Oct 272012

Before coming to live in Singapore last year I had spent some time in the region with work. One of the local dishes that I came to love was Ice Kacang – basically a shaved ice and fruit/sugar syrup dessert. I even found a couple of places that made it in Australia – but like many other Asian delicacies there it was sadly of inferior quality at a somewhat superior price.

This version of Ice Kacang is topped with Mango and Durian fruit:

Mango Durian Ice Kacang

This is the more common form of Ice Kacang, topped with sweet red beans – layers of shaved ice, palm nuts (like jelly beans), pandan jelly threads, red beans, gula melaka (palm sugar), and some sweet fruity sauce:

Ice Chendol is named after the green pandan jelly threads made by dripping into water – they look like little green glowing worms:)

One of the local Kopitiams does a sundae-like Ice Chendol in a glass – it is served with a plastic spoon and thick bubble tea straw:

This picture shows you detail of the layers – from the bottom up, they are gula melaka, shaved ice, chendol threads, red beans, more shaved ice, and more gula melaka syrup. Very tasty and refreshing – and also very sweet :)

This shows you detail of the chendol threads and the two types of sweet bean used in this particular Ice Chendol – many just use the smaller red bean, but this one includes larger kidney beans as well:

The cost of both is minimal – normal Ice Kacang is usually around SGD1.80, the Durian version around SGD2.70 – and Ice Chendol is rarely more than SGD2.00.


Oct 122012

Sometimes, I eat food from the local supermarket. Prepared food, that I just reheat. One of my favourite breakfast meals is the humble Ngoh Hiang Roll – and these usually come in a packet from the nearest supermarket.

According to the Makansutra Guide, Ngoh Hiang properly refers to a selection of deep fried snacks traditionally served with bee hoon (rice vermicelli) of Teochow Chinese origin. The fried snacks include prawn fritters, tofu, little sausages and fishballs. I’ve had similar a few times – a plate of mixed fried morsels can be the perfect beer snack on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

For me the term “Ngoh Hiang” has mostly meant the tasty fish meat rolls derived from this traditional snack family that I obtain from – yes – the supermarket.  The fish/prawn mixture is wrapped in tofu skins then fried and allowed to dry. These are then reheated by steaming for 5-10 minutes. This photo shows the large ones from my local supermarket – for size comparison, that is an 18 centimeter steamer.

These are incredibly cheap – SGD1.15 to SGD1.30 a packet depending on where you look – that’s around AUD1/USD1. They are also an easy thing to unwrap and pop in the steamer on the way to the shower in the morning. Each packet will contain three large (in roll form shown above, or flatter cake form) or around eight small rolls.

The average Singaporean supermarket usually has these smaller ones. Note that the skins are very wrinkly – these are yet to be steamed:

I usually drop them into a bowl and add a little soy and chili sauce.

One more word on supermarkets in general. I know that this might sound like heresy to the foodie purists – but I would encourage anyone coming to Singapore for the first time to find a supermarket and look at what is available – you might be pleasantly surprised. If you carry a copy of the Makansutra Guide with you (or have access to a data plan for your phone) you can spend hours wandering around learning about new foods. It is a passion I have had wherever I have traveled – the everyday foods will be found in the coffee shops and the hawker centers here, true, but you will learn a lot about a place through its supermarkets.

Oct 112012

I used to eat a lot of Thai food before coming to Singapore. It was one of those regular staples for working lunches with clients and colleagues – and I still think fondly of my favourite places back in Canberra (chief among them, Two Sisters in Dickson).

I’m not sure how this changed so much in coming to Singapore. My local (at the time) Bali Thai outlet at Novena just wasn’t quite what I was used to, so the desire for red duck curry and Beef Massaman  slowly faded. I found out soon after that a lot of the chain Thai places precook most the food in a central location first thing in the morning then give it a quick reheat in the wok prior to serving – and it tastes like reheated leftovers as a result (not that there is anything wrong with microwaved leftovers – anyone that knows me knows how fond I am of them, but I do resent paying restaurant prices for reheated food).

I have to say that I have enjoyed many fine meals at Phad Thai in Mackenzie Road -  I know the owners, they are good people, and provide a good dining experience. Apart from that, Thai food in Singapore has been something I’ve had every so often but never really raved about.

And so it was with an open mind but no great expectations that I entered Ah Loy Thai (in Tampines Mall Basement 1) today for lunch. When the Pineapple Rice came out, my low expectations were confirmed by the presentation – even the chain places go to some effort, but this looked well, not so wonderful:

But how did it taste? Actually rather good. Better than good. Great. Well flavoured, good texture, fresh ingredients. I think I could eat a whole plate of it as a lunch option for myself alone – that good.

Next came the Garlic Pork with Lemon Leaf:

This dish looked much better than the rice, and the taste was very good indeed – hot, full of spicy flavour, big chunks of lemon grass adding to the taste, with the odd chunk of well caramelised garlic scattered throughout it, superb.

Next, Mango Crispy Chicken:

I have to say that I am fond of mango in Thai food – the fish in mango sauce at Phad Thai remains my favourite Thai dish here in Singapore. This is a close second – despite the large chunks of red chili obvious in the photo above, the taste is pretty mild compared to the Garlic Pork. And the chicken is very crispy, very well flavoured, sweet, tasty.

Last came the Fried Calimari:

The Calimari is served with mayonnaise and chili sauce. Of all the dishes, this was probably the one that did not stand out – it was not bad, it just suffered by comparison to the rest of the dishes.

At meal’s end, the two of us had put in a creditable effort:

And the cost? Readers have asked me to include prices in my venue review posts – so here is the bill showing all-in costs:

Please note Ah Loy in Tampines Mall is a cash-only establishment – meals are paid for on ordering. I am not sure if their other outlet in Beach Road is the same, but take sufficient cash just in case.

Would I go again? Yes, I think I will. The menu has dishes yet untried, and if they were as good as today’s lunch, I will be back there again and again until I have sampled them all.

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 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 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 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 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.