Monday, 14 May 2012

geylang serai, singapore

peranakan houses near joo chiat street
rempah udang are one of many kinds of nyonya kuih (snack). they are cylinders of glutinous rice stained orange from their filling and are wrapped in banana leaves and secured with toothpicks. the rempah filling constitutes a spice paste with protein in the form of fresh and dried shrimp and ikan bilis (dried anchovies). 

nyonya is a honorific title used to refer to peranakan women. the pernakan were chinese settlers in the straits area. they married local non-muslim women and developed their own cuisine that is a cusp of chinese and malay flavours and techniques. they say that making rempah is an art as well as an essential skill for marriageable girls. as per tradition girl children learnt the art of cooking from an early age and it is said that nyonya’s can gauge a prospective daughter-in-laws rempah making skills merely by the sound of pounding.

nyonya kuih
i unwrap the lightly greasy banana leaf and bite into the cylinder. the coconut rice has a gentle sweetness and moistness. i can detect the citrusy fragrance of the lemongrass. it is unlike anything i have tasted before. there is texture from the two types of prawns, the unmistakable salty sharpness of anchovy and a soft heat from the chilli. i was sad to have left trying these to the last day and really wish i had eaten more peranakan food in singapore.

aside from its cuisine the peranakan pride themselves for their bright textiles, intricate beadwork, china and colourful houses with woodwork. there are plenty of these to be seen around geylang. i visited rumah bebe, a heritage home that gives insight into peranakan culture.

peranakan lace textiles 
peranakan china
peranakan china
after rumah bebe, i retraced my steps to  the geylang serai, one of many large wet markets in singapore. this one has been recently refurbished and is consequently much better organised than places like tekka market in little india. the design itself is quintessentially malay echoing old kampong houses. it incorporates wooden beams and latticework. the markets are busiest in the morning when the produce is fresh. geylang serai announces its strong muslim flavour through the attire of the women shoppers many of whom wear scarves. there are plenty of bright dried red chillies and ikan bilis along with fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. i bought myself discs of gula melaka (coconut palm sugar) from one of the vendors. it is evident that the shopkeepers and shoppers have an established relationship and i am told that many have open accounts as a sign of trust and loyalty. it reminded me of the time when mama would shop in bazaari (our local market in pindi) and in rana market. up until the nineties we had an open account with our local shopkeeper. what this meant was that if we were short of money or picking up items in a hurry, the shopkeeper would note the purchase in his register and tally the payment at a later day. this tradition still persists in singapore despite the rise of  supermarket and mall culture. i do wonder how long it will survive though given singapore’s journey into hyper-modernity.

stalls at geylang serai
women shopping at geylang serai
shopkeeper at geylang serai
entrance to geylang serai
as always, there is a brisk trade in the food centre and various makkan places. i pass a number of bakeries stacked with curry puffs. these popular malay snacks are a kin to savoury patties in pakistan. flaky fried pastry stuffed with fillings like mutton or spiced potato are taken with teh (pulled tea). the sweetness of the tea exaggerates the heat of the chilli. i make a brief stop at hjh maimunah restaurant. the queue extends outward from the door. a large sign announces that you should find yourself a seat before ordering, but the warning is too late as it is near the ordering area. i get a small portion of beef rendang to go.  in singapore rendang is retailed by the piece so i get a large chunk of beef. a reduction of spiced gravy redolent with coconut clings to the surface of the meat.

geylang serai was my last outing in singapore as the next day i caught a flight back to london. i do wish i had spent more time exploring the area especially by night given that it is well known as singapore’s red light district. i also wish that the heat had not dulled my appetite so much. it was hard for me to muster the ability to eat nasi padang (spicy curries with coconut rice) and other rich dishes like laksa. i have always associated these with cooler temperatures and spent most of my trip eating dim sum, a smattering of sushi and soba and indian vegetables.

1 comment:

  1. You definitely should have tried more peranakan food, it is, to me THE best mix of cultural cuisines ever. And the mix of spices is very special, very distinct from indian or thai curries and spices. That said, you did manage to eat quite a lot of what Singapore has to offer, I'm impressed!