Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Tiong Bahru Market: The Saturday Sessions

Eyes closed, bed-head firmly on and still in my pyjamas. I float past the hawker stalls at Tiong Bahru Market, each one conjuring an image in my mind: dark green pyramids gradually morph into bak chang, white spheres form fish balls, and striped half-moon shapes and yellow swirls change into a steaming bowl of Hokkien prawn mee. What to have for breakfast? How long will the queue for Pork Rib Prawn Noodle be today?

My slumber is interrupted by my fiercely growling stomach. My eyes crack open to see 09:31. Aargh! Better hurry lest Stanley be sold out of chickens! I run through the shower, pull on my best shorts and t-shirt combo and manage to motivate my bag-carrier (also known as my husband) to accompany me.

First up: shopping. We visit #01-171 - Stanley's Fresh Chicken & Duck Suppliers - and are lucky to get his last kampong chicken, which I will later convert into a fabulous kari ayam using the spices recommended by Stanley’s wife. Next up, we select our pick of the day’s fresh fish from the couple at #01-134. They recommend a bright-eyed white pomfret for steaming with ginger and spring onions and some purple-speckled squid for deep-frying with salt and pepper. We complement our protein purchases with hand-picked organic vegetables, fresh coconut milk and a variety of sauces and spices from the stalls in the outer ring.

Reward time: eating. Bag-laden, my husband clambers onto one of the escalators reminiscent of a sweeping staircase in a grand mansion. This way to food heaven. The humid air is heavy with a melting pot of fragrances: fried garlic, shallots and ginger; boiling chicken stock; and roasted meats. The clang of metal pots and the sizzle of hot woks can just be heard over the hawker’s cries of “ni yao submoke? / what do you want?”; “chilli?”; and “having here?” mixed with the excited chatter of the diners.

We chope our seats with our shopping bags and wander off as hunter-gatherers on a mission to secure the best breakfast item. By now, it’s near 11:00 so anything goes and the more chilli, the better in my book. The first decision in the process is ‘rice or noodles?’ and once that’s been established, deciding whether you’re in the mood for seafood, meat or just vegetables will help you narrow down your choice to a handful of stalls. Next, quality of chilli or chilli sauce is vital if you are partial to a bit of ‘zing’ and finally, the size of the queue relative to your hunger will determine your selection.

On this day, my husband plumps for his ‘usual’. The queue at #02-72 - Yuan Ji Fishball Noodle - is perennially long due to a mixture of popularity and the physical limitations of how fast an uncle’s hands can boil noodles and fish balls, add chilli, mix the sauce, throw in some pork scratchings, and sprinkle a few sprigs of coriander.

Meanwhile, I have joined the marginally shorter queue for my favourite dish at #02-82 - Tiong Bahru Boneless Chicken Rice. This is, in my humble opinion, the best chicken rice in the market; succulent chicken, tasty soup, and fragrant rice comes with a side of preserved vegetable. I plump for the upsized portion. It was a hard week in the office. I douse my rice with a generous helping of their divine chilli sauce to set my palate on fire and I meander back through the crowds to our table.

Ten lip-smacking minutes later, we are sipping thick dark coffee from #02-03 – Kopi Museum – and fresh velvety soya bean from #02-69 - Teck Seng Soya Bean Milk. The beasts in our bellies have ceased their growling and we are nearing the edge of a food-induced coma. We gather our bags and waddle towards the exit, stopping at #02-18 - Tiong Bahru Pau - to grab some egg custard tarts for our afternoon snack.

We pass the amusing red clog wearing uncle at #02-38 - Tiong Bahru Roasted Pig Specialist - who gives us a wave and a toothy grin as he shouts, “When you next time come buy pig?” “Soon, soon!” I reply, as I make a mental note to fix the date for our next roasted suckling pig party.

We exit the market into the hot sun and scurry for the cover of the five foot way. We glimpse the queue at Loo's Hainanese Curry Rice (57 Eng Hoon Street #01-88) and agree that we will forgo our usual market breakfast the following day for a Sunday session of sampling the curry that famously takes three days to make. Almost at home, we pass Le Le Pot (58 Seng Poh Road #01-23) and decide that we will treat our friends to a sumptuous steamboat feast next week.

We clamber up the stairs and fall effortlessly onto the sofa. From the window, we can see a seemingly endless stream of people, like ants on a foraging mission from their nest, heading towards the market. We sit back and relax into our post-breakfast glow and I slowly prepare myself for spending an afternoon in the kitchen cooking for the next instalment of the Tiong Bahru Tasting Club.

• Bak chang: Glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaves with a meat or bean paste filling.
• Fish balls: Balls made of fish meat that has been finely pulverized and shaped by hand.
• Prawn mee: A dish of egg noodles and rice noodles in a fragrant stock, which is made from both fresh and dried prawns.
• Kampong chicken: Free-range chicken.
• Kari ayam: Malaysian curry chicken.
• Chope: to reserve a seat, usually by placing a packet of tissue paper on it.
• Chicken rice: Steamed white chicken, cut into bite-size pieces and served on fragrant rice accompanied by a delicious garlic-chili dip.
• Steamboat: A simmering pot of stock in which a variety of fresh ingredients are cooked at the table.

1 comment:

davo said...

nothing beats southside shopping centre through...