On our holiday trip, we were excited to get to check out two of these gathering places, stopping by Chinatown and Little India. The name of Chinatown - 牛車水 - references its origins: literally translated, the name means "Bull Car Water" - it's the place where water was mainly transported by ox driven carts in the 19th century.
It was close enough to our hotel in the Clarke Quay area, that we were able to walk over. It was in the balmy 80s in December so it was a nice stroll - and we got to enjoy many modern-traditional hybrid storefronts along the way, like medicinal tea houses serving delicacies like turtle jelly (made of turtle shell) and herbal teas, and fruit stands with vendors selling everything from apples to more exotic fare like dragonfruit and mangosteen.
There were also daytime street markets flanked by closet-sized permanent storefronts selling everything from Chinese medicine to dry delicacies including swallow's nest (dried bird spit - nutrient rich and apparently good for the skin!), all kinds of mushrooms, sea cucumbers (good for the eyes) and scallops.
We loved the colonial style architecture juxtaposed by Chinese commerce and all the trimmings that come with it. Of course we had to stop to try the food, and with my parents, we looked for a sit down place - signage for Da Dong "by Fatty Weng" got our attention with its traditional looking tea-house style decor yet irreverent name.
The bottom floor of the 2-story restaurant had two walls that were wide open to create a bright, airy space; the decor was old school - the only items adorning the walls were framed shark's fin and pictures of local celebrities who have dined there.
Da Dong serves dim sum as well as select dishes for lunch. We started with some classics: Har Gow (shrimp dumplings) and Siu Mai (shrimp and pork dumplings) - these were passable in quality, not something I'd recommend a special trip to experience.
It was really the Black Pepper Crab, a Singaporean specialty served all over the island, that I still dream of. This was my first and last one during our trip, so I can't really say how Da Dong's preparation compares to other restaurants - but I LOVED it. Just like the Chili Crab at Long Beach Seafood - live Sri Lankan crab was used (you can see a tank of the feisty creatures outside the restaurant!). The flavors in the sauce are bold, but somehow do not at all overwhelm the crab meat, which remains juicy, tender, and naturally sweet, shining through and in perfect counterbalance with the fiery black pepper sauce.
Yes, it took a lot of work (as with any crab) to get through all that shell to extract the meat, but it was all worth it. My parents again refrained as neither of them are into crab - so I got the whole thing to myself!
Another dish that I was tipped off not to leave Singapore without trying, was Char Kway Teow. I was so stressed out at work prior to the vacation though, that I didn't have time to do much research on anything, and so it was that when the server asked if we wanted sauce in the noodles, I just went ahead with it. Apparently the usual way to have Char Kway Teow is to have it dry and wok-fried. The preparation of the dish we got basically involved wide rice noodles in a brown, starchy broth with shrimp, rings of squid and kai lan. I liked the flavors of the broth with the noodles, which kind of reminds me of Chow Fun but milder tasting with a lot more sauce; however the seafood did not taste fresh and were a bit overcooked (the shrimp tasted a few days old and not very flavorful).
All in all, the meal came out to a total of $80 SG (~$64 USD) so it wasn't that good of a deal. Though Black Pepper Crab was the only noteworthy item at Da Dong out of the dishes we had - that alone did make the meal unforgettable. After lunch, we popped upstairs just to check it out: the space looks more formal, like it's for banquet dinners, or spillover as needed, with large windows overlooking the sea of humanity in the street market below - the better for people watching in a more serene setting, above the fray.
There were many other dining options, with popular ones set right into the street market. Will have to try these next time we're in town (there are so many things still to taste in Singapore!)
Just before leaving the area, we spotted along its fringes an elaborate skyscraping tower of Indian deities, which turned out to be a part of the Sri Mariamman Hindu temple. We didn't have enough time (or any idea how to get in) to check it out, but it did spark us on our last day to spend the last hour strolling through Little India.
We've never been to India, so Singapore's Little India was in a way just a little taste for us of the local Indian street culture - and we had just an hour so unfortunately it was a quick stroll through. But it was easily accessible by MRT (Singapore's subway system) - just get off at the appropriately named Little India station - and we loved the street vendors with the flower garlands...
Then of course we had to stop by the closest hawker food center (Singapore is famous for its collections of street food stalls in giant cavernous warehouse like spaces all over the city - which serve amazing food at incredibly low prices). Wonderful smells greeted us from every direction - I'd read about the famous fish head curry and was on a mission to find one.
Unfortunately it was nowhere to be found - and with the clock ticking it was all I could do to drag myself away from the giant vats of saffron rice, all kinds of curries and naan...but I guess all the more reason to return to Singapore, and soon, right?
[For other photos and stories from our Singapore trip, check out the album on my Facebook page!]
Da Dong (by Fatty Weng)
39 Smith St., Chinatown, Singapore 058952
Ph: +65 6221.3822