You know when something you’re eating is so good you just have to… stop. “Mmm” doesn’t do it justice. You pause, you look at your significant other, and really think, “Will you ever make me feel as good this sliver of ham on this cushion of a flavor explosion?”
Recently known as the “foodgasm” Singaporeans have always had a name for this feeling, shiok. Shiok is a commonly used Malay word, shiok, to described “a feeling of unadulterated pleasure as related to food!” How could you not love a culture that goes that hard for food! If you remember, I discuss my love of the controversial Durian in this previous blog post, and writing the article for Fathom left me desperately craving Peranakan food, so I ended up here. This tiny island nation is smaller than Manhattan and the food scene is grade A — they even have an outpost of the cheapest Michelin star awarded restaurant in the world!
Not everything could make my top 10 list for Fathom and I spent 6 days eating my way through town! Here’s my version of MTV Real World’s Sh*t They Should Have Shown, Singapore foodie style — a kind of behind the scenes elaboration on what made my list for Fathom. Warning: I do not recommend reading this if you have the munchies or you’ll end up booking a flight to Singapore. Or maybe I do…
One of my favorite things about the food scene in Singapore is that like a great outfit, you can mix high and low. In the same day, I can have breakfast at a decades old coffee shop with the owner pouring your coffee in his pajamas, lunch at a 5-star, molecular gastronomy focused restaurant and dinner, with a bib at a seafood chain that makes the best chili crab on the island, or maybe at a hawker center gnoshing on rojak. Whatever taste you’re craving you can find it in Singapore. Except for bland… I had a hard time finding bland there.
On my second morning I was privy to a “typical” or “traditional” Singaporean breakfast. And guess what? It was quite similar to a breakfast favorite of mine when I was younger: soft boiled eggs, kaya toast and kopi. And there are few better places to have this in Singapore than Heap Seng Leong Kopitiam (Blk 10 North Bridge Rd., #01-5109). The owner came out in his striped PJs and I got the sense that he treated the restaurant like a live-work space. The old grungy coffee shop still uses an abacus with patrons that have probably been spending their morning there for the last 30 years. It was so simple, so shiok.
Out with the old, in with the new! Just kidding, but Singapore is definitely a country about the future and this tiny island nation is perhaps the future of culinary tradition around the world. They seem to be teeming with every type of restaurant and even hosted the World Street Food Congress in 2015. See, I told you high and low. So let’s go to one of my favorites in the high. The Tippling Club. Chef Ryan Cliff’s Tippling Club pushed my taste buds and senses with ingredients in unexpected shapes and textures and combinations (for example, the margarita-flavored beef tendon looks like a light and airy chip). This is the place to spot the chicest Singaporeans for lunch.
After some refined dining, don’t you want to just get messy. Put on your bib and make sure you are among friends because etiquette goes out the door when you’re sopping up delicious chili crab sauce with fried bread and slurping crab legs at Jumbo Seafood. The mud-crabs, stir-fried in a thick and savory chili and tomato-based sauce, are meant to be eaten by hand.
Another amazing crab dish that is worth flying to Singapore for? The Crab Bee Hoon at Sin Huat Seafood Restaurant (659/661 Geylang Rd.). A favorite of Anthony Bourdain, this place is no frills, no menu and no way you’re leaving less than satisfied. It’s hard to tell where the crab meat ends and the noodles begin, and it’s excellent. (And pricey: a meal here can easily cost US$100.)
One of the main reasons I went to Singapore was to interview KF Seetoh for Du Jour magazine about the hawker centre that Anthony Bourdain is opening in NYC. Every Singaporean has a favorite hawker centre and their favorite stand. I tried a few while I was there, from the newer Gluttons Bay — a part of KF Seetoh’s business plan, bringing the business of food to these age old food vending practices — to the old school Maxwell Road Hawker Centre (1 Kadayanallur St.) in the heart of Chinatown. Click through the images below to find out how I ate my way through this Hawker Centre.
Wild Rocket is located on a hilltop in Edith Park, a Zen garden away from the hustle and bustle of cosmopolitan Singapore. Well-traveled former lawyer and chef/owner Willin Low brings the homemade flavors of his childhood into a refined dining room setting. The pomelo salad with tiger prawns and frozen coconut dressing was the best salad I’ve ever encountered.
There was nothing like walking around Singapore and taking in the sites, sounds and smells of the streets and stands.
Much thanks to fellow foodie reader Bridgette / sparklefreeze who corrected me in the comments below. I thought the bitter gourds in the picture were called sea cucumbers. I’m not sure where I got that from but she corrected me with the caption that you now see in the pic. I actually have seen another bitter gourd in the same family in Jerusalem at a health drink stand so when she said that it totally jogged my memory! Thanks for the comments and keep them coming!
One of the places where this is most prominent is Little India, one of my first stops in Singapore for a lunch of Indian food at The Banana Leaf Apolo. There is nothing like the smell of marigold, jasmines and other flowers on the religious garlands. It is rare to see a woman working at one of these stands.
Singaporeans and their cuisine are a beautiful blend of four cultures, Malay, Indian, Chinese and Eurasian. Peranakan food is Singapore’s oldest fusion cuisine originated by the descendants of the Straits-born Chinese traders and migrant merchants who intermarried with local Malays in the 15th–17th centuries. It’s a delicious blend of Chinese ingredients with spices and cooking techniques of the Malay/Indonesian variety. I was treated to a chef’s tasting at Candlenut, a chic and modern-looking place serving homestyle fare and once again craving it on my last night I chose the wonderfully restored old shop house The Blue Ginger. I knew I wanted my last taste of Singapore to be Peranakan food. I crave it still and am searching for a variation of the buah keluak over wok-fried tiger prawns back in NYC.