Eating local in Singapore
While the tastebuds are stilll revving fresh from a week in Singapore, here's a record of the places of note that I came across and the wonderful tips that seasoned Singapore fans so generously shared.
As an international entrepôt of commerce and culture, the food available in Singapore reflects the diversity of its residents.
I was specially interested in hunting down the local offerings: local Singaporean Chinese, Malay, Indian and Peranakan fare.
Maxwell Food Center
1 Kadayanallur Street
Here, you'll find the famous Tian Tian Chicken Rice stall (Number 11), where you can order a small, medium or large serve. the small plate will set you back $3.50. It will come on a green plastic plate with a large mound of intoxicatingly fragrant yellow, waxy chicken flavoured rice, and some sliced pieces of classic steamed chicken. The ginger/chilli sauce of course is a must. If you want the works with cucumber and accompanying broth, go for the deluxe version at $5 per plate.
At stall 56, is Chinatown Popiah, something I've seldom found outside of Singapore and Malaysia. A delicious, large and delicate crepe stuffed full of shredded yam bean, crunchy crushed peanuts and a sweet bean sauce, this calls for an inhaling sort of action. A set of two sliced up popiah will cost $2.80.
There's everything else here at Maxwell: from freshly squeezed juices, warm soy milk with silken pieces of tofu floating in your cup, to black mee, hor fun (flat rice noodles tossed with prawns in an eggy sauce) and fried chicken wings.
If you're looking for more Indian and Malay food, then you should head along to
Lau Pa Sat
18 Raffles Quay
Home to Satay Street where strolling alongside the meat skewer braziers in a haze of charcoal smoke and delicious wafting smells will whet your appetite for what's to come. The center's octagonal shape might feel rather confusing as you negotiate the crowds and walk in circles, gaping at the various delicacies at each stall. Here, you'll find a perfect paper dosa with the sambar and coconut chutney accompaniments absolutely on point, vegan chinese, ba ku teh and shaved ice chendol. You'll find char kway teow with the best wok hei, and fried bee hoon. There's also wantan noodle soup, bbq chicken and char siew, cut fresh fruits, a cafe latte if you'd like it and ice creams with flavours like soursop and chiku. If you're not robust about your attitude to food, let's say this is not for the faint of heart.
Park your inhibitions for the night though, and you might experience the best food you've ever tasted.
While the likes of Maxwell and Lau Pa Sat are reigning giants, there are endless hawker food centres of a smaller scale where you'll find equally mouth watering treats and treasures. for instance, the Amoy Food Center (7 Maxwell Road, Singapore 069111) boasts Famous Crispy Curry Puff (stall 01-21) where the Peranakan curry puffs are exactly as they should be, with the short pastry flaking in circular pieces, encasing either the standard spicy sardines filling, or the potato and chicken version. Equally perfect and memorable.
On the other side of town, if you're near the easily missed little Holland Village Market & Food Center, do stop in and try the wantan mee with char siew. The noodles are tender, chewy, and juicy with char siew gravy, and the clear broth accompanying is mild and fully flavoured all at the same time, I'm not sure quite how.
China Square boasts some good eating spots, a teh tarik stall, a chee cheong fun place, and the Genius Central, where the food is appetizing and vegan, the cocktails pack a punch and the service is warm and friendly. It is also a work share space; the vibe is clubby and relaxed.
Moving on from the hawker stalls, and still in search of local fare away from the many smart coffee shops, cutesy ice cream parlours, Korean bbq, Japanese teppanyaki and moody cocktail lounges everywhere ... here are some highlights:
Violet Oon: She's pretty much the Singapore equivalent of our own Maggie Beer, the local doyenne of Peranakan cookery books, a slew of cafes and restaurants and consultant on various projects for big hotels and tourism. Preserving traditional recipes, Oon's various restaurants around Singapore including at the National Art Gallery are a culinary journey into the heart of the region's food history in elegant surroundings.
Candlenut: Peranakan food done in a contemporary style, offering a set menu in chic surrounds. Great for a special occasion.
Kok Sen: old style Chinese, not big on atmosphere, but plenty of flavour here, and familiar to the locals.
Zam Zam Restaurant: right by the iconic Masjid Sultan is Zam Zam serving mouth watering murtabak with a variety of savoury fillings from ground lamb and chicken tikka to spiced cabbage. Great for a Sunday breakfast. Indian muslim fare. Watch the expert chef twirl his pastry in a little window at the front.
Mr. and Mrs Mohgan's Super Crispy Roti Prata: nestled in Tin Yeang restaurant is a humble coffee shop serving these outstandingly good flaky roti. Closed on Wednesdays, open from 6.30 am other days until sold out ( usually about early lunchtime.)
Komala Vilas: a Serangoon Road stalwart. For perfect, crispy paper dosas, idli, and vada, puri.... get your authentic South Indian fix here. There is also a glass case filled with sweets like ladoo and jalebi.
Eight Treasures: right next to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and up some stairs is this Chinese vegetarian restaurant. The tastes are flavourful and appetizing, and sitting by a window of this corner terrace offers good views to the bustle of the street below. Service is pleasant and helpful.
Jing Hua Xiao Chi: a sparsely furnished little place on the edge of Chinatown, past the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple with quiet tables and a fairly small menu of dumplings both steamed and pan fried. A well known and respected xiao long bao specialist, and now in Japan too.
Guo Fu Hotpot and Steamboat:You know this is going to be good the minute you step in as there's hardly any conversation amongst the diners; everyone's focused on the task at hand. Cooking up bowls of fresh ingredients (all sorts of green veggies, slices of pork, brisket, mushrooms, and dried chinese herbs) in your own hot pots, flavoured to your liking, vegetarian, millet, chicken, sweet potato soup and so forth.... the experience is entirely fun, delicious and filling.
Lastly, a highlight of our food explorations in Singapore: a thoroughly fun cooking class with the widely experienced Ruqxana Vasanwala who has been conducting cooking classes out of an airy back garden kitchen of her home for more than twenty years. Well versed in the cuisines of the region, we had a fun time with this hands on class, as she guided us through some great dishes, supplementing it all with history and context, and useful cooking tips. We sat down to our Peranakan lunch on her verandah amongst the frangipani trees as it gently dripped with rain. I'd happily return to Cookery Magic for more local culinary knowledge.
A few tips for eating at hawker stalls:
-bring some paper napkins: these aren't always on offer, and as you know, delicious food is always messy!
-many hawker stalls prefer cash.
-always stack your food tray away in the designated areas clearly signposted when you're done. You're likely to be fined if you don't clear your table before leaving!
-fresh fruit stalls abound, many with tables and tools scattered closeby, so you can eat some right away as the stall holder cuts it up fresh for you. Do stop and savour some local fruit: mangosteen, rambutans, chiku, soursop, jackfruit .... perhaps even some durian! And of course to quench your thirst, delicious fresh coconut and sugar cane juices. The soursop is a special favourite of mine- I love the sweet/sour taste, so refreshing!
-if you see a kueh (cake) stall with lots of jewel-coloured cakes, you won't regret stopping. Mostly made with rice flour, palm sugar and coconut milk and flavoured with pandan leaves, the tastes are mild, and the texture not unlike the Japanese mochi, as glutinous rice flour is often used.
Food to try:
Bak Kut Teh:literally translates to mean pork bone tea. Infused with herbs and flavoured with cinnamon and star anise. Restorative and satisfying.
Yutiao: Chinese fried dough crullers. Great for dipping into soups, porridge, curries ...or tea.
Popiah:a whisper thin crepe filled with lightly steamed shredded veggies including jicama, bean sprouts, carrots and lettuce.
Chee Cheong Fun: thin steamed rice noodle sheets, sliced and served with soy sauce, more elaborate versions have other bits like char siew and kai lan.
Yong Tau Foo: tofu stuffed with ground pork or fish paste, served dry with a sauce, or cubed in a soup.
Putu Piring: a sweet steamed snack made of rice flour and a palm sugar.
Apam Balik: an egg-y crisp pancake filled with crushed peanut and brown sugar mixture.
Have fun in Singapore!
Meanwhile, my gratitude to friends who shared suggestions and tips: Anjali, Po, Nico, Pete, Ness, Angie and Caryn.
This post is dedicated to my sweet travel companion Claudia, who invited me along to Singapore on her business trip.