Review: Mongkok Dim Sum - 'Food that, though simple, is as comforting as it is tasty'
I feel like the notoriety of Geylang as an enclave of vice has successfully dissipated from the psyche of the citizens of this tiny island. How? Maybe with the ease at which one can alleviate pent-up sexual frustration through the use of social apps (Tinder, Grindr, OkCupid), vice has now evolved to be less a matter of geography and more an issue of spontaneity. But that doesn't completely stop Geylang from upholding its reputation as the legal Red light district of Singapore, as evidenced by my walk through Lorong 8 (even number streets are the unofficial designated lanes of prostitution activities), passing by Happy Houses lit up in flashing neon lights, men sitting at the entrance, cajoling one to enter 'and have your wildest fantasies fulfilled'.
I prefer to call it charming. Others will say it's rather ghetto-esque. But in an area where beautiful and modern condos can exist peacefully side by side with brothels, I cannot help but marvel with curious fascination at the character of this neighbourhood. Not that it's anywhere close to imitating Moulin Rouge in the area of Montmartre, but it's close enough.
Food is also why the hoi polloi descend upon Geylang in droves. Here is where you can find every type of food your taste bud can handle. The choices run the gamut from frog porridge (which a friend declared emphatically, 'No, I don't eat amphibians, Zat) to Beef Hor Fun, duck rice to bak kut teh. Naturally, Geylang is not short of dim sum houses which is what I'm here today to try at Mongkok Dim Sum; a little slice of Canton in the charming 'hood of Geylang Lorong 8.
Mongkok Dim Sum stands at the intersection between sleaze and very heavy traffic. Fortunately, it's not a blink-and-you-miss-it kind of situation; the interior walls painted a bright shade of green does not a good camouflage make. Dim sum is essentially Chinese tapas with cooking methods that run the extremes: deep fried or steamed. It is a communal dining experience, though who's to stop you from enjoying it by yourself (societal norms, that's who)?
Dim sum has its origins along the famous Silk Road where teahouses were established as a resting place for the weary. Farmers would also make their way to these teahouses for an afternoon of high tea (I assume) and mindless repartee to while the day away. These teahouses are like the Starbucks of their time. Minus the coffee, cakes, and exorbitant prices. When teahouse owners began to realise that tea aids in digestion and cleanse the palate, they began adding snacks to their repertoire and that's how dim sum was born.
So what makes Mongkok Dim Sum stand out amongst the heavily saturated dim sum food scene? After all, what's to stop you from visiting that Dim Sum institution of Singapore, Swee Choon?
I'll tell you what would stop you: the queue. Mongkok Dim Sum, apart from its twenty-four hours operating schedule, has seats that can accommodate anywhere from a small party of two to a family celebration of ten. And because of its obscurity, seats are always in abundance. For this dinner, we took our seats right by the road because we prefer to live dangerously and my friend loved herself some fresh air.
The first dish to arrive barely 2 minutes from placing our order was the egg tarts, served on a nondescript melamine. I thought the egg tarts were too unnaturally yellow. Colour aside, upon the first bite, the pastry was flaky to a fault, with a hint of salt to round off the sweetness of the egg custard. If you’re a fan of egg tarts, then this would do in a pinch, but it’s nothing to rave about.
What I do want to rave about though is this deep fried yam paste pastry with pork fillings, fried till crispy. It’s a satisfying bite from start to finish as you journey through the sweet yam-mash, to the crunchy (is that celery I taste?) filling, all amalgamated in my mouth like a sweet symphony.
As with all dim sum eateries I frequent, the taste test rests solely on the Har Cheong Gai (prawn paste chicken wing). This has been marinated in a mixture of prawn paste, sugar, sesame oil, and white pepper for four hours before it is fried until golden brown. The complication lies in ensuring the ratios of individual ingredients are balanced and that the oil is hot enough for a flash-fry while still maintaining that juicy interior. In this respect, Mongkok’s version passes the test. Eat it on its own or dip it in chilli sauce. Either way, it tastes amazing.
The Char Siew Bao (steamed sweet pork bun) is a dim sum staple, here prepared with the skin fluffy and slightly agape for the char siew to peek through. The porridge serves as a good main dish (Mongkok also sells zhi char dishes alongside dim sum), silky smooth with chunks of century egg and pieces of pork floating inconspicuously around. Here, the porridge is on the slightly bland side which is a perfect accompaniment to the richly flavoured dim sum we ordered.
Mongkok Dim Sum might fly slightly under the radar with its no frills, no fuss service in an area that might initially be off-putting. But it is one of the more underrated dim sum eateries this side of the island and I do hope it remains that way. The prices here are also extremely affordable (we paid twenty dollars each for that spread) with food that though simple, is as comforting as it is tasty.