Five traditional Singapore bakeries, and a coffee shop, to satisfy your craving for the treats locals grew up with
From steamed coconut cakes to fresh spring rolls and breads of many kinds, Singapore’s old-fashioned bakeries and confectioneries offer a glimpse into the culinary history of the nation
Singapore’s rich culinary landscape is derived partly from the large Chinese migrant communities that settled there in the late 17th century. The old-school bakeries and confectionery shops are similar to those in Hong Kong; however, they offer a larger selection of baked and steamed goods with colourful Southeast Asian flavours.
Unlike the French, who have their boulangeries specialising in bread, and patisseries for desserts, Singapore and Hong Kong’s traditional shops combine both, selling baked goods as well as sweet confectionery that can be steamed or baked.
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Large numbers of Chinese migrants came to Singapore from Fujian province, Chaozhou and elsewhere in Guangdong province, and from Hainan, and brought with them their culinary influences. Many Hainanese immigrants were cooks on board European ships, and also worked in European households during Singapore’s colonial era, learning along the way “foreign” recipes, that included baked cakes and pastries that were very different from the Chinese technique of steaming.
Sweetlands Confectionery and Bakery
Sweetlands remains one of the few bakeries in Singapore that bake bread in traditional gas-fired ovens. Bakers also manually cut the crisp black top off freshly baked loaves.
No longer family-owned, its new proprietor continues to make home-made kaya (coconut jam) and margarine that is sold in tubs and slathered generously on their buns. In addition to making loaves of feather-light white bread, they also bake baguettes and Portuguese-style breads – crisp on the outside and cotton soft on the inside.
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Early morning yields the first batch of bread and in the late afternoon you can watch the process of bread slicing. Popular confectioneries here include the red bean paste and coconut sugar buns, as well as margarine and cream cheese buns. The shop is open 24 hours a day.
10 Kim Keat Lane, tel: +65 6253 3100
Ghee Leong Confectionery (Sing Hon Loong Confectionery)
Ghee Leong Confectionery is another bakery that’s open 24 hours a day. Using traditional baking methods, it produces more than 1,000 loaves a day. Most people come here to pick up breakfast or a teatime snack, buying the bread and having it slathered with butter, peanut butter and home-made kaya.
Service is brash and grumpy, and the queues are long, but everyone waits patiently for their turn. Popular items are the loaves of fresh white bread and sweet bread that is topped with a thin layer of caramelised sugar. Get here before noon to make sure they don’t sell out.
4 Whampoa Drive, tel: +65 6256 0878
Loong Fatt Tau Sar Piah
The tau sar piah is Singapore’s answer to Hong Kong’s signature lo poh beng (wife’s cakes). Loong Fatt serves savoury dishes and rice, but it is the tau sar piah – mung bean paste biscuits – that earned its reputation. Opened in 1948 by Lee Wang Long, the family business has continued to thrive, with his grandson Xavier Lee taking over the reins.
The mung bean paste has a sweet-savoury option where the sugar is reduced and more salt is added and mixed in with sesame seeds. What sets the tau sar piah apart from the others is their choice of buttery short crust, opposed to a dry flaky crust.
At Loong Fatt, old baking ovens powered by gas are still used in the production of their biscuits. The first batch of tau sar piah is available from 7am, and the average daily production of more than 3,000 biscuits is sold out by the late afternoon.
639 Balestier Road, tel: +65 6253 4584
Lam Yeo Coffee Powder
The Hokkien name Lam Yeo translates to Nanyang in Mandarin, meaning “South Sea”. The shop’s coffee powder business started in 1959, when Tan Thian Kang began selling the coffee beans door-to-door, before setting up shop in Balestier in 1960.
The same shop still exists today and second-generation owner Tan Bong Heong continues to roast the local coffee beans with margarine and sugar the way his father did. He says: “The formula is simple: 80 per cent beans and the other 20 per cent is coarse sugar and margarine. In those days, butter was expensive and not commonplace, so we use margarine which is made with vegetable oils.”
Apart from the local traditional powder, which costs S$1.30 (HK$7.30, 95 US cents) for 100g, Lam Yeo has kept up with the times by importing coffee beans produced everywhere from Brazil to Ethiopia under the “specialty blends” umbrella. Pick your beans and they grind them for you. Tan recommends brewing the local coffee with a coffee sock and serving it black or with condensed milk.
328 Balestier Road, tel: +65 6256 2239
This bakery and confectionery shop has been in Tiong Bahru for more than 17 years. It moved from its original Orchard Road location, where the shop was set up shortly before the start of the second world war and the Japanese occupation of Singapore.
The third-generation owners, Tan Yong Xiang and his wife, Jenny Soh, don’t remember exactly when it first opened, but have continued to bake the same recipes, as well as introduce variations of Malay and Indonesian kuehs (small pastries and cakes), to their repertoire.
They are probably best known for their Lunar New Year confectionery, Malay kuehs – shredded- coconut-dusted balls called ondeh ondeh, kueh dar dar (pandan flavoured rolled crepe filled with coconut and palm sugar) and putu ayu (steamed coconut and pandan cakes) regularly sell out. Soh’s Hainanese lineage influenced the cream cakes and puffs served at the shop.
“I remember how we were not allowed to eat the chocolate marble butter pound cakes fresh out of the oven as they were meant for sale. So we nibbled on the scraps that were sliced away before it was packed,” Soh says.
Her husband adds: “On Orchard Road, the shop was called Dong Le Yuan and popular items were the butter cream cakes, chicken pies and the Malay kuehs. My grandmother was Peranakan. In those days, we didn’t have imported cream, so all the cakes were decorated with buttercream,” he says.
Block 55 Tiong Bahru Road 1-39, tel: +65 6324 1686
Kway Guan Huat Popiah
In their two-storey shop in Joo Chiat, the Quek family still honour the traditional way of making popiah skins (paper-thin rice flour sheets used to make fresh spring rolls). Since 1938, they have been preparing the dough mix by hand and churning it with a wooden pole.
Every sheet is painstakingly made manually, giving it a texture and consistency that machinery can’t replicate. In its third generation of proprietorship, the whole family is involved; the men continue to prepare the popiah skins the same way, while the women cook the fillings from a recipe handed down from their Peranakan grandmother.
One can dine in or order DIY sets to serve at home. They have vegetarian and Sri Lankan crabmeat options, in addition to the base fillings of turnips simmered in seafood stock.
95 Joo Chiat Road, tel: +65 6344 2875
In today’s busy society, where speed and convenience ranks above all, it is heartening to see how Singapore has continued to preserve traditional ways of producing food against the modern tide. It is slow food at its best and hopefully will remain for a long time to come.