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Eating Well on Singapore's Seedy Side

By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 27, 2009

In the dark, I wended my way through a thicket of hungry-eyed men, brushing off leering looks as I focused on reaching my goal: a fluorescent white beacon coming from a slender alley behind a scruffy-looking motel.

My family and I had come to Geylang, Singapore's best-known red-light district, in search of a good time, but probably of a different sort from what the men around us were after. In the alley, we perched on greasy plastic stools, taking in the smells of wok-fried seafood and tempura eggplant as we waited for our meal to surface at J.B. Ah Meng, a little hawker-stand-style restaurant with tables set up in a grimy passageway.

Soon enough, the sounds of hawkers' flip-flops signaled the arrivals: a bed of slightly crispy glass noodles tossed with bits of cuttlefish, egg and pork, stir-fried in a sweet dark soy sauce; and a platter of crispy, deep-fried fish skins topped with a tart fresh papaya salad. But the truly unusual star of the meal was a dish of shrimp and clusters of corn kernels slathered with a thick coating of salted egg and then deep-fried. The slightly grainy salted egg crust was an intriguing and delicious juxtaposition with the plump, juicy bits of shrimp and corn. Our entire meal of four big platters (including an order of tempura eggplant) cost just under $40. Not a bad price for a few well-conceived and perfectly executed dishes that we'd remember for some time to come.

When people think of Singapore, a few things tend to come to mind: squeaky-clean malls, an iron-fisted government, a ban on chewing gum. There is a seamier side to the country, however, and the pockets where this underbelly flourishes are increasingly where you'll find some of the best meals.

Along Keong Saik Road, in a neighborhood that has housed brothels for more than a century, narrow lanes are dotted with old Chinese coffee shops known as "tze char" places, which are basic stalls that offer a variety of stir-fried dishes such as crab noodles and har jeong gai, a dish of chicken coated with prawn paste and then deep-fried. Near the east coast, Joo Chiat Road is a growing hub of cheap Vietnamese eateries selling pho and shredded duck soup that have popped up to cater to the Vietnamese prostitutes who walk the streets after dark. And in downtown Singapore's Orchard Towers, a shopping center filled with seedy bars and massage parlors whose dank corridors are heavy even at noon with the scent of furtively smoked cigarettes, there is standout Thai food to be had at places that increasingly cater both to food lovers who can afford to order a lemon grass whole fish for $10 and to the young Thai girls in fishnets looking for cheaper sustenance.

Singapore has had red-light districts since its birth: The British established them in the early 19th century to cater to the waves of young businessmen and laborers who came to the country from China, Malaysia, India and Europe, leaving their families behind, according to Mark Emmanuel, an associate professor of history at the National University of Singapore. He notes that prostitution became such a thriving industry that in the 1930s, Singapore earned the nickname "Sin galore" in the region.

In Geylang, a neighborhood that has been a well-known red-light district for decades, Singaporeans have always known that the even-numbered lorongs (which means "small roads" in Malay) are where you'll find the red-lanterned houses, while the odd-numbered ones are for unrelated enterprises. Along those roads, there's been a boom since the 1990s of late-night eating stalls that serve up a variety of fare, from noodles topped with melt-in-your-mouth-tender beef to dishes not for the faint of heart: chopped duck's necks and pig's ears that are cheap, savory and meant to go well with an ice-cold beer sipped while watching the girls walk up and down the road.

"These are the two greatest sins in the world; they go hand in hand," said KF Seetoh, a Singapore-based TV food-show host and author of a guide to the country's hawker food. "These guys who go and hunt down hookers, when they're in that mode, they don't scrimp on food and drinks. It's about eating well and living well."

On a trip to Singapore two years ago, Seetoh took me to Geylang Clay Pot Rice. We called 30 minutes ahead to order the signature dish of piping-hot clay pot rice, filled with waxy Chinese pork sausage, chicken and salted fish, then doused with vegetable oil and sweet, molasses-like soy sauce and tossed bibimbap style. But the dish that I would wax lyrical about for months afterward was the soft-shell crab, which was chopped into pieces, breaded with a mixture of spices, deep-fried and topped with a generous sprinkling of chilli padi, a tiny, flaming-hot, fire-engine-red pepper.

Remembering that meal with great hunger, I asked Seetoh on a recent trip back, "Where to now?" And we drove to Rochor Beancurd House, a place that makes a deliciously comforting dessert of silky-smooth warm bean curd. The Portuguese egg tarts -- which differ from those in most Chinatowns because of their sweet, caramelized topping -- also were a must-try.

The next day, I trekked to Joo Chiat Road for a late lunch. In midafternoon, the food stalls along the several-blocks-long street were slowly waking up. After prowling some somnolent coffee shops, my family and I stopped at the Beef House, a little place whose house-made, springy beef balls have made it a draw. The balls are served with noodles done in the style of the Hakka Chinese who first immigrated to Singapore from Southeastern China in the 19th century. The soup version is similar to Vietnamese pho, while the dry version features noodles and beef balls drenched in a gummy gravy that's both sweet and beefy but also thick with the flavor of spices such as star anise.

Though the noodles were delicious, it was a neighboring food stall, Kway Guan Huat, that stole the show with its popiah, a Chinese summer roll filled with a host of ingredients including crab, sauteed turnip, fish paste, lettuce and chili sauce. The stall has been selling popiah since 1938 and remains a place Singaporeans from all parts of the island are willing to drive to just for a summer roll.

There are drawbacks to dining in such establishments: If you are a woman and you're wearing heels or anything fairly dressy, you're likely to be given the hairy eyeball and perhaps even propositioned. There are dangers for men, too.

Chef Willin Low, who owns the upscale Wild Rocket restaurant in Singapore, said he often eats in Geylang on nights when he's not cooking. On a recent trip, he parked along a particularly dark and seedy road because he couldn't find a space anywhere else. "As I was walking from my car to the main road, this car full of friends from church stopped and said, 'Um, Willin, what are you doing here?' " he said.

Not all stalls are cheap: Sin Huat Eating House, which Anthony Bourdain recently included on his list of "13 Places to Eat Before You Die" for Men's Health magazine, serves up heavenly crab noodles that come with massive claws and legs that will keep you busy for quite a while. But those crab noodles, a main dish that would probably serve a family of three at the most, will set you back nearly $80. The place also has an especially bare-bones setting, even by coffee-shop standards: On the night we went in June, the restaurant's lights would periodically flicker and go dark for several long seconds before coming back on. Our table by the grimy, greenish fish tanks also offered us front-row seats to the sweaty cooks reaching into the tanks up to their armpits to scoop out shellfish whenever a customer placed an order.

It can be hard not to be affected by the plight of your fellow customers. On a recent trip to Cafe Supunsa in Orchard Towers, my friends Jeanette and Eudon and I ravenously attacked garlicky chicken wings, basil chicken, a massive hotpot of deliciously sour tom yum soup and a spicy salad of julienned papaya topped with crackling dried shrimp and roasted peanuts. As the hunger subsided, we suddenly became aware of our surroundings.

The waves of weary young girls wearing too little clothing and too much makeup were ceaseless. Purposefully, they would stop in for a quick meal, a respite in their nightly onslaught. Suddenly we felt a bit guilty about our relative good fortune, and our food euphoria began to wear off.

Avoiding one another's eyes, we quietly paid our bill and left.

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is a freelance writer whose food memoir, "A Tiger in the Kitchen," will be published in 2011. She blogs at http://www.atigerinthekitchen.com.

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