horrors!) but for her husband-to-be and his male friends in the baba equivalent of a stag night. Some practices are similar to the Chinese customs – the wearing of a black veil to signify sorrow at leaving her family, but with a bright red dot underneath for good luck.

The play was littered throughout with Malay words, slipped into the conversation. “Sayang” is one of these words, a versatile word with multiple meanings. In one context it means “darling”, in another, “caress” or “stroke” and in another, “affection”. Somehow, I use it most often with my cats. Especially when they get a little “manja” – another Malay word which I translate as “being needy” in relation to my little pusses. But looking at the audience, I wonder how many of them are able to understand even the simple phrases used. I was talking one day to a friend of mine, who has lived in Katong all his life, and I let slip a Malay phrase which I then had to translate. Another of my ex-colleagues, who has again stayed in the east coast of Singapore all her life, had never eaten gado-gado (a salad dish with potatoes, egg, cucumber, tempeh, tauhu and a peanut sauce poured on top) or tauhu goreng (tauhu with cucumber, bean sprouts and peanut sauce on top) before. If food-loving Singaporeans aren’t even familiar with the different types of food each community eats, then it’s clear we still need to work on building mutual understanding between the communities here.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Katong Convent

Sigh. What does it mean when a fairly new school building (I believe it was completed around 1990 or so) is demolished so it can be built up bigger and higher? Way back in 1930, Katong Convent started in an old house by the sea, on this very spot. Taking students from kindergarten all the way up to 'O' levels, many generations of school girls passed through its doors, played in its fields and prayed by the little grotto in the corner of the garden. The sea by the fence went when the land was reclaimed and the new Marine Parade town was built. My mother spent her schooldays here. The school expanded, new wings were erected. I spent four years - my secondary school years here. Well do I remember standing beneath those flagpoles and singing the National Anthem and School Song. Well do I also remember the times when I had to run around the field preparing for my 2.4km physical fitness test. As for my classrooms, these were generally placed around the quadrangle in the middle of the school. The few steps leading down to the quadrangle from the classrooms were depressed in the middle because of the many years girls had stood or sat on them. At the beginning of each year, we would walk to the Holy Family church for mass to mark the start of school. But enough of these happy schoolgirl memories.

In 1987 much of the building was torn down. Both the primary and secondary sections moved to a new building meant to house the secondary school. My sister started her primary school there. This lovely new school was then built for the primary school. I think it a beautiful building. Much of the architecture of this front block reflects the old house the school started off in. The details of the architecture reflect the peranakan culture so prevalent in Katong.

Today, our education system is taking new directions. Smaller class sizes, more IT in the classroom. Although the school building is still so new, it is not enough to accomodate these changes. So go it must. And as an Aided School, the community must raise the money to pay our 5% (or is it 10%?) of the building costs. So the school shifted out at the beginning of the year to an old school building in Bedok. Today, I saw that the demolition team has started its work. I can only think what a waste of a beautiful building it is.

Unfortunately, the building of the new school has been affected by the Indonesian ban on sand exports to Singapore. So it will be a while more before the merry sounds of girls laughing and calling to each other float through the air in this little corner of Katong.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Joo Chiat links

When I first started this blog, I googled around to check out what sites already existed on Katong and Joo Chiat and found that there were very few. In fact, that was one thing which motivated me to set up this blog. But now, as I continue with this blog, I find that there are more and more sites and blogs which also cover Joo Chiat and Katong. The latest one I have found is, which is a community-based site and covers Joo Chiat news, businesses, restaurants etc. My list of links is getting longer....

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Joo Chiat Road foodie joints

I read somewhere (can't remember where exactly) that Joo Chiat road was named after some wealthy plantation owner called Chew Joo Chiat. When then British government wanted to build a road through his estate, he willingly acceded - and then sold off the land on either side of the road at a handsome profit! The shops and houses along Joo Chiat Road are still there to this day.

There are so many nice eating places to try out along Joo Chiat Road. What has really made these places more accessible is the opening up of more car parks down the road. We've been to a number of them and maybe I'll give more details in a subsequent post. But some of my favourites are in this little cluster just near the old Maternal and Child Health clinic, now newly converted into a Scanteak furniture shop. I have always liked the look of this building, in particular its simple and clean lines, and its good to see that it is now back in use.

But back to the food. Straight across Scanteak is the Ayam Penyet stall. This "smashed" fried chicken dish is now a bit of a fad, but this is one of the first few stalls which started selling it. In fact this stall also sells fish penyet and beef penyet too! I like the fish penyet, as the fish is nicely fried - crispy on the outside, yet retaining its juiciness inside.

A few shops down, is the Lau Hock Guan Kee Bak Kut Teh stall - which is mentioned favourably in Makansutra for its fish head curry and which we like, of course, for its steamed fish tail! But that was not our intended destination that particular evening. Just next door is "My Mum's Place", another Makansutra-featured home cooking restaurant (and where else but Joo Chiat would you get two in a row). And if its a Katongite's home-cooked food, it is pretty good stuff. We have been there a few times, wolfing down their juicy, tasty prawn paste chicken, tender kangkong shoots in sambal, and crispy baby squid. This time we were eating their signature dish, seafood stuffed tofu balls - crispy on the outside, with a juicy filling of tofu and seafood inside (amongst other things), their kangkong (again) and their sliced beef with ginger (not a particularly unique dish, but well-cooked and tasty nonetheless). Service is good, and the food comes quickly to our table. Great choice for a family meal. But busy on weekend nights especially, good to go on a weekday evening. That's also when the carparks are less crowded.

There used to be a third restaurant next to Lau Hock Guan Kee and My Mum's - "Tasty Penang", which obviously sold Penang food. Somehow, despite the fame of Penang hawker fare, Penang food stalls have not done too well in Katong. Penang! Penang! opened in Lau's Arcadia along East Coast Road some time back but folded (I personally think their food was a little overpriced). Similarly, "Tasty Penang" didn't last too long. Whilst a lot cheaper than Penang! Penang!, perhaps the variety of dishes was not sufficient for it to keep up with the competition all around. It's a tough neighbourhood for restaurants but for Katong residents like myself, its a great place to eat! Where else in Singapore can you get great Eurasian, Peranakan, Chinese, Indonesia, Malay, Indian, and frankly many other types of food in one small little area!!

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Lumen Christi

"Lumen Christi!" "Deo Gratias!"

These Latin words come at the beginning of the traditional pre-Vatican II Easter Vigil Mass. Today, it is said in English: "Christ our Light!" and the response is "Thanks be to God!"

Holy week is the busiest time in the Christian calendar. Coming at the end of Lent, it starts with Palm Sunday, commemorating the entry of Christ into Jerusalem, then Maundy Thursday which reminds us of the Last Supper, Good Friday when we recall the death of Christ and finally Easter Sunday when we celebrate His resurrection.

In Katong, much of this activity takes place at the Holy Family church, on East Coast Road. There has been a church serving the community here since the early 1930s; I too was baptised here (not in the 1930s, thank you!). The current church building was erected in 2000 as the older building was too small for the large community. The old church building was a Katong landmark with the tall bell tower above the entrance on East Coast Road. It was a simple church building but it warmly welcomed visitors through the many doors which went all around the church.

In the old days, too, the congregation would wait outside the closed church whilst the Easter candle was lit from the newly kindled Easter fire, and follow the priest into the church. Today, the numbers attending the Vigil would make this a difficult logistical exercise. The structure of the church also makes it a little more difficult, given that we now have to climb up one storey to enter the church building as the car park is now on the ground floor. But it is still quite meaningful to sit in the dark church, listening out for the call of "Christ our Light!" and watching as the altar boys enter and move around the church lighting our candles, and then watching as the light continues to spread throughout the church.

But the highlight of the Easter Vigil mass is typically the baptism ceremony for adults. It is the culmination of a longer process stretching slightly over a year in which they have prepared themselves to renounce their sins, and cleanse themselves in the waters of new life in Christ. This Easter, the group was a fairly small one for Holy Family parish - I think just under 30 people being baptised or brought into full communion with the Catholic church. But the past groups have been rather large, so much so that Holy Family now has a pretty efficient process - the baptism with water, annointing with holy oil, the giving out of the white garment and candles were all done with true Singaporean efficiency. I recall my friend's baptism in London, when she was the only one being baptised. She wore black, was totally immersed in water, then went to a room at the back of the church to dry off (we heard the hairdryer going for a while) and change into all-white. It was a beautiful and highly symbolic service, but can't exactly be done en masse (think of the hairdryer queue).
The church itself is a beautiful place to be on Easter Vigil; the choir sings better and the congregation generally happy and patient despite the long ceremony. And although the church has changed, it is the same ceremony which has been celebrated in this place for over 70 years, and around the world for 2000 years.

The Rose Window at Holy Family Church

Friday, April 06, 2007

Old Space, New Place

Katong used to be the civic hub of the East Coast. In a way it still is - the churches, the temples, the mosque are still around in this Katong/Joo Chiat area. We also used to have our own Joo Chiat Police Station, near the junction of East Coast and Joo Chiat Roads (opposite the TBG shophouse featured in an earlier post). But the police station moved away long ago, and subsequently the Immigration Department moved in and set up its Field Office (and, I think, a temporary lock-up) there. I visited it once and recall the thick walls of the cells, the large iron-grilled doors, the rather sterile atmosphere of this government office.

Immigration department has long moved out also. The fences and gates surrounding the complex have come down and it has become Katong Village, home of many little restaurants and shophouses. There was an attempt at putting a food centre here - somehow, it did not have staying power although I recall it being fairly popular at one point. Other restaurants came and went. But today, there seems to be a certain new life emerging. Waraku Japanese Restaurant, Samba Brazil Steakhouse Churrascaria, Samy's Curry (of Dempsey Road fame), have all set up shop in this area, together with the pool hall and the one or two pubs which have somehow hung on. It remains to be seen as to how they will survive - I have hopes of Waraku which is pretty crowded whenever I go there. Samy's Curry - not so sure. I think that afficiandos would flock to the "mother restaurant", and in Katong the fish head curry competition is a fierce one. Whilst Samy's have their signature fish head curry, many zi cha stalls will give you a choice between Thai style, Assam, Hongkong style and so on.

Finally, the main office of the old Police station has a new tenant, a Hongkong style noodle restaurant. The home of law and order has transformed into a rather more fun space. Pictures of cantopop stars adorn the walls, and stacks of magazines to read encourage people to hang out here. This place is one of the few which sells my old favourite, beef hor fun in black bean sauce, complete with onions and green capsicum, topped with black pepper. (I acquired a taste for this in my student days where it was the staple of all the Cantonese restaurants in London's Chinatown.) And of course it sells instant noodles with various meat toppings, Yinyang coffee/tea mix, hot coke with honey and lemon etc etc. But their function rooms (for rental) and the outdoor alfresco dining area are often empty. Surprising, as compared to the Hongkong restaurant further down East Coast Road, it is probably better value for money and has better car parking facilities to boot. I suppose only time will tell.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Peranakan Houses

One thing which I feel gives Katong its distinctive atmosphere is its buildings, in particular the charming Peranakan buildings in the area. The Peranakans settled in Katong many years ago, as did the Eurasians. The Eurasians tended to stay in single-storey bungalows but the Peranakans built their unusual, charming east-west fusion homes and these line parts of East Coast, Joo Chiat and surrounding roads.

The houses are painted in pastel colours, with elaborate floral or animal moulding or decorative tiles adorning the facade. The roofs have wooden fringes, painted in matching colours. The houses appear deceptively narrow from the front - but once inside, the building stretches well beyond the front facade. Apparently, property taxes in Malacca were based on the length of the house fronting the street. So buildings were built narrow but long, and this particular architectural design spread also to Penang and Singapore.

Peranakan houses typically have a little veranda in front. The front entrance typically has two doors - the first is a half door, or pintu pagar (this literally means door fence, or a gate, but in this context is a half door), and the second is a proper door. The pintu pagar allows for ventilation, whilst at the same time maintaining privacy.

On entering a Peranakan house, there is a small front entrance room - a parlour, for receiving guests. In my relatives' home in Penang, this had the family photos in it - a large photo of our revered ancestor who had come over from China, a picture of the extended family many many years ago (I'm not in it). But just behind this room is the large family room where all the action would take place. Here is where the dining area is, and the family living area where (today) people watch television, listen to music etc. Here is where also the inner courtyard is located, letting sun and light into the middle of the house. The kitchen lies beyond that. On the second floor, the front room would typically have a little peephole in the floor. Looking down through the peephole, the residents would be able to check out visitors to the house before going downstairs to let them in. The shortcoming of these old houses is that often they live with old plumbing systems, so the bathrooms are in the back of the house and maybe there would be only one, on the ground floor....

Many Peranakan houses have been put to other uses these days. Along Joo Chiat Road, they hold coffee shops, karaoke bars, hotels, and in some cases, art galleries. Following complaints that there was too much, um, street action taking place in the area, pub licences have not been renewed. The ladies of the night are moving out and the creative crowd, slowly coming in. Which is all very well but it is also nice to see that the 60 year old bakery is still going strong at one end of Joo Chiat Road. Together they create the unique blend of old and new, of tradition and innovation, in this charming corner of Singapore.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Katong Laksa

The one Singapore hawker dish which is synonymous with Katong is laksa. It is not immediately obvious why. After all, we do not associate chicken rice, or mee goreng, or any other dish with any part of Singapore. What is the big deal about Katong laksa? What is so different? The obvious thing is that the noodles are all cut small enough so they can be spooned up rather than eaten with chopsticks. So the gravy is less likely to splash on your clothes. Great for being customer oriented. But other than that, it is still the same lemak gravy over rice noodles, with the same daun kesom sprinkled on top and chilli on the side.

But some years back there was an article by Violet Oon in the Straits Times, on the four laksa shops in Katong. This spurred what is now known as the "laksa wars" in Katong. One shop, 328 Laksa, was rated number one and has since expanded with "Katong laksa" outlets across the island. One is just near the church and so we occasionally go there after mass (this photo was taken there). The laksa is indeed quite nice with a thick gravy and fairly large prawns. The worst rated store had to close down. Such is the power of the food critic. The 3rd store - well, I think it is still surviving.

Number two, however, is the true, original Katong laksa. It is from a shop called "Marine Parade Laksa", and run by the Ng family. And in my view, it has the richest gravy, with the subtlest of flavours. It is prepared without cockles, which is apparently the true nonya laksa way. The lack of cockles is certainly no loss to me - I always end up spooning up the last drop of the gravy. Not the healthiest thing to do, but then I rationalise that I don't eat it that often.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Discovering Katong from the Desktop

I spent some 2 hours last Sunday afternoon walking around and taking photos of the Katong area with a friend. I will, over the next few entries, talk a little more about the places we saw and share a few photos.

To my pleasant surprise, when I did a quick Google search for "Katong" today, I found that has made a visit to Katong as well! I have put it under my links section (see right hand side). So read it - it covers in just two entries all the best sites of Katong. If only I had known of its existence before starting off on my own journey....

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Tay Buan Guan

When I was a child, Tay Buan Guan was the one and only supermarket in Katong and it was here my family went to do our supermarket shopping (in addition to going to the old Siglap wet market). The selection of items was good, and the ready access to the ample carparking nearby was also very convenient.

Tay Buan Guan (also called TBG) was situated just behind the row of shophouses on East Coast Road which continues into Joo Chiat Road; it could be reached through three of the shophouses. One of these shophouses was a confectionary. My mother used to order my birthday cake there, plus other pastries to serve at the family party. The other two shophouses had different uses - can't remember exactly what but I do recall that for some years one was used as a thoroughfare into the main East Coast Road. Near the entrance to this particular building was a games arcade. The first games arcade I'd ever been to. I remember driving around the circuit and shooting some sea monster, under the supervision of my father.

Unfortunately for Tay Buan Guan, new players came onto the Katong supermarket scene - Cold Storage off Amber Road (in the old Seaview Hotel compound - it has now shifted to Katong Mall), Emporium departmental store and supermarket in Katong Shopping Centre (now closed down), and finally, the building of Parkway Parade which was and still remains the dominant player on the retail scene in Marine Parade. My family did continue going, off-and-on, to Tay Buan Guan over the years, particularly when my sister was very young. But we were often the only ones going down the aisles. Finally Tay Buan Guan closed its doors. Today, a condominium development is on the old supermarket site.

As for the shophouses? Well, these too were sold off, I believe. One is now Rumah Bebe, a retail shop selling Peranakan beaded shoes, kebayas, porcelain and other knick-knacks. The faded Tay Buan Guan sign can still be found on the pillar outside the shop, though partially hidden by a trishaw.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

New Year Goodies

I always wonder why people go to so much effort buying new year goodies. We buy a little but the experience over the years was that our visitors tend not to bring just oranges but extra goodies as well. Not to mention gifts from neighbours and friends. We received two (2) kueh lapis, one big bag of bak kwa, assorted containers of kueh kueh.... on top of 2 boxes of oranges. Whilst it is nice to have surplus at new year the weight gain is a serious potential problem.

But the other question I have is why is it so necessary to expend precious hours standing in queue to get the bak kwa from Lim Chee Guan? I meant to go to the shop (can't rem the name) on East Coast Road, near my house (which is pretty good and I don't have to queue at all) but my aunt gave us a large packet ... so zero effort on my part. If I want Lim Chee Guan bak kwa, I go during the rest of the year when the queues are minimal.

Then there are the pineapple tarts. I was wondering whether to insert a pineapple tart recipe (from my Eurasian aunt) but the reality is that on East Coast Road there are pineapple tarts being sold at every other stall so it is probably better to just list the best sources of these delectable tarts. This year, I picked mine up at Glory on East Coast Road 2 days before CNY. Actually I forgot to buy them from Katong Antique Shop the previous week (that's when you want the quality of a homemade-by-little-old-nonya tart). Then I went to St Francis (again on East Coast Road) but they were out (for those who do not know, St Francis is not a shop run by the Catholic church. Malacca, together with Singapore and Penang, formed the Straits Settlements where the bigger peranakan communities developed. St Francis Xavier brought Catholicism to Southeast Asia, and is particularly associated with Malacca where his body rested for some time. Thus the name of the shop reflects the close association of Malacca with the Peranakan community). But I've no regrets - Glory makes a pretty mean pineapple tart despite being mass produced. The excuse I have for late purchase is that I need to buy my pineapple tarts as late as possible or else there may not be enough to serve visitors <'o'> I got my nonya agar from Glory as well since I was buying my tarts there. I ended up completely forgetting to serve it to visitors .... whoops. Guess I'll have to eat it all.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Those Halcyon Days

Gong Xi Fa Cai to all!

As a child I used to enjoy Chinese New Year very much. CNY celebrations started, of course, with big reunion dinners which were typically held at one of the famous seafood restaurants on Upper East Coast/Bedok Road. Thereafter, we would go back (I believe we walked) to the big old family house where my great-grandmother, the matriach of our family, stayed. I recall that there would be some activity going on upstairs of a speculative nature :-) but of course we children were not involved.

The next day was of course the day we would all be waiting for. We would begin the day visiting my father's parents who (as would be expected of grandparents) were extremely generous and thus could be relied on to start off the day extremely well. We would then go on to my great-grandmother's house, and lunch there with other members of our extended extended family. My great-grandmother had many many children, all who congregated at her home on the first day of the New Year. I used to get slightly confused by all the uncles and aunties (my father's cousins), especially given the strong family resemblances, but it did not seem to matter as all I needed to do was to say "Gong Hee Fatt Choy" politely to everyone and of course they would bestow those red packets on me.

Lunch was chicken porridge, made by the old family servant the previous day. It was (and still is) the best chicken porridge that I have ever eaten. Soft-cooked and smooth, the porridge was full of rich flavour. The toppings and condiments were put on the side so we could season it as we wished. The grown-ups would eat, chat and catch up with the family's doings (never mind that they had already had the opportunity to do so at the previous night's reunion dinner). We children would run around the garden or jump around on the furniture downstairs. Sadly, these days are long past. Time and events have loosened the bonds of the extended family. My great grandmother's house was acquired by the government many years ago so that a road could be built to service the residents of a condominium. And our old family servant went back to China and has since passed away. And, alas, I do not have her recipe for chicken porridge.

We still continue having our reunion dinner and New Year's Day lunch with my extended family. Since we now go to a hotel for lunch, the variety of food available ranges far beyond chicken porridge (but I still miss the porridge). And I must admit that I now participate in the "grown-up" conversation. Angpows have diminished considerably in number too.

Of recent years, we have also started visiting my granduncle and his daughter (strictly speaking, my cousin once removed but who I of course call "aunty"), who have "open house" on the second day. My aunt is quite a good baker so we have a selection of delectable cakes - this year, it was rich, creamy tiramisu; sweet pear tart and zesty lemon curd pie; rich chocolate cake with a sinful creamy filling. We eat our fill, listen to my granduncle (he is 89 years, and just retired last year) and play with her huge long-haired cat. We then visit my grandaunt - a remarkable, independent-minded lady who lives on her own instead of with either of her two sons and their families. She tells us about how she spends her days, going to church, meeting and talking to people. She is 85 years old but I would not be surprised if people thought she was a good 15 years younger. She still has the perfect complexion of her youth, and if her hair is less luxuriant than of old, it is still ebony black with only a few silver threads running through. I can only hope that the family genes are still strong two generations down.

Selamat Taon Baru Babi!

We have just come back from the annual Peranakan Mass at Holy Family Church. This is the second time we have gone for the mass and I must say I rather enjoy the experience - the sight of the ladies all dressed in their beautiful sarong kebaya, the strong vigorous singing of the choir, and the challenge of following a mass said in the peranakan patois.

Singapore nonyas and babas speak "Baba Malay", a mixture of pasar Malay and Hokkien. It is fairly rudimentary Malay, but my Malay is pretty basic. So I can read the words in the mass book fairly easily, and with a little more effort, I can make out the meanings of the mass proper (knowing the English version helps). I probably paid far more attention to every word spoken, every word read than I do normally when every word is so familiar to me. But the readings were difficult to make out, and the sermon more so.

Except of course, Father Alfred Chan, the celebrant, started off his sermon with how the Perankans love the pig. Indeed, we do. It is in our babi assam, babi pongteh, babi chin, bak kwa, bak chang and so on. Of course we also love our ham and bacon. I got that bit. But then he started talking about loving one's enemy and he lost me there :-)

The congregation in the church was fairly large, considering - the pews facing the main altar were filled and about half of the pews next to the choir. I felt a little sad that I was not properly attired. I don't have a sarong kebaya and didn't want to wear a cheongsam. So the only piece of nonya clothing I wore were my beaded shoes! Perhaps by next year I will get my act together and buy myself a kebaya.

The mass ended with the singing of Auld Lang Syne (in patois of course) and the distribution of oranges. After mass, everyone gathered around Father Chan to wish him a Happy New Year and so on. (Father Chan spent a long time in Holy Family parish so he has a lot of friends here.) People stay around to greet each other and to exchange new year greetings. And that is another aspect of the mass I like - the more intimate, community spirit prevailing throughout..

Monday, January 08, 2007

Christmas Visiting

It is the last day of Christmas - Epiphany, or the Feast of the Three Kings, hence appropriate to talk about Christmas visiting.

As a child, we used to visit members of the extended extended family over Christmas. I remember especially visiting my grandaunts. One lived in a house with a giant. The proof was the very high doorway in one corner, and the giant's fork and spoon which hung on the wall. My brother and I were terrified of the giant, but this aunt served especially delectable pineapple tarts and muruku so we would go anyway. Plus of course we did get a present or two.

The other two grandaunts lived across the road from each other. I like the idea of keeping in shouting distance from your family members. And it must have been wonderful for the children of both families to grow up together. After my grandaunts and their husbands passed away, one family sold up and moved away. But the other remained in their old house (renovated considerably) and they invited us for a Christmas/New Year's lunch just a few days ago. I shall not recount what transpired at the lunch because this has already been admirably done by a fellow guest (see Mandy's post, on Christmas Cheer). I shall only add, that I spent much time trying out my new camera to take photos of the birds, fish and flowers mentioned in her post:

The food was catered by Quentin's, the subject of an earlier post. Except for the dessert which was baked by the ladies of the house - rich, dense fruit cake and rose-flavoured love cake - a particularly sweet memory of Christmases past. Love cake is a Sri Lankan/Ceylonese dish, which is pretty appropriate as the patriarch of this household was a house-proud Ceylonese burgher. Here is a link to a love cake recipe (note, not the love cake recipe) for those who want to know the ingredients. But knowing the recipe is by no means the same as knowing how to bake the cake (and the good news is that the family takes orders!).


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