I love every meal that I have in Singapore. Considering how much I eat when I travel, it’s inevitable that I’m going to come across food that I don’t really like. Not so in Singapore. I’m loving EVERYTHING at EVERY meal I sit down to.
Singaporean food is actually a blend of the various immigrant groups that have made this garden city their home through the centuries. Chinese, Malay, Indian, Indonesian, eaten with chopsticks, spoon and fork, or even just the fingers, the food found here is accompanied by powerful sensations: poultry steaming in a wok for an authentic meal of Hainanese chicken rice; the pungent, nose-tickling hiss of chilies mixing with ghee; dried prawn paste being spread on a just-grilled portion of rendang stingray. These are all rich food traditions from Asia’s greatest cuisines.
Being an island once inhabited by fishermen, Singaporeans are irresistibly drawn to seafood. It also cuts through all religious strictures ”“ Muslims eschew pork, Hindus and Buddhists avoid beef, and the Chinese are put off by lamb and mutton.
One of the got-to-get-it seafood dishes when in Singapore is chili crab. I have it on very good authority that some of the best ones are found at Jumbo Seafood in Riverside. Here, two kilos of crab are fried in a spicy-sweet tomato sauce, two tangy essences penetrating the shell and infusing the delicate meat with life. That I have to pick and prod and poke and push just to get the crabmeat out is reward enough for a moderate mouthful of the sweet, fresh meat. There’s plenty of the sauce to be mopped up by the deep-fried buns, its crusty outside cradling a doughy center, a perfect receptacle for the sauce. Pretty soon however, I ditch the buns and begin spooning the sauce with gusto into my gaping maw. At this point, my little plate of crispy baby squid resting on a bed of fried vermicelli is almost neglected. But it provides a soothing counterpoint to the hotness of the crustacean. Lordy, this is blow-my-doors-off good eating!
30 Merchant Road, #01-01/02
Riverside Point, Singapore
The best patisserie in Singapore
Executive Pastry Chef Pang Kok Keong, is at the helm of Canelé, a sweets place brimming with breads, pastries, confectioneries, and cakes. Obviously named after the French canelé, a fluted, rum-soaked cake topped with torched sugar, it’s a pÃ¢tisserie that reminds me of Bizu with its similar ambience and charming mural of macaroons on the back wall.
There are jars of marmalades and prepared spreads, the hazelnut-banana catches my eye. The display counter is something that I see only in my wildest daydreams: elegant little cakes all but prancing with their labor-intensive garnishes, meringue fluffs as large as baseballs, candies, and homemade truffles. A clear glass pane separates the kitchen from the dining room.
A giddiness I feel only when I’m in dessert places like these starts to bubble up inside me. I lean on the display counter, my short, excited breaths leaving little tufts of steam on the glass. After an agonizing decision and some bargaining with my friend, Karen, we decide on the chocolate bombe — (“We make it only once a year,” says the lady behind the counter) ”” and a package of six macaroons. Because hot chocolate (five kinds!) is on the menu, there’s no way that I’m going to pass up drinking my favorite beverage so I opt for the vanilla hot chocolate.
By this time, my Bin, who’s still reeling from the jumbo indigestion effects of our jumbo crab meal at Jumbo has collapsed on the booth-seats in Canelé. “I’m just going to pick off of what you girls order,” he says with a careless wave of his hand.
Karen, the self-confessed chocoholic, gets first crack at the chocolate bombe. Coated with what seems to be cocoa powder, its delicate chocolate shell reveals a light chocolate mousse interrupted by beads of chocolate croquant. It provides surprising textural relief from the deliciously never-ending smoothness of the mousse. Needless to say, Karen is captivated.
I compare all macaroons (also macarons) I eat to Bizu’s macaroons, simply because they are my benchmark, what I know macaroons to be. Canelé’s macaroons are chewier, slightly larger too. They also seem to be more subtly flavored than Bizu’s because I taste all six macaroons and can’t quite make out a definitive flavor in each. Incredibly tasty, however.
The vanilla hot chocolate is a freely flowing liquid of what I suspect to be cocoa powder and plenty of vanilla bean encapsulating how good vanilla can really be. As evidenced by the little black specks swimming in the hot chocolate however, a vanilla bean can indeed be overpowering if not used judiciously. The vanilla flavor was indeed too much there, masking the chocolate that I would also like to taste. Still, quite satisfying especially for a palate like mine that needs to get away from artificial vanilla extracts.
11 Unity Street, Robertson Walk #01-09
The hybridization, if you can call it that, of Singapore’s cuisine is best personified in its hawker centers. Here, the food is prepared by self-employed cooks who once operated from makeshift stalls along the roadside.
Eating from one of these food centers is an assault on my senses, and I revel in it. My ears are assailed by the shouts of the cooks calling out orders; my eyes drink in the cacophony of colors and sights; my nose flares at the spicy aromas enveloping me; and my hands begin to sweat from the Singapore dollars that I’m clutching, which I’ll use to pay for my meal. If I could, I’d order one of everything. How I pray to have a stomach as large as my eyes!
Each hawker has devised an ingenious method to this madness. By using a seemingly complicated system of spoons and clothes pegs, hawkers take my order, receive my money, cook the dish, plate it in front of me, and then the piping hot glory is handed over. They remind me of jeepney drivers in Manila who are like octopuses when dealing with their passengers’ money while maintaining control of the wheel.
Hawker dining is not at all elegant but it’s probably the best quality food in town. It’s also relatively cheap, and most Singaporeans will swear that hawker food rivals that or is even better than those found at poshier addresses.
My Bin and I meet our friends Paolo and Karen at Makan Sutra, the hawker center at the Esplanade mall. Appropriately nicknamed “Gluttons’ Bay,” it’s teeming with people at 8:30 pm. I’m happy to take my sweet time choosing what to eat and photographing the food action, but everyone else is starving. Quickly deciding on an oyster omelette yet again, this has been my staple dish throughout this entire trip. I don’t think I can ever tire of it.
the oyster omelette tag-team
I watch transfixed as the cook behind the counter takes my money. Shouting an order, his companion oils an enormous frying pan and then ladles out the omelette batter. With deft scraping motions, the liquid mass turns into curds. I shudder at the amount of oil the cook is pouring into the pan with his metal turner, but you know, adventurous eating requires courage. If one wants to eat healthy, one should stay at home. Some secret sauce ”“ I can’t tell if it’s red or brown ”” is added to the eggs and then the plump oysters are added last, along with a shower of chopped green onions and sprigs of cilantro. Bliss! And all for me. Heheh.
Left to right, clockwise: my beloved oyster omelette, saté with lontong, sautéed green beans with chili, curry chicken, Singaporean fried rice, rendang stingray.
I wanted to make sure that I was going to try rendang stingray. Notoriously known as what killed adventurist Steve Irwin, stingrays are usually grilled using charcoal. The wings, the “cheek” (the area surrounding the eyes), and the liver are edible while the other parts are considered too rubbery. For some reason, I thought that the stingray would have a texture like squid. Surprisingly, it’s a very soft-fleshed fish, similar to a good quality lapu-lapu (spotted grouper). The chili paste it’s smeared with is slightly piquant, it might be sambal belachan, dried prawn paste mixed with a variety of spices like ginger, galangal, turmeric leaf, lemon grass and chilies.
I’m overjoyed when I see this dish, saté (also satay) with what I know to be lontong, but what the Singaporeans call lemang, glutinous rice cakes steamed in bamboo. The last time I saw (and ate) lontong was back when I was in grade school and living in Indonesia. My, eating these packed packets of rice was like meeting an old friend again. The blandness of the rice is a good foil to the zip of the satay.
Raffles Avenue beside Esplanade Mall,