If there is one place that bleeds “singaporean heartland”, it has to be Albert Centre.
A 3-storey food and provision centre sits around the back of Bugis street, its main lane now populated with red tarp tents as makeshift stalls, eager vendors desperate to clear off Chinese New Year goods before the long festive holiday.
It was just after 2pm when I climbed up the steps entering Albert Centre, many tables now left with food scraps, styrofoam plates, cups and utensils; the obvious aftermath of war between the lunch crowd.
In the corner, a thin, hunched little old lady stood with her armour- a flimsy rubber apron and dish trolley, ready to tackle the battlefield. Her hands swiftly swiped scraps into a bin.
Even though it wasnt peak period, the centre was still full of movement. Many stalls were closed for the Chinese New Year, however some were still open and with God’s blessing, I was able to satisfy my afternoon hanger with some of Singapore’s most nutritious hawker dish- fish soup (鱼片汤).
Angel Horse Fish Soup- okay the stall name is a little bit strange, but I assure you that they serve fish, and only Batang fish, in light broth, complemented with egg tofu, crisp lettuce, bitter gourd and seaweed.
I’d opted for the medium portion, which cost me 5 dollars. But it was 5 dollars for a huge bowl of soup, very generously filled with large, silky, succulent hunks of fish slices. The soup was the real winner; sweet from the essence of good quality Batang.
And as usual, yo’ girl cannot survive without her chilli, and what I love about this place was that it served small cut red chillis in Teochew bean sauce (tau jio), in place of regular soy sauce.
After the late noon feeds, I knew I had to venture upstairs, where one would find scoop-and-weigh provision shops, selling all sorts of traditional chinese sundried goods, nuts and lollies from my childhood for a price per kilogram.
The lift door opened and i’m not going to lie-I expected to step into chaos, but the shops were emptier than I was mentally prepared for. This was strange, it is usually crowded, but I guess times are tough this year, and the New Year businesses have slightly slipped.
Nevertheless, the floor was still speckled with pistachio shells, ginko nut shells and various bits and pieces of rubbish left by customers coming by and conveniently poppin’ a couple of nuts and seeds as they shopped- it was free sampling after all.
These shops aren’t your usual scoop-and-weigh however, and there certainly arent any machines to print neat little labels for your package.
No, the provision shop seemed to run solely on human precision and accuracy, and usually one or two main servers held the shovel, very quickly dealing out packs of products, accurate to the nearest gram.(there was 1 single weighing scale wedged between the sellers, and they werent as frequently consulted)
The entire shop was an artist’s paint palette; and each plastic sack was a well on the palette, filled to the brim with vibrant colour from dried goods- somehow ordered and grouped systematically.
All the bright reds, yellows and oranges seemed to be sweet, mainly used for sweet soups and desserts; chinese red dates, rose candies, dried persimmons and crystalised rock sugars.
The deep purples and greys were varieties of dried sour plum and prunes, ready to be consumed like candy.
It was a damp, musty, yet fruity smell, somewhat like an old cupboard. But it was a subtle sort of scent, one that didn’t abuse your nostrils.
I shuffled my way across the tight walking paths within the store (squeezing past a couple of nosy old ladies who were haggling), and found its savoury side- the colour scheme now more dull and organic.
There were all sorts of sea creatures, exotically wrinkled and preserved with salt. Alien-like dried squid were stacked in a pile, brittle and stringy, its dried beaks flat and tentacles curled from dehydration.
Millions of shiny eye balls stared straight back as me as I looked into the plastic sack filled with dried anchovies(Ikan Billis).
Boxes of dried shrimp stacked next to each other, bright orange and redolent of an oddly delicious, salty scent that I slowly savoured.
The dried aquamarine life didnt seem to end-scallops, octopus tentacles, fish maw, all the incongruent odds and ends that contribute complexity and completion to the Chinese cuisine like the ornamental star to the top of a Christmas tree.
I made a little loop around and arrived back at the front of the shop, where there was a healthy collection of nuts, seeds and beans, assorted snacks, and medicinal and herbal condiments.
The tid-bits garnered most attention from housewives and elderly customers, purchased in bulk as the finishing touches to the Chinese New Year gatherings to come for the next week.
From bright green wasabi broad beans to roasted almonds, from lucious honey cashews to bbq walnuts and sunflower kernels, from bite sized crispy chicken floss dumpling to prawn floss rolls..
I, (like every other customer present) also couldn’t resist ‘casually’ picking at everything with my index finger and thumb, taste buds joyfully stimulated by the sweet, the salty and the spicy.
I left Rochor that evening with a warm feeling (it wasn’t the heat, it was raining). I strolled down the main lane of Albert Centre with a 300 gram bag of wasabi broad beans in hand, satisfied at rediscovering nostalgic smells and flavours.
This was something that the Singaporean heartland had to boast, it was quirky, unwonted and abnormal. I couldn’t help but smile.