Category Archives: Singapore

Leaping Tiger, Rearing Merlion: New experiences in Singapore

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There’s always something new to experience in this warm tropical paradise, discovers ANURAG MALLICK

Haw Par Villa IMG_0388_Anurag Mallick

The emblem of the leaping tiger on the gate looked oddly familiar… yet, the connection eluded me like the sighting of a big cat on a South Indian wildlife safari. I ran through all the wild felines in my head – it wasn’t the logo of a tiger park and enough Tiger Beer had been consumed in the past to know this was different. My itinerary, titled ‘Cultured Leopard, Rising Tiger: Finding Your Tao in Haw Par Villa’, didn’t reveal much either. I had turned up for a new walk curated by The Original Singapore Walks company without the faintest idea. And then it struck me…

A distant memory from a trek, a faded label, the smell of camphor, yellow ointment stains on the clothes; I’d be damned if it wasn’t the tiger from Tiger Balm! The guide Geraldine welcomed the group and led us up the slope as she outlined the tale of the two Aw brothers Boon Haw and Boon Par (called the ‘Tiger’ and ‘Leopard’) who transformed their father’s homegrown business that was set up in 1860, into an empire. “So what’s Tiger Balm for?,” enquired an Aussie visitor. Geraldine seemed aghast by his ignorance. “Shoulder rub, neck pull, backache, pain, sprain, congested chest, mosquito bite, anything and everything under the sun”!

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On our walk, we learnt that Tiger Balm was originally white and labourers often complained that it was too gentle. One day, Boon Haw noticed that the jar of ointment at home was stained red. He learnt that his wife had been chewing seere (betel leaf), which stained her lips and fingers red. Her constant use had turned the balm ochre! In his eureka moment, the Tiger added a yellow pigment, the workers loved the new ‘stronger’ balm and the rest is history.

In 1921, Haw made Singapore the headquarters of the Tiger Balm business and built a sea-facing villa in 1937. Since the restricted entry to non-Europeans in Shanghai’s Huangpu Park was making waves at the time, the Tiger set up an elaborate garden and threw it open to all. The sculptures mirrored Chinese mythology, Taoist folklore and legends – from Madam White Snake, the Eight Immortals and the Ten Courts of Hell to Commissioner Lin who played a key role in the Opium Wars. It was moral science meets tacky sculpture.

Haw Par Villa IMG_0441_Anurag Mallick

There was cool stuff as well – the 1925 Buick Californian Hardtop modified into a ‘Tiger Car’ with a horn like a tiger’s roar and the idol of Kwanon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy after whom the camera company Canon was named. Sadly, Haw Par Villa was destroyed after World War II and the family business eventually sold. However, Tiger Balm is still a legend.

Besides this freaky tour, there was a new historical Battlebox tour at Fort Canning. Built in the late 1930s, the bombproof chamber 9m underground served as the headquarters of the Malaya Command during World War II. It was here on 15 February 1942 that the decision to surrender Singapore to the Japanese was made by the British, often described as ‘the worst and largest capitulation in British military history’.

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For history and war buffs, the new Fort Siloso Walkway is a great way to explore Singapore’s only preserved coastal fort. At the western edge of Sentosa Island just a stone’s throw from Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort, the lift transports you 36.3m to a viewing deck. The 200m long walkway snakes above the canopy with stunning views of the sea and harbor ending at the first of many gun placements. While entry to the lift and fort is free, the 90-minute guided tour for S$20 is worth every cent. Staying at the beach-facing Rasa Sentosa gets you a complimentary coupon!

When Stamford Raffles came to Singapore in 1819, he found its location ideal for a trading settlement. It was at the crossroads of the monsoon wind and sailing ships could arrive here with ease. The early fortifications – Fort Canning, Palmer and Fulerton – protected the trading hub by the Singapore river. But the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 led to a direct trade route from Europe to Asia Pacific. Since the Singapore river was too shallow to accommodate the new steam ships, trade operations moved to the deep waters of Sentosa.

Fort Siloso SkyWalk view IMG_1455_Anurag Mallick

Sentosa was once tagged Bulao Panjang, Malay for ‘Long Island’ and Pulao Blakang Maki or ‘Island of Death’, after the bodies of sailors killed by pirates that washed ashore. When the British first came here, many died and the island was hurriedly abandoned. What was regarded as the ‘Asian curse’ turned out to be malaria. But the need for newer forts made the British blast the mountaintop of Mount Siloso to erect a coastal fort in the west, Fort Serapong in the center of the island (now a golf course) and Fort Connaught in the east (which made way for Sentosa Cove). Giant pulleys hauled cannons up the steep inclines over a bed of logs, aided by Chinese coolies. Since the Chinese didn’t have a problem cooking beef or pork they also ended up being cooks! At the barracks, life-size models depict the soldiers’ life among cooks, tailors and dhobis.

During World War II, while the British expected a naval assault from Sentosa or Changi, the Japanese attacked through the Malayan peninsula, taking them by surprise. The cannons had to be turned towards land but the hull-piercing shells meant for ships didn’t cause much damage. The Japanese took control of the water supply and pushed for an unconditional surrender.

Fort Siloso Surrender Chamber IMG_1509_Anurag Mallick

The WWII Surrender Chambers recreate the scene of capitulation and show their clever psychological warfare tactics. Despite being fewer in number with supplies for only two days, the Japanese turned up in big numbers and in full military regalia to give the impression of a large force. The three years of occupation were the darkest days in Singapore’s history with mass executions on beaches.

It was only after a complete rebranding exercise that the island was christened Sentosa, after the Sanskrit santosha, meaning peace and fulfilment. With tourist attractions like Universal Studios and its amazing 4D Transformer and Battlestar Galactica rides, Madame Tussauds, S.E.A. Aquarium, Skyline Luge, MegaZip, i-Fly and Resorts World, Sentosa has become an essential stopover in everyone’s Singapore itinerary. You could spend a week here without getting bored!

Indian Heritage Centre exhibit IMG_0045_Anurag Mallick

Back in town, the Indian Heritage Centre had moved out of Little India Arcade to a new four-storey building. Inspired by the Indian baoli (stepwell) and mirroring the hexagonal design of the paved street, the glass-fronted building gives the impression of a jewel by day and a glowing lantern by night. The galleries span two millennia of cultural transfusion in Southeast Asia caused by waves of migration between 1st century CE to the 21st century.

Hindu-Buddhist icons, motifs from the Ramayana-Mahabharata, arduous sea journeys undertaken by migrants to distant port towns during the establishment of the Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore (1786-1824), their culture and contributions to Singapore form the broad theme. Armed with a tab and aided by Augmented Reality, it’s story-telling taken to another level. The headgear section actually encourages visitors to choose a pagri or topi for a selfie.

National Gallery Singapore guided tour IMG_7480_Anurag Mallick

The National Gallery Singapore which opened last November is spread over 6,90,000 sq ft and is the largest museum and visual arts venue in Singapore. With 8,000 artworks, it is also the largest public collection of Singapore and Southeast Asian art in the world. The self-portraits of Georgette Chen, Liu Kang’s Life by the River, the wildlife themes of Indonesian artist Raden Saleh, art installations like Matthew Ngui’s Chair are stunning, while Cheong Soo Pieng’s Drying Salted Fish, featured on the back of the Singaporean $50 bill, lets visitors click pictures against a 3D version of the same.

The gallery is housed in two national monuments – the former Supreme Court Building and City Hall. Beautifully restored with an award-winning glass and metal façade that seamlessly conjoins the two buildings in a make-believe bamboo lattice, it’s a delight to the explore the prison cells, Rotunda (round library) and chambers. The terrace deck overlooks the padang (ground) and the Singapore skyline. It was in the City Hall that Admiral Lord Mountbatten accepted the Japanese surrender on 12 September 1945.

National Gallery Singapore IMG_7556_Anurag Mallick

Adding to Singapore’s impressive roster of museums – the Philately Museum, Peranakan Museum, Changi Museum, Malay Heritage Centre, ArtScience Museum and National Museum of Singapore – is the new Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. Part of Sir Stamford Raffles’ museum of Southeast Asian biodiversity started in 1849, it forms the current Heritage Gallery section with taxidermy kits, stuffed birds and Cabinets of Curiosity housing collectibles that survived World War II.

Tracing the history of life on earth, the twenty zones across two floors have over 500,000 Southeast Asian animal and plant specimens ranging from the microscopic to the enormous. Highlights include the world’s largest crab (Japanese Spider Crab) and the smallest (Coral Spider Crab), trilobite fossils, three dinosaurs from America (Prince, Apollonia and Twinky) and a 10.6m female sperm whale ‘Jubi Lee’ that washed ashore in Singapore in 2015 and was unveiled in March 2016. All day long, the dinosaur zone runs a Light Show every half-hour.

Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum Singapore IMG_9980_Anurag Mallick

Singaporeans love their laser shows, be it Wings of Time (S$18, 7:40pm, 8:40pm) at Sentosa, WonderFull (8pm, 9:30pm) at Marina Bay Sands or Garden Rhapsody (7:45pm, 8:45pm) at the SuperTree grove in Gardens by the Bay; both free to public. A great perch to see the city by night is the Singapore Flyer, which at 165m was the world’s tallest Ferris wheel until the High Roller of Las Vegas upstaged it in 2014.

While at the Flyer, try the new 737-800 flight simulator and sit in the captain’s seat of the world’s most popular jet airliner. Learn to take-off, cruise and land the plane at an airport of your choice in an immersive experience with real-size cockpits and fully-functional aircraft controls. The Flyer also lets you reserve a pod for a private 3-course dinner. But if you’re not into ‘slow travel’ or ‘slow food’, hop on to the new Gourmet Bus to take your taste buds for a ride. Singapore always has a new trick up its sleeve…

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FACT FILE

Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies direct to Singapore from Bengaluru, Chennai and other cities taking 4 hrs for the flight to Changi Airport, located in the eastern part of the city. www.singaporeair.com

Where to Stay

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

Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Ph +65 6275 0100 www.shangri-la.com
Top beach resort at the western end of Sentosa overlooking the Fort Siloso walkway

Crowne Plaza Changi www.ihg.com
5-star hotel at Changi voted as the World’s Best Airport Hotel in 2016 by London-based Skytrax, with top multi-cuisine restaurant Azur.

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What to Do

Experience Changi
Changi Airport is a destination by itself with art installations, recreational facilities and the world’s tallest slide in an airport. There’s a Cactus Garden, Orchid Garden, Sunflower Garden, Butterfly Garden and an Enchanted Garden. The airport outlet of the Long Bar by Raffles at T3’s DFS (Duty Free Store) serves a great Singapore Sling besides awesome deals! Changi also organises a free city tour for transit passengers with a long layover (over 6 hrs).
https://in.changiairport.com

The Original Singapore Walks
D/Centennial Building, 100 Lorong 23 Geylang Ph +65 6325 1631 www.journeys.com.sg
Timings 9:30am, 2:30pm Guided tour S$38 Adults, S$18 children 

National Gallery Singapore
1 St Andrew’s Rd Ph +65 6271 7000 www.nationalgallery.sg
Timings 10am-7pm (till 10 pm on Fri/Sat) Entry S$20 adults, S$15 children
Daily free guided art/architecture tours (20 slots) in English from Visitor Services Counter.

Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM)
2 Conservatory Drive, National University of Singapore Ph +65 6601 3333 nhmvisit@nus.edu.sg
Timings 10am-7pm Entry S$21 adults, S$13 children 

Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum Singapore IMG_9991_Anurag Mallick

Indian Heritage Centre, Little India
5 Campbell Lane Ph +65 6291 1601 www.indianheritage.org.sg
Timings 10am-7pm Monday closed Entry S$4

Flight Experience, Singapore Flyer
30 Raffles Avenue Ph +65 6339 2737, 1800 737 0800 www.flightexperience.com.sg
Timings 10am-10pm Entry S$175

Fort Siloso, Sentosa
Ph 1800 736 8672 www.sentosa.com.sg
Timings 10am-6pm Entry free, 90 min Guided Tour S$20 adults, S$14 children

Universal Studios, Sentosa
8 Sentosa Gateway, Resorts World Ph +65 6577 8888 www.rwsentosa.com
Timings 10am-7pm Entry S$74 adults, S$56 children, VIP Tour Unlimited Access S$298

For more info, visit www.yoursingapore.com

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the March 2017 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

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.