Street sweets hidden treats

Mr Lee Ah Kwong, 78, preparing mango and pineapple flavoured ting tang candy outside Ghim Moh Market while chatting with a boy.

SINGAPORE - Slip past heavy wooden doors and a courtyard, then sip iced strawberry green tea from a 1920s champagne glass in a teahouse. Search for a ting tang candy uncle in the heartland, and enter a speakeasy with a password.

Hip or humble, secret or secluded eateries spice up the mosaic of menus in Singapore.

When I walk down Yong Siak Street in Tiong Bahru, I feel compelled to soak up the atmosphere, gazing everywhere - the old curry rice shop, the trendy bistros, the fat cat that sits on piles of books in the kitschy bookshop.

It's almost local hipster sacrilege if I don't.

Truth is, I know that street because I have checked it out as a food writer - it is my job to know new restaurants and what's on the menu.

Yellowed with age

But one shop unit at the start of the street has long intrigued me. Its bold blue 1960s-style shutters with curvilinear ventilation grills are mesmerising and I often find myself slowing down to peek in.

Its white paint has yellowed with age, and there is a large altar. Is it a temple, perhaps a secret meditation spot?

Turns out, it is the administration office of Peng Kee, a second-generation, family-owned noodle manufacturer and supplier.

Those in the know, long-time customers mainly, go there to buy everything from springy mee pok to smooth wonton skin.

I ask if I can buy some noodles. A pack of 200 wonton skins and a bag of mee kia, please.

But not all delish foods are hidden behind doors.

Elsewhere in Tiong Bahru, an aroma of char signals the arrival of the elusive satay man who hawks freshly grilled skewers of pork from a bicycle cart.

And you may also hear the nostalgic tinkering of tools as Mr Lee Ah Kwong, 78, chips his slab of ting tang candy into bite-sized chunks.

Mr Lee, a retired road sweeper who lives in Circuit Road, traipses around the island and has been plying his candy trade on streets from Jurong to Hougang since 1963.

Like a nomad, he lugs around his 8kg custom-made aluminium box of hard candy and a wooden stand.

Today, the bachelor has made his way to Ghim Moh to peddle candy in pineapple and mango flavours.

His wrinkled face scrunches up and he waves dismissively when I offer to help him carry the box or stand.

His arm muscles taut from the weight of the box, he speaks in Mandarin as he shuffles past some shops: "I can manage, it is not heavy. I used to make twice as much candy in my younger days."

The ting ting of his hammer and chisel can be heard over the clatter of the food centre, attracting customers aged two to 92.

I feel sorry that he has to sell candy twice a week to afford medication for diabetes and a chronic cough.

A small packet of candy costs $1. I offer to buy five. He refuses to take my money and instead gives me pineapple candy for free.

I consider shoving $5 into his money pouch but decide not to, knowing it will hurt his pride.

Whimsical mix

The whimsical mix of old and new breathes life into ageing neighbourhoods.

But sometimes I feel more than a tinge of sadness when old vendors make way for young entrepreneurs. While the new testifies to Singapore's speedy progress and mirrors trends and cultures overseas, the old is our precious heritage.

I see a melding of old and new in Eng Kong Garden, a sleepy estate off Upper Bukit Timah Road. Round the corner from a swanky vet clinic are a traditional coffee shop and zi char stall.

Farther up the shophouse row is an air-conditioner business that presumably repairs or collects decommissioned units that are stacked outside its doors - an eyesore to some, but oh-so-cool to others. Myself included.

At the end of the row is Necessary Provisions, a two-month-old artisanal coffee joint and roastery owned by former pilot and avid cook Goh Puey Hang, 41. His partner Darren Chang, 33, also runs local coffee roaster Smitten.

It is a place where you can enjoy iced coffee - espresso cubes topped up with milk - and a plate of wholesome fried bee hoon, while flipping through the FT Weekend.

Their old-school bee hoon dish, with slivers of french beans, julienned carrot and a hearty slice of luncheon meat, is what many of us grew up eating. The version here is as authentic as it gets - Mr Goh's housewife mother, 65, fries it on the premises every Saturday morning.

The owners have tried to keep the space welcoming and unpretentious, much like an extension of their living rooms.

A couple of hipsters walk in, and sipping coffee at another table are older gentlemen in their 60s, conversing animatedly in Cantonese.

But an oasis need not be nestled in a neighbourhood or somewhere "ulu" (remote). Along busy Hoot Kiam Road near River Valley Road, there is a row of Peranakan shophouses. One of them stands out - a red banner draped over the lintel and a plaque next to heavy wooden doors that reads cryptically: Tea Bone Zen Mind.

The tea specialist shop relocated here from Seah Street two years ago. A tea sampling session here, limited to 12 people a day, is by appointment only.

I press the buzzer. The lion-head door knobs roar at me, and the doors open ever so slightly. Through a courtyard with a koi pond and potted plants, I walk into the shophouse where I must remove my footwear.

Its owner Carrie Sim, 44, is a tea consultant who blends tea and sources fine tea implements, from pots to feathers that dust away ash.

I sip a Shan Ling Xi oolong tea from Taiwan. It is round and refined, but its flair and elan is unfamiliar to me.

A good tea, Ms Sim says, should not irritate and is not fanciful. It should be simple in taste and texture, but be elegant and satisfying.

I get the drift, but do not fully understand what she says until I take another sip, this time with some food. The flavour and freshness of the tea intensifies. It is bright and full.

My next secret journey takes me to an art space in Keong Saik Road. It is dubbed The Library, named for its first art installation - a library of art books.

The space has just been converted into a grooming salon. Gone are the books.

Behind this art space lies an exclusive watering hole - so snooty, it doesn't even have a name.

Utter the weekly password (ask the restaurant next door) and a concealed door in the salon opens.

I enter a mirrored room with red lighting, where Cantonese opera plays. Push through another door, and I see an intimate, dimly lit space accented with quaint lamps and dark wood.

Poised drinkers sit at a copper-panelled bar, chatting over fancy cocktails and unobstrusive indie music. Pretentious factor: High. Thank God I am wearing high heels today.

I drink first from a goblet. Then I scoop some punch from a mini bathtub, with a rubber duckie floating in it. I bite into a charred marshmallow that dangles above a rum cocktail that arrives in a barrel festooned with bio-hazardous tape.

The first time I leave this bar, I almost trip. You see, while you enter the speakeasy from the main road, to exit, you walk through a bulky velvet curtain and out into a pitch-dark alley that would be deserted if not for the scurrying rat or scuttling cockroach. I have to walk 30m to the main road.

Too bad the bar has done away with that.

Bar-goers now exit through the same secret passage they enter.

But once, while walking in the back alley, someone ahead of me trips and goes flying.

Ouch. One too many drinks?

Don't worry, I won't tell. That secret is safe with me.

rltan@sph.com.sg


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