Monday, December 30, 2013

'Makan' Memories of Singapore


Chili Crab with Toasted Mantou Sweet Buns; Required Eating When in Singapore

Having made six trips to Singapore, I can say that I've assembled a sizable collection of fond memories of my time spent in the Lion City. I can further say without a doubt and with no reservations that some of my fondest memories of Singapore involve food and eating ('makan' in the Singlish dialect). Singapore's reputation as Southeast Asia's foodie paradise is well-deserved, and has been substantiated and showcased on television by the likes of hosts Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern and Samantha Brown, generally under the sage guidance of KF Seito, the renowned local food guru and creator of the definitive resource to the Singapore food scene, the Makansutra. For Singaporeans, eating is practically a national pastime, if not a national obsession; in a country with a population as culturally diverse as Singapore's, it is the one thing that can bring people of all ethnic backgrounds and religions together at the same table (so to speak), though don’t expect them to agree on where to get the best chili crab, chicken rice, char quay teow or fish head curry.
A View of Singapore's CBD and the Riverside Seating for the Restaurants Along Boat Quay

Situated off the southern tip of the Peninsular Malaysia and roughly 88 miles from the equator, the island of Singapore was selected by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819 as the site for a new port to cement British interests in the Malacca Strait by establishing secure lines of trade with India, China and the Malay world. That geographic location would later prove to be the foundation for Singapore’s growth and development, as ambitious immigrants from the Malay Archipelago, China and India would flock to the newly-established trading post to seek their fortune. The influx of these three main ethnic groups and their cultural diversity, together with the some of the culinary traditions of the West (English and, to a lesser extent, Portuguese), would influence the early evolution of Singaporean cuisine. Traditions and techniques from Sri Lanka, the Middle East and other Southeast Asian countries would contribute a further cross-cultural influence into Singaporean cuisine. The descendants resulting from the inter-marrying of early Chinese migrants with local Malays would come to be known as Peranakans, and their particular style of cooking in which Chinese ingredients were prepared using Malay/Indonesian spices and techniques would become known as Peranakan or Nonya cuisine. Today, the traditional cuisines from most of the countries the Asian region and some in the Middle East can be found in the city-state, particularly in some of the colorful and atmospheric ethnic enclaves (Chinatown, Little India, the Kampong Glam Arab Quarter, the Katong/Joo Chiat Malaysian and Peranakan quarters), and some of the malls whose businesses cater to a particular ethnic community, such as the Filipino-centric Lucky Plaza, Thai-centric Golden Mile Complex, and the Burmese-centric Peninsula Plaza. As Singapore became an international center for commerce and finance, it saw an influx of Western corporations which established regional offices staffed with a growing number of expat businessmen and business women along with their trailing spouses and associated dependent children; hence, Western cuisine is also fairly well represented in Singapore, in both restaurant and food court stall form. Though the vibrant city-state has no shortage of world-class restaurants offering a wide variety of Eastern and Western cuisine (with the possible exception of good Mexican cuisine, of which I have it on good information that none could be found on the island, though that may have changed as of late), Singapore is perhaps best known for its hawker centers, stalls and food courts, which offer a wide variety of cuisines at very reasonable prices.
   
In the run up to our first very brief stay in Singapore while en route to Burma in March 2000, we were not aware of the city's international status as a major food destination per se. As we did not subscribe to cable TV at that time, we didn't have access to dedicated travel and food channels that might have enlightened us to Singapore's food culture (Anthony Bourdain's episode on Singapore as part of his first travel/food cable series 'A Cook's Tour' would not air until late 2002.) When I mentioned to my then-supervisor, a seasoned world traveler, that I would be spending a day and a couple of evenings in Singapore, he commented on how much he enjoyed the food while there, and suggested that we have a riverside meal at one of the restaurants at Clarke Quay. Upon hearing of our travel plans, a good friend of ours who had lived in Singapore told us that the food was quite good there, and that if we wanted dim sum for breakfast, all we had to do was walk along Orchard Road and we'd find lots of restaurants to choose from right off the street. After our long flight across the Pacific via Singapore Airlines (by far, my favorite airline based on the service provided - even in coach - and the in-flight meals), it was nearly 3 AM before we were fully settled into our tropically-scented (read mildewed) room at the Orchard Hotel and coaxed our confused body clocks to allow us some sleep so that we could start getting in sync with the local time. Around 7:30 AM we woke up groggy and hungry, and figured that we would do a bit of exploring around the neighborhood and locate some of that good dim sum hat we were expecting to find in abundance along the west end of Orchard Road. Unfortunately, the first restaurants we came across had signs indicating that they would not be open until after 11 AM. Needing something to keep hunger at bey until we would be able to sit down in a restaurant and flag down some passing dim sum carts, we started to explore our options for a quick snack. As we strolled along one of the side streets off of Orchard or Tanglin Road, we happen upon a kopitiam, which is one of the traditional Singaporean/Malaysian coffee shops that sell kopi (strong dark-roast coffee with sugar and condensed milk) and pulled tea, or 'teh-tarik', which is tea with sugar and condensed milk that is poured between pitchers that are first held closely together then as the pouring commences, are pulled apart vertically to both aerate the tea and also cool it down so it can be consumed immediately after it's brought out. The kopitiams also sell food, and in our case we selected the curry puffs, which are light and flaky pastry shells filled with savory chicken curry; I also opted for a kopi-O, which is same the rich and earthy blend of Indonesian Arabica beans sans the distraction of sugar and sweet condensed milk (it seems that when one orders black coffee in Southeast Asia, there is a high probability that it will arrive with two teaspoons of sugar in it, unless you explicitly state at least twice that you don't want any sugar added.) Perhaps owing to the degree of hunger we were experiencing, the taste was absolutely amazing (or as they would say in Singlish, 'very shiok!') and the portion size was just enough to satiate and invigorate us so that we could continue on our dim sum quest on a morning that was already humid and seemingly becoming warmer by the minute.

During subsequent visits to Singapore, I would satisfy my craving for curry puffs at the Old Chang Kee sidewalk kiosk located near the south end of Orchard road, which unfortunately had disappeared prior to our last two trips. The Old Chang Kee snack chain was founded in Singapore in 1956, and the franchise can now be found in China, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. In addition to their curry puff, called the Curry'O, a guilty pleasure of mine from Old Chang Kee was their skewered fried cuttlefish, called the Sotong OnStik ('sotong' being the Malaysian word for squid, but also used in the Singlish dialect by way of a comparison when used together with the word 'blur' to denote someone who appears to be confused or slow on the uptake, as a squid would squirt its ink into the water to obscure the view of a pursuing predator; example: "Waah! Why so blur like sotong, ah?!") With regards to savory filled puff pastries, I would be remiss if I did not extend a hat tip to the food stall at the old Budget Terminal at Changi International Airport (since demolished, with the cheap regional carriers - hat tip to Tiger Airways - now operating out of Terminal 2) for their oh-so-delicious black pepper crab puff, which I thoroughly enjoyed as a snack before queuing up for a taxi after my post-midnight arrival from Hanoi.

Whereas Starbucks was generally my go-to place for that quick cup of Joe on the run while in Singapore, no trip would be complete without a least a few visits to a kopitiam, particularly if I needed a kaya toast fix. Kaya is a jam made with eggs, coconut, sugar and pandan leaf extract, which gives it a somewhat floral aroma. It is spread on a slice of toast and topped with a thin slice of butter before a second slice of toast is placed on top; I'd usually have them leave off the butter so as to not detract from the kaya flavor. Perhaps my favorite kopitiam was the Ya Kun Kaya Toast at Holland Village. We would occasional head out to the 'ang moh'/Western expat haven of Holland Village to do some shopping or go to our daughter and son-in-law's favorite foot reflexology spa; when they would take my wife with them for an hour of reflexology (my feet are a bit too ticklish for foot reflexology, so I only go for full-body massages, preferably with back-walking involved), I would invariably go kill some time over a coffee and kaya toast at Ya Kun. During one Holland Village time-killing session, I wandered through the local wet market and was able to find a vendor stall selling whole bean coffee, and was able to pick up a particularly dark blend of Arabica beans from Indonesia that was said to make the perfect cup of kopi-O; I can confirm that, when finely ground and used in sufficient quantities, the beans do yield an exceedingly good cup of coffee. Because it was fairly close by, my coffee and kaya was most often enjoyed at the Toast Box in the Food Republic food court of the Wisma Atria Mall on Orchard Road.

Our attempt to locate the Hong Kong-style dim sum that we sought on that first morning in Singapore, which was claimed to be readily found simply by strolling along Orchard Road, did not quite pan out. We would end up settling for a small assortment of Taiwanese-style steamed dumplings at a place that we found a couple of floors up in a small shopping plaza near the corner of Orchard and Claymore Hill; though the dumplings were good, they were not what we were looking for. On our subsequent visit to Singapore in the following year, we would find the elusive dim sum that we craved in the Wah Lok Cantonese Restaurant, located inside The Carlton Hotel at Bras Basah and Victoria Road; though not likely the locals' pick for the place to go for dim sum, we were quite pleased with the quality of the food. By far, our best dim sum experiences in the city were had at Din Tai Fun, located on the fourth floor of Orchard Road's Wisma Atria Mall. The restaurant's specialty (at least for us, anyway) is the Shanghai-style 'xiao long bao' soup dumplings. The meat-filled steamed dumplings are made with broth in the form of a gelatinous chilled aspic which, upon steaming of the dumpling, melts to form a savory liquid broth contained within the dumpling's soft wrapper. To eat the xiao long bao, it is picked out of the steamer with chopsticks and placed in a soup spoon; a small bite is carefully taken out of the wrapper to allow the hot broth to drain onto the spoon for sipping, with the rest of the dumpling dipped in a mixture of red vinegar and thin threads of finely julienned ginger for eating.

Sidewalk Ice Cream Sandwich Vendor Carts on Orchard Road near Wisma Atria Mall




Turkish Ice Cream Vendor on Pagoda Street in Chinatown
The 'Five Foot Way' near the Sweet Shop in Little India
Of course, those treasured meals at Din Tai Fun were best followed up by a chocolate eclair from the Beard Papa shop in Ngee Ann City's basement food court. Another favorite dessert of ours was an ice cream sandwich  from one of the sidewalk vendor carts that could be found in abundance along the western part of Orchard Road; unfortunately, the ice cream sandwich carts were nowhere to be seen along our normal Orchard Hotel to Ngee Ann City stretch of sidewalk that we would stroll, as the vendors had been forced to relocate and consolidate onto a short stretch of 'approved' sidewalk nearer to the eastern end of the road. The vendors offered a variety of ice cream flavors running from the traditional to the more exotic that would appeal to the regional tastes. A square of the desired ice cream was sliced from a rectangular block and placed either between two thin squares of flat, crispy waffle wafers, or (as I preferred it) wrapped in a slice of soft pandan bread. As for something a bit more rich and decadent, the Turkish ice cream vendor cart on Pagoda Street in Chinatown had that base covered; dressed in colorful Turkish vest, the good-natured vendor would scoop out his product with flair, tapping in series on a row of brass bells hanging above his cart with the back of the scoop before hand the cone to the customer, and patiently posing with tourist for pictures with a friendly smile likely more times than he would care to count each day. When in Little India, the sweet of choice would be a little plastic cup containing a single chilled serving of rasmalai from the counter of an Indian sweet shop inside a small shopping arcade across from Tekka Market. Rasmalai is a popular South Asian sweet consisting of a flattened ball of paneer (a non-aged curd cheese) served in a chilled sweet cream made from milk, sugar, cashew paste, cardamom and saffron, which is garnished with finely-chopped pistachio nut and almond. The rasmalai satiated the sweet tooth without overwhelming it, with its cardamom-scented coolness seeming to both refresh and reinvigorate after a period spent strolling along the atmospheric and sometimes cluttered 'five foot ways' (sidewalks indented into the ground floor of buildings so as to be sheltered by the upper floors) of Little India, wife's shopping bags in hand, while enveloped in the oppressive afternoon heat and humidity of Singapore's equatorial environs. Of course, when one is out beyond the air-conditioned sanctuary of the shopping mall and sweating buckets, several cooling cups of rasmalai would be no match for one of the local popular isotonic sports drinks such as Malaysia's 100Plus or Japan's Pocari Sweat.



Singapore's Clarke Quay
The first really good meal in Singapore for us was that first night's al fresco dinner at Boat Quay. As we had flown on Singapore Airlines from San Francisco to Singapore and after a one-day layover would continue on to Rangoon, Burma via Singapore Airlines' sister regional carrier Silk Air, we were able to make use of the Singapore Airlines' free Hop-On bus service. The bus ran a circuit through the city, making pick-up/drop-off stops in front of a number of hotels and at selected public bus stops that would put many of the city's historic sights and other points of interest within a fairly easy walking distance. A portion of the route traveled the full length of Orchard Road, with one of the Hop-On points conveniently located near the west end of the road next to the Orchard Hotel. As we boarded, we found that we were the only ones on the bus and decided to sit up front on the seats nearest to the driver. As we made our way eastward along Orchard I struck up a casual conversation with him, delighting in hearing his Singlish and his Singaporean accent as he spoke. I mentioned that Clarke Quay had been recommended as a good place to eat, and that we thought we'd give it a try. Upon hearing this, the driver suggested that we would be much better off eating at Boat Quay, as in his opinion there would be a much better selection of food to chose from in addition to a nice view of the CBD (Central Business District) office towers across the Singapore River; when he added that the Hop-On bus makes a stop just south of Boat Quay, our minds were made up as to where we would be eating dinner that evening. The Hop-On route took us along the fringes of Little India and the Arab Quarter, past a stretch of Marina Bay and through the Colonial District, with our driver calling out the points of interest along the way. We then headed down North Bridge Road, where we were dropped off a short distance beyond the south end of Elgin Bridge, which spans the Singapore River and overlooks Boat Quay.

The View from Boat Quay Looking Upriver, with Elgin Bridge in the background
The Walkway Between the Restaurant Buildings and the Riverside Dining Area
Boat Quay's Java Restaurant, Circa March 2000

Boat Quay was formerly a collection of old, rundown waterfront warehouses and shop houses, but had since been converted into restaurants and bars offering riverside dining. We walked back to the bridge and down onto the red bricked pedestrian walkway that separates the restaurant buildings from their respective riverside dining areas set up beneath a nearly unbroken row of large umbrellas and tarpaulin canopies. We strolled along the row of restaurants, browsing among the large placards place before each restaurant's roped off seating area that displayed 'food porn'-worthy photos of each establishment's signature dishes, and the illustrated menus enthusiastically presented by the restaurant's respective hosts and hostesses, some dressed in the traditional clothing associated with the cuisine's ethnic heritage. The selection of food offerings included Singaporean, Chinese, Indonesian, Malaysian, Thai and Indian, with all of that being in just the first half of the quay that we covered. We were particularly intrigued with the food photo spread displayed by Java Restaurant, which served traditional Indonesian cuisine, and decided to give it a try. We were shown to one of the canopy-sheltered riverside tables and handed menus. We decided that we would first order drinks and an appetizer before choosing our entrees. We went with an order of combination (beef and chicken) satay, which is the skewered meat that has been marinated in savory sauce that is generally consists of chopped peanuts, coconut milk, ground turmeric, cumin and coriander spices, minced ginger and garlic, black pepper, honey and peanut oil. The skewers are grilled over wood coals, and served with sliced cucumbers and onions, and the residual marinade to be used for dipping. Having been associated with the city of Singapore since the early 1940’s, satay is said to have originated on the Indonesia island of Java, and is very popular through much of Southeast Asia.

An Order of Combination Satay from Java Restaurant
An Indian Restaurant's Hostess Showing Us the Menu
It's 'Tiger Time' at Boat Quay
Boat Quay in Early Evening, with the CBD Office Towers in the Background

Our satay order was brought out to us on a small tabletop barbeque grill containing hot wood coal, with the dripping fat and marinade giving off an amazing aroma. The taste of the satay was out of this world, particularly when washed down with a sip of cold Tiger Beer. We each ended up ordering difference entrees so that we could sample off each other. Mine was a spicy plate of mie goreng, which is yellow noodles stir fried with garlic, shallots, prawns, chicken, Chinese cabbage, tomatoes, egg and chili. It was very good, though definitely on the hot side, especially when I tried adding a little bit of the vinegary chili sauce that had been placed on the table out of curiosity (my lower G.I. tract would take issue with my choice early the next morning ahead of our flight to Rangoon.) As darkness descended fairly quickly after sunset (as it tends to do in Southeast Asia), the reflected lights of the CBD high-rises dancing on the river’s surface as it was periodically churned by the wake of a passing bum boat provided a scenic backdrop to accompany a perfect meal on a balmy evening. After the meal, we hailed a cab on North Bridge Road and did a trip up to the Singapore Zoo to check out their Night Safari, which was kind of interesting enough to justify the cab fair back to Orchard Road. In late 2001 we would return to the same restaurant, this time with some close friends who joined us for our second trip to Singapore and Burma, and they would also come to love and savor Java Restaurant’s combination satay and, among other dishes, the spicy mie goring noodles. That time around, we would order the Tiger Beer in pitchers instead of glasses, as the ‘Tiger Girls’ (one actually wearing a Heineken T-shirt) would make the rounds of the tables with a special promotion where if you buy a pitcher of Tiger Beer, you got a chance to slide down one of the girls’ opaque plastic windows on their “What time is it? It’s Tiger Time” game cards and win whatever prize was revealed behind it; we would end up leaving the restaurant with no more than a couple of Tiger Beer ballpoint pens, but at least a good time (or would that be a ‘Tiger Time’?) was had by all.

Prior to our next visit to Singapore in 2006, at which time our daughter and son-in-law had already relocated there for an extended stay and were becoming very familiar with the local food scene, we would unfortunately learn that Java Restaurant had closed, with the new tenant serving a different cuisine. Thankfully, my wife and would find a good 'Java' substitute, conveniently within easy walking distance from our daughter's place, in Tabuah Mas Indonesian; the restaurant was on the four floor of the Tanglin Shopping Center (which has a number of shops selling Buddhist and Hindu-themed Asian antiques that we both enjoyed browsing through) and served up some very good rendang beef curry. For our next Boat Quay al fresco dining experience, we would trade a riverside table for a rooftop one five stories up, and enjoy a meal of authentic Sri Lankan and North Indian cuisine at Colombo Restaurant. Their food was very good, although the portions were small given the price. As Colombo not serve beef or pork, we went with chicken and lamb curries together with some vegetable dishes, freshly-baked naan and, of course, some pitchers of cold Tiger Beer. The restaurant has both indoor and outdoor roof terrace seating; thankfully our daughter made reservations well in advance, as the rooftop seating is limited and likely tough to get, but definitely well-worth the bird's eye nighttime view of the river and the lights of the CBD if you can get it.
Outdoor Satay Vendors at the Lau Pa Sat Festival Market Hawker Center


 
The Interior of the Lau Pa Sat Festival Market Hawker Center
Outdoor Food Vendor Stalls at the Lau Pa Sat 
 
If Java Restaurant at Boat Quay was our gateway to the joys of satay, I would personally have to consider the Lau Pa Sat Festival Market hawker center (statement issued at the risk of getting flamed in the comments section) as representing the pinnacle of satay. Lau Pa Sat is located in the city's CBD and housed in a large Victorian filigree cast iron structure that was built in 1894 (the building originally housed the Telok Ayer wet market.) While Lau Pa Sat is similar to any other hawker center in Singapore (save perhaps for its size) during the day, at night it really comes into its own, making for an experience that the visiting tourist should not miss. The section of Boon Tat Road that flanks the south end of Lau Pa Sat is blocked off to vehicle traffic and filled with tables and chairs to accommodate the crowds who come to enjoy the satay that's grilled by the row of vendor stalls set up along the curb. The visit to Lau Pa Sat, with our dinner of satay, grilled stingray (the hawker center's other delicious must-try specialty) and some side-dishes from the hawker center's indoor vendor stalls, eaten while sitting around a folding table in the middle of the road, probably ranks as my favorite and most memorable hawker center experience. Before the meal, I took some time to walk around and take in the ambiance of the place, in addition to walking along the line of outdoor satay vendors to take some photos. The air was perfumed with the enticing aroma of grilling meat as countless drops of fat and marinade fell on hot coals fanned by the red-shirted satay vendors, creating a haze of sweet-smelling smoke that was illuminated by the stark white light cast from the high-watt bulbs hung beneath the vendor stalls' red and yellow umbrellas. Suffice to say, by the end of my stroll I smelt heavily of satay smoke, but I did manage to get some decent photos.

Hawker Center Vendor Stall, Circa March 2000
Hawker Stall Vendor, Geylang Serai Market
Food Court in Little India's Tekka Market





A visitor to Singapore would be remiss if they did not have a least a meal or two in one of the city's myriad hawker centers or food courts during their stay. The vendor stalls serve up excellent food representing a wide variety of cuisines at very reasonable prices. For those who have reservations about sampling new and exotic foods from street vendors in a far-away land, fear not. The food preparation conditions and food handling practices of the licensed vendor stalls are assured hygienic through regular inspections by a  Food Hygiene Officer from Singapore's National Environment Agency, with a rating system that grades each stall (A - D, with A signifying 85% or better compliance, and D signifying less the 50% compliance); the grade of each vendor stall is display in plain sight for the patrons to see as they approach the stall, with the percentage of Singapore's hawker stall and food court vendor having a grade of A or B said to be nearly 90%. The hawker centers allow one to select from a variety of the local specialties in addition to the other regional cuisines and, to a lesser extend, Western and other international cuisines. If one is unsure which hawker center or food court to try, you can ask any cab driver, shop keeper or even someone passing on the street for their personal recommendation, though everyone will no doubt have a different opinion on the best place to try, or the best dish to order. One can also consult KF Seetoh's guide book Makansutra (makansutra.com; you can also follow it on Facebook), or check out the website hungrygowhere.com. When entering a hawker center or food court, one first finds a table or, in some cases, at least some empty chairs that are confirmed vacant by the people sitting adjacent to them. The next step is to reserve the seat before going up to a stall to place an order. The accepted practice of reserving a seat is by placing a small tissue packet on the table in front of the seat (this seemed a bit odd at first), or if one does not have a tissue packet, placing an umbrella (an essential item for a visit to Singapore, given the near-regularity of brief cloud bursts in the afternoon) on the table to mark your spot; if the table is numbered, remember that number so you can tell the stall vendor where to bring your food. In The Singlish dialect, the term for reserving a seat is to 'chope' it, as in, "Eh, don't forget to chope a seat for me, ah." To decide on what to eat, one can browse among the food photos displayed above the stall's counter to see what they find appealing, or look for the stall that has the longest line and get in it, or 'queue up' as they say. When you order, give the vendor your table number or, if it's not numbered, point out where you'll be sitting. Someone from the stall will bring the food out to you when your order is ready, unless you see a 'Self Serve' sign posted. If desired, you can also order your food to go, or as the Singaporeans say, "...for take-away." Drinks are normally sold at a separate vendor stall, or bought from one of the wandering vendor carts. 

The Block of HDB Flats Across from the Kwan Yin Temple
The Hawker Center and Wet Market Beneath the HDB Flats near the Kwan Yin Temple



We didn't get a chance to try any of the hawker centers or food courts during our first brief trip to Singapore. It would be on the first in-country day of our second Singapore/Burma trip that we would experience our first Singapore hawker center visit. After another early morning arrival at Changi Int'l, this time with our two guest traveling companions accompanying us (our daughter would be flying in to meet us later the next day), it was about 2:30 AM before the taxi dropped us off in front of the Carlton hotel near the corner of Bras Basah Road and Victoria Street; we were all quite surprised to see that a hawker center on Victoria Street across from our hotel was still open and actually had a couple of customers seated at that early hour. The next morning after a light breakfast, we decided to walk up Bras Basah to Waterloo Street to see the Sri Krishnan Hindu Temple and the nearby Kwan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) Temple. Across from the Kwan Yin Temple was a block of HDB flats (a high-rise building of 'Housing and Development Board' public housing apartments) that had wet market and hawker center located at the apartment tower's base. Being curious, we wandered first through the hawker center, and then through the market's ground floor wet portion that sells fish, meats and produce, followed by the upper floor section that sold dry goods (including an interesting variety of dried seafood and plant products used for medicinal purposes) and household items. Before leaving to explore the rest of the neighborhood, we decided to grab a light snack at the hawker center, which took the form of some char siu bao (steamed buns with barbequed pork) and egg tarts from one of the vendor stalls. Upon returning to our hotel, we opted for lunch at the hawker center on Victoria Street that had so intrigued us on our early-morning arrival, ordering some tasty wonton mee from one of the vendor stalls. I would end up paying one more visit to that hawker center before we left for Rangoon to make a late-night pork dumpling run.

Food Court Across from the Holland Village Market and Food Center


The Nam Seng Noodle House, Known for Their Signature Wonton Noddles


It was not until our 2006 Singapore/Burma trip (to which we would later add three days in Phuket, Thailand) that our daughter would introduce us to that classic Singaporean dish known as Hainanese chicken rice at the Tanglin Mall food court. When that first order of chicken rice, plated with some slices of cucumber, was passed over the stall counter to me, it looked rather plain and simple compared to the food porn shots displayed along the back wall of the other vendor stall; but I would soon learn that looks can definitely be deceiving. Dressed with a bit of soy sauce, chili paste and finely-minced ginger, the chicken rice was surprisingly delicious and would become dish of choice whenever we opted for a meal at the Tanglin Mall food court. Admittedly, their food court was not that good, as they offered only a limited selection of cuisines and dishes to choose from, and in my opinion their chicken rice stall was the food court's only saving grace. Our daughter next took us to Holland Village, where we ordered lunch from vendor stall that she liked in the food court of a small shopping plaza that was across the street and kitty corner from the Holland Village Market and Food Centre. The place was quite busy and the tables nearly filled to capacity. Seeing a table opening up, she rushed us over and, producing a travel-size tissue packet from her purse, demonstrated to us how to 'chope' a table in a Singapore hawker center. The meal would help to foster my love of Singapore-style char kway teow (stir-fried flat rice noodles and thick yellow noodles with dark soy, chili, fermented shrimp paste, prawns, egg, bean sprouts, de-shelled cockles and Chinese sausage), and afterwards I would learn that some hawker center vendors do not like it when you take a picture of their stall. There was another hawker center directly across the street from the shopping plaza that I would have liked to have tried, though our subsequent visits to Holland Village were generally made not long after a meal, hence I would usually have nothing more than a kopi-O and perhaps a kaya toast while there. One of the food courts that I would pass by numerous times but never try until our final family visit to Singapore was the one in the basement of the infamous Orchard Towers (a.k.a. the 'Four Floors of Whores', of which I've covered in my earlier blog post entitled  'Orchard Towers – Putting the ‘Sin’ in Singapore'). On a couple of occasions I had glanced down the entryway from the sidewalk into its rather dimly-lit and shabby interior but never thought of going in to try out one of the vendor stalls, particularly when I had heard that someone had eaten there and gotten sick afterwards. The one time that I went down the half-dozen or so steps and actually walked through the place to get to the restroom, I was followed, and later propositioned by, a Vietnamese prostitute; from the looks of it, it appeared that some of the food court patrons were perhaps 'freelancers' (women in their twenties and early thirties, predominantly from the Philippines, that are in Singapore on a one-month tourist visas for the purpose of prostituting in order to to earn money that would be sent home to support their family) that work the clubs, hallways and surrounding sidewalks of the retail, office and apartment complex. The hesitation in trying one of the stalls in the food court would quickly dissipate when our son-in-law suggested that we try its Chinese barbecue vendor, which served up a really good and, more importantly, hygienically-sound, char siu (barbecued pork) rice plate; the place was actually located outside of the main food court dining area and looked decidedly cleaner, and their char siu rice plate was quite tasty. Our son-in-law would also take me to another one of his favorite hawker centers, the Longhouse Food Centre on Upper Thompson Road, where I again went with the hokkien mee and added an order of otak-otak, a spicy and savory fish cake that's wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled.

The Front of the Wisma Atria Mall on Orchard Road
Of the various food courts and hawker centers that we had eaten at during our time in Singapore, the one that we had visited most often and thus were most familiar with was the Food Republic in the Wisma Atria Mall. Although there were closer food courts to our daughter's place, we preferred the 10 minute or so walk up Orchard Road to eat at one of what had become our two favorite vendor stalls there. Our first favorite was Thye Hong. Started as a family business by Mr. Lau Thye Hong in 1970, the stall is mostly known for his famous fried prawn noodles, though he also make very good char quay teow and oyster omelets. When plating the noodles, they are first spooned into a Opei leaf, which Mr. Lau says helps to bring out the flavor of fried foods. Because his stall is so popular the line was always very long, but well-worth the wait. During our visits to Thye Hong, I would usually alternate between the fried prawn noodle and the fried char quay teow; I never got around to trying the oyster omelet, but it is said to be, just like his famous noodle dishes, also very good. Our second favorite stall was What You Do Prata. As the name implies, they serve roti prata, which is a flour-based unsweetened pancake originating from India that is fried on a griddle; before frying, the dough is folded into itself so it forms flaky layers when cooked. The roti prata is best eaten with curries, and we would alternate between the lamb and chicken curries, or sometimes get both. What You Do Prata also makes a good biriyani, which is an Indian dish that combines layers of cooked rice with meat or vegetable curries. The meat curry biriyani is perhaps more popular of the two, and we would usually opt for the chicken curry biriyani. On some occasions (particular after the birth of our granddaughter) it was much more convenient to eat meals at home, in which case I would make a food court run to Wisma Atria and order our entrees of choice (and some spicy mango pickles) from What You Do Prata 'for take-away'. There were countless hawker centers and food courts that we would pass during our exploration of Singapore that looked very inviting, but that we were not able to try simply because we had already eaten. Having lived almost 5 years in Singapore and being 'foodies' with pretty discerning tastes, our daughter and son-in-law were not only excellent hosts, but also excellent local resources on which hawker centers to try and what to order based on their experience. As I was not aware of such other resources as Makansutra at the time of our last visit to Singapore, I would love to be able to go back with an emphasis on visiting the top "Die-die, must-try!" hawker center that I missed out on during the first six trips to the 'Lion City'.
 
Singapore Chili Crab from Long Beach Seafood at Dempsey Road

Singapore's East Coast Seafood Center
No Signboard Seafood, at the East Coast Seafood Center
Of all the different Singaporean dishes that I've eaten over our six visits, I would have to say that my absolute hands down favorite is chili crab. Singapore chili crab is commonly made using the mud crab, ideally using those from Sri Lankan. The crab is first stir fried together with minced garlic, onions, ginger, lemon grass, galanga, shrimp paste and chilies, with some water added and the crab steamed until partially cooked. The crab is then simmered in a rich sauce made of oven-roasted tomatoes, chopped red onion, garlic and ginger, which is then semi-thickened with flour and fine egg ribbons formed by beaten egg being stirred into the sauce late in the cooking process (similar to the Chinese egg flower soup), which adds a fluffy textural component to the dish. The chili crab is served with mantou, which are small, sweet toasted buns that are used to soak up the chili crab gravy. Singapore chili crab is a true delight to the palate and the senses; the taste is a rich medley of sweet, tangy and savory, with the added umami component of the crab and the heady aroma and silky-smooth consistency of the rich gravy combining to make Singapore chili crab not just a meal, but more a sensual experience. My introduction to chili crab would be at a restaurant called, somewhat humorously, No Signboard Seafood located at the East Coast Seafood Center. My brother-in-law and his wife had joined us for a brief stay in Singapore, which gave us enough people at the table to be able to try several main crab courses. For the sake of variety, we ordered one each chili crab, black pepper crab and crab with ginger and scallions. The chili crab was definitely my favorite, though the spicy and savory black pepper crab came in at a very close second place (nearly a tie for first place) on my list of favorite Singapore foods. Unlike chili crab, black pepper crab is served dry but is more fragrant and aromatic than chili crab. Black pepper crab starts out much the sample as chili crab in that it is first stir fried then later re-introduced into the wok and combined with browned ginger, garlic and chili, light and dark soy sauce, oyster sauce and crushed black pepper corns. Subsequently, our chili and black pepper crabs would be enjoyed together much closer to home at Long Beach Seafood Restaurant's Dempsey Road location, most commonly abbreviated as Long Beach @ Dempsey; the restaurant is credited with the creation of Singapore black pepper crab, which is said to be more popular than chili crab with a lot of people because it's not as messy.


Lor 9 Geylang Famous Beef Kway Teow's Signature Dish
Being a big fan of char kway teow, I was in for a real treat when I was told that we would be having dinner at a place that is highly regarded by many as serving up the best version of it. Lor 9 Geylang Famous Beef Kway Teow is located (as the name implies) just off of Geylang Road, which rivals Orchard Towers as being the most well-known red light district in Singapore, though it is less known by travelers because it lies far outside the normal tourist zone. Much like a hawker vendor stall, the restaurant consists of a kitchen contained within a shop house-type building and the dining area is a collection of folding tables and plastic chairs that are placed on the sidewalk and portions of the five foot way. We got an order of the famous beef kway teow and some Tiger Beers, and added to that an order of fried rice and gai lan (Chinese broccoli) from an adjacent restaurant that had similar al fresco seating, together with a couple of tables inside their very cramped dining area. I would have to agree that the char kway teow extremely good, and well-deserving of the accolades.  (I was surprised to later catch a glimpse of 'Lor 9 Beef Kway Teow' sign that's mounted near the kitchen about the five foot way in the background of a scene from the controversial yet critically acclaimed Singaporean drama 'Pleasure Factory', which is a film about the Geylang red light as told through three subplots that overlap one another; the film was actually banned in Singapore for graphic content and subject mater, but it is a really good film that I highly recommend.)



Lunch at Banana Leaf Apolo, Including Their Famous Fish Head Curry
Among our list of favorite restaurants in Singapore, up near the top is Banana Leaf Apolo Restaurant on Race Course Road in Little India. The name of the restaurant is quite appropriate, as the food is in fact eaten off a banana leaf that's laid on the table in front of the diner in stead of a plate. Founded in 1974, the restaurant is very popular with locals and visitors alike, and has been a featured dining destination on the Singapore episodes of the television shows Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods, and Samantha Brown's Asia. The restaurant serves the cuisines of North and South India, and is famous for its South Indian fish head curry. Granted, there is not a lot of meat on a fish head, but what is there is sweet and infused with the flavor of the spicy and aromatic tomato and coconut-based curry gravy. We would normally pair it with tandoori chicken, savory Indian-style potato croquettes and vegetable curry, with basmati rice, naan and (in my case) a cold Tiger Beer to round out the meal. Though spoons and forks are provided, one has the option of following the old tradition of eating the food with the hand, which allows the diner to experience the meal in all its sensual glory (right hand only, as the left hand is reserved for, shall we just say, personal hygiene). After you finish the meal, the local custom (perhaps Indian in origin?) has it that if you fold the banana leaf towards you, it means you liked the meal; if you fold it away from you, it means you didn't like the meal. Another restaurant making it onto our list of favorites is Inle Myanmar, a Burmese restaurant located in the basement of Peninsula Plaza on North Bridge Road. Peninsula Plaza is considered Singapore’s Little Burma, as the majority of the shops above the ground floor cater to Singapore’s large Burmese community, offering an array of imported goods from home in addition to a number of services such as visa and travel agencies. Inle’s menu includes many of the classic Burmese appetizers (especially the very popular laphet thote, or pickled green tea leaf salad, and boo thee kyaw, or fried opo gourd fritter) and ala carte main dishes, and all of the items that we’ve ordered had been quite good. Their Burmese ‘see byan hin’ meat curries were particularly good, though for some strange reason they would only serve their pork curry on certain days of the week. Of course, we would have to order their hpa luda (basically the same as the India falooda) for dessert, which is similar to an ice cream float made with milk, but also includes agar, small tapioca pearls, a flan-like custard and the all-important rose water, which gives it a nice rose aroma and floral component to the dessert’s flavor (though some find it off-putting, saying that it tastes ‘synthetic’.) 

Our relatives living in Singapore would provide us with an excellent introduction to traditional Peranakan, or Nonya, cuisine by taking us out to dinner at Charlie’s Peranakan Food, on East Coast Road in Singapore’s Joo Chiat district; unfortunately, it appears that the restaurant has closed since our visit in 2006. The most unique dish of that meal was the ayam buah keluak, which is a savory chicken dish that owes it’s much of its unique flavor to the use of the seeds from the keluak (pangium edule) tree, which is a tall species native to the mangrove swamps of Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The seeds are obtained from the tree’s large poisonous fruit (often referred to as the ‘football fruit’), which are harvested wild from the swamps. Both the fruit and its seeds contain hydrogen cyanide, but the seeds can be rendered safe to eat if they are boiled (which releases the hydrogen cyanide), then subsequently then buried in ash, banana leaves and earth for forty days to ferment. To make ayam buah keluk, the shell or husk of the processed keluk seeds are split open and the inner kernels of the seeds then removed and blended with shrimp meat, with salt and sugar added to taste; afterwards, the blended mixture is stuffed back into each of the seed’s opened shell. Chicken is separately stir fried in a wok with garlic, shallots, chilies, shrimp paste and a mix of aromatic spices. The stuffed keluk seeds are then introduced into the wok with the stir fried chicken, together with some tamarind juice, water, salt and sugar, and the dish is then simmered until done. The dish is both time and labor intensive, with the result achieving a blend of Chinese, Malaysian, and Indonesian flavors, and the stuffed keluk seeds contributing a slightly bitter, somewhat nutty component into the mix. Another good dinner, this time out with close friends of our daughter and son-in-law, was had at Guo Fu Steamboat, inside China Square Central on Cross Street. Steamboat-style dining is basically a 'Do It Yourself' hot pot meal, where pots of hot broth placed over a small burner are placed on the table and a variety of raw meats, fish and vegetables are then ordered and placed in the pot to simmer in the broth until cooked. One of the benefits of hot pot dining is that, as the meal goes on and more items are cooked, the simmering broth becomes more and more flavorful.

The View Across the River from Clarke Quay's Coriander Leaf Bistro

We would eventually get around to enjoying an evening meal at Clarke Quay, though instead of dining riverside, we would eat indoors but still with a nice view of the river through an open pair of doors behind our table at the Coriander Leaf Bistro. Opened in 2001 and billing itself as the 'New Asian Food Hub', Coriander Leaf offers both traditional and interpretive dishes that draws from the cuisines of the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Orient. It also features a cooking studio which provides cooking classes focused on Pan-Asian cuisine, with the classes incorporated into their successful and popular corporate bonding programs. After our visit to Coriander Leaf, they would later open The LilyPad, an al fresco riverside bar that offers platters and small plates reflective of the restaurant's Pan-Asian theme. The restaurant's interior was stylish and classy, befitting of a fine dining establish, yet still had a casual and relaxed feel to it. I opted for the grain-fed Angus I eye steak with yakiniku sauce, which was very good. After dessert, we stepped out into the balmy night air to take in an evening view of the river before heading home. 

The Entrance to the Bollywood Veggies Farm


Poison Ivy's Bistro, with Poison Ivy Herself Behind the Counter

One of the restaurants that we liked required a bit more driving time, and provided an al fresco dining experience that was decidedly different from the one had at Boat Quay. Located in the Krangi countryside of northwestern Singapore, the outside seating at Poison Ivy's Bistro trades a view of CBD towers and passing bum boats for the crop fields and tropical fruit trees (and perhaps chickens) of the Bollywood Veggies' 10 acre farm. It shares that rural corner of Singapore with a number of other organic produce farms, fish farms, both a frog farm and a goat dairy farm, and a number of government Restricted Areas, and though a visit to the region can't quite convey that kampung-like, 'Singapore of years gone by' vibe that a trip to Pulau Ubin can, it does make for an enjoyable drive in the country, so to speak. Poison Ivy's Bistro was opened in July 2004 by the 'Gentle Warrior' Ivy Singh and her husband Lim Ho Seng. It is said that Ivy chose the nickname 'Poison Ivy' for herself (and hence, the name of her bistro) because she is very outspoken about what she believes in, and that some people are afraid of her because of that tendency. The Bollywood Veggies farm itself was founded by Ivy and Ho Seng in 2001 as a project they embarked upon after retiring from the corporate world and becoming inspired to support the local farmers of the Krangi countryside and also to enlighten the public on Singapore's agricultural heritage and raise awareness of the need for its long-term sustainability. The name Bollywood was chosen to reflect Ivy's Indian heritage and also her love of singing and dancing. The farm currently grows over 100 varieties of plants, including rarely used native fruits and 20 different types of bananas; the farm is also home to the Bollywood Food Museum, which features exhibits to educate the visitors on the history of food and the influences that it has had on human civilization. Our Poison Ivy's favorites were the Warrior's Chicken Curry and the Bollywood Wings, with the Bolly Banana Curry and the samosas also quite good, and the delicious banana bread a must-have item for dessert.

With the wide variety of Asian cuisines available in Singapore, a meal at a restaurant serving exclusively Western cuisine was a rarity for us. Okay, I will cop to the occasional Fillet-O-Fish or Double Cheeseburger to stave off hunger after a trip to the grocery store or drug store at the Tanglin Mall before walking back to our daughter's former place near the Burmese (Myanmar) Embassy. After a few weeks in Southeast Asia, one does sometimes crave a good old-fashioned hamburger, and one could found at the American Club on Claymore Hill Road at either the appropriately-named Poolside Restaurant or at the Union Bar. Post-9/11, security for the American Club Singapore was provided by Nepalese soldiers of the local Gurkha Contingent (GC) of the Singapore Police Force. By our last visit to Singapore in 2010, the security contract with the GC had apparently been discontinued. During our prior three visits, with our daughter and son-in-law being members of the American Club, whenever we went there, we would always see at least one Nepalese Gurkha standing by the door with his blue uniform, high-top black boots, chin strapped khaki hat with blue banding canted down about 30 degrees to the right, and his slung Heckler and Koch MP5-A2 9mm sub machine gun held muzzle-down across his chest with his right hand on the pistol grip and his index finger resting on the trigger guard. The most memorable Western dinner was had at Carnivore @ CHIJMES on Victoria Street. CHIJMES stands for the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, as the current restaurant and entertainment complex was a former Catholic convent and Anglo-French Gothic chapel that was de-consecrated in November 1983; the convent buildings were constructed in 1840, with the chapel built in 1904. The restaurant is a Brazilian Churrascaria, with Churrascaria being the Portuguese word for barbecue, that places an emphasis on fire-roasted meats, and we're talking lots of meat. Over the course of a meal at Carnivore, Passadors (meat waiters) bearing big knives and large metal skewers loaded with all types of grilled meats continually make their rounds of the tables, and slice off servings of whichever meat the customer desires. To balance out the meal, a buffet table of over 15 hot and cold salads and appetizers is available to complement the endless flow of rotisserie-roasted meats.

We were able to have many enjoyable meals and try a lot of new foods over those trip to Singapore, though there were also a lot of 'Uniquely Singaporean' (to play on the former Singapore Tourism Board destination branding tag line) dishes that I didn't get to try and places that I didn't get to eat at, sort of culinary missed opportunities if you will. Perhaps the top dish that I should have tried in Singapore but didn't was laksa, which many believe should be considered as Singapore's national dish. Laksa is a rich and spicy noodle soup which, because it reflects the merger of both Chinese and Malaysian culinary elements, could be considered the poster child for Peranakan cuisine, with the variation of laksa associated with Singapore being the curry-style Katong laksa. Katong laksa is comprised of a mildly-sweet coconut milk and fish-based soup flavored with aromatic curry spices and sambal chili paste, to which is added rice noodles (with Katong laksa, the noodle are cut so that they can be eaten with a spoon only, as opposed to a spoon and chopsticks), bean sprouts, prawns and small pieces of fish cake and bean curd puffs. Though I was not able to sample it in Singapore, I have had Katong laksa here in the States, where we are lucky enough to have several Singaporean and Malaysian nearby, including a pretty traditional Singaporean kopitiam that serves up some pretty tasty laksa (not to mention Tiger Beer, roti prata with curry dipping sauce, kopi-O and kaya toast).

Singapore is always evolving and continually redefining itself, in part to draw in revenue from both regional visitors and tourists from abroad; the fruits of their efforts can be seen in the opening within the last few years of both the Marina Bay Sands Singapore and the Resorts World Sentosa resort hotel casinos, and major family-oriented attractions of the River Safari, Gardens by the Bay and Underwater World Singapore. While these recent additions will surely attract more visitors into the vibrant city-state, for me Singapore's main attraction will always be the food.