On my recent trip to Singapore, I was ever grateful for my annual ‘Katong food crawl’. Let’s just say there’s no food crawl for me in the world like quaint ‘Katong’ where I was born in Singapore. It’s that place in my ‘other’ home that makes nostalgia sweetest, yet most heart-breaking.
Katong (for me, at least) beholds that enduring charm of all things from a sweet bygone era I miss. Neither its charm nor its ‘former glory’ could ever be stripped despite its updated facade. Both familiar and homely, dining there makes me homesick for my childhood and the good old days.
The name ‘Katong’ is derived from a species of sea-turtle that has become extinct. To think that Katong had once been home to beach-side retreats and boathouses; indeed those join the Katong sea turtle like an old man’s perished memories. Today, Katong is known in Singapore for its food and dining pleasures.
Trips to Katong like this last one in September remind me mostly of my little self growing up. One little hand in mum’s, walking as fast as I can to catch up with her feisty steps, and the other hand clutching a plastic bag of takeaway goodies. On a good day it would have Ang Ku Kueh (sweet turtle cake) in it if it hadn’t already been sold out. On a great day it will most certainly have ‘Kueh Bahulu’ (kind of like Madeleines) and a bottle of kaya in it for my breakfast toast.
I’d like to share in this post with you — the joys of revisiting some of my favourite Katong food haunts and icons: Katong Laksa, Chin Mee Chin Confectionery and the former old coffee shop Katong Tau Kwa Pau that I finally found again in its second relocated home in Dunman Food Centre. They were some of the real food highlights of my recent trip home to Singapore.
328 KATONG LAKSA
216 East Coast Rd
Who could miss their mammoth 328 Katong Laksa signboard only a stone’s throw away along the same row as Katong’s famous Chin Mee Chin Confectionery. Last year I couldn’t get a park at all (I went smack in the middle of the lunch time peak hour). This year’s visit was a boon because we finally nabbed a great parking spot right across the road where several fruit stalls were located.
With only a single melamine spoon, tucking into my steaming hot bowl of spicy laksa was a real treat I missed. I found the laksa gravy as fragrant as it was in my memory of it. Swimming with cockles and fish cake slices, it was topped generously with aromatic laksa herbs and well-trimmed rice noodles. Ah, slurp.
The absence and deprivation of laksa made my heart so much fonder, of course. We also ordered lime juice which went pretty well with it and washed down the spice in the laksa as well as the banana-leaf otah ( or ‘otak-otak’; spiced grilled fish). I’d say the otah was only ‘okay’ as it wasn’t served hot from the grill and so it lacked some of the potential panache it could’ve boasted.
I like that it’s air-conditioned so we could hide from the blazing heat and humidity, plus there’s plenty of room unlike before. Well, good on 328 Katong Laksa for beating an unlikely contender like Michelin-starred British celebrity-chef Gordon Ramsay for the top spot in laksa ratings. This was back in 2013 at the well-publicised Singtel Hawker Heroes Challenge, where laksa had been one of the three national iconic hawker dishes (together with Chilli Crab and Chicken Rice) selected for the competition. Poor Ramsay didn’t stand a chance from the get go!
CHIN MEE CHIN CONFECTIONERY
204 East Coast Road
Tues – Sun (open 8am to 4pm)
There are old-style coffee shops aplenty to explore around the lesser known to tourists nooks and crannies of Singapore, and then there’s Chin Mee Chin. In our family we always call it by its better known Chinese name, Zhen Mei Zhen. I always used to wonder if she was named after a truly beautiful (which is what Zhen Mei Zhen sounds like) retro songstress in the days of old.
Like an ageless, still-beautiful songstress, this quaint old coffeeshop that is Chin Mee Chin has been exquisitely preserved like a huge time capsule. While its surrounds have seen inevitable urbanisation along with vast landscape changes, its beauty remains unscathed.
Untouched in its original form, having tea or breakfast at Chin Mee Chin can be likened to a heritage museum experience which one can live and breathe. Zhen Mei Zhen reminds me of my favourite Asian actress Lin Ching Hsia with her ageless glamour and timeless radiance, complete with enviable porcelain skin even at sixty over years of age.
On entering CMC, it’s reassuring to touch the cool slidable glass display shelves that’ve been there since I were a seven year-old girl. From the ceiling fan right down to the mosaic flooring, it was surreal to be standing where time seemed to have stood still while I just kept growing up. My own seven-year old daughter peeked in and pointed at the cupcakes. The shelves were there for patrons to help themselves to the spread of baked treats, their signature retro-style cakes and pastries. It was a tough choice picking from the well-curated selection of retro goodies like old-style cream puffs, custard tarts, butter cakes, sugee cakes and chocolate iced cupcakes. To our disappointment, our favourite sugar-sprinkled donuts were all sold out by post-lunch time.
We had Kopi (coffee with milk) and mum, her favourite Kopi-O (coffee) while my boy had a cold Milo which he sipped from a straw in one gulp and then claimed it was superb. But then my boy claims everything with a bit of Milo in it is superb. The CMC Kopi was truly superb, I’d say. One sip and I was in kopi heaven. How I do miss this robust-tasting roast made with aromatic, authentic Singapore-kopitiam-style coffee beans served in their vintage ceramic kopi cups and saucers with the ‘baby-sized’ stirrer spoon. They are famous also for their kaya toast but we were too full to indulge after our laksa. I’ve also never really missed Singapore eggs since moving to Oz where I’m used to my free-range yolks. Mum as usual, got herself some kaya to go (sold in mini takeaway containers).
Their traditionally baked custard tart was quite good. I thought it tasted very homemade like it was made by someone’s granny rather than the more flaky ones you get from any standard yum cha establishment. Just don’t go expecting the yum cha creed ‘Hong Kong-style egg tarts’. We found the cupcakes a little on the dry side though my son licked up every morsel of the chocolate icing.
Worth a visit even just for the heritage experience! You’re still a beauty, Zhen Mei Zhen. See ya’ next year!
Say Seng Famous Tau Kwa Pau
271 Onan Road
Dunman Food Centre
(closed on Mon, 8am – 5pm daily)
OK I’ll admit that this one isn’t quite located along the belt of ‘Katong’ but it’s close enough physically to Katong. Well, it rightfully belongs to this post as it’s always been known to be Katong’s famous Tau Kwa Pau since 1959. Wow, that’s even before Singapore’s independence! Before it moved to its current Dunman location, it was located at a kopitiam at 369 Tanjong Katong Road right across from its previous spot.
Parking has always been a problem with all its previous locations and this time it’s no different at Dunman Food Centre. The best we could do, seeing that our stomachs can no longer fit in anymore goodies, was to instruct hubby the driver to stop the car with the engine running while I made a quick dart in with mum. Talk about organised foodies. We’re armed with a plan, that’s for sure! She zoomed in on her soon kueh stall at the basement while I scanned my eyes and easily found Say Seng. Can’t miss its gigantic yellow signboard and a small queue already forming.
I almost squealed to see it again. There’re two things I haven’t embarked on trying to figure out on my own in Australia: it’s this famous Tau Kwa Pau and dry Teochew Beef Noodles. Besides, no one has ever attempted to create a DIY sauce pack for these two fantastic Singapore faves. Prima, are you listening?
I’ve had Tau Kwa Pau elsewhere and what annoys me is that while the chilli sauce that Say Seng makes is perfect and inimitable, this formula can be perfected further if it would use a tau kwa (soybean cake) with a much softer texture—if only! It’s still the best Tau Kwa Pau you’re going to find in the whole of Singapore. I guess it’s only my personal preference to have a softer tau kwa.
The condiments were perfect. The tiny crumbly floured and fried duck bits are heaven, along with the julienned cucumber and hard boiled egg pieces. The only thing left to do is drench it with the thick and sweet special house sauce (made of braised duck gravy perhaps?) and its crazy-good chilli with a real limey tang to it.
I wish I had more tummy room to house the duck rice too. Just the best braised duck rice you can find in Singapore!
Say Seng even has its own Facebook page. Suitably impressed, actually. I only found out when the owner passed me his name card! May these icons of Katong live on forever despite the rocky challenges facing hawkers in modern Singapore. Till next trip, my laksa, CMC coffee and Tau Kwa Pau. So long. Gonna miss you much.