Tatler Tours: Willin Low Takes You Around Kampong Glam | The Best Food, Activities And Spots
When we asked chef Willin Low to share with us his recommendations on where to go in Singapore, nostalgic experiences that rekindle old memories peppered his neighbourhood guide. The second episode of Tatler Tours sees us going around the neighbourhood of Kampong Glam—an area the Singaporean mod-sin chef has been frequenting since his National Service days. Following the launch of our series with newly-minted MP Jamus Lim, who took us around the neighbourhood of Anchorvale, Sengkang, we continue our initiative to get local residents reacquainted with this city that we call home.
(Watch Episode 1 of Tatler Tours: Jamus Lim Takes You Around Anchorvale, Sengkang | The Best Food, Activities and Spots)
Kampong Glam, which is historically known as a Malay enclave, is filled with sites that still make Singapore's oldest urban quarter unique today. But beyond the trendy boutiques and bustling dining spots—from Middle Eastern cuisine to watering holes—Low guided us on a trail where we discovered lesser-known landmarks that make up the fabric of this heritage neighbourhood that harkens back to our country's olden days.
Watch the video below:
1/5 Beach Road HDB Cluster
Located along both Beach Road and Crawford Street is a cluster of HDB blocks that is home to some of Singapore's oldest shops. A quick gander in the area and you will find Adi Barber, a barbershop at Block 4A. The owner, Adi, has been working as a barber since 1967, starting out at Seah Street. Low chanced upon the area during his earlier strolls around the neighbourhood and had always felt a warm welcome by the residents and shopkeepers there.
"When I travel, I love to see the place through the eyes of a local, but when I'm in Singapore, I love to see it through the eyes of a tourist," he shared. "This neighbourhood has that kampong spirit where I can easily walk in and talk to people. I mean, where else can you find that in Singapore?"
Walk a few steps down from Adi Barber, and you'll find a number of convenience stores selling everyday homeware items and knick-knacks as well as Sembawang Confectionary, a traditional cake shop that opened in 1968. Their cakes will remind you of yesteryear, including the iconic "traffic light cakes" that come slathered with coloured stripes of jelly and a thick layer of buttercream—just like how it was sold back in the '60s.
But since our chef does not typically have a sweet tooth, it's the savoury luncheon meat and curry buns that he goes straight for whenever he drops by this store.
"In the old days, establishments like Sembawang Confectionary served two purposes. First and foremost, it is a bakery; and secondly, it's a cake shop. These days, they thrive separately as different businesses."
2/5 Heap Seng Leong
Breakfast in Singapore is an exciting affair as it is a marriage of different wonderful flavours. He offered: "I can have roti prata (Indian flatbread) or chai tow kway (fried carrot cake) and wash it down with chin chow (grass jelly drink), soy milk, or even coffee."
Aside from that, a classic Singaporean breakfast includes a stack of kaya and butter toast, soft-boiled eggs, and your beverage of choice. The full works would also typically include a cup of kopi (coffee) as Low mentioned, or teh (tea), depending on your preference.
It's a little unnerving when you see a layer of fat floating on top of your coffee, but my Dad says that the reason why people added butter to their coffee was because it was seen as luxurious! It showed that you have arrived and could afford to add butter (a pricier ingredient) in your coffee!
As we witness a growing number of neighbourhoods transform to meet the demands of modern society, traditional coffee shops are a dime a dozen. Lucky for us (and those with a penchant for nostalgia), Heap Seng Leong—an iconic coffee shop that has been in operation since 1974—is widely regarded as one of our city's most valued pieces of real estate.
(Related: Mod-Sin Champions Willin Low and Annette Tan Collaborate to Showcase Their Creative Takes on Singapore Heritage Food)
Take a step into the coffee shop and you'll be reminded of Singapore's nostalgic past: plastic biscuit jars, gold metal tins of coffee beans, a bright orange payphone that you used to see around the island in the '80s and '90s—and even an abacus that the owners still use to tally up the tab. It is almost as if time has stood still in this quaint establishment and everyone's invited to experience a piece of it. It continues to be run by a father-son duo at the helm, both of whom are steadfast in dishing out local favourites from their humble "open concept" kitchen.
For a truly authentic experience at Heap Seng Leong, order the kopi gu you, a drink that is literally what it means in Hokkien: coffee with butter. It rarely appears on menus these days, so it's a must-try.
3/5 Thai Supermarket
Miss weekend trips to Bangkok? A visit to the Thai Supermarket in Golden Mile Complex will make you feel as if you're back in the city of lights. The supermarket is located within the hub of what we deem "little Thailand" and it boasts a plethora of Thai specialities and spices that are known to this part of the world, and stocks a variety of produce and ingredients that forms the foundation of Thai cuisine.
Upon entering, you'll be greeted by stalls selling snacks that are commonly found along the streets of Bangkok—that's right, we're talking delectable desserts and sumptuous banana fritters are unbelievably crunchy. "Unlike the banana fritters in Singapore, the bananas used here are not entirely ripened. This adds acidity and a slightly sour taste to balance the sweetness of the batter," shares Low.
On his regular trips to this supermarket, Low walks around with a basket in hand and makes sure to pick up a couple of essentials: Thai jambu, a bell-shaped fruit that tastes similar to that of an apple; pea eggplants, a common ingredient found in Thai curries and harvested from Thai household gardens; fresh baby corn that is a better alternative to canned ones; green peppercorns (a staple in Low's kitchen); and bamboo shoots, often found in savoury Teochew soon kueh.
We watched as Low reached for a packet of kafir limes during the tour and he professed that the fruit is one of the most underrated ingredients in Southeast Asia. "If you could smell it, the citrus notes will remind of you a spa in Bangkok," he continued. "And all you need is to grate the skin or use the leaves to add a new dimension to curries, salads, or even a cocktail."
The items found in Supermama, an independent homegrown design and gift shop located on Beach Road, include porcelain homeware and objets d'art that brings together local design and Japanese craft seamlessly. The store's signature collection featuring Singapore icons won them the President's Design Award in 2013, and since then, it has been consistently evolving to include newer landmarks such as Jewel, the Asian Civilisations Museum and National Museum of Singapore.
"I use plates from Supermama in my restaurant because they embody the same principles as I do. The first series that we used had all the icons of Singapore and you can find them in our omakase dining experience at Wild Rocket," Low shared.
Taking centrestage in the store is the brand's Altruistic Alphabet Porcelain collection that was created in collaboration with Touch SpecialCrafts, a programme under the non-profit charity organisation Touch Community Services. Of the 26 designs, the letter J for Joy stood out to Low the most. He said: "The concept of joy is different from happiness. Joy is something that comes from a deeper place, that even in the worst of circumstances, you still feel joyous."
Design enthusiasts can also look forward to designing their own porcelain pieces at the flagship store. Guests can choose their favourite design and stick them on a cup, sauce dish or plate.
(Related: Shop On Tatler Homes Curates: 9 Singapore Art and Home Products Brands at Our New Online Store)
5/5 Heng Long Teochew Porridge
Located at the junction along North Bridge Road is Heng Long Teochew Porridge, a supper spot frequented by regulars and one of Low's favourite places to hit up after a long day at work. He picked a a variety of savoury side dishes that are packed with flavour and texture to accompany his steaming bowl of porridge.
From braised pig intestines and hae bee hiam (spicy dried shrimp sambal) to minced pork with black beans and clams—each dish is comforting and will satisfy late-night cravings.
The restaurant is large enough to have both indoor and outdoor seats, so depending on your preference, enjoying your porridge on the spot shouldn't be a problem.
"It's one of my favourite spots to go to after a long day of work because it's exactly the kind of food that I desire," Low enthused.