The Hungry Merlion: Singapore cuisine

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From pushcarts to plush restaurants and Chilli Crab to Chicken Rice, ANURAG MALLICK covers iconic dishes and fine dining venues for a real taste of Singapore’s exciting food scene

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Singapore’s status as a serious food destination can be gauged from the fact that ten of the Top 50 restaurants in Asia can be found here. This is where celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay met his Waterloo in a Street Food Challenge organized by local telecom major Singtel; his chicken rice lost out to the original at Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice at Maxwell Road Food Centre. Overnight, the tiny stall became a sensation.

Anthony Bourdain considers their chicken rice so good you can have it all by itself, even without the chili-shallots-ginger-garlic condiment and sliced red chili in soya! The trick is in the rice cooked in chicken broth with steamed or roasted chicken breast sliced and served on top.

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After working at Tian Tian for over twenty years, chef Wong Liang Tai quit and set up his own stall Ah Tai two stores away. Both remain so popular, there are serpentine queues at lunch time. Equally legendary is Boon Tong Kee, started by Mr. Thian Boon Hua as a tiny stall in Chinatown in 1979, serving Cantonese chicken rice infused with silky white sauce. After the first restaurant at Balestier Road in 1983, five outlets opened in quick succession and by 1999 it had diversified to Zi Char (home-style cooked food).

Singapore must have truly humbled Gordon Ramsay for he also lost to a tiny shop called ‘328 Katong Laksa’. Laksa is a coconut based curry with yellow noodles, prawns, boiled egg, sambal, topped with fried onions and peanuts. Run by a former model, her noodles come in bite-sized pieces, so it’s easy to soup up.

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Singaporeans love their Char Kway Teow – flat rice noodles and egg noodles stir fried with eggs, cockles, lap cheong (Chinese sausages), bean sprouts and Chinese chives. However, the ultimate favourite is Singapore chili crab, best served at Jumbo Seafood and Long Beach.

Some culinary experiences are so uniquely Singapore that patrons don’t mind queuing up. Jumbo’s award-winning chili crab makes it hard to get a table at their Clarke Quay outlet. They’ve opened multiple outlets to cater to the insatiable Singaporean. Song Fa’s bak kut teh (pork rib soup) evolved from a tiny push cart on Chinatown’s Johor Road in 1969 to a chain of restaurants.

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Patrons patiently line up for a table to eat juicy pork ribs falling-off-the-bone and umpteen helpings of the peppery spice-infused pork rib soup served with white rice, garlic chilli paste and sliced red chilli in soya sauce. For the best steamed pork dumplings, there’s Din Tai Fung while Tanglin Crispy Curry Puff has been tingling taste buds since 1952 with its golden fried curry puffs in chicken, sardines or yam.

Lau Pa Sat, once a Victorian era wet market has transformed into a buzzing street food centre. A diverse range of stalls are anchored around a central clock tower with an ornamental metal roof fabricated and shipped all the way from Glasgow. In the evening, vehicular traffic on Boon Tat Street is shut down as makeshift tables and chairs spill out from the building onto the streets. Satay stalls fire up their skewers to dish out mutton, chicken, beef and prawn satays with Tiger Beer. A sign displays the Satay Challenge record of 150 sticks consumed in 20 minutes!

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There’s diverse seafood on offer – soupy black mussels, fried sting ray, crayfish, scallops, squid, octopus, oysters, prawns with baby kailan (Chinese broccoli). The unique thing is you have to pay the moment your order arrives. With none of the usual squalor associated with street food, the hygiene standards are really high and each hawker centre has to shut down compulsorily for four days every month for cleaning.

With limited land available and a limit to reclamation, Singapore loves to squeeze out maximum utility from minimum space and repurposing the old. Dempsey Hill, once a British cantonment and barracks for soldiers is now a swanky gourmet and shopping district spread around a gently sloping hill. At PS Cafe and its sister concern ChoPSuey, dine indoors or outdoors feasting on rib eye steaks, pastas and wine.

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Ann Siang Hill, once a spice plantation of nutmeg and mace is now a buzzing F&B district crammed with rooftop bars and restaurants. Critically acclaimed Lolla offers tapas sized portions of house specials – toasted sourdough with kombu butter, cured meat platter, Iberico pork collar, lamb rack and more.

CHIJMES – the 1841 Church of Infant Jesus was renovated from a religious complex to a plush entertainment quarter (cheekily renamed after the peal of the church bells) with high end restaurants like the newly opened El Mero Mero, literally ‘The Boss of the Boss’. It serves excellent Mexican – Bluefin Tuna Tostada, Wild Fish Ceviche, Grilled Wild Fish Taco to signature cocktails like Habanero Mango Martini and El Mero Mero – orange-infused mescal, fresh lime and agave.

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A similar experience in a fast food chain format is Chilis, available at multiple locations across Singapore including Universal Studios. The sheer diversity of dining locations in Singapore is mind boggling. There’s a 34-seater Gourmet Bus that tours the city offering an excellent wine dine experience on-the-go.

At Gardens by the Bay, dine at IndoChine in a SuperTree, sit outdoors at Satay by the Bay or opt for a 7-course degustation menu at Pollen inside the Flower Dome in a plush indoor setting. For dessert, you are ushered to the counter for exquisite desserts hand plated in front of you. Try the pumpkin ice-cream, caramelized pumpkin seeds, fresh blueberry, white chocolate parfait, garnished with pumpkin seed oil.

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At the Botanic Gardens inside the National Orchid Garden overlooking the Ginger Garden is Halia, ‘Ginger’ in Malay. Their chilli crab spaghettini and paperbag fish are signature specialties, as is their version of Singapore Sling using Hendrick’s gin that contains 11 botanicals and notes of cucumber and rose.

With its diverse multi-cultural population, Singapore has excellent Asian cuisine ranging from Chinese, Malay, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian, top international fare to the delectable fusion of Baba Nyonya or Peranakan cuisine – the food of Chinese straits settlers who speak Malay. Perked with spices, tempered with coconut milk and sweetened with palm sugar, drop by for a taste at Blue Ginger on Tanjong Pagar Road.

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And for those who love the comfort of Indian food, Little India offers enough variety – pure veg South Indian or Jain meals, the carnivorous delights of Chettinad, biryani and North Indian dishes. Most city hotels like Oasia in Downtown offer a great breakfast spread while resorts like Shangrila Rasa Sentosa have separate Indian, Chinese, Malay and Continental counters.

Local desserts like Chendol (shaved ice with pandan jelly, red beans, coconut milk and gula melaka) are legendary though for a special treat, head straight to Janice Wong’s 2am dessert bar in Orchard. Paired with sake or exotic cocktails, try their signature desserts like Tsujirehei Green tea tart, Kyoto Garden, Blackforest Cornet offered in a degustation menu classified as Zen, Playful and Natural. It was as much taste as performance.

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The 2am snickers inaya sorbet had cinnamon and rosemary smoked and covered with a wine glass to infuse a smokiness. In Cacao Forest, the Earl Grey bergamot chocolate mousse, forest fruits, miso and ice-cream were shrouded in a ring of cotton candy. As the crème de cacao liqueur and vanilla whiskey were poured on the fluff, the ‘forest’ disappeared before our eyes.

The iconic Singapore Sling, a gin-based cocktail infused with Grenadine was crafted in 1912 at the Raffles Hotel so ladies could drink in public without inhibition. When the Americans came here after World War II, they looked around for Philly Cheese Steak sandwich in vain until someone decided to stuff country sandwich bread with meat and eggs and called the Asianized version Roti John! Singapore thrives on culinary inventiveness. Bon appetit…

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FACT FILE

Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies direct from Bengaluru, Chennai and other cities taking 4 hrs for the flight to Changi Airport, which is located in the eastern part of the city. The route-dictated menu matches destination and passenger profiles with deliciously wholesome meals and Shahi thali on Indian routes, besides ‘Book the Cook’ service on Suites, First Class and Business Class.

Where to Stay
Oasia Hotel Downtown
Great location, this new hotel in the CBD is close to attractions.
Ph +65 6664 0333 www.stayfareast.com

Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa
A top resort at the western end of Sentosa overlooking Siloso Beach, it’s close to the Fort Siloso walkway.
Ph +65 6275 0100 www.shangri-la.com

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When to go: The Singapore Food Festival is held from July 16-31 with pop up kitchens and food promotions. This year, gourmet food festival Savour at Marina Bay has been staggered across three periods – Gourmet (12-15 May), Wines (8-11 Sep) and Christmas (17-20 Nov). World Gourmet Summit in April-May sees Michelin star chefs competing with local chefs.

For more info, visit http://www.yoursingapore.com

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared on 24 July, 2016 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

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