SINGAPORE (Aug 6): Street snacks consistently rank among some of the nation’s most beloved foods. But traditional, authentic versions are increasingly difficult to find. Here are some to try before they vanish altogether:
Putu piring, Haig Road Hawker Centre
Aisha Hashim’s great-grandmother first started selling these soft rounds of steamed rice flour filled with palm sugar in the 1940s on Syed Alwi Road. Four generations later, Aisha is keeping up the family tradition. She and her husband, Nizam Iskandar, now run a total of four shops across the island. The Haig Road stall is the best known.
The business was in trouble some years ago. Aisha had spent six years as a pastry chef in the US when she received a call from her parents informing them that they needed to close their stall. She returned to Singapore, helped her parents relocate and took over the operations.
Keeping things going is tough. The couple work 12 to 16 hours a day. Although some of the ingredients are processed in machines at a central kitchen, each putu piring is still freshly made by hand and tastes true to tradition.
Vadai, Dunman Food Centre
Gina’s Vadai was born of love. Gina’s husband, James Rajan, loved vadai so much that he came up with his own recipe. In 1987, the couple set up a stall in Geylang Bahru selling these lentil fritters. It developed a following and came to be known as Geylang Bahru vadai.
The business moved around a bit over the years, to MacPherson Food Court, Simpang Bedok, East Coast Road, Suntec City and Carlton Restaurant. But James died suddenly from a heart attack in 2009 and the vadai recipe was lost. Following the closure of Carlton Restaurant in 2014, Gina took a two-year break from the business before relaunching it at the Dunman Food Centre.
Gina has recreated James’ recipe with the help of her son, Daniel. In addition to the traditional version, her stall also offers modern variations, including tofu vadai, a nasi lemak-inspired vadai with peanuts and ikan bilis, and a popular crabstick and cheese vadai.
Kueh lapis, Chong Wen Ge Café
The Chong Wen Ge Café is named after Singapore’s first Chinese school, set up in 1849 at the very location that the café occupies today. Located next to the Thian Hock Keng Temple on Telok Ayer Street, it is often mistaken for being part of the temple complex. In fact, it serves decently priced Peranakan food and a small selection of Nyonya kueh.
Among them is the nine-layered rice cake, known locally as kueh lapis or jiu ceng gao. The Peranakans are descendants of Chinese immigrants who assimilated themselves into Malaya and Indonesia and married locals. These steamed cakes reflect this assimilation, incorporating local flavours such as coconut milk and pandan.
All the kueh at Chong Wen Ge are prepared fresh daily and run out quickly. The café shares its space with a tile gallery opened by Peranakan tile enthusiast Victor Lim, one of the founders. On the floor above is a music box museum.
Pang Susie, Mary’s Kafe, BS Bendeemer Centre
Mary Gomes’ The Eurasian Cookbook has had at least four print runs — not bad for a former public affairs planning executive at local bank DBS. The experience, as well as the encouragement of friends who enjoyed her food, motivated her to open Mary’s Kafe in 2008. It is today a well-known establishment among the tightly knit Eurasian community here.
The restaurant serves a range of traditional Eurasian curries and other dishes such as Fish Chuan Chuan and Shepherd’s Pie. The menu changes daily, but you can usually look forward to signature sweets and pastries such as Sugee Cake and Pang Susie. The latter is a savoury meat bun that has puréed sweet potato worked into the dough.
Gomes got her Pang Susie recipe from a Canossian nun in Melaka. The bun is actually a Eurasian Christmas treat, and the recipe in Gomes’ cookbook certainly calls for some festive ingredients: nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, brandy and dark caramel sauce.
Ah Yee’s Soon Kueh
After eight years selling her soon kueh at the Dunman Food Centre, Tay Lee Tiong closed up her shop because it was just too much work. And she had thought it was for good. But after years of receiving calls from people who remembered Tay’s soon kueh with so much fondness, her son Jeffrey Goh quit his job in banking to reopen Ah Yee’s Soon Kueh at a shophouse on Tembeling Road.
Soon kueh is a Teochew snack of steamed rice flour dumplings stuffed with a jicama mixture. They originally contained bamboo shoots, which is how they got their name.
Ah Yee’s is primarily a workspace, but it also has a small dine-in area where you can watch Goh and his mother in action. They make their own soon kueh dough, cut and roll out the skins, fill them by hand and then steam them in batches.
This article appeared in Issue 842 (Aug 6) of The Edge Singapore.