May 25, 2013
Guest Post: Eating Singapore
Singapore food is all about flavor; vibrant, bold and balanced Asian flavor that makes your brain cells tingle, heightens your senses, and makes you say “Whoa” outloud. Think “umami”, but in caps.
There are also noticeable Western influences due to the growing expat community, as well as a fondness for rich, sweet confections. Singapore’s food scene, similar to New York City’s, encourages experimentation and fusion as a means of competitive survival. A major port of trade, Singapore’s cuisine reflects the diverse cultures of the people that have come to live and work here: Chinese, Halal (Muslim), Indian, Indonesian, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, Thai, Peranakan, Vietnamese.
Moreover, to appease the growing Western expat community, there are a few good quality American, German, Greek, French and Italian restaurants. Some say that the food is different, less pure, perhaps even better, than that found in their origin countries, due to the need to cater to so many different palates.
Following are a few examples of my most memorable food experiences here:
Pictured above is a traditional Singaporean breakfast from the popular cafe/bakery chain Toast Box. Well, almost typical. The sunny side up eggs are missing, but there’s the buttered toast (ends trimmed) with thick slivers of butter and cloyingly sweet greenish kaya jelly (made with eggs, coconut milk, sugar and essence from the local pandan leaf), as well as the heart-shockingly strong and sweet kopi (Singapore’s version of coffee), commonly taken with milk. This breakfast is extremely rich and buttery, which makes me wonder how there are so many Kate-Moss-thin Singaporeans.
Ernest and I are not into overly sweet things. Thus, we might go instead to our corner breakfast/lunch spot, Mooshi Bakes/Awfully Chocolate (recently renamed NineThirty after adding dinner items to their menu).
Though this dish looks deceptively heavy, the eggs are incredibly fluffy and light, prepared in the French style, and the sauce is such a fresh and lovely-tasting distillation of the sweet tomato and savory salty parmesan that a bit of it with each item on the plate elevates everything straight into your mouth.
The juicy tandoori chicken is slightly sweet and smoky, and addicting. The dressing should be bottled and sold. This restaurant does very well due to its ground floor, corner, intersection-facing location; its bakery which bakes breads and prepares fresh desserts each day; its cool, distinctive modern decor and vibe; its attractive young waitstaff; and most importantly, its food which is always beautifully prepared and full of flavor.
Three foods that are most loved by Singaporeans, and by me, are the following:
Hainanese Chicken Rice, at Chicken King food stand on East Coast Road. This dish consists of chicken steeped in chicken stock, steamed white rice cooked in chicken broth, a side bowl of the richly flavored broth, and optional flavorings of spicy red chili sauce, soy sauce, ginger, cucumber and cilantro. Mix the flavorings with the rice and chicken to your preference and sip the broth while you eat. The goal is to be able to keep the proportions of chicken and rice equal until the very last bite, at least that’s my theory after secretly watching others eat this dish. It’s a delicious, healthy and comforting meal infused with flavor despite its humble appearance.
Chili Crab, a slippery steaming heap of Dungeness crab smothered in a spicy, red (much redder than this photo shows), mildly sweet and addicting sauce made with tomato sauce, soy sauce, garlic, shallots, red chili peppers, and green onions. Eating with one’s hands is a must, as well as licking one’s fingers.
Japanese snacks on a stick. One memorable experience we had was at ShoKutsu 100 Osaka, a unique Japanese food court that we stumbled upon in the middle of a mall in the middle of nowhere, far outside the city center. In addition to the bright lights, vivid colors, and fun, cute artwork, the yummy-looking food stalls and good smells reminded me of the fairytale characters Hansel and Gretel, hungry and lost in a forest, suddenly coming upon an irresistible house made of cookies and candy.
Food items are presented deli-style. We liked this selection of fried meats and seafood.
A server pours the deep scarlet-brown teriyaki sauce that coats everything at this popular stall.
Following are more memorable food experiences...
Korean tofu stew, at Doong Ji Korea Place on East Coast Road. Spicy, sour, sweet bubbling soup, soft tofu, almost too hot to eat, and nearly as good as Ernest’s Mom’s.
Schweinshaxn or Pork Knuckle, at German restaurant Brotzeit, located at the beautifully modern and sleek Japanese-designed mall, Vivo City. Crispy, chewy, smoky, slightly sweet, and juicy hind shank of grain-fed pork, served with sauerkraut, potato salad, yellow squash, cherry tomatoes, mesclun and homemade sauce on the side.
Sea bass salad at casual restaurant/bakery Cedele, also located inside a mall. Beautiful stacked presentation, perfectly cooked fish and fresh vegetables.
Vegetarian food at Naive, a restaurant that used to be our favorite place but now has sadly closed. We think it may have been due to their high prices. The dishes pictured above were made entirely with two different mushroom varieties, and prepared in such a way that they were flavorful, a bit on the sweet side, and with a meaty, crispy texture. I miss their lemongrass juice with coconut tapioca jelly.
Champagne pork ribs at Por Kee Eating House. The sauce is perfectly caramelized, sticky, smoky and a little sweet. There are different Eating Houses all over Singapore, all serving an endless array of Chinese dishes, but some swear that Por Kee is the best. Speaking of pork...
Mookata on East Coast Road brings traditional Thai BBQ to Singapore. A cross between Shabu Shabu and Korean BBQ, it is an engaging way to be able to cook and eat your meal.
Mookata-in-progress. We were provided with a hot domed skillet and an assortment of pork and beef, local vegetables, mushrooms, an egg still in its shell, and rice noodles.
Mookata-nearly done. The ingredients help to flavor the water in the trough at the base of the skillet, creating a savory broth.
Sushi, seaweed salad, tempura, salmon eggs, cooked eel, etc.... at Sushi Tei, our go-to Japanese restaurant in the East Coast. Like the gracious service, the food is always beautifully prepared, fresh and delicious, and their menu is extensive. However, Nobu in New York City is still my favorite sushi place by far.
Fu Lin Tofu Yuen soup from Fu Lin Tofu Yuen at Food Republic, a popular food court chain. This soup is made to order and one is expected to choose from a wide array of fresh local vegetables, cooked fish and meats. I usually get bok choy, tofu, fish balls, and seaweed; sometimes also crispy shrimp wontons or,... and this may sound weird but it’s actually sinfully good, a hotdog injected with cheese. The clear broth, which has been cooking for hours, is a surprisingly delicious and soothing flavor. You can also add a small side bowl of brown chicken mushroom gravy over rice noodles. OR you can switch it up and order a “dry” dish, which is all your ingredients, deep fried, then topped with the chicken mushroom gravy and noodles, and a small side bowl of the broth.
Indonesian Padang from Food Republic. Who wouldn’t want their food served on a giant banana leaf? Ernest and I like to pair our tofu soup with a few of the wide array of selections from this stand, which includes dishes made with chicken, beef or fish, prepared in a coconut curry, fried or with sambal (chilli paste) and served with cabbage and curried egg. Pictured above is sauteed spinach and green beans, and battered, fried, and chewy chicken and fish. Indonesian food, though tasty, is a bit greasy.
Basmati and curries from Banana Leaf in Little India. This was my first experience eating at a vegetarian Indian restaurant where it was okay to eat with your hands. Fortunately, I had a friend from India to show me how it’s done. First, wash up. There is a handy row of sinks in a hallway in the restaurant, outside of the bathrooms. Back at your table, with your right hand and fingers together, excluding your thumb, you mix the sauce with the rice, then scoop up a bite-sized amount of food. Bring your hand to your mouth, then with your thumb, push and maneuver the food along the length of your fingers towards your mouth. Though the food at Banana Leaf was definitely amazing, I think that eating in this way made it more memorable and fun.
Sichuan Wontons with Spicy Soup at Xiao La Jiao in i12 Katong Mall on East Coast Road. This restaurant, whose chefs claim to be “Masters of Sichuan Cuisine” is my favorite Chinese place in Singapore, AND the best Chinese food we’ve ever had. Their wonton soup vibrates with flavor and has just the right amount of heat. The dumplings are juice-filled pillows of tiny, soft pork meatballs draped in diaphanously thin and light wonton wraps.
Claypot Eggplant with Minced Pork, also at Xiao La Jiao. Every time I have this dish, I start scheming of various ways I might get the recipe for the sauce. In all seriousness, this sauce is thrilling in that it makes my heart beat a little faster with anticipation when I know we’re going to have it. It is bold, aromatic, savory, spicy, a bit sour, a bit salty and utterly addicting. The soft, relatively bland eggplant is an appropriate blank canvas, very rightly ceding all the glory and spotlight to the sauce.
Kueh served at a Chinese-Peranakan wedding reception. These are colorful, steamed glutinous rice cakes, eaten as desserts or snacks. Chewy, mildly sweet and perfectly paired with tea or coffee. I simply adore the brilliant color combinations in this dessert, which shows that we experience food as much with our eyes as with our mouths.
Mango Pomelo Dessert with Tapioca, also served at a Chinese-Peranakan wedding. Chewy tapioca balls floating in a chilled, refreshing blend of sweet mango and subtly sweet, citrusy pomelo. This dessert made up for the sad fact that there is no dancing at a Chinese-Peranakan wedding.
Green Tea Ice Cream with red beans and gelatinous rice balls at Sushi Tei in the East Coast. This dessert is a grown up Asian ice cream sundae. Visually interesting, the sweet red beans, chewy rice balls, and subtly sweet green tea ice cream play well together. The wafer shell, however, has a bland styrofoamy texture. I would have preferred a harder, more buttery, sweet shell, like a toasted sugar cone.
Chocolate cupcake from NineThirty. This, in my humble opinion, is the best chocolate cupcake in the world, truly. The cake is delicate, airy, moist, and chocolatey. And the glistening pillowy soft, fresh cream frosting swirled generously on top is perfectly sweet and chocolatey with a dollop of dark chocolate sauce at the apex. One can’t help but sigh between bites.
On that note, I’ll sign off here as I am getting hungry.
We are all united in our love of food. Eat well and be happy,