A Singapore Food Odyssey

When we are given less time to explore a place, Px and I tend to go all out on the box ticking and generally achieve much more than if we have a few days in a place.

With two days and nights in SP, staying with Shen, our chef friend we’d met earlier in the year at a street food event in UAE, (there’s another story there, but not for now), and my 800th birthday to celebrate, we had a lot of ground to cover.

Shen’s flat come production kitchen, is well located in the Commonwealth area of SP, right by the metro and easy for us to navigate into town. We dumped our stuff and headed straight out, excited to explore our friend’s city we’d heard so much about.

Obviously SP is known for its amazing food and hawker centres where you can eat  cheaply and incredibly well and we had an extensive list of places we wanted to try. Starting with a hawker centre in Kampong Glen area called QS269 Food House , where we took the advice of Lonely Planet and tucked into some amazing Cantonese roast duck, pork belly and Char Siu from the famous New Rong Lian .

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Char Siu from New Rong Liang

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Fuelled and refreshed by a plate of meat and a couple of Tiger beers it was time to walk the streets of this immaculate city.

We strolled about in the sunshine admiring the pristine beauty of the place, the buildings literally made us smile. The city is a masterpiece of town planning and a monument to its own history. Every new building has been placed in such a way to complement its neighbour and unlike our beloved London, each skyscraper has its own space to breath, its own standing and its own place in the city scape.

The colonial buildings are testament to the past and are given a wide birth to allow them to be clearly seen and understood. Preserved a little too well, there is an almost Disney feel to the place where every shutter and every column gleams with a false newness. It is beautiful, but maybe a little too beautiful?

The government of SP keeps its residents in line, with penalties for littering, smoking in the wrong place, and especially for drugs. The death penalty is in force for trafficking and two years in jail for use. According to our Singaporean friends, you do not want to spend time in that jail. Six to a cell, just a mat on the floor to sleep on and no such thing as a toilet. It’s a deterrent all right.

So to let off steam Singaporeans eat and exercise. A lot. And are encouraged to exercise, presumably to work out the demons that gently, but persuasively suggest you may want an occasional toke on a joint or a sneaky snort of something stronger. Run, run run….don’t let those demons catch up with you!

We happily mooched around the Marina Bay and popped into the incredibly designed Science Museum building, and to the brilliant Future World light exhibition. One of those interactive types that was geared well for children but when has that ever stopped us mucking in?

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Future World

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Then as dusk fell we walked over to the Gardens by the Bay, a gorgeous garden/sculpture/science park which I had been really looking forward to seeing. Another great feature of the “Garden City” planning ideals of Singapore where architecture merges seamlessly with nature.

The famous plant covered “Supertrees” powered by solar, tower over you as you walk amongst them and start to glow within their purple, metal framework, as the sun sets. Then there’s the “Cloud Forest”, a greenhouse on steroids that contains inside waterfalls and all the plants you’d find in the jungle. Another greenhouse “The Flower Dome” houses dry Mediterranean climate flowers from across the world. If Willy Wonka was a botanist this is what his factory would have looked like. Its a marvel, a slightly bizarre 100 hectare marvel that apparently cost over S$1billion. But a marvel nonetheless.

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Super Trees
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 Super Trees
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Cloud Garden
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Cloud Garden

It was dinner time. Shen was working that night but she suggested we head over to the Smith St hawker centre the Chinatown Complex, a labyrinthine car park of place with over 200 food and drink stalls. Px swiftly found the craft beer stall and we ordered a sizzling clay pot chicken rice dish from the highly recommended Lian He Ben Ji, with a 40 minute wait, but well worth it.

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Clay Pot Chicken
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Lian He Ben Ji Claypot
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Chinatown Complex

Away from the perfectly clean streets of SP, it was refreshing to eat in these more organically designed food centres. Hawkers used to operate on the streets but recent changes to that tradition has led to old car parks, warehouses and industrial spaces now being used for food courts. It seems a bit more real, a bit more honest and maybe a bit more human if there’s a bit of dual purpose about the place, and coming from our colourful street food background it was all very familiar to us.

The food was great, but we were knackered after a long day, and slowly made our way home. Stopping briefly for a couple of glasses of locally brewed beer from the Archipelago Brewery that had a tap bar in the heart of Chinatown.


Birthday morning kicked off with a traditional Singaporean breakfast that I’d read about and sounded right up my street, what with my penchant for an egg based breakfast. Kaya Toast is nothing short of delicious, brown toast with the crusts cut off, sandwiching a thick wedge of butter and a coconut “jam”. This is then dunked in a bowl of two soft boiled eggs that have been seasoned with soy sauce and white pepper and mixed together to make a sloppy eggy sauce. It’s basically egg soldiers, sweetened up with coconut and paired with a deliciously sweet white coffee. We went to Ya Kun Kaya Toast which had been in situ since 1944, we love an historical eatery!

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Kaya Toast

It being my birthday we waited until about 12.30pm until it was deemed acceptable to have a drink. And where else but the Raffles Hotel  for an obligatory Singapore SlingNot the greatest cocktail in the world, but I like the fact that it was created in the early 20th century in order to allow women to drink secretly in public by disguising the alcohol in a long fruity drink. The early days of feminism kicking off nicely by getting us drunk. Raffles is gorgeous of course, Colonial to the last, with all the pomp and circumstance you’d expect, if a little touristy and laden with lobster coloured expats.

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We ticked a couple of excellent boxes for lunch, one we stumbled across purely by accident. The barman at the Archipelago Brewery from the night before had given us a couple of recommendations, one being an amazing Katong Laksa, the fabulous coconut noodle soup common in Malaysia. We hadn’t expected to find it as we didn’t write down the directions. It was our destiny to try this Laksa as we were drawn there by serendipity alone. We knew this was the right place, The Dragon Tree  as the barman had said, don’t let you eat with chop sticks, only the Chinese style spoon. We ordered one to share, with a side dish of a fish paste cake wrapped in banana leaf. We weren’t sure what was actually in the Laksa until we tasted it, expecting chicken or prawn, it turned out to be delicious chunky flakes of white fish cake, clams, prawns, loads of sea food and perfectly spiced.

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Katong Laksa

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Lunch #2 (yes we ate a lot today) we headed over to Little India to search out a Murtabak or Prata, the thin, grilled, roti style bread that sandwiches lamb & paneer and gets dunked in an amazing curry sauce, made by A R Rahman  in one of the food courts. It did not disappoint but the calorie guilt started to raise its lardy head, especially as Shen was cooking for us that night.

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Lamb Murtabak
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A R Rahman prata preparation

Shen is a bit of a legend in Singapore, once a hard working hawker and then restaurant owner herself, she is now a freelance chef, brand ambassador and general culinary whirlwind. This girl knows how to cook and having seen the menu for this evening we were really looking forward to get stuck in!

Shen loves pork. She’s Singaporean after all so her Chinese heritage runs strong in her veins! She runs a supper club entitled “aPorkalypse and we were a test run for some of the dishes she was planning for her next event. With several members of her family, her partner and a couple of her expat mates around the table, we tucked into everything from pork jowl, suckling pig, and even pigs brains…yep. I tried a tiny piece as I can’t not tick that box if given the chance. It tasted like a light creamy foie gras, and if blind folded that’s probably what you’d guess it was. It’s only when you think about what you’re actually eating is when it all goes a bit wrong!

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Photo by Shen

It was a lovely night, lots of jokes from Shen’s cousin Jean who proudly declared that “Singaporeans don’t think they’re the best, they know they’re the best”! Her words not mine!

Conversation also centred around our struggle with the strict laws of the country and whether we could cope with living in such a restrictive state. Shen’s point of view about her government was “it depends what you want, if you want to live in a clean, healthy, wealthy society, but in order to do so adhere to certain rules, or if you want to be able to indulge in the occasional pick me up without getting arrested but live less well.” Me and Px gave each other a knowing look. We knew the answer to that one.


The next day we were flying to Penang in the early evening so Shen gave us her “food odyssey” tour of the city, starting with breakfast of a traditional Singaporean dry noodle dish that doesn’t get much recognition for being a local classic. It literally had everything in it, pork belly, fish balls, pork balls, balls of all kinds, and was delicious, but it was only 10am and we were full already.

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Shen’s Nasi Lemak
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Revolution Cafe

Next stop was Revolution Coffee where Shen’s recipes are on the menu and we tucked into a delicious Nasi Lemak w Beef Rendang, her signature dish. There was no point saying you were full with this lady, so we resigned ourselves to stretched stomachs and calories and tucked in.

Next stop was two fold, one to see the best view of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the iconic trio of towers linked at the top by a boat shaped roof of bars and swimming pools. It’s a great building and even better when you are viewing it from the building opposite drinking craft beer made on site at LeVel 33.

 

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The View from LeVel 33

A couple pints later and someone had mentioned Dim Sum, so off we went to high end, Cantonese restaurant Mitzo, where Shen had recently presented a chef residency event. We were treated to the most incredible Christmas cocktail that took about half an hour to make, but it was a work of art, and some lovely crispy dim sum, truffled duck Char Siu followed by perfectly light crusted custard tarts.

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That was it.

No. More. Food. Shen.

Vowing never to eat again, yeah right, we bid farewell to Shen, and dragged our heavy frames to the airport, thoroughly satisfied that we had tried as much local food as possible. But aware that we were now headed to Penang, which has its own, extremely high status in the world food pecking order.

Might have to be sick…


Notes: Great list of craft beer venues in SP from Seth Lui 

Next Up: Primates & Perspiration in Penang.