In the recent decades, Singapore has become one of the world’s best examples of accelerated development. Our young, small country boasts one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, something that’s come rather suddenly. This could be why, perhaps, we are in a constant state of “re”: reconstruction, revamp, rebuilding and renewal. But what has been left by the wayside in the midst of our hurried stride towards the bigger and the better?
An alteration, or an extinction of a food is an obvious consequence of a reshaping of a culture. Food is a visceral thing. It’s more than just a sensation on the palate; it’s a collective experience; it’s nostalgia; it’s tradition. And it’s a shame that our once beloved snacks of ting ting candy, kacang puteh, maltose candy and dragon beard have been replaced with Frappuccinos Famous, Amos cookies and Garrett Popcorn… but I digress. Since it’s apparent that time is not on our side, we quickly searched the island for eateries that still serve some of our favourite eats from the years of yonder.
1. Butter kopi (kopi gu you)
Where: Heap Seng Leong (#01-5109 Block 10 North Bridge Rd., 6229-22368)
There’s a undeniable layer of sticky-grey that covers the walls, tables, chairs and quite frankly, everything at Heap Seng Leong. The once pearly marble tables shine no more and the grout on the floor tiles seems like it could use a good flossing. Is is old grease? Is it dust? Maybe both, and some. But it’s an oddly comforting and endearing uncleanliness. There’s an abacus on the table next to one of those chunky old orange payphones with the black spiral chords, which is strangely enough, it’s still in use. We order a cup of kopi gu you or butter coffee, a drink that didn’t quite pass on to generation X, Z or the Millennials. It’s hard to understand why. This coffee, which is whipped up by a man well into the sunset of his life, is made with condensed milk, black coffee and a small block of butter. It’s velvety, rich, sweet and creamy – delicious. As we quietly enjoy our cuppa, we hear a solo diner, a regular we reckon, yelling obscenities in our direction, “You youngsters only make trouble! We don’t bother you. I’ve been going here for years!” It’s clear that we’re not welcome, on to the next then.
2. Round house-made kaya toast
Where: Chin Mee Chin Confectionery (204 East Coast Rd., 6345-0419)
We know Katong for its laksa, but there’s a small coffee shop and bakery, Chin Mee Chin Confectionery, that we think needs more shouting about. It’s all to do with their kaya toast. From the kaya to the bread – everything is made in-house. The magic happens in the sizable open kitchen where glints of aluminum flicker in the symphony of food and drink preparations – the aluminum coffee spots, strainers, spoons, tables, pans and oversized mixers. Unlike the traditional kaya toast, the bread that frames this Singapore-favourite is circular in shape; it’s a bun. It’s super lightly toasted so that it remains fluffy on the inside; none of that mouth-scraping business found in most kaya toast. The kaya spread is less “eggy” than other popular styles and it goes perfectly with the subtle salty sensation of the melted butter. As we leave, one of the suspected owners notices our notepad and our photographer toting a heavy DSLR. “Don’t write so much,’ she says in Mandarin, “We can’t handle too many people coming here”. Proceed to visit with caution.
3. 60s-style sponge cakes
Where: LE Cafe Confectionery & Pastry (264 Middle Rd., David Elias Bldg., 6337-2417 & more)
Our go-to saccharine sins may now be sexy and exotic (macarons from Lauduree or pan au chocolat from Paul) considering our treats from yesteryear. But what about some serious old school chiffon cake? We mean the kind that’s layered with smooth buttercream frosting and that’s decorated with colourful icing that borders on kitsch. LE Cafe Confectionary & Pastry have built their brand on grandma-approved desserts like beancurd tarts and swiss rolls. But the chiffon cakes, which are sold by the slice, really get us going. There are five flavours to choose from: vanilla, chocolate, coffee, pandan and strawberry, and each are gilded with sixties-style gel frosting and over-the-top fanciful swirls. It’s no wonder this bakery has survived many decades: these cakes are moist and fluffy and the frosting isn’t jarringly sweet.
4. Ice ball
Where: Sinpopo Brand (458 Joo Chiat Rd.)
Before there was ice kachang, there existed his simpler, rounder and cheaper cousin: the ice ball. In the fifties and sixties, pushcart drink vendors would sell these mounds of shaved ice drizzled in nothing but coloured syrup and condensed milk; a simple and inexpensive treat that fit perfectly in the palm of a child’s hand. Sinpopo Brand, an eatery styled to look like an old school haunt, was opened by the folks behind Awfully Chocolate. Although this sentimental experience has been recreated, we’re not complaining as it might be one of the only places in town that still serves ice balls. Here, it’s served with slightly more bells and whistles as sweet corn, lychee jelly and attap seeds are thrown into the mix.
5. Push cart dim sum
Where: Red Star Restaurant (54 Chin Swee Rd., 6532-5266)
Dining at Red Star Restaurant takes you back to a meal shared with family perhaps forty years prior. The metal framed banquet chairs with red cushions, overly ornate carpeting and red lanterns have not been retired in place of something more modern. But all is forgiven, as it is one of the last restaurants in Singapore that serves dim sum served from a pushcart. Though they take no reservations, the lines move fast and the wait is well worth it. Come for the fluffy char siew bao, roast duck and creamy liu sha bao.
Photos by Shawn Danker unless otherwise specified