Sep 162012
 

I still recall my first working day in Singapore last year. A colleague asked me if I wanted to join him for lunch – I accepted, and asked that we go somewhere local. He asked me if I was OK with plastic tables and chairs – I said that this was my preference.

He took me to the Al Zouq Food Centre (3 Shenton Way) for Dum Biryani – as promised, a place where the locals eat.

Dum Biryani/Briyani as presented in most places here consists of a protein (chicken or mutton mostly), some rich pilau/biryani rice, some salad, and some curry sauce.

Dum Biryani at Al Zouq Food Centre, Shenton Way, Singapore

I’ve had it in a number of places but none have impressed me more than Al Zouq. It remains a favourite whenever life takes me to the financial district.

There are many ways of eating biryani – my favourite is to shred the meat off the chicken and mix it into the rice before pouring the curry gravy over the top:

Dum Biryani at Al Zouq Food Centre, Shenton Way, Singapore

The observant will note that I’ve added a piece of curry-fried fish to the meal above for flavour :)

What makes the Al Zouq biryani stand out from the competition? For me, a key component is the flavour in the rice. The standard Dum Biryani comes with steamed chicken as the protein, and it is pretty hard to mess that up (some places do manage this though) :) A good rice, good chicken, well flavoured curry gravy, fresh salad, it all combines together so nicely. Spicy, but more flavour than chili heat.

I have to add some praise here for the masala chai.

Masala Chai, Al Zouq Food Centre, Shenton Way, Singapore

The chai is well flavoured – it stands out because it is not overly sweet, too thin, or under flavoured – I would not say it was the best anywhere but it is certainly matches my ideal.

This is the day to day biryani menu at Al Zouq:

Biryani menu, Al Zouq Food Centre, Shenton Way, Singapore
I’ve tried the mutton biryani more than once, and the butter chicken biryani is certainly worth trying again. The black pepper chicken is interesting – chicken done in a Chinese/Malay style black pepper sauce. If you do go for the fish, please note that you must be careful with the bones (I find it worth the effort of taking extra care, it is very tasty).

There is other food at Al Zouq – the vegetarian thali is one of the best value meals I’ve seen here for the size and quality of the meal – but for me it is the biryani that keeps bringing me back.

Do you know of a spectacular biryani place in Singapore? Please leave a comment and let me know.

Sep 152012
 

There are a number of very Singaporean breakfast options that I followed long before coming to live here. Steamed Pau buns, congee rice porridge, paratha/prata and curry – and one of my favourites, Prawn Mee (noodle) Soup.

I know that styles and preferences vary – in my own heart, the perfect Prawn Mee has a rich broth, good noodles, and plenty of extras (bean sprouts, maybe some chicken or pork, and last but not least good fresh prawns).

I’ve grown fond of Prawn Mee here as a weekend breakfast dish here because it is very tasty and fairly cheap.
The best Prawn Mee within walking distance is the one from the Block 701 Tampines St 11 coffee shop.

Block 701 is home to the famous JE Crab Specialist – to be honest I have not yet visited the crab place, but I will do one day. What brings me to Block 701 is the other vendors there, providing authentic local HDB food of very reasonable quality and prices – and the atmosphere is very local. Please note that you have to walk behind the central kopi/beer vendor to find the aunty selling laksa and Prawn Mee.

The best Prawn Mee I’ve had ever, though, goes to Jalan Sultan Prawn Mee near Kallang MRT. Look at the size of the prawns and the pork bones used to make the stock – the broth is the key – it is intense and flavoursome.

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As the name suggests, Jalan Sultan Prawn Mee started out on Jalan Sultan in the Kampong Glam area close to Arab Street. They’ve opened more outlets – one of which is on the edge of Geylang, a short train ride from where I live now (near Kallang MRT station).

Sep 142012
 

What do I mean when I say “intensity” in praise of this dish or that restaurant?

Here is an example – the Gong Bao Chicken from Chinatown Seafood:

And please see below. This is the same dish afterwards – look at all that dried chili! It was intense – not just about the chili, but that was a key part in making this a special dish for me.

Intensity -the absolute necessity of creating a dish that does not waste the cook’s time or that the customer.

This is why I love Singapore.

Sep 132012
 

I have had the privilege to work with several Indian colleagues here in Singapore who were happy to show me their favourite food destinations. There are several quite distinct Indian cuisines here – one of the most abundant is Southern/Tamil – and I took great delight in learning more about it.

There are a number of franchise chains serving good fast Southern Indian food here at very reasonable prices. One such chain, and my favourite, is Saravanaa Bhavan. I was fortunate to have an outlet near the office for lunch and within 15 minutes walk of where I lived for close to a year – the photos that follow reflect my favourites from these two outlets. According to Hungry Ang Mo there are two other outlets – from memory I have eaten at one of them but mainly at the Syed Alwi Rd (Little India near Mustafas) and Robinson Rd (financial district) sites.

I have to admit to being a fan of the Saravanaa Bhavan dosa range – the menu explains it better than I could:

My all time favourite is the Paper Roast Masala Dosa – a large, crispy, paper thin dosa served with a mild flavoursome potato masala curry inside, three different chatnis and a curry sauce:

Second favourite – the very similar Masala Dosa – the dosa is moister, not as thin and crispy – note the same chatnis and curry sauce – a bargain at SGD3.50:

And every so often, for something different, the Onion Rava Masala Dosa – same potato masala, but the dosa texture more brittle and tasty with the onion added:

I’d heartily recommend a trip to a Saravanaa Bhavan outlet even if you are not a vegetarian (I am not) – the food is good, fast, and cheap. It is one easy way to experience something out of the ordinary (an everyday occurrence for the adventurous here) :)

Sep 122012
 

In the Singapore episode of No Reservations, food writer and TV personality Anthony Bourdain mentioned that he’d been booed at an event for avoiding chicken rice here – a mistake I never wanted to make personally. Day two in Singapore saw me finding a hawker centre and trying the chicken rice. I won’t mention the establishment but I have to say that it was nothing special – the rice was, well, rice, and the chicken had been steamed to near tastelessness. The only condiment offered was a chili sauce that didn’t really help. It was not as good as the chicken rice I remembered from East Malaysia days at all.

I asked around, and noted that several people mentioned Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice amongst others (including the famous Tian Tian Chicken Rice at Maxwell Food Centre that Mr Bourdain covered in his show). A week later I was perusing my newly purchased copy of the Makansutra Guide and noticed that Wee Nam Kee had a very good writeup – and that it was on Thomson Road, close to where a group of us were staying at the time in Novena. A posse was duly organised, and off we went.

This is a daytime shot from a later trip – to be honest, the chickens move through the restaurant onto the plate too fast at night to see this many hanging in the window:

Anyhow, back to my first experience at Wee Nam Kee. Encouraged by a Chinese Australian colleague, I mixed vinegar, chili and ginger together to make a proper sauce for the chicken before setting to:

The taste was a very pleasant surprise – the chicken is flavoursome, the rice properly rich with chicken stock (and I suspect, a little chicken fat to give it a very pleasing mouth feel). That is the secret, I am told – care in preparation of both the chicken and the rice adds flavour, making the difference between the ordinary and the truly great chicken rice.

I have been back several times since – and with all respect to Tian Tian and the many other fine chicken rice establishments in Singapore, it remains my favourite.  Apart from the taste and quality of the food, it is a pleasure to sit and watch the uncle skillfully break chicken carcases (steamed and roast) down in a matter of seconds with a large cleaver – he never misses a beat – a master at work.

Sep 082012
 

Growing up in Canberra meant that I had the opportunity to eat a lot of Vietnamese food. There was a cliche in Australia at one stage that a country town was not really home unless it had a pub or two and a Chinese restaurant – growing up in the 1970s this was still pretty much the case – these places usually served what the customers expected in the way of a westernised/training wheels version of Cantonese food – Beef in Black Bean Sauce, Sweet and Sour Pork, Spring Rolls, Fried Rice, Honey Prawns, Wan Ton soup – a cuisine all of its own. Some of these places are still there, and I used to seek them out every so often for a trip down memory lane into “small Aussie town Westernised Cantonese”. I’ve since – thankfully – been introduced to the delights of real Cantonese food, and many other authentic Chinese cuisines. But I digress.

Milk Coffee – Long Phung Restaurant

My local “Asian” restaurant growing up in 1970s Canberra at one stage was the Vietnam Village Inn at the Page shops. The owner (Van from memory) was a very patient man, explaining Vietnamese cuisine to a whole generation of people hitherto unfamiliar with authentic non-Western food. I remember my mother telling my siblings and I that it was like Chinese food only Vietnamese – just a little different to what we were used to and that we would like it. I loved it.

As an adult, I grew accustomed to the wonders of Banh Xeo (Vietnamese Crepes) and Steamed Duck Noodle soup at Can Tho Restaurant (Belconnen), and Garlic Rice, Ginger Chicken and Red Cooked Beef at Tu Do (O’Connor) – and many fine dishes besides.

Steamed Duck Noodle, Can Tho Restaurant, Belconnen, Australia

I have to say that I missed this level of taste and quality on first coming to Singapore, and eventually put it out of mind after some bad food court experiences. Eventually, though, the craving returned. The answer was, apparently, Little Vietnam.

We researched the Little Vietnam area and talked to friends about their preferences (a good thing to do in Singapore). My thanks to the Twice As Delicious crew for their excellent overview of Joo Chiat Road and the associated follow on posts – they were very helpful.

We started at the Geylang end of Joo Chiat Road – where the eateries and supply shops are very much Malay/Muslim rather than Vietnamese. As an aside, I am a big fan of Malay food and will be going back to this area for it on another trip – and to take in the nearby Geylang Serai centre. On this trip we were looking for Vietnamese food, so we kept walking.

Another couple of minutes walk and we saw our first Vietnamese cafe – but we’d decided that our first stop was to be the popular Long Phung Restaurant. Apart from the Twice As Delicious mention, Long Phung has an 89% approval rating on Hungry Go Where with over a hundred votes (a solid recommendation).

Long Phung immediately felt familiar to me – it brought back happy memories of Sunday lunch at Can Tho in Belconnen – the smell of rich Pho broth, fish sauce and chili – the only sound softly spoken Vietnamese.

This is the Spicy Beef Noodle Soup at Long Phung – rich soup broth, tender chunks of brisket, fresh herb flavour, hot with pepper and chili. The smell was delicious and the taste better. This was why I came – this is the quality of Vietnamese food I was missing:

We also tried the Pork Chop Noodle:

The Pork Chop Noodle was OK – not as intense as the Spicy Beef Noodle, but certainly better than you’d find in a food court somewhere else. Overall, my rating for Long Phung is “Love it, will go back” :)

We wandered back up Joo Chiat Road and had a second look – there are a number of other eateries there worth a try (and a mention in future posts).

Next, we went to the Little Vietnam Restaurant Cafe. It is at 511 Guillemard Road, just off Geylang Road (and noticeably closer to the in/famous red light area there). This place also featured in a post from the Twice As Delicious folks – the food and the beverage selection gets a good mention there. It has a 69% approval rating on Hungry Go Where.

I have to say that I was disappointed there were no steamed snails available – for a place that opens at 4PM to have run out of an ingredient by 5:30PM seemed a little hard to believe, but it is possible. Regardless, there was indeed beer.

Because we started with beer, we ordered the mixed finger food – deep fried chunks of fish ball and sausage:

The taste of the finger food was, well, OK. I’m not sure what I was expecting, to be fair. Comparing the same price (SGD5) to the excellent Spicy Beef Noodle that I’d had at Long Phung, the finger food was in second place.

We also ordered the spring rolls:

The spring rolls were not great – they were about on par taste (very subtle) and texture (somewhat soggy) wise with my earlier food court experiences. Perhaps there are regional variations in Vietnam that I was never exposed to as an Australian, and this is just how spring rolls are done (note to self: must get to Vietnam ASAP to investigate this!).

Things improved dramatically – dessert was a shared plate of excellent creamy sweet Banana Sago:

I still yearned for more – I wanted to experience something remarkable from Little Vietnam Restaurant. I ordered the Garlic Cockles (look for “crockles” in the menu). We could here them rattling around in a wok shortly thereafter.

The cockles were simply awesome. Juicy, flavoursome, the taste and the sight and the smell fresh and delicious. Whatever disappointments there were from earlier in the meal disappeared.

Over all, I’d have to say that while there were some small disappointments, the Little Vietnam area is an excellent food safari destination. I’ll go back to Long Phung for sure, and sample more of their menu – and go back to the Little Vietnam Restaurant for the cockles and (fingers crossed) the snails.

Sep 082012
 

Lebanon has one of my favourite cuisines – it is something I’ve eaten regularly throughout my adult life. There is something very satisfying about rolling meat, sauce and salad inside a piece of soft flat bread and consuming it bite by bite.

I worked in the financial district near Marina Bay for 12 months – one of the highlights was a huge variety of lunch options. I’ve explained before that discussing food recommendations is a great way to get to know people here. I remember, a year or so ago, talking with colleagues about how I missed really good Lebanese food.  One of my colleagues and friends, Tim, is Lebanese Australian  and could not recommend Urban Bites enough  – he described it as the food his mother would make (high praise coming from him). We went together that lunchtime and I found it very good indeed. I’ve been going there a couple of times a month or more ever since – always with a group, as it is a cuisine made for sharing.

Dinner on Friday started, as usual there, with pickled vegetables – peppers, carrots, lupins and olives:

The mezze platter was next – wara aarish (dolmades), hommous, baba ganoush, felafels, fattoush, labneh, tabouleh and bread so fresh from the oven it was still puffy. I have to say that the oven is one of the things that keeps bringing me back to Urban Bites – a wood fired oven you can watch being used from the dining area. The dips and salads are full of fresh flavours – trying different combinations of these on bread with the odd bit of meat is a neverending delight.

Next up, the mixed grill – kebabs of chicken, lamb and beef served with rice and and onion salad. The dipping sauces on the left there include a very good tum (garlic sauce) – if you have ever enjoyed a good tum you’ll know what I am talking about. The meat is well seasoned, and just as important, not overcooked.

And then, more of that wonderful chewy soft bread, slathered with labneh and topped with choice items from the table:

The two pizzas we ordered were manoushi (pizza topped with zattir or crushed thyme) and lahem bi ajeen  (pizza topped with minced lamb) – these are very good as is or slathered with labneh, hommous or (my favourite) baba ganoush:

We ended up with quite an impressive spread – the danger (and joy) of eating regularly at Urban Bites is that there are many favourites we have time after time, and ordering them all soon covers the table:

The three of us dining that night did get through this magnificent feast – by main course’s end, we stopped to survey the damage and congratulate ourselves:

Thankfully there was room for dessert – Urban Bites make their own, and all are delicious. We had two types of semolina pastries with pistachio – namoura bi ashta (sweet semolina pastry with a cream filling), and namoura (without filling).

Because of its location in the financial district, Urban Bites is full with a line for tables every weekday lunchtime, yet usually has a table free at night. If you like Middle Eastern food, I can heartily recommend it as a dinner venue – and if you are free at lunchtime through the week, you can get the good value set lunch (SGD12) to sample what they have.

I have tried many Middle Eastern eateries in Singapore, including several in the Arab Street/Kampong Glam area – for pure Lebanese cuisine goodness I have not found a better place than Urban Bites. I expect it will remain one of my regular haunts for as long as I live here in Singapore.

To get to Urban Bites: take the MRT to Raffles Place, take the Lau Par Sat exit, walk down Robinson Road until you get to Boon Tat Street, walk down Boon Tat a couple of blocks until you get to Telok Ayer Street and turn left – it is just past the peanut pancake place. If coming by taxi, ask the driver to take you to the place opposite the Chinese temple on Telok Ayer.

Sep 072012
 

Chasing food and cultural experiences has taken me to some interesting places. One of the joys of living in Singapore is that most of south east Asia is only an hour or two away by jet – and with several budget airlines operating in the region, a weekend away becomes a very real option. Tricks and traps for planning these outings is a good topic for a future blog post. One such trip took us to Penang – I’ve written about the great Assam Laksa at the Air Hitam market there.

The other culinary highlight of that trip was dinner at DeHappy Seafood on Macalister Road. They have an interesting crab menu:

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This is the Garlic and Black Bean Crab, Hong Kong style:

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It’s hard to describe how wonderful these two smaller (around 500gram) crabs were – cooked to perfection in a salty black bean and garlic sauce, shallots, and spring onions. We ate them with seafood fried rice, garlic kankong, and some salted egg prawns (the latter sadly overshadowed by the magnificence of the crab).

After the crab, there were some amazing oysters – that’s my hand, and trust me it is not a small hand :)

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The manager apologised in advance for having to charge us MYR8 (SGD3) each owing to supply problems – so we just ordered half a dozen. When they came out, I remember saying that I was glad we didn’t order a whole dozen :)

20120907-082844.jpg The oysters had an incredibly fresh clean taste.

I didn’t get a good pic of DeHappy at night as it was raining – if you go to look for it, this is what it looks like during the day:

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Please note that they are scheduled to move into larger premises next door (to the right) some time later this year.

All in, with a few bottles of Tiger beer to wash it down, the meal came to less than SGD70. This is one of the reasons Penang is so popular with Singaporean food lovers – great seafood at a good price.

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I look forward to returning to Penang to eat at DeHappy once again.

Do you have a favourite seafood place in Penang? If so, please leave a comment and let me know :)

Sep 062012
 

It’s fair to say that one of the reasons I came to Singapore was the laksa. Katong, not far from where I now live, is one of the stated birth places of this wonderfully rich spicy curry noodle soup.

For those of you that have never enjoyed laksa because by accident of birth and circumstance you find yourself in the wrong hemisphere, I truly apologise. For those that have been to a food court somewhere and had a tepid mess of overcooked underfresh noodles in a bleak dirty water tinned curry paste broth, I also apologise. You’ve missed out.

Let me start by saying that I know that there are many varieties of laksa, and each of these has a number of names…these names, in turn, often prepended by “The Authentic…”, “The Original…”, or some other title. Given that there is so much controversy on what this laksa or that laksa is actually called, it is not possible to describe it without contradicting one expert or another – and in doing so, cause offense. That said, if I am going to talk about my own laksa journey, I need to define it in my own terms so you’ll know what I am talking about. I am a simple soul, and divide all laksa I’ve experienced to date into two main groups:

  • The curry soup with coconut milk in it (Laksa Lemak, Katong Laksa, call it what you will – I’ll stick to the generic Bahasa Melayu “Laksa Lemak” – lemak meaning “fat” or “rich”) – basically, take some hot stock, add curry/shrimp paste, add coconut milk/coconut cream, add noodles of some description, throw in some veggies and one or more of shrimp/pork/beef/chicken. Laksa leaf (Vietnamese Mint or Duan Laksa) is optional in some locations. Add spongy fried tofu, sprinkle with fried shallots/onions, and serve.
  • The curry soup without coconut milk in it, usually fish based (Assam Laksa, Laksa Penaeng) – basically, take a fish (usually a Mackarel), boil it until the bones are soft, smoosh fish (bones and all) up into a paste, add a souring agent (lime, calimansi, and/or tamarind pulp) and some curry paste (but no coconut milk). Add noodles, maybe some veggies, sometimes some tofu, and serve.

My first Laksa Lemak experience was at the Dickson Asian Noodle House, in the late 1990s. This family run restaurant is in a suburb in Canberra, Australia, not far from where I grew up. Spicy, rich, tasty, delicious, more-ish, pick an adjective, it was that and more. A hot flavoursome curry soup, rich coconut base, noodles, bits of chicken pork and duck, slightly crunchy choi sum, big triangles of fried tofu soaking up the curry sauce goodness. It changed me. I went back there many times, and still miss it.

To my shame, I only have one picture of a Dickson Asian Noodle House Laksa Lemak available to me here in Singapore – the rest are on hard drives in storage back in Australia. This is a Duck Laksa at meal’s end:

 

The picture above does no justice to the spicy creaminess of the curry broth and the rich flavour of the slices of duck meat. I enjoyed many laksas at Dickson (mostly duck or vegetable with extra tofu) over the next ten plus years.

I’ve also had Laksa Lemak since in Singapore, Malaysia (West and East), Thailand, and the US. With apologies, I have to say that I am still looking for a better one than I had in Canberra – the richness of the coconut milk/cream and the intensity of flavour are not quite there. I’ll keep looking – but please, if you have a favourite, leave a comment and let me know.

As for Assam Laksa… I’ve enjoyed that in many places too – but the best I have had is the one in the Air Hitam Wet Market, Penang, Malaysia. Apart from the garlic and black bean crab (post to follow), it was the standout highlight of the weekend in Penang a month back. We asked our driver/guide Mr Choong to take us to the best Assam Laksa in Penang – he took us to Air Hitam, away from the tourist bustle of Georgetown and the coastal beach resort areas.  Note the price – MYR3.50 is about SGD1.30, and around AUD/USD1.

The laksa stand is on the edge of one of the busy vehicle traffic areas inside the wet market – and if you want to get a picture of the uncle spooning the rich fish curry into bowls of noodles, be careful (the drivers do not stop for tourists) :)

What is the taste? Sour, spicy, fishy, golden wonderful curry goodness. In it’s own distinct way, this is the Assam Laksa equivalent to the Dickson Asian Noodle House Laksa Lemak.These two best in breed examples share an intensity of flavour, a kind of no holes barred intensity, a fantastic balance of flavour and chili heat – things that I really admire.

I’m not suggesting that you get on a plane to Penang tomorrow, but if you are in the region, it is absolutely worth a visit. I’ve got a post planned on my impressions of Penang as a food tourism destination, and will talk about it more then.

You can see the gleam of bright red chili oil in the shot above – also the chopped shallots and rich black mackerel curry. It may be a little salty for some, but this is the style of the thing and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I opted for larger noodles – they also sell it there with smaller noodles (I’m guessing rice vermacelli – hopefully I’ll get to find out next trip). This shot shows the noodles and some of the other ingredients that were hidden lower down in the bowl.

So… the quest for the perfect Laksa Lemak continues. And I will absolutely be going back to Penang for more of that Assam Laksa from Air Hitam. And I hope, in time, to find more regional variants to be cataloged and described (but above all, enjoyed).

Sep 052012
 

I am sometimes a little critical. Sometimes,  more than a little. So I will try to keep this balanced.

A menu sets a promise. There is a description that tempts the diner to try this dish or that. It’s like a contract between diner and chef – I will give you money, and in exchange, you will give me what I ordered.

There seems to be a tendency, and it is almost universal, for places selling hawker stand food at restaurant prices to not put a lot into presentation. Some times, like the Thai place I will never return to, they go a step further, and three people ordering the same dish at the same price will get wildly differing portion sizes. But anyhow, this post is about presentation differences between what is promised in the menu and what is served.

Without naming the place, I ate at a nearby restaurant here today that promises to bring a little bit of Penang to Singapore. Having been the victim of misrepresented hotel accommodation in Penang in the past, I have to say with regret that perhaps they have succeeded a little too well.

Please forgive the cameraphone quality images that follow. This is the kway teow as promised in the menu:

This is what was served:

Honestly, if I hadn’t seen the photo in the menu, and I’d paid hawker centre price for it, it would have been OK.

What prompted me to write this article, though, was the dessert. This is the King Chendol (ice chendol with durian) in the menu:

And this was the same dish as presented:

Honestly, the taste was acceptable if not entirely wonderful. But it looks like something you might find in a field of very unwell cattle. A little care in presentation would go a long way to justifying the restaurant premium for this street food dish. It’s been said that we eat first with our eyes, then with our nose, well before the food reaches the mouth. If this is the case, then presentation is important.

So where does that leave me? Am I unenthusiastic about returning to this place? Very much so. Would I ever recommend it to a friend – or a blog reader? Absolutely not. Will I go out of my way to name and shame them? No… because to be fair I’d need to name the other establishments that do the same kind of thing here. And that would take more time than I have. There is so much good food in Singapore, and it is a pity to waste time on the mediocre.

I will leave you with this advice though – if you eat regularly at “hawker food, restaurant price” places, please go and seek out the authentic hawker version and try it for yourself. Makansutra produces an excellent food guide that will tell you the best places to go in Singapore – and you can pick up a copy of this excellent little book at most good book stores.