Sep 282012

Kopi is coffee in Bahasa Melayu, but more than that, it is coffee to the average Singaporean. I promised to describe it in the Coffee Shop Culture post – so here it is.

I’m a bit fussy when it comes to coffee – it has to be rich, fully flavored, not over-extracted. For espresso this means good beans, freshly roasted, freshly ground, and prepared with a decent machine by someone with a little experience. Stringy, burnt, or weak espresso is awful stuff – and a waste of time for both barista and customer alike.

Kopi, on the other hand, is made by adding hot water to ground coffee then agitating it in some way, either through stirring or pouring it from jug to jug. It’s then strained through cloth (sometimes a sock!) and poured into glasses/cups. The mouth feel is gritty, and if done well, rich and full-flavoured. To be honest, there are more places in Singapore that can make a decent kopi than there are that can make a drinkable espresso – my preference has grown more to drinking the local brew in the time I have been here.

Additives determine the name. Here are some common variants:

  • Kopi Kosong: black kopi with nothing added
  • Kopi O: black kopi with sugar added
  • Kopi C/Kopi Si: white kopi with sweetened condensed milk added – sometimes seen as Kopi Putih (white coffee)

Some authorities recognise as many as eight different variants of kopi – it can have unsweetened evaporated milk as well as the sweetened condensed variety – but most coffee shop beverage vendors seem to supply the three above at least. Teah/Teh (Tea) is also available in a similar array of choices, as well as the popular Teh Tarik (“pulled tea” – tea with some form of milk added, poured from cup to cup until imbued with a cappuccino-like froth).

My favourites? The Toast Box franchise places seem to have it worked out – the brew from the Marina Bay Link Mall outlet was a welcome sight in the afternoons of long working days. Block 107 Tampines St 11 coffee shop does a decent one, as does the Tastebud coffee shop in Queen St Bugis.

Many Westerners, on trying kopi for the first time, are surprised at the gritty texture. To be honest, if you are used to Starbucks and/or instant coffee out of the jar then it can be a little confronting. I come from years of drinking Turkish/Greek coffee and my own stove-top “cowboy coffee” brew so I was used to the grittiness from day one – but I grant your mileage may vary. If you like coffee that tastes and smells like real coffee beans, my humble suggestion is that you try it.

Sep 272012

Around here, there are coffee shops like Starbucks and Gloria Jeans. And then there are the real coffee shops – neighborhood food and meeting places, where you can get anything from half a roast duck to a bowl of prawn noodles or even steamed fish head, and wash it down with beer. People eat in family groups, watch soap operas or sport on TV, and talk about the issues of the day. I’ve spent many a Saturday afternoon in these places, solving the problems of the world with a friend over a Tiger beer or two and some chicken wings or chicken rice.

The Singaporean coffee shop, or kopitiam, is similar to the kedai kopi that you will find in neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia. It usually consists of two or more food vendors and a beverage shop arrayed around a set of plastic/wooden tables. While coffee shops vary, at a minimum there is usually someone selling roast meats (traditional Chinese BBQ/roast pork/chicken as well as snack foods like chicken wings), a noodle/noodle soup vendor, a dessert place, and a beverage vendor. The beverages range from local kopi (coffee) and tea to lime/mango juice and beer. Kopi is a bit different to Western coffee (and I will cover that in a separate post – but for now think of it more like Greek/Turkish coffee with extra hot water added than something you’d find at Starbucks).

There is a chain of Kopi Tiam coffee shops, sometimes air conditioned, but the average neighborhood coffee shop is open to the fresh air. There is a grey area between the larger coffee shops (with a dozen vendors or more) and the hawker centres (which can have as little as twenty vendors here but some have over a hundred).

A lot of coffee shops are located on the ground floor of Housing Development Board (HDB) apartment buildings. It is said that 80% of Singaporeans live this way – closer to 100% in my current neighborhood – and the coffee shop provides a place to dine, catch up with friends and relatives, and relax. To me, coffee shop culture is part of the real Singapore – something that all the tourists in the world can never dilute entirely. There are a thousand unique dining experiences here, but the coffee shop is every day reality.

What is the food like? Some coffee shops sell the best food around – most, though, sell average food – good enough for every day, but not the best of the best. Some will surprise you with just how good they are – the roast chicken shop at Tastebud in Bugis sells the best BBQ wings I have eaten here, and one of my local HDB noodle shops has close to the best Prawn Mee on the island (and they are cheap, too). But sometimes, the noodle soup broth is more like dirty water than anything resembling stock, and the steamed Pau buns taste a lot like the machine-made ones from the supermarket. Shop around, ask around, and explore. The quality of food seems to be higher and the prices lower if you steer clear of shopping malls and stick to the HDB places. Speaking of quality – all food vendors in Singapore are assessed for hygiene and are rated A (highest1) to C (lowest) – I have had food poisoning properly only once here in over 12 months, so I am a big fan of the system – it works! Look for the A/B/C before ordering and you should be fine.

Kedai Kopi Penang Malaysia

For comparison: Coffee Shop in Penang, Malaysia

The ordering/delivery options can be confusing for the newcomer, so it is always good to take your table number with you (if there is one on the table) and check with the food stall owner if they will bring the food to you or if you should wait. Some places have self service signs but bring you the food anyway. Beverages (especially beer) are usually looked after by a waitress in a beer company uniform who comes to the tables – a little old fashioned perhaps but it seems to be the way here.

Be aware also that English is one of four official languages in Singapore – the others are Bahasa Melayu/Malay, Mandarin and Tamil – and in the more “local” areas you could be talking with someone who speaks mainly Cantonese, Vietnamese, or Tagalog. Patience is your friend – a combination of pointing at menu signboards and holding up the right number of fingers for quantities will nearly always work (that said, I would not expect a universal understanding of western concepts such as low-salt, Vegan, certified organic or allergen free without some frustration on both sides). My advice is that if you have special dietary requirements (apart from Halal, which seems to be understood and well signposted where supported) you may need to learn some Malay and Chinese Simplified to effectively communicate your needs before venturing off the tourist trail. This is not to say that there is not a stunning array of vegetarian cuisines here – there is – but I’d hesitate to guarantee that (as an example) the vegetarian offerings in a local coffee shop were completely free of all animal products without asking the vendor in a way that they can understand.

Be sure to take a small packet of tissues with you – these serve to reserve a table (important if it is busy, and vital if you are going to step into a larger busier hawker centre such as Lau Par Sat on a weekday lunchtime) and also help out as serviettes (not supplied universally).

If you are prepared to meet Singapore half way, there are a lot of experiences that you can enjoy here – and one of them is the coffee shop culture. I hope that you get to enjoy it yourself.

Sep 262012

Some Singaporean eateries want, like Ferran Adria, for their customers to go away happy – feeling like they’ve had the meal of a lifetime, a memorable event that they will replay in their mind’s eye over and over again.

Others, well, would rather the customer went away poorer.

Singaporean businesses must collect a 7% goods and services tax (GST) on behalf of the government – this is a fair thing, and one that they must do to remain compliant with the law here. No one should have any problem with this. Some places absorb the GST – that is, the price given on the menu is an all-in cost, and the restaurant owner will pay the GST out of that amount.

Service industries here are allowed to levy a 10% service charge – not everyone does this, but enough do. Again, the service charge should be stated on the menu – where this is done, you will sometimes see it expressed as ++ – plus GST, plus service charge. You’ll hear people mention (and sometimes curse) “the plus plus”. Whether the service charge is just a way to pad out the price, or it is genuinely distributed to the salaried workers in lieu of tips, is another thing entirely. But it is up front.

Then there are the other ways that a restaurant bill gets padded out. Here is one – the moist towelette:

These are supplied without asking, and most places add them to the bill – it is only an extra few cents (20-80 that I have seen) but you are paying for it.

A lot of the chain/franchise places in malls will place a bowl of nuts or pickled vegetables in front of you when you are seated. These are also frequently added to the bill – and again, it will not break the bank at a dollar or two, but it is still something to be aware of.

Live seafood can be a bigger trap – the price quoted will mostly be by 100 grams weight – expect that a reasonable mud crab will be a kilogram or more. If in doubt, please ask for an all-in cost (including the plus-plus) before confirming the order.

Corkage can also be a surprise – some places will allow you to take a bottle of wine with you, but charge SGD30 and more a bottle for supplying a couple of vaguely clean glasses. Check first.

I have to say that not every place is like this – indeed, many restauranteurs and hawker food operators I have met here are incredibly generous people – but there are some more interested in short term gain than building a long term mutually profitable relationship. Exercise caution and you will be fine.

Sep 252012
Sep 242012

It is no secret that Singaporeans love a bargain – my observation is that there is less obsession about large meal sizes here than in, say, Australia or the US – but the all-you-can-eat buffet is popular because it provides good value for money.

Popular buffet spots are usually full at lunch and dinner. Go for the place with the long queue and you can’t go wrong :)

Ssikkek is popular – and on this basis, I have to judge that it is considered a good option for buffet (I like it myself). I haven’t been to the Novena Ville outlet (to the left of Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice on Thomson Road) for a while, but I can speak to the popularity of the new outlet in Tampines 1 mall – there is usually a queue at night.

The format is fairly simple – you are shown to a table with a BBQ plate in the middle, and you go and select a variety of meat and vegetables from the buffet line to cook yourself. You select ingredients for a dipping sauce – my personal style runs to soy and garlic, heavy on the chili. Lunch has fewer buffet options than dinner, but is cheaper (SGD14++ a head for lunch, SGD24++ dinner). A bottle of water is supplied for free, all subsequent drinks are extra (a variety of options are available – alcoholic and non).

The quantities are ample – for some of the meat, quantity has an edge over quality, and some of it is presented frozen into large blocks that must be pulled apart as they thaw (that is my excuse for the large amount of sliced pork belly on my plate above, anyway) :)

Overall – a good buffet option for couples and groups.

Sep 212012

A friend asked me the other day who I was writing this blog for – was I trying to show Singaporeans something new about their food culture, possibly some out of the way places that aren’t overly popular yet?

Lunchtime crowd, Lau Par Sat hawker centre
I had to think about the answer – I said to be honest that this blog is very new, and most of the readership is definitely my social media contacts outside of Singapore, or colleagues and friends here.

Yours truly, Smith St, Chinatown

The answer I gave, on reflection, was that I wanted to share my enthusiasm about Singapore with whoever would listen. I’ve certainly been sharing and discussing my food journey – the experiences in my life that brought me to Singapore, and what has kept me here since then.

Fried Duck, Bali

To be honest I’m not sure I could claim to have anything new to show Singaporeans about their rich and unique food culture – a Robuchon or a Tetsuya might have something to bring to make this kind of contribution, but I think it would be too big a claim for me to make.

So I will keep sharing that enthusiasm about life and food here. I hope that you get to enjoy it too.

Sep 202012

Durian. The King of Fruit. A fruit that has, well, an unpleasant odour. Some say it reeks of the manure of a fruit eating bird, others liken it to the stomach contents of unwell monkeys.  To me, the aroma brings to mind a mixture of baby vomit and bubble gum. All agree that it is a powerful scent – which is why it is banned from all public transport here, and many civilised eateries. Despite the smell, I really do enjoy the taste – it is hard to describe exactly, but to me it is like the best parts of honeydew melon and very ripe mango combined, then multiplied a dozen fold.

Find a coffee shop or a hawker centre and you’ll often find the durian seller nearby – sometimes with their own tables and chairs, a respectful distance from other eateries. You can literally just follow your nose :)

Here, the durian vendor at the Queen Street end of the Bugis Street Market is grading a new batch of fruit by ripeness and quality:

There are many ways of eating The King of Fruits – I’ve enjoyed it in the following forms (I am sure there are others)

  • fresh cut while you wait by a durian stall vendor
  • already cut in a foam tray from the durian stall or supermarket
  • preparations of it in desserts – the dessert stall in the middle of the Lau Par Sat hawker centre does a decent durian chendol
  • freshly juiced – two places close to where I lived in Bugis would juice durian on request (with only a little grimace on the face of the person working the blender) :)
  •  in moon cakes – I have to say that the conventional double yolk lotus paste mooncake does not appeal to me as much as the durian snowskin variety

Opinions are divided amongst my Singaporean friends over durian – regardless of age, cultural background or gender, some love it and some certainly do not. For me, access to fresh durian is one of the many side benefits of life in this part of the world – and I hope to continue to enjoy it for many years to come.

Sep 192012

In the DeHappy Seafood Penang post I talked about Singapore as a base for weekends away – and it is one of the things that makes working and living here very special. People love living here – but they love getting away for the weekend as well.

The Rock Bar, Ayana Resort, Bali

Sunset from The Rock Bar, Ayana Resort, Bali

Most of South East Asia really is only an hour or two away by jet – Melaka, Penang and Kuala Lumpur are only an hour away. Sabah/Sarawak/Brunei/Phuket/Bali/Jakarta/Ho Chi Minh City are two or less. Stretch that to a three hour flight and you can get to Cebu/Clark/Manila in the Philippines, and it is not much further to Hong Kong or Sri Lanka – all with regular direct flights. Some destinations require transfers and these can place an otherwise desirable area out of reach for a weekend trip (an example is Boracay in the Philippines – one of the nicest places I’ve been but a little far away for a weekend trip – to be the subject of another blog post).

Fort Santiago, Manila

Fort Santiago, Intramuros, Manila

The pressure from many budget airlines operating in the region tends to keep flight prices low, especially if you keep an eye out for special offers and book well in advance. Competition for the cheaper fares is intense anywhere near a public holiday here, and getting the best deal requires some planning. Expedia has a weekend getaway finder that includes some popular regional destinations.

Tour Boats, Phi Phi Island near Phuket, Thailand

Phi Phi Island, near Phuket, Thailand

My strongest advice is to check independent reviews before booking any hotel – I got burnt on a Penang hotel once because I only looked at the hotel website (and the reality was very substandard). In this case, the Internet is definitely your friend – anywhere you might go has probably been reviewed or blogged about before. And please talk to people here – providing holiday and food advice (when sought) is a passion for many Singaporeans, and it is a good way to get to know your colleagues and neighbours.

Street Life, Penang, Malaysia

Street scene, Penang, Malaysia

In this blog I will share my experiences of the food in these regional getaway spots – hopefully you will see something you like. I promise to link those posts back to here so that it is more about food than my tourist happy-snaps :)

Sep 182012

In the post on Fish Head Curry I mentioned that Muthu’s also does a very good centerpiece dish – a Tandoori Fish Head. They face some stiff competition in the Indian fine dining space along Race Course Road from the likes of Gayatri and Banana Leaf Apolo. This dish is one of the ways that they stand out.

Tandoori Fish Head, Muthu's, Little India, Singapore

Muthu’s has a lot going for it – a very good Fish Head Curry, a wide variety of other food options, good service, and a glassed in tandoor oven area – the tandoor (a clay circular pit oven) provides interesting entertainment. Observing a skilled chef placing naan bread in a tandoor is quite something, and the guys at Muthu’s are quite good natured about having an audience.
The Tandoori Fish Head takes 20 minutes to prepare and cook – this provides time to soak up the atmosphere, some other dishes or snacks, and a Kingfisher beer or two.
The Fish Head arrives, served with mint chatni and tamarind sauce, to the admiring comments of those that have not seen this dish before. The meat is slightly crisped on the outside from the tandoor – but soft and succulent tasty on the inside. The tandoori marinade is spicy enough without being overpowering.
Before long, it is gone. If you think that there cannot be a lot of meat on a fish head, just compare this “meal’s end” photo with the one above:

Tandoori Fish Head at Meal's End, Muthu's, Little India, Singapore
This is one of my must try recommendations for anyone interested in Indian food in Singapore – alongside the vegetarian dosa and the humble roti prata, it is one of my favourite things to eat here.

Sep 172012

Steamboat. A soup base, simmering away on a burner at the table, that you use to cook bite sized morsels of food to your own taste.

There are a number of ways of ordering steamboat. A la carte selection of ingredient options is certainly one way – the wait staff bring the food to you at the table along with the soup stock.

Here in Singapore the steamboat buffet is popular – you choose your soup base (normally spicy/Tom Yum or plain chicken stock) and go to the buffet line to select what you would like to eat. Some places allow split soup varieties – the one below has a spicy and a plain stock so that diners can decide which stock they want to use. I’m told anything up to five different varieties are possible inside one pan with dividers at some places – the most I have seen personally is three, but one spicy/one savoury suits me just fine.

Steamboat, New Bridge Road, Chinatown, Singapore

In the hawker centers here there is usually at least one place offering a mini steamboat, but steamboat buffet tends to be in one cafe/restaurant area rather than in a shared space.

I’ve been to several steamboat buffets here in Singapore. The usual price is SGD20 a head – some places throw in all you can drink iced lemon tea/lime juice at that price, and some do not. The quality and quantity of ingredients tends to vary also – it is fair to say that some are more generous than others when it comes to protein choices (for example one place might have abundant shrimp and baby clams, pork and chicken ready sliced and piled high – but the place next door may not).

Meal's end, Steamboat buffet, New Bridge Road, Chinatown

Diners make up their own dipping sauces – and again, the quality and availability of dipping sauce ingredients varies between establishments.

The stock gets depleted as the diners dip into it throughout the meal, and the flavour gets more and more intense with the passing of time. I have to say that the stock at the end of the meal can be very hard to pass up – it can be the best soup ever.

So where can I recommend based on my own experience? There are two places that stand out for me:

  • New Bridge Road, Chinatown – get off the bus at CK department store on the main Chinatown/Smith Street side and walk one block to the right – I would give you the name but it is listed in Chinese :) Look for the red awning and the tables with steamboat burners in the middle.
  • Beach Road, Bugis – walk from Bugis MRT through Bugis Junction and up Liang Seah St. Turn right onto Beach Rd, past the first steamboat place on the corner, and go to the second one next door. As an aside, the place one further along to the right has an excellent duck rice – tasty and cheap too.

Like several other Singaporean food experiences, the dining at a local steamboat buffet is very hands-on – you select the soup, you select the fish/pork/chicken/beef/shrimp/clams/crab/mussels/spinach/noodles/fish balls/tofu/mushrooms, you select the dipping sauce, and cook it for as little or as long as you like. The fun is in seeking the perfect combination of flavours to suit your own taste.