SINGAPORE is a place that’s making a mad dash towards the future with the Lion City leading the way when it comes to everything from innovative social housing developments to something as simple as finding better ways to check luggage for an international flight.
But in a settlement that’s shiny and new there are still ways to see the old with the Chinatown Complex, which is one of the best places in the city to eat “street food”, home to a traditional “wet market” that sells everything from fresh fruit and veggies to live frogs and pickled jellyfish.
Business starts early, with the market heaving first thing in the morning and traders knocking off early afternoon when it starts to get steamy, and the Chinatown emporium is a favourite with older residents from the neighbourhood who still favour traditional ingredients.
This market, and those like it dotted around the Singapore suburbs, were busy from dawn to dusk in the days before refrigeration when nearby residents would drop in once or twice a day to buy the provisions needed to feed families.
These days Singaporeans prefer to eat out — one local tells me he only has around 60 meals at home during a year because street food is affordable, the quality high, and the choice extensive — so the market is mostly frequented by chefs and cooks seeking ingredients for hawker stalls, cafes and restaurants.
During my wander I see the white radishes used to make the tasty topping for rice water cakes, the snake-head fish favoured by folks about to go under the surgeon’s knife because traditional medicine tells them the creature has restorative powers, and the orange “fortune fruit” that give good luck to five generations of a family.
There are rare black chickens that mothers buy to make broth when little ones are sick, vegetables imported from all over the globe, miscellaneous cuts of meat stacked on wooden benches, cardboard trays of tiny dried fish, and spices ready to make local favourites like laksa and chilli crab.
There’s an abundance of dried and pickled food which is a reminder of the days before refrigeration when ingredients needed to withstand the climate while in storage but, because Singapore doesn’t grow much locally, even these items are imported ready for sale.
Wander around the basement market for a while then head upstairs to the food stalls and order something yummy — try a calamansi juice, freshly squeezed from tiny local limes, and a rice water cake from stall 02-43 — or head out to the front street and order an “uncle ice cream” from one of the gentleman pedalling a bike with box-like freeze on the side.