Singapore Fling, part II

My apologies for the delay! I know you’ve been sitting on the edge of your seats waiting for this: the top ten tempted-me-to-apply-for-gastromonic-asylum, still-haunting-my-every-waking-minute, would-gladly-give-my-firstborn-in-exchange-for-a-regular-supply-of-them eats in Singapore. Please enjoy on a full stomach only. I can’t take responsibility for what might happen otherwise.

p.s. You can see part I here.
p.p.s. How unfair is it that one tiny country gets all this great food?

10. Kaya Toast and Half-Boiled Eggs

If you thought breakfasting in Asia was all about savory noodles, rice and soups, think again. Singapore, in fact, is home to one of the world’s great sweet breakfasts: kaya toast, a combination of thin slices of light, crisp bread (charcoal-grilled, if you’re lucky), generous shavings of cold, salted butter and a thick smear of kaya, a dulce de leche-type spread made with coconut milk, eggs and pandan leaf. Now I certainly had no problem packing away the kaya toast straight, but when I tried it paired with its traditional accompaniment—two half-boiled eggs doused in black soy sauce—I discovered a whole new level of deliciousness. Admittedly the eggs do take a little getting used to; they’re cooked so briefly the whites have only started to congeal, and the whole thing is decidedly more runny than firm. If you think of them less as a side of eggs and more as a silky, salty, eggy dip for the sweet toast, though, you should, like me, find your undercooked-egg qualms evaporate in the morning sun. Kaya toast is available at kopitiams (coffee shops) around the island, but for nearly sixty years the standard-bearer has been Yun Ka, a family-owned business that grew from a single cart into an island-wide chain, and now extends, I see now on their website, to several other countries as well. For atmosphere you can’t be their original location in Chinatown, with its old-school wooden tables and the hilarious vintage posters gracing the walls.

9. Chilli Crab

Is there any dish more synonymous with Singapore than Chili Crab? A relatively recent invention (apparently it was first cooked in 1950) this Malay-Chinese dish is a delicious melange of local mud crabs stir-fried in a thick red sauce. Although it’s called chilli crab, the sauce is not really spicy at all, but rather sweet, tangy and eggy. If I had to sum up the chilli crab experience in one word, I’d cheat and use two: finger-licking. That is, finger-licking good, but also finger-licking messy. Let’s just say there is no elegant way to eat chilli crab. Your face, forearms, clothing and neighbors will all wear copious amounts of crabmeat and sauce by the end of the meal, but don’t worry—everyone else’s will too. You can practice a little damage control with some of the Chinese mantou bread that’s traditionally served alongside; fluffy and soft, it acts as a good sponge to soak up sauce on your plate as well as various parts of your anatomy. Long Beach seafood restaurant on Dempsey Hill does a particularly memorable and splatter-worthy version.

8. Blue Ginger

We ate a lot of Nyonya/Peranakan food in Singapore and Malaysia, so much so that we were joking about how many years might pass before we’d actively crave it again. Then we had lunch at Blue Ginger, and fell in love with Nyonya food all over again. From the kueh pie tee (pastry cups filled with turnips and shrimp) to the roasted duck salad to the sambal sotong (chili-braised squid), beef rendang (dry, spice-laden stew), and ikan masak assam (fish stew with tamarind), everything here was absolutely stunning, as was the ambience inside the beautifully-appointed colonial shophouse—a refreshing old-world contrast to Singapore’s sleek, modern addresses. For a single meal that encompasses the best Nyonya cuisine has to offer, Blue Ginger has my vote.

7. Laksa Lemak

If chili crab is the most famous Singaporean dish, Laksa Lemak must surely be next in line. I’ve been a fan of this coconutty seafood and rice noodle soup for longer than I can remember, but having been to Singapore now I consider myself a connoisseur. Apart from the standard laksa lemak (also called nyonya laksa), Singapore boasts a version of the soup called Katong laksa, called after the Katong neighborhood in which it was invented. The main difference between the two is eatability; instead of requiring chopsticks and a spoon as regular laksa does (which results in a few too many splashes and chin-dribbles for my taste), the noodles here have been cut into bite-sized pieces so all you need is a spoon and a hearty appetite. Spicy, rich and prawny, we savored an amazing bowl at the justly-popular 328 Katong Laksa on East Coast Road. Another very good laksa we stumbled on quite by accident at the Bukit Timah Plaza in a little Nyonya kiosk on the second floor; apparently it’s one of the most lauded non-Katong laksas around town.

6. Cookery Magic

Although it probably looks like all we did in Singapore was eat, we actually did other things too – like cook. For instance we cooked Malay food in the beautiful colonial home of Ruqxana Vasanwala, a Singaporean of Indian descent. A former engineer, Ruqxana is a self-taught cook who gave up her day job ten years ago to teach cooking full-time, and her passion for the subject is evident in the volumes she knows about Asian cuisines. Depending on the day, you’ll find her teaching classes on Indian, Malay, Nyonya, Chinese, Thai, Indonesian and Cambodian as well as Singaporean food, and she’s constantly adding new dishes and cuisines to her repertoire. Twice a day a small group of students gathers in her kitchen (actually she has two, one indoor and one outdoor for the stinky stuff—how clever is that?) to prepare a menu of three to four items, and after cooking everyone sits down to a meal together. In our case that was the most delicious beef rendang I’ve yet eaten, as well as a rich prawn and vegetable stew called sayur lodeh with spicy sambal belacan. Apart from learning the recipes, we learned a lot about preparing local ingredients—how to toast belecan, for example, and how to get all the flavor of a mortar-pounded rempeh without all the work (maybe I’ll share her secret sometime!).

5. Straits Kitchen

I never thought I would live to see the day I’d recommend a buffet to you. Buffets are, as a general rule, not my favorite way to eat; quality is usually sacrificed for quantity, and, well, there’s a ‘must get my money’s worth’ mentality that breaks down even the hardiest of willpowers (guilty!). That said, the meal we had at Straits Kitchen was worth every second of the indigestion I caused myself there by eating enough for three. Housed in the swanky Grand Hyatt hotel, this is the place to go if you want a crash course in local cuisine. The idea here is that a wide selection of hawker food is available in a non-hawker setting; instead of braving a potentially confusing, hot and chaotic hawker center, you can come here instead and in air-conditioned comfort and for a single price help yourself to a wide array of dishes that are every bit as good, if not better, than what you’ll find on hawker menus. There’s everything from Hainanese chicken rice, chili crab and laksa to char kway teow, gado-gado and freshly-made popiah to some of the best Indian food in Singapore. For dessert you can indulge in everything from Nyonya kueh (small rice and tapioca-based sweets) to homemade ice creams to fresh fruit (they have a bottomless bowl of mangosteens!) to my favorite, made-to-order cendol, where you can, if you’re so inclined, special-order one without beans—though be prepared for a few funny looks. The only problem is that everything is so good, and there is just too much to try. Okay, and it’s admittedly a little pricey, but if you’re looking for a way to familiarize yourself with a lot of Singapore’s signature foods quickly and painlessly, I can’t recommend Straits Kitchen highly enough. Just make sure to skip lunch beforehand.

4. Wild Rocket

Willin Low was a lawyer before he figured out what he was really meant to do: cook. He discovered his love of cooking as a homesick student living in England, and later indulged his growing passion by moonlighting as a private chef on weekends. Eventually he decided to make the switch to food entirely, and seven years later he’s the owner of a mini-empire of eateries including his flagship restaurant Wild Rocket, where we enjoyed a magnificent meal. Willin’s food is self-described as ‘Western food with a local twist’, which means he takes food from places like North America and Europe and gives them an Asian makeover. It works stunningly well. Apart from his famous burgers (which many consider to be the best in Singapore), his specialty is pasta, something he learned not in Italy—he’s never been—but at his first restaurant job in one of Singapore’s most acclaimed Italian eateries. We had three pasta courses as part of our tasting menu and all were exquisite; his Asian-influenced bolognese, a deeply savory meat sauce served with handmade rice noodles, was hands-down the best meat-sauced pasta I’ve ever eaten. I also loved his take on Hainanese chicken rice, featuring a boned chicken wing stuffed with fragrant ginger-chili rice, and his velvety cendol pannacotta for dessert. And then there’s the man himself: as if his raw talent weren’t enough, Willin himself is just about one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, humble, charming, hospitable and obviously very much in love with what he does. Lucky for everyone, he made the right career choice.

3. 2am Dessert Bar

Janice Wong is a genius. That’s the only conclusion I can come to after tasting four of her creations at her desserts-only restaurant in Holland Village. Admittedly, I walked in there without much in the way of expectation, thinking okay, I like dessert as much as the next person, but isn’t a whole restaurant devoted to them overkill? Silly me. At 2am, pastry chef Janice—who has put in time at the likes of Per Se, WD-50, Aquavit and Alinea—has done with sweet things what Monet did with primary-color pigments, or Beethoven did with noise. She’s created art. Now, if you walk into 2am expecting to be able to order a coffee and a piece of chocolate cake and do the day’s crossword, you’ll find yourself in the wrong place. The sweets on offer here are of a more envelope-pushing nature, and the dim, minimalist space is designed for you to focus all your attention on the impressionistic, deconstructed plates in front of you. And what will you find on those plates? A series of elements that conform to a theme, be it a flavor, color or ingredient. Or sometimes none of these; she’s also been known to base a dessert on a favorite painting. Among the desserts we tasted was one called ‘Purple’ which consisted of purple potato puree, blackberry parfait, fruits of the forest sorbet and lavender marshmallows. Although it sounds a little bit odd, it was the perfect blend of sweet, creamy, fruity and sour. Then there was ‘Alpaco Chili Chocolate’, spicy aerated chili-chocolate honeycomb flanked by toast-flavored ice cream, white-chocolate-covered puffed rice and crunchy chocolate ‘soil’. My favorite, though, was ‘Popcorn’, a juxtaposition of sweet and salty popcorn-infused parfait, passionfruit sorbet, cherry gel, dill flowers and popcorn powder. There was a lot going on here—sweet, salty, fruity, herbal—but it all sang in perfect harmony. The other interesting aspect of 2am is that Janice’s business partner Richard Cervantes is a sommelier, and you’re encouraged to let him pair your desserts with appropriate wines. From a light, crisp Otago pinot gris to a raisiny Pedro Ximenez sherry, I thought his pairings were spot-on, so much so that it made me think I should give more thought to dessert-drink pairings at my own dinners. Not to mention, a lot more thought to the desserts themselves.

2. Hawker Centers

From high-end to low-end, there’s a lot of great food in Singapore. But nowhere is it so concentrated, and so accessible, as in Singapore’s hawker centers. I love these places so much I want to export a few to Europe. They’re nothing short of temples to gastronomy, yet at the same time they’re nothing exclusive or rare; in fact they’re part of the fabric of everyday life for most Singaporeans. Basically, what you get at hawker centers is a wide variety of street food, or what used to be street food before Singapore pushed it all indoors in order to better control hygiene. That’s fine by me; I’m all for hygiene, and this means everything is conveniently in one spot. The centers themselves can be large or small, specialized in a certain type of cuisine or offering a bit of everything; the common denominator is that there are multiple stalls, each stall offers a limited number of items at very reasonable prices, and you make a meal by picking and choosing dishes from as many different stalls as you want. I hope Singaporeans realize how lucky they are to have these. Imagine this: you come home late and nobody feels like cooking, so what do you do? Head to the nearest hawker center. Have such picky kids/partner/friends that nobody can ever agree on what to eat? Hawker center it is. Discover your bank account is as empty as your belly? Hawker center to the rescue! Honestly, I don’t know why anyone in Singapore would ever cook. Hmm, maybe it’s a good thing I don’t have one nearby.

1. Iggy’s

Sigh… Have you ever had a meal that was so perfect you wondered how you’d ever be content with ‘regular’ food again? That was how I felt walking out of Iggy’s, one of Asia’s (and the world’s) best restaurants according to any list you can dig up. The thing is, fine dining and I are not the best of friends; I can appreciate the artistry and imagination that goes into this kind of food, and intellectually it can be a fascinating experience, but I’m rarely moved to superlatives (or tears) by a parade of mini-plates of deconstructed gastronomic novelty. Dinner at Iggy’s was something else, though. Every plate put before us was such a masterpiece of perfectly balanced tastes, textures and temperatures, and all the ingredients had been so perfectly chosen, prepared and cooked, that halfway through the meal I found myself so focused on the pleasure of eating that I felt like I’d entered a kind of trance. We had nine courses in total, and of those several—including a 12-hour slow-cooked pork belly with dehydrated parma ham, kalamansi lime sauce and confit onions on a bed of peanut barley, and a stunning Thai-curryesque dessert of coconut sorbet, butternut squash puree, kaffir lime cream and micro coriander—are still so razor-sharp in my memory I can almost still taste them. Apart from that there was a butter-soft short rib of Kobe beef with smoked yogurt and roasted potato, a southern bluefin Niçoise with quail egg, olive puree and truffle oil, and an unctuous slow-poached egg with mashed potato, shaved truffle and bits of crispy chicken skin. Iggy himself (aka Ignatius Chan) came out to meet us halfway through the meal, bubbling with enthusiasm about a trip to Japan he had just returned from. Generous and jovial, he suddenly grew intense when I asked him if he had any plans to expand his restaurant business either inside or outside Singapore. “No, definitely not,” he told us solemnly. “Quality is everything to me, and only by staying small will I be able to maintain the standards I want.” While I was secretly hoping he’d say “actually I’m planning to open a branch just down the street from you”, I guess it’s better this way. Not only will the food stay top-notch, it gives me another reason to go back to Singapore soon…as if I needed one.

A gargantuan thank-you to Aun and Dennis at Ate for putting together such an awesome itinerary for us (make that über-awesome!), and Danny and the STB for taking such good care of us around town. Parts of this itinerary were hosted by the Singapore Tourist Board.

18 thoughts on “Singapore Fling, part II

  1. Ah, Melissa… you're making my craving for chilli crab and mantou more intense! As usual, a great and mouth watering post 🙂

  2. sometimes i forget how lucky i am to be living in singapore and being so close to an inexhaustible supply of wonderful foods! thank you for the post!

  3. I have had the pleasure of tasting Janice Wong's desserts and I can say with absolute certainty that they're worth traveling halfway around the world for. The bonus of a trip like that is that there's obviously so many other great things to eat in Singapore as well. Sounds like a great visit–thanks for the great write-ups!

  4. All of those Hawker Centers make me crave going to one! Just watching Anthony Bourdaine's episode in Singapore left me shattered on the couch, drooling for noodles… and now this. Melissa, you did it again. :)by the way, the picture of the bluefin nicoise from Iggy, if enlarged enough to slightly pixelate, would make one heck of a kitchen art feature!

  5. I was actually sitting on the edge of my chair 🙂 You already had me after the first part, what can I say about the second? I am seriously considering a long distance fight for food's sake…

  6. Beautiful pics.Sometimes I forget that I live in a food paradise where the variety is endless. Thanks for reminding me of things that I take for granted all the time.

  7. All of these looked really good but that 2am dessert bar sounded amazing. I wish they would put one of those somewhere close to me. Late night sweet fixes are sometimes so hard to come by since I try not to keep too much desserty food in my house. I would have never thought to do a popcorn dessert but then again I have seen a bacon ice cream so I guess there is really no limit to what you can do with desserts.

  8. Being a Singaporean living overseas is really hard mostly because of how much I miss the food. Thank you so much for curing a little bit of my homesickness with this post.

  9. i just came across your blog (unfortunately before lunchtime) and its completely addicting! i cant wait to browse through more of your post and read more foodie thoughts!

  10. soft boiled egg in kaya toast! curry and other spices! those are the things you can't miss when in singapore. can't get enough of the kaya toast and soft boiled egg.

  11. ah, well, your post just confirms that I've chosen the right place to live… now that we're settled, i have more opportunity to explore the restaurants and hawkers and i am not tiring of it. thanks for some great recommendations of places i hadn't even heard of, will report back on how i experienced them! whenever you DO come back, you know you've got a place to crash here… would love to see you again!

  12. Ah… the chili crabs made me salivate! I hope I could drop by the Chinese market and grab some to cook. You're so lucky to be living in a place full of culinary delights such as these.

  13. love this blog and its beautiful photography. but especially love this post!! salivating for everything in this post. kaya toast, laksa, chilli crab makes me want to fly to spore tomorrow. yummyyyy…..

  14. You are right I should have eaten first before reading your blog… these foods are so mouthwatering and I am actually drooling right now. It is really amazing to see such wide choices in Singapore and sometimes it is such a pain not to be able to taste them all.

  15. As a Singaporean, I'm so glad a fellow food blogger enjoyed touring and eating around my little country. What amazes me is that you know the background of the different local favourite brands! You must have done quite some reading 🙂

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