Is Singapore one of the great eating cities of the world?
Quite possibly. I spent some time there in early December. Less than 90 miles from the equator, it was quite warm, of course, hitting around 90 most days but with far less humidity than I remembered from a visit years ago. But I wasn’t there for the weather. I was there for the food.
There are plenty of food tours offered through places like Viator and TripAdvisor, but I was lucky enough to have a Chowzter buddy who’s a native Singaporean. Juliana gave me pointers and sometimes shepherd me around. Singapore is such a mixture of cultures that the eating possibilities are immense; there were plenty of things I wanted to try but didn’t manage. Much of what I’m talking about here are foods out of their multicultural traditions, which means that everyone’s grandmother made them differently. That means that the arguments are endless over what constitutes The Best, of course, but with the ever-keen Juliana keeping me up to date, I had a great time.
The best dish of the entire trip may well have been a bowl of laksa. I wrote to my daughter, the first Apprentice Eater, after having this, “I’ve eaten fish soups from above the Arctic Circle to near the equator, and I can honestly say this one was mind-blowing.” Laksa uses a coconut-seafood broth, shrimp, rice noodles and varying mysterious seasonings, including things like galangal and dried shrimp. It’s apparently often quite spicy, but one of the nice things about the laksa I had was that the chili paste was politely smeared on the lip of the bowl so as much or little of it could be nudged into the liquid. I like things really spicy, but the small dab I added after my first bites was just enough that I could still revel in the wondrousness of that broth. Laksa is available in many places – the lunch buffet at my hotel had it, for instance – but you’re better off trying it in one of the spots more patronized by locals. They argue about which version is correct the way Americans argue about barbecue, so don’t be surprised by what you find on the internet. Juliana urged me to go to a place quite a distance from the center of town, six or seven miles,. But cabs are cheap and Uber even cheaper. I paid about $4 for the laksa and a cold drink, less than the one-way fare, but it would have been worth five times the price. It’s in a shopping mall, not the fancy Western kind but a building that holds many small businesses. Go in the ground-level door, and it’s almost immediately to your right. Order, pick your drink and pay at the counter. There’s at least one other location for this particular outfit, by the way.
The Original Katong Laksa
50 East Coast Rd.#01-64, Singapore
Daily 8.30 a.m. - 5.30 p.m.
The many of the variations of chicken and rice have, over the years, come to be favorites of mine. I’d heard about Singapore’s Hainanese chicken and rice, but the one version I’d tried was disappointingly wan. I suspected the problem was that version, which turned out to be correct. Juliana took me to Zion Road Hawker Centre for my first lunch, and that was what I had – or, more accurately, part of what I had.
White meat of chicken is poached in a broth that’s strengthened by dozens, probably hundreds, of pieces of chicken that have been poached in it before, the liquid seasoned with ginger, garlic, and, often, pandan leaves. Some of that liquid is used to prepare the rice. It’s served with a dipping sauce of seasoned dark soy sauce. If I hadn’t had lots of other things about to arrive at the table, I could have made a pig of myself on this. It’s a good dish for those hesitant about digging into the local cuisine. Juliana got it from Boon Tong Kee, which has several sites throughout Singapore.
A few tips on dining at hawker centres, which are like the old Miss Hullings’ Seven Kitchen concept gone wild – lots of small vendors cluster around picnic tables. Find a place to sit and hold your place with a packet of Kleenex or an umbrella or something. This is Singapore; the spot will be respected and your belongings will be safe. Wet-wipes are helpful to have, as well as tissues; napkins seem in short supply. This is a good idea throughout southeast Asia, although sanitation in Singapore is generally impeccable. You may have to share a table. Look for stands that have a line – this means the locals think the food is tasty, and there’s a rapid turnover of food. Usually there is someone who’s bussing the tables, but look around to see what locals do. The hardest part will be deciding what to eat.
Another well-known dish is chilli crab. Again, lots of arguments about which is best; I ended up at a spot on Robertson Quay, near my hotel, called the Red Box The dish varies in pungency from restaurant to restaurant; theirs is not wildly hot and in fact, the sauce has a little sweetness to it. Mantou are rolls designed to sop up the sauce, a wise addition. The crab these days is imported, and it’s not an inexpensive meal – my check for the crab and a beer was around $65 American, a decided contrast with the laksa and any hawker centre food.
For upscale Chinese, I had a delightful dinner with Julianna, her husband Guillaume, who’s French (and a chef with two Michelin stars), and another friend, at his favorite Chinese restaurant, Jade Palace. It’s inside a very nice shopping center, much more upscale than the one holding the laksa place, on the big, almost Rodeo Drive-like Orchard Road. Razor clams? Foie gras? Pigeon? Yes, in a Chinese restaurant. Wonderful, and a very good wine list.
For something authentic, non-touristy but only a little exotic, think about a kopi shop, a coffee shop. Kopi is coffee that comes with condensed milk, hot, milky and sweet, not unlike the Vietnamese coffee many of us order over ice. There are other ways to order coffee – here’s a chart, if you’re interested. The traditional accompaniment to the coffee is kaya toast. It’s a sandwich of toasted bread, often crustless, that contains kaya, often described as coconut jam. It’s actually more of a curd – think lemon curd in terms of consistency and method of preparation – but that’s quibbling. One piece of the toast has a slice of cold butter on it, the other is spread with kaya. Some folks like the butter melty, others praise the contrast between the cold, firm butter and the ooze of the kaya. Many people have a soft- or semi-soft-boiled egg with it, using the bread to wipe up egg yolk. Definitely worth investigating. There are kopi shops all over, even chains that are shiny-bright and perhaps less intimidating for the rookie, like the one where I took this picture.
That should do for a kickoff. More adventures in other parts of Southeast Asia sooner or later.