Singapore Fling, part I

At last, we’ve reached the final destination of our Asian odyssey: Singapore. Actually it’s a bit misleading to call it the final destination since on our trip it was actually first, middle and last. Not only were we there longest of any place on the trip, Singapore was responsible for the trip happening in the first place. Well, technically it was my dad and stepmom who were ultimately responsible, having arranged a house exchange with an expat couple in Singapore for the month of July and inviting us to join them, but if it hadn’t been Singapore we probably would have spent more than 1/16725th of a second deliberating before saying WE’LL BE THERE!!!. I don’t know about you, but when the opportunity presents itself to hang out rent-free for a while in a place you’ve always wanted to go, you move whatever mountains are standing in your way to make it happen. Believe me, nothing was going to get between me and the opportunity to live like a local for a few weeks in what might be one of the most food-crazy places on the planet.

Now, I’m going to cut right to the chase: if there is such a thing as a gastronomic paradise on this planet, I’m going to have to put my vote in for Singapore. Yes places like France and Italy and Vietnam and Morocco have amazing food, but they have their own kind of amazing food. Singapore has every kind of amazing food. You want a paper-thin, charred-bottomed pizza that would make a pizzaiolo in Napoli proud? Singapore has it. You want sushi made from fish that six hours ago were gracing the auction blocks at Tokyo’s Tsukiji market? Singapore has it. You want to follow up a $5 lunch with a $500 dinner, and have both of them be meals you’ll relive for weeks? Singapore has it. You want to be able to stop any random person on the street, ask them for a restaurant recommendation and know you can trust the response? Only in Singapore. This island has somehow bred a standard of food so high—and a citizenry so discerning—that it’s almost impossible to have a bad meal here. I’m sure it’s happened to somebody somewhere, but it sure didn’t happen to us.

In fact, we had so many incredible food experiences in Singapore that one post couldn’t even begin to do them justice. Five posts might begin to, but since probably neither you nor I have the patience for that, I’ve done my best to identify the highlights and over two posts will be giving you a countdown of the twenty things I loved most about this little country. But don’t think for a minute this is all there is. Multiply this by about fifty quadrillion and you might be closing in.

20. Lime Juice

This may seem a rather unspectacular way to start, but imagine this: you’re one degree from the equator, the humidity is nudging ever-closer to 100 percent, and all the moisture in your body is exiting through your pores and cascading in rivulets down your skin, dehydrating you from the inside out. A bottle of water is useless, since it’s at bathtub temperature within minutes. Thank the heavens for limes, sugar, water and ice and the drink Singaporeans call ‘lime juice’; wherever you are in the country, there’s an icy-cold one waiting not more than a few steps away. Tart, sweet and fragrant with the floral perfume of Kalamansis—little tiny limes that grow natively in this part of the world—it just might be the best thirst-quencher ever invented. (And yes, they even sell lime juice in vending machines, though I never got desperate enough to resort to one of these. I just forgot to snap a photo of the fresh stuff.)

19. Sardine (Curry) Puffs

Curry puffs are proof (if any were needed) that not all Asian food can be described with the terms ‘light’ and ‘healthy’. It’s also proof that if you think you don’t like something (i.e. canned sardines), chances are you just haven’t tasted them in the right form. The Malay/Singaporean take on the Indian samosa, curry puffs are deep-fried crescents of flaky shortcrust pastry enveloping a spicy filling of either curried chicken and potatoes (the classic) or sweet and spicy sardines (called a sardine curry puff or just a sardine puff). I tried various versions of curry puffs around town, but to my tastebuds none could hold a candle to the sardine version from Old Chang Kee, essentially a fast-food chain peddling deep-fried snacks. The crust was crisp and flaky, the sardines were juicy and tender, and the seasoning was the perfect balance of sweet, tangy and chili-hot. I’m already working on a DIY version.

18. Kampong Glam

Otherwise known as the Arab Quarter, this colonial neighborhood is one of the few in Singapore that retains some old-world charm. Originally the home of the Malay aristocracy, under the Raffles Plan of 1822—which effectively segregated the colony into different ethnic communities—it became the designated settling ground of Muslims, ethnic Malays and Arabs. Today the narrow lanes of beautifully-preserved shophouses are home to small businesses selling everything from Persian carpets to souvenirs, along with one of the most diverse collection of eateries on the island; here you’ll find everything from traditional Malay cakes to Lebanese mezze to charcoal-grilled Turkish kebabs. That said, when hunger strikes your first port of call should be Zam Zam (below).

17. Zam Zam Restaurant

I would have gone to this Arab-Quarter eatery for the name alone, but it’s also the first place any Singaporean recommends when you mention you want to try one of the country’s best-loved snacks: the murtabak. A Singapore original, the murtabak is similar in concept to the Indian paratha, known here as a ‘roti prata’—a flaky flatbread, lubricated with oil and cooked on a griddle. The murtabak does the roti prata one better, though, and includes spiced minced lamb or chicken and egg between the layers. Served with a bowl of thin curry sauce and a plate of cucumbers and ketchup, this is true fusion food, and a great hearty breakfast or light lunch. Zam Zam does plenty of other kinds of food, including various kinds of curries and noodle dishes, but don’t get too distracted: murtabak is the main event here. p.s. Locals have an interesting way of eating this: they cut the bread into pieces on their plate, ladle the curry sauce on top, and dive in with a fork.
Location: 697 North Bridge Road

16. Tea, Iced or ‘Pulled’

At home, you’d need wild horses to drag me away from my morning coffee. In Singapore, I found myself drinking tea; not because I found the sweet, mud-thick coffee unpalatable (quite the contrary, actually), but because the tea there was even better. I wish I could tell you why that was: The type? The preparation method? Secret additives? I honestly don’t know, but it was so smooth, fragrant and complex, and rounded out perfectly by the ubiquitous dollop of sweetened condensed milk. Iced was naturally my favorite way to drink it, but hot had its charms too; called teh tarik, or ‘pulled tea’, this is passed back and forth between the glass and pitcher (sometimes from a great height) until it has a thick, foamy head (and, as a side effect, has cooled off enough to drink it). Now if anyone can tell me how to get the tea I brought home with me to taste as good as it did there, I’m listening…

15. TWG Teas

And speaking of tea, if you’re interested in expanding your tea horizons there’s no better place to do it than the new, über-gorgeous TWG Tea boutique and café in the Ion Orchard shopping center. Taking inspiration from the great Parisian tea salons, everything about this glass-walled enclave oozes style and class. We spent a fascinating couple of hours here being given a tea tutorial by one of the owners, a glamorous American expat named Maranda Barnes. She talked us through their menu which features more than 1000(!) different teas and blends including offerings from India, China, Korea, Vietnam, Burma, Rwanda, Georgia, Iran and Cameroon, and led us on a tasting tour of some their more unique offerings, like green tea with lotus flowers, black tea with caramel, and a spicy and complex ‘Singapore Breakfast’ tea. While the teas were truly exceptional, what really got me salivating were the edibles on offer, namely a range of incredible French pastries flavored with their teas. The macarons in particular were some of the best I’ve ever had, in flavors like chocolate-Earl Grey, Moroccan mint (with both mint tea and fresh mint) and double-caramel, with caramel tea and a salted caramel filling. And that’s not to mention their hauntingly-perfumed financiers, cakes and signature ‘Singapore Surprise’, a tart featuring fresh raspberries and a vanilla-bourbon tea-infused crème brûlée—all were to die for.

14. Wet Markets

Singapore may be the land of the spotless, air-conditioned shopping center, but thankfully some of the predecessors to the mall age are still alive and kicking. Visiting a wet market (so-called because due to the nature of the goods on sale the floors are often wet) is a fantastic way to get a feel for the Singapore of times past, not to mention gawk at some of the most amazing displays of sea-life, meat and produce you’ve probably ever seen. Two that we visited really stand out: the Smith Street Market in Chinatown, which had the most awe-inspiring selection of fish and seafood I’ve ever seen (including live frogs and turtles…!), and the Tekka Market in Little India, where you can find anything and everything subcontinental and Malay.

13. Little India

And speaking of Little India, it definitely deserves a mention here. Nowhere near as polished and quaint as the Arab Quarter, Little India feels real: from the sari-clad women haggling over bitter gourd and eggplants to the dank, dim shops selling everything from cookware to fabrics to the dozens upon dozens of restaurants offering cuisine from every corner of the country. It’s one of the most crowded, chaotic, rough-around-the-edges neighborhoods in Singapore, but that only adds to its charms. Buy yourself a piece of barfi from a sweet seller in the bazaar (not forgetting to say a silent prayer of thanks for Singapore’s iron-clad hygiene laws) and just explore.

12. Fish Head Curry @ Banana Leaf Apolo

While there’s no shortage of amazing food in Little India, there’s one iconic experience no one should miss. The restaurant Banana Leaf Apolo has been attracting locals, tourists and even the odd celebrity or two (there’s a picture of Mel Gibson on the wall) for the better part of 40 years. Their claim to fame is first of all the method of serving, which eschews plates for large pieces of banana leaf. Aside from the positive environmental aspects, it’s surprisingly cool to eat off a leaf (who knew?). Their second claim to fame is their fish head curry, considered to be among the best examples of this popular Singaporean take on a South Indian favorite. Hot, sour and quite fishy, I’m not quite sure what the advantage is of having the whole head bobbing around in there, but it sure is tasty.

11. Candlenut Kitchen

I talked a little about Nyonya or Peranakan food in my Penang post. Singapore is home to the southern style of Nyona food, featuring Indo-Malay influences and richer, sweeter flavors. This is exactly the kind of food you’ll find at one of Singapore’s newest and most exciting restaurants, Candlenut Kitchen. Chef Malcolm Lee is something of a wunderkind, having won a Miele scholarship, charged through culinary school and promptly opened his own cozy little restaurant as soon as he got out, aged only 26. His take on Peranakan cooking is for the most part traditional, but important to him is that things are ‘done right’, in other words, as they were done for generations before convenience started being winning out over flavor. This attention to detail shows in the wonderful depth he achieves in dishes like Ayam Buah Keluak (chicken braised with inky-bitter Indonesian ‘black nuts’), Ngoh Hiang (crispy beancurd rolls filled with pork, prawns, mushrooms and water chestnuts), and Sambal Petai with Prawns. Where he deviates from tradition is with dessert, offering plate-lickers like black rice ice cream and kueh bingkah (a moist tapioca-flour cake) with coconut mousseline. Come hungry.

Next up: the final installment of our Asian odyssey, the Singapore top 10!

Having Some Bun

Bun Nem Nuong

We’re only two-thirds of the way through the Asian saga, but all this talk about food has made me hungry. What about you? I think it’s time for a recipe. Since we’ve just been on the subject of Vietnam, how about we stop there and have dinner?

I have Vietnam to thank for a few things, but one in particular stands out: it helped me get over my fear of cooking Asian food. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but I felt so out of my depth with food from places east for so long that – fusion and pseudo-Asian dishes aside – I could probably count the number of Asian things I’d attempted on two hands and one foot. First, there were all the strange ingredients to track down. Then there were all the unfamiliar techniques, most of which required equipment I didn’t possess (Wok? No. Steamer? No. Rice cooker? No; why can’t I just use a pot?). On the rare occasion that I mustered up the courage to, say, combine an envelope of Thai curry paste, a can of coconut milk and some veggies in a big skillet and let them stew for a while, the results were mediocre enough to make me wonder if some people just aren’t born with the ability to cook Asian food. Eventually, I all but stopped trying; more fish sauce and rice vinegar ended up in the trash each time we moved than ever made it into our mouths.

Then, one night at dinner in Saigon I was halfway through my bowl of noodles when I was struck with an epiphany: although everything on the table was extraordinarily delicious, it was also so simple! The dish I was eating, for example, was just some seasoned, grilled meat, chopped veggies, fresh herbs and sweetened fish sauce enhancing a pile of boiled rice vermicelli. Not only were they all things I could easily find back home (with the exception of a few of the herbs, maybe), but the dish’s entire preparation was laid out bare for me to see in my bowl. It made sense; I could wrap my head around each and every ingredient, why it was there and what had been done to it. I sat back thinking in amazement: I could make this!

Turns out I was right – on both counts. Not only did I make that noodle dish – enough times by now to know it like the back of my hand, but we’ll get back to that in a minute – I’ve been dipping my toes into wider Asian waters as well. Using fresh chilies, candlenuts, belacan and shallots I made a fish sambal the other night that nearly made me weep with joy (though the chilies may have also been responsible). A few nights before that I braised some chicken in a sauce with lemongrass, palm sugar and black pepper. I’ve now got a ready supply of galangal and fresh coconut in my freezer, two kinds of shrimp paste in my fridge and four kinds of non-Italian noodles in my pantry. The neighbors are probably reeling from all the pungent new aromas wafting through the floorboards.

But back to the recipe I want to share, the iconic bun nem nuong, rice vermicelli with grilled meatballs. I’d had a version of this dish once before and been left totally underwhelmed; the meat was bland, the noodles were bland, the drifts of chopped lettuce, cucumber  and beansprouts were, well, bland. It took eating it at the source to understand what it’s supposed to be. A room-temperature tangle of chewy noodles topped with crusty sweet-salty pork, tangy pickles, crisp veggies, zingy herbs, crunchy peanuts, rich scallion oil and pungent nuoc cham, it’s a dish that when done right comes alive in your mouth, each bite more exciting than the last. It’s light yet satisfying, simple yet complex, and full of all the hot-and-cold, sweet-and-sour, soft-and-crisp contrasts that make Asian food so incredible. It’s one of those dishes that makes you wonder why humans ever bothered inventing anything else to eat. And the news only gets better: not only can all the ingredients be found in your average supermarket, you need zero specialty equipment to make it (apart from some skewers if you want to grill the meat), and on top of that, the stink factor is practically nill (which should keep your neighbors happy). There’s a reason we’re eating this at least once a week, and if you’re not already, I have a hunch you may be soon too.

If only I’d taken a trip to Vietnam years ago. Just think of all the bottles of fish sauce I wasted! Speaking of which, I need to remember to pick up a new one tomorrow; for the first time ever, I’m almost out.

Bun Nem Nuong

Don’t be scared by the length of the recipe! Trust me, it’s neither time-consuming nor difficult; there’s just a few components to assemble. The pickles and sauces are mostly just stirred-together affairs. The meat can be mixed up in less than five minutes (though afterwards it does have a sit a while in the fridge), plopped into little mounds on a baking sheet and shoved under the broiler. Or you can light the grill and give them a lick of live fire which makes the whole thing even better. Apart from that it’s just vegetable-chopping, herb-plucking and noodle-boiling. And since everything but the meat is meant to be served at room temperature you can make it pretty much as far ahead of time as you like. Then at serving time, all you do is pile it into a big multicolored, festive mound in your bowl and dig in.

p.s. One trick I’ve discovered is to grate cloves of garlic on my fine microplane whenever smashed or pressed garlic is required. It’s much easier than pounding in a mortar, and as a bonus, rubbing the steel grater under running water to clean it removes any trace of garlic smell from your fingers!
serves: 4-6

for pork:
2 lbs. (~1kg) ground pork
1/4 cup (50g) sugar
1 teaspoon salt
6-8 cloves garlic, peeled and pounded (or grated) to a paste
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons baking powder dissolved in 1 tablespoon water (optional – gives the pork a slightly bouncier texture)

for carrot-daikon pickle:
2 cups (500ml) warm water
1/2 cup (120ml) rice or white vinegar
1/3 cup (70g) sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 lb (225g) carrots
1/2 lb (225g) daikon radish (or substitute with more carrots if you don’t have it)

for nuoc cham:
1 clove garlic, peeled
2-3 Thai bird chilies stemmed, seeded, and sliced; more or less to taste
1/2 cup (120ml) hot water
1/4 cup (50g) granulated sugar
1/4 cup (60ml) fish sauce
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

for scallion oil:
1/4 cup (60ml) vegetable oil
1 bunch scallions (aka green or spring onions), thinly sliced (white and green parts)

for noodles:
1 lb. (450g) dried rice vermicelli
several leaves romaine or other crunchy lettuce, cut into 1/2-inch (1-cm) strips

1 cucumber, halved and thinly sliced on the bias
one bunch basil (preferably Thai sweet basil, but go with what you have)

one bunch mint
one bunch cilantro (coriander)
bean sprouts

1 cup (150g) roasted peanuts (salted is fine); roughly crushed in a mortar or chopped medium-fine

For the pork, knead all the ingredients together in a bowl until well-blended. Refrigerate at least an hour to allow the flavors to blend and the meat to firm up. If you’re planning to grill, put some bamboo skewers in water to soak.

To make the pickles, peel the carrots and daikon and either julienne with a julienne slicer/mandoline (preferable) or grate them on the large holes of a box grater. Mix together the warm water, vinegar, sugar and salt. Stir until everything dissolves and add the carrots and daikon. Let stand for at least an hour. Drain the portion you’re using well; keep what you don’t use in the brine.

To make the nuoc cham, with a mortar and pestle pound the garlic and fresh chiles to a paste. Or mince them together very finely with a knife. Or leave the chili in slices and grate the garlic using a fine microplane (my choice!). In a small bowl, combine the garlic and chili with the hot water and sugar. Stir well. Add the fish sauce and lime juice. Let stand for at least 15 minutes before using.

For the scallion oil, in a small saucepan heat the oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add the scallions and fry, stirring constantly, until they soften and collapse, about one minute. Remove the scallions and oil to a bowl and let cool.

Fill a large pot with warm water and submerge the rice noodles. Let them soak for at least ten minutes. Longer is fine too. Set the pot with the noodles over high heat and bring to a boil. Boil until the noodles are al dente, just like Italian pasta. Drain the noodles well in a colander and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. Let them sit in the colander for at least 20 minutes, until they’ve dried somewhat and gotten slightly sticky to the touch. Tossing them around a few times to expose them to the air helps.

Depending on whether you’re grilling or broiling the meat, preheat your grill or your broiler to its highest setting. For grilling, with lightly-oiled hands take handfuls of the meat and shape into long sausages around the skewers (about an inch/2.5cm in diameter), leaving at least an inch of skewer free at the bottom. If the meat seems very soft, refrigerate the skewers for 20 minutes or so after forming to firm them up again. Grill, turning as needed, until the meat is cooked through and brown on all sides. Before serving, cut each sausage into bite-sized pieces. If you’re broiling, line a baking sheet with foil and lightly oil it. Drop spoonfuls of the meat (2-3 tablespoons for each) onto the sheet, fitting on as many as you can without allowing them to touch. With an oiled hand, slightly flatten each into a patty to about a 1/2-inch (1-cm) thickness. Broil until golden brown, about 10-12 minutes.

In the meantime, chop the lettuce and cucumber, pluck the herbs from their larger stems and set all the toppings out in bowls.

Divide the noodles between serving bowls. Top with a portion of the meat, then some of each of the garnishes. You can either assemble each bowl before serving or set everything out on the table and let people build their own. I do a little of each, arranging some of each component on top of the noodles and offering more at the table for people to customize. However you do it, the last thing to do it drizzle a spoonful or two of both scallion oil and nuoc cham over the top, mix it up and dig in.

Any leftover pickles, nuoc cham or scallion oil will keep for a couple weeks in the fridge.