Traveling on Our Stomachs: Singapore
(Note: I am enjoying keeping this essay away from strict chronological order.)
While visiting Thailand in January, I resigned myself to not finding any durian, since it was way out of season. While we were there, Nat and I took a foray down to Singapore and discovered 101 Fruit, where Malaysian durian from the Bahan area was not out of season and, in fact, plentiful. The Malays grow different varieties than do the Thais and the climate is different, resulting in a durian availability that lasts into the ‘cool season’. The 101 fruit stand is in Chinatown, hidden among shops in back of New Bridge Avenue between Smith and Keong Saik streets. If you are about one block away, you can follow your nose to it. They have piles of durian on display from S$5 per durian up to S$18 per kilo or roughly S$30 per durian for the ‘Mountain Cat’ variety. Other varieties can be bought for S$10, S$12, S$15, S$20 and S$25 per durian. My favorites were Mountain Cat and a variety with the uninspiring name “X024” at S$25 per fruit. They understand English and they will expertly select just the right ripeness for your eating preference. I preferred the ripest available, and they have tables set up so that you can eat them right away, which I did. They cut open the fruit and supply you with food-server disposable poly gloves and little sealed cups of water. There is a sink there with paper towels for washing up afterwards. Heaven on earth. Be sure to ignore the shrink-wrapped durian sellers with their fruit tables right on New Bridge Avenue; their prices are four times as high. I like to push a small dimple into their shrink-wrapped durian meat just to hear them scream at me.
We arrived in Singapore at night so our first meal there was breakfast. I had heard good things about Yi Xing Xuan Tea House (30/32 Tan Jong Pagar Road) and I wanted to try it. I had a simple pot of jasmine tea, which was the best cup of jasmine tea I have ever had. I guess one needs to make excellent tea if one is a tea house. It was the least expensive tea available – 1 or 2 S$, I think – but it would be possible to spend a small fortune drinking tea, if one were so inclined. Nat had an herbal drink. We had dim sum for brunch there – it was almost 11:00. We had chive dumplings, chicken feet, shrimp dumplings, crispy vegetable rolls and carrot cake. Carrot cake all over the city means something like daikon starch blocks with various things embedded. The bill may have come to S$17-20, something like that.
Yi Xing Xuan Tea House: drinks, crispy vegetable spring rolls, shrimp dumpling, vegetable dumpling.
Yi Xing Xuan Tea House: chive dumpling, chicken feet, ‘carrot cake’.
Whole Earth (76 Peck Seah Street)
The signature dish at this Thai-Peranakan vegetarian restaurant, Panang Rendang, is not to be missed. It was the most flavorful, most expertly balanced dish that I had in my three days in Singapore, including both vegetarian and meat dishes during the past two days. The same cannot be said for their Som Tom, which was too sour, or the crispy tofu, which had a cheap mouth-feel texture, not silken, and the sauce on top was not balanced well and a little too sour. I would return for another round of their panang rendang the next time I am in Singapore and I would ask for their recommendations for trying other selections. The place is clean, bright and airy and close to Chinatown and the Tanjong Pagar metro stop.
Whole Earth: panang rending, som tom, crispy tofu
Chin Mee Chin Confectionery (204 East Coast Road)
After reading much about it we had to make the pilgrimage to CMC kopitiam in order to enjoy the legendary kopi and pastries. My kopi-O (black) was one of the best that I had in Singapore, second only to stall 02-048 at the Chinatown Food court (q.v.). My wife’s English tea with milk and sugar was also done well. We stuffed ourselves on the egg custard tart, red bean buns, almond buns, little almond muffins, their kaya toast, custard buns and lastly on the cream horns. The overall quality of the pastries was good and tasty, but nowhere near the level of the fine European bakeries that we enjoy so much. There are very few tables here, so you might have to stand around for several minutes, as we did, before sitting down. Fortunately, it seems that, in the early morning when we went, people are in transit, most not lingering at the tables after breakfast and no wifi table hogs as has been reported elsewhere. It was about a S$15 bill to stuff the two of us silly but it was a S$17 taxi ride from our hotel in Chinatown. The metro would have been only about S$1.50, but we were starved and wanted a fast ride. Since we arrived by taxi, we did not know how to get home. We wasted ½ hour at the busy intersection of East Coast and Still Roads, but no cabs were to be flagged down. We had no working cell phones to call a cab. Finally, we stopped a helpful passerby who told us to take the number 55 bus north on Still Avenue about 3 stops to the Eunos metro station. That is how we discovered the Eunos Food Court (below). All-in-all, CMC was not worth the trip to get there. If I tried to go there again, it would probably be by metro, and then I would probably enjoy my breakfast at the Eunos Food Court metro station.
Eunos Food Court
The Eunos Food Court on Still Road at the Eunos metro stop was our favorite food court for food quality. We serendipitously discovered it on our way back from breakfast at Chin Mee Chin (above) and were quite full, but had to indulge our curiosity, anyway. This was mostly my wife’s doing, since she was curious about the quality of Roti at the Roti stand and the Guai Jab set ups at Whampoa Kway Chap. Guai Jab is a type of soup noodle with five spice egg; it was as good a Thai guai jab with slight anise, clove and cinnamon flavors balanced with good harmony. A separate plate had eggs and tofu that was soaked in the same broth. They also have meats such as pork and pork intestines. At that time, we also ordered a plain roti for 90 cents and it came with a dipping sauce. The roti was crisp on the outside and moist on the inside with a good toasty flavor and not at all oily. The fruity curry sauce was good but it was all my full stomach could do was to enjoy the unadorned roti.
Eunos Food Court – Roti and Fruit Curry from the Ali Baba kiosk.
Eunos Food Court - Guai Jab set up from Whampoa Kway Chap kiosk.
Lim Kee Orchard Fritter in the Maxwell Food Court
This kiosk got a lot of rave reviews, so I had to try it. These are not the usual small goring pisang that you find, but these were fritter-crusted fried whole bananas. The bananas were okay, there is not much choice in bananas evidently in January, but what made these treats stand out was the crispy, toasty fritter crust, which was not a bit greasy. Overall, very good. There are other fritter treats here, as well, but I was too stuffed to sample anything else.
Chinatown Food Court – across New Bridge Road from the Chinatown [NE4] metro stop.
We stopped here for lunch. Here we had Char Siew Rice, Kopi, Carrot pancake (egg), Mee Hokkien , Laksa and everything was of good quality, especially the Char Siew and the kopi-o (black coffee).
Chinatown Food Court – the Char Siew kiosk is (#02-044)
Coffee kiosk (#02-048), nearby
Porridge Center Kopitiam – where Keong Saik turns, just before ending on New Bridge Road (and near 101 fruit, above).
This kopitiam has big red banner signs reading “Tiong Shian Porridge Center” on one side and “Tiong Shian Claypot Frog Porridge” on the other (it is a corner location). It was recommended to us by the cab driver who took us to Jumbo Seafood. We got here about 8:00 am only to find that they didn’t start serving until 9:30 am, unusual for a kopitiam. We had kopi-o (black coffee) and milk tea here from a kopi kiosk that shared the seating space. The drinks were good.
We decided to catch an early breakfast at Tong Ah and return for a late breakfast. When we returned we had Century Egg Porridge, which was so-so and we also had Crispy Tofu which was okay but not great.
Century Egg Porridge and Crispy Tofu at the Porridge Kopitiam
Tong Ah Eating House
Do not despair if you find this place closed at 36 Keong Saik Road. They have moved across the street and slightly down the block to 35 Keong Saik Road. The kopi-O was okay, but weak. The kaya toast was thin and crispy but only had a thin film of kaya on it. The kaya was tasty enough, but I am a glutton for quantity, as well, and I would have liked a more generous slather. My wife had the steam pork bun, which was not bad but nothing special. She also had Milo to drink, which she had not had for years.
Tong AH: Milo and kopi-o Pork bun and kaya toast
We did very little touring that did not involve food but, even so, in Singapore food is everywhere and it is impossible to escape it, as if one wanted to. One place we enjoyed was the Buddha’s Tooth Relic Museum and Temple and we toured all of the floors. There is a vegetarian cafeteria in the basement but it did not look so appealing to us on the day we visited; it might be more appealing at other times. We also visited Raffles Hotel. Shops abound in the promenade around the Hotel. For some reason many of them sell watches but the hotel gift shop is there as well as Ah Teng’s Bakery. This European style café (bakery and coffeeshop) was lifted unabashedly right from an American copy of a French or Austrian cafe in their pastry selections but culturally it was purely Singaporean. I mean that it offers variety, it is pretty and the food (at least our mousse cake) was inviting and tasty, but do not expect deliciousness. Like all other places that we tried in Singapore, the food at Ah Teng’s was mostly a mediocre amuse bouche to keep out stomachs contented while we went about our tour of the city. It is worth a visit en passage but it is not a destination. The Sunny Hills pineapple cakes people from Taiwan also have a small shop there and they will give you a complimentary pineapple cake square along with a cup of well-made green tea. They offer boxed sets in various sizes of these small, sealed rectangular cakes but the prices were greater than our enthusiasm to pack or carry them as gifts, souvenirs or snacks for the long flight home.
Jumbo Seafood, many locations.
We skipped lunch in order to be hungry enough for dinner. There are many well regarded seafood restaurants in Singapore and they all serve their version of Chili Crab. Jumbo Seafood came out on top in most posts on chowhound.com, so we went to the oldest reported one at 1206 East Coast Parkway. The first warning sign that I ignored was the multiple locations of Jumbo Seafood. The second warning sign was the size of the place and the third warning sign was the computer-assisted ordering system and the well-oiled dining machine that was running the place. We had Pak Bung Fai Dang (stir-fried morning glory) to compare it with the dish in Thailand, Chinese broccoli with mushrooms and Chili Crab (with a sufficient side order of marvelous little biscuits to sop up the sauce). The Pak Bung was good; it tasted different than the way one would get it in Thailand, but these are regional differences. Most of the food in Singapore is Chinese Hainanese influenced and so the oils, seasonings and cooking will be slightly different from other regions. What we weren’t prepared for was the insidious food-service industry adulteration of dining in Singapore. Again, we missed the warning signs. Case in point, the sauce for our Chili Crab was good, we certainly didn’t mind sopping it up with our biscuits, but it wasn’t delicious. The crab itself had absolutely no crab taste; I can imagine the quantities that must be flown in daily to supply dozens of restaurants feeding a thousand or so residents and tourists and my mind’s eye sees frozen cartons of crab from China, Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand being unloaded here. This is food-service industrial dining: feed the masses. If it looks like good meat, fish, coffee, avocado, or fruit and you call it good meat, fish, coffee, avocado, or fruit it does not have to taste like good meat, fish, coffee, avocado, or fruit in order to be saleable and acceptable to diners, most of whom has other things on their minds while dining, anyway.
Singaporean food is street hawker food. I am imagining that the downfall of food quality in Singapore began when the city spent millions of dollars to collect the many disparate pushcart sellers into dozens of ‘food courts’ constructed across the city. In my mind, this encouraged commercialization at the expense of smaller operators. The increased exposure of vendors to customer traffic probably was not without added cost and regulations, both of which would reward cost-efficient operators. While this would not prohibit artisanal cooking, it would do nothing to encourage it, either. The final blow to street food in Singapore comes in the form of Singapore’s economic success. Singapore has, since its inception, been at the forefront of world trade and industry and the industrialization of food service is no exception. Certainly there are amazing culinary experiences here but they seem to be divided between ‘5 star’ western-style restaurants and the elusive enthusiastic artisanal cook and produce-seller, wherever they are to be found. There is a great deal of mediocrity in the middle, which is a very broad expanse, evidently.
Overall, I am able to find and enjoy tastier food, dish for dish, across cities and provinces in Thailand than I have been able to find for my three days in Singapore. I am not sure of the reasons for this, but I suspect that there are two main ones. First, perhaps there is a busier, office-worker style of dining in Singapore that has more distractions and permits less appreciation of the savory joys of very tasty food; perhaps the Thais are more demanding in this regard. Then there is the foodservice model; the Thai food industry is, or was, a powerhouse among Asian cultures but nowhere near the sophistication of Singapore. This may allow Thais to maintain a closer cooperation among smaller suppliers of products, where quality, not merely price, determines much of the outcome of the local competition. Certainly the western industrial foodservice model has found a permanent home in Bangkok and perhaps Chiang Mai, but it is still easy to circumvent these pitfalls with even a modest amount of research and word of mouth.
We have not given up on Singapore, rather we have just started looking. In a city of this size there are bound to be many surprises. Who knows in what unlikely location a gem of old, unreconstructed Singaporean street food will again be discovered?
We were greatly assisted in our searching by chowhound.com and the New York Times (nyt.com).