Oct 052012

Congee, if you’ve never had it, is a rice porridge. Rice (traditionally the broken rice not suitable for stir frying) is boiled into a mushy gruel. Which sounds terrible to Western ears, I know, but trust me, it can be very tasty.

The theory goes that agitating rice releases starches that cause the grains to stick together – and if you’re making a porridge out of it, get a head start by using already cracked grains.

I have to say that I have been a fan of congee for a very long time. My father made a form of it for his breakfast every so often when I was in my early teens, and I would join him in enjoying it.

Singaporeans enjoy their rice porridge with a variety of additives – some as simple as chopped shallots and a little soy, shredded ginger, fresh chili or sesame oil, others add frog legs, crabs, fish, and stinky (fermented) tofu. I’ve also seen porridge with BBQ meats added – pork, duck, and chicken.

For myself, I find it hard to beat a chicken or fish congee with a little sesame oil and some dried onion. I know that Westerners aren’t supposed to like savory food for breakfast traditionally, but I always have – the thought of sitting down to a bowl of corn flakes or nutrigrain swimming in milk is just not appetising at all.

So what makes a good congee? For me, it should not be too thin – watery gruel is, well, watery gruel, and as unappetising as that sounds. And supplied with the right additives – a little animal protein of some kind, some salt, some soy, a sprinkle of chopped fresh or fried spring onion.

And here is the crazy thing – the Colonel actually makes a decent and edible chicken breakfast congee. I present the KFC rice porridge:

Oct 042012

I’m reading Martin Jacques’ book “When China Rules The World” at the moment – it is an interesting look at the political, economic and social changes likely to take place over the next 20-50 years. Mr Jacques has a number of interesting observations to make about the emerging economic powerhouse of China – past, present and future – and it makes for fascinating reading. I attended a couple of economic history units at university and find what he has to say both plausible and fascinating. But I digress.

Ordering lunch, Penang

The one point that jarred for me was this – top of page 150, 2012 Penguin paperback edition: “The instincts are tribal: in the food hall at the National University of Singapore, I was struck by how the Chinese students ate Chinese food, the Indians ate Indian, and the Malays ate Malay, with little crossover.

Let me start by saying that I have not eaten at the food hall of the NUS. I’ve attended talks nearby, but never knowingly even entered the campus proper. And also, as a guest within this country, I must exercise due caution when discussing matters of culture and ethnic background. The government (rightly) takes a dim view of racial vilification in social media.

I do not believe that this behaviour is representative of wider Singaporean society where people meet to eat in groups. As most Singaporeans are of Chinese cultural background, it makes sense that traditional Chinese dishes (mainly from southern China or derived from local Nonya/Peranakan culture) are a feature here. Similarly, given the numbers of Tamil-speaking immigrants from southern India in the past, there is a lot of southern Indian food in Little India and across the island. Does this mean that people from Mandarin or Teochow speaking households only eat Chinese food when they go out? Or that I, by birth a Caucasian from Australia only eat steak and chips when I go out to eat?

Good grief, no.

I don’t want to say that separation along cultural background lines never happens at NUS or anywhere else, but I do have to say that it is not my experience of Singapore at all.

When groups of former colleagues and I would go to Little India to share an Indian-style Fish Head Curry, we (a group of people from Chinese, Indian and Caucasian backgrounds) would sit in a room full of a very representative Singaporeans and foreign visitors – on a typical weekday evening at Banana Leaf Apolo on Race Course Road it would be roughly half and half people of Chinese and Indian descent, with a fair scattering of “Europeans” (judging by accent, mostly from Canada, the USA, the UK, France, Germany, and Australia). When I eat Prata at my local mall here in Tampines, I sit down to eat it with locals of mainly Chinese and Malay descent.

I can’t speak to how people eat within their homes over all. It may be that there is more differentiation along cultural/ethnic lines, especially at religious/cultural festival times.

I believe that there is no “tribal” distinction when it comes to foods that Singaporeans have made their own. The Singaporeans I’ve met overseas profess to miss the Indian Fish Head Curry, the Malay desserts, and Indian Roti Prata as much as any other food here. And that is a good thing.

Oct 022012

One of my long time favourites here is the Braised Beef Noodle Soup at Din Tai Fung.

Braised Beef Noodle Soup, Din Tai Fung, Singapore
What sets it apart? For me, it is the well flavoured rich broth and rich chunks of very soft beef. The beef is sinewy – but cooked until the sinews are soft and break apart easily (yet add a wonderful texture). I like to enhance the flavour slightly with a little vinegar and shredded ginger. At SGD11++ it is also good value – I’m still trying to find one in a cheaper hawker centre that tastes as good :)

Din Tai Fung has outlets across the island and in many other parts of the world – if you get to one of their places, and you are fond of beef, please give this dish a try. If you want the flavour with fewer calories, they also serve a version without the beef chunks.

Oct 012012

This is a Steamed Pork Big Pau from my local Hokee outlet:

Note that the walls of the pau above are uneven, and that it has a generous amount of filling – these are the hallmarks of a hand made pau.

I sometimes disparage machine made supermarket pau. The mass produced ones are cheaper than the hand made variety, and the taste is really not that bad – nowhere as bad as the difference, say, between a McDonalds flavour free burger and a really good steak. But if you want to try a good pau, the best that you can find, go to a HDB coffee shop or a chain of local pau makers like Hokee.

I have to say that my current breakfast favourite at home is Hokee’s big pau – they have a dozen outlets all over the island, including Tampines Mall nearby.

Individual vendors aside, there are many varieties of pau to try in Singapore – my favourites are:

  • Char Sui: BBQ pork in a sauce
  • Tar Sau: sweet yam paste (brown or a surprising purple in colour)
  • Chicken: usually a ball of minced chicken that holds together like a dumpling inside the dough.
  • Big: Big Pau are, well, big,  usually minced pork and or chicken inside, and usually contain half an egg (sometimes a whole egg, halved).

You’ll notice the word “usually” in this post – the different combinations of main ingredient, flavouring, additions, and dough texture are quite numerous. The meat (or vegetables, as there are vegetarian versions) may be minced fine or chopped coarsely, there may be eggs included, the eggs may be of the ordinary hard-boiled variety or century/tea eggs, the dough may be plain or flavoured/coloured, and so on.

Eating pau, especially a good juicy Big Pau, can get messy – the ingredients move about as the dough gets smaller, and the juice will drip – not a task to be undertaken lightly if wearing a white shirt with a silk tie :)

If I am heating pau at home I prefer to use a bamboo steamer like the one shown above. These can be obtained from BHG department stores for SGD16 – the size they carry fits perfectly into a 9 inch saucepan, and comes with two trays. I think that if it is good enough for hawker centre dumpling vendors and Din Tai Fung to use bamboo, then it is quite good enough for me :) I am on my second bamboo steamer now, the first one served me well for close to a year before unraveling completely. The trick with using them is to provide sufficient water such that it doesn’t boil dry, but not so much water that it bubbles up into the pau. A word of advice – steam is hot, and the bamboo steamer gets very hot too.

There would be few food courts or coffee shops on the island that did not have someone providing pau. Find one, grab a cup of Teah O to wash it down, and enjoy.

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.