A gastronomic stopover in Singapore on route back to Sydney from the United Kingdom presented a kid in a candy shop kind of scenario. I had just two nights and two days in a city renowned for its amazing food culture. My conundrum was where to start.
I dabbled with the idea of visiting some fancy fine diners. After all, Singapore has its fair share to choose from. Instead i opted to keep it low key and relatively un-planned. Looking back i wish i’d slept less and gorged more. Instead i have a list of places that couldn’t be squeezed in either time or appetite wise. They’re places i am determined to go back to.
Here are six of my top Singaporean culinary picks.
Explore dusty terraces of shutter window stores in the ethnic hub of Little India while snacking on samosas warm and crisp from the deep frier and sticky sugared sweets.
Browse bright coloured vegetable markets and stalls selling hand-made flower garlands of jasmine, marigold and rose that are bought as prayer offerings. Rummage through cluttered, cheap homeware stores for round stainless steel spice tins and copper bottomed karahi serving bowls that increase in size like Russian matryoshka dolls.
When you’re ready for another bite to eat, head to the Tekka Centre, or neighbourhood market, selling hawker food on the ground floor. Choose from Indian curries served on banana leaves, Chinese fried noodles and barbecued whole birds, and Malay food such as char kway tao (stir fried rice cake strips) wok-tossed with prawns, cockles, bean sprouts and garlic chives before your eyes.
Take a taxi to Dempsey Hill where a cluster of eclectic colonial housed restaurants reside. Samy’s – a huge one-room restaurant with a high ceiling and 12 purring fans, and a number of tables on a leafy terrace outside – is a curry lover’s dream.
From a glass-fronted counter choose a selection of ready made fish, chicken, mutton, vegetable, squid and crab curries along with meat from the tandoor and a range of freshly made naan breads.
Take a seat and a banana leaf plate and a wet wipe in a plastic packet is set before you. Waiters, armed with small silver pails full of curry, slop out servings with a no-frills approach.
Lime juice – served in an unflattering half-pint, handled beer glass – is the obligatory drink to cool and refresh curry scorched palates. You will order more than you can eat, and leave regretting that you couldn’t eat more.
Newton Hawker Centre
Interrupt a shopping spree on the popular Orchard Road retail strip with a detour to the nearby Newton Hawker – or food – Centre where the speciality is grilled seafood. Pick a plastic table next to your stall of choice then order in a banquet from neighbouring stallholders, who will hand deliver their freshly cooked dishes.
Barbecued stringray is topped with a magnificent sambal – a spicy prawn and chilli paste. Take a tip from Samy’s (above) and order lime juice to cool down – and extend – your eating experience, otherwise the spice hit will make you want to curl up or go home.
Carrot cake (chai tow kway) – a local speciality – is not the sweet version with cream cheese icing that Westerners are accustomed to. Daikon, or radish, is the central ingredient, which is made into a cake or patty with steamed rice flour and water. It breaks down into small pieces – the texture of a thick noodle – when stir-fried with egg, cured radish and other ingredients such as garlic and spring onion. Order it “black” and soy sauce will be sloshed around the wok just before serving. Ask for chilli if you dare for an extra kick.
Forty Hands cafe
If you’re desperate for a decent coffee hit in Singapore, Forty Hands café is definitely worth seeking out. The team champions fair and direct trade coffee and promotes single origin beans alongside its house blend. It’s worth the taxi ride to the Tiong Bahru district and there is a charming independent bookshop across the road, Books Actually, which specialises in literature and makes the round-trip even more worthwhile.
The small Forty Hands menu serves freshly made toasted sandwiches on homemade wheat bread, such as Jamaican pork with plum chutney. The Mediterranean lamb sandwich combines the fresh, salty, and softly piquant flavours of spiced lamb, herbs, tomato, olive, basil, feta, with the added crunch of red onion and cucumber. It’s a terrific blend. Gourmet hot dogs and hot tau sar pau - steamed buns with red bean paste filling – are also on the menu, as is free Wi-Fi for workaholics and social media fiends.
TWG Tea Salon & Boutique
Why shop until you drop at the ION shopping mall on Orchard Road when you can stop and replenish at the luxury TWG Tea shop, which pays homage to the city’s fine tea heritage. It’s a silver service event with extensive menus, including the Tea Time menu (3pm- 6pm) that comprises a range of toasted and finger sandwiches, scones and muffins with jam and whipped cream, a trolley of tea infused patisseries, and a colourful array of macarons.
If the blackcurrant macaron – which is fuschia pink with a jammy interior – is sweet and moreish, then the chocolate macaron is doubly so. Washed down with a pot of aromatic Earl Grey tea they replenish sugar levels for shopping phase two. An extensive list of high-priced loose leaf tea is available to take home in a variety of bags, tins and canisters.
A sibling of Wildrocket, Wild Oats, and Burger Bench and Bar, Relish is a mid-tier eatery hidden away at Cluny Court, a gastronomic hub on Bukit Timar Road. Da Paolo Gastronomia gourmet food store, Simply Bread bakery, and 3-Inch Sin chocolate dessert cafe (they reckon their 3-inch molten chocolate cakes are sinfully delicious) are also located here.
Relish is a spacious venue on the first floor with high ceilings and mix of red brickwork and white and black timber. There is a modern Singaporean flavour to the menu, including a range of burgers such as BBQ char siew pork and ram-lee beef burgers, the latter wrapped in omelette, cheese, red onion and sweet chilli sauce.
Mains include roast catfish green curry, roast butterfish with cilantro pesto minestrone, and hae bee hiam spaghettini (locally spicy dried shrimp and scallop). Duck pancakes are fresh and texturally pleasing thanks to a hidden piece of crunchy duck skin in each and strips of cucumber. Gourmet beers such as Adagio Blanche, lychee beer, honeydew melon beer, and Asahi make good accompaniments. The staff – particularly the manager Anthony Joseph – are effervescently friendly and particularly helpful when a lone foreign diner finds it nigh impossible to flag down a taxi for the return journey.
A tip for culinary adventurers in Singapore: expect to eat twice as much as planned, and plan to leave twice as much time to do so!
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