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.

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.

image

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.