Hungry Merlion

Hungry Merlion

Lion's feast

Hungry Merlion

Singapore’s status as a serious food destination can be gauged from the fact that 10 of the Top 50 restaurants in Asia can be found here.

This is where celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay met his Waterloo in a street-food challenge; his chicken rice lost out to the original at Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice at Maxwell Road Food Centre. Overnight, the tiny stall became a sensation. Chef Anthony Bourdain considers their chicken rice so good that you can have it all by itself, even without the chili-shallots-ginger-garlic condiment and sliced red chilli in soya. The trick is in the rice cooked in chicken broth, with steamed or roasted chicken breast sliced and served on top.

After working at Tian Tian for over 20 years, chef Wong Liang Tai quit and set up his own stall, Ah-Tai, two stores away. Both remain popular, and there are serpentine queues at lunchtime.

Equally legendary is Boon Tong Kee, started by Thian Boon Hua as a tiny stall in Chinatown in 1979, serving Cantonese chicken rice infused with silky white sauce. After the first restaurant at Balestier Road in 1983, five outlets opened in quick succession, and by 1999 it had diversified to a zi char (home food) restaurant.

Singapore must have truly humbled Gordon Ramsay, for he also lost to a tiny shop called 328 Katong Laksa. Laksa is a coconut-based curry with yellow noodles, prawns, boiled egg and sambal, topped with fried onions and peanuts.

Run by a former model, the noodles come in bite-sized pieces, easy to soup up. Singaporeans love their char kway teow — flat rice-noodles and egg noodles stir-fried with eggs, cockles, lap cheong (Chinese sausages), bean sprouts and Chinese chives. However, the ultimate favourite is the Singapore chilli crab, best served at Jumbo Seafood and Long Beach.

Some culinary experiences are so uniquely Singapore that patrons don’t mind queuing up. Jumbo’s award-winning chilli crab makes it hard to get a table at their Clarke Quay outlet. Song Fa’s bak kut teh (pork-rib soup) evolved from a tiny pushcart on Chinatown’s Johor Road in 1969 to a chain of restaurants. For the best steamed-pork dumplings, there’s Din Tai Fung, while Tanglin Crispy Curry Puff has been tingling taste buds since 1952 with its golden, fried curry puffs in chicken, sardines or yam.

Unique ‘transformer’

Lau Pa Sat, once a Victorian-era wet market, has transformed into a buzzing street-food centre. A diverse range of stalls are anchored around a central clock tower with an ornamental metal roof fabricated and shipped from Glasgow. In the evening, vehicular traffic on Boon Tat Street is shut down as makeshift tables and chairs spill out from the building onto the streets. Satay stalls fire up their skewers to dish out mutton, chicken, beef and prawn satays with Tiger Beer. A sign displays the ‘Satay Challenge’ record of 150 sticks consumed in 20 minutes! The unique thing is you have to pay the moment your order arrives. With none of the usual squalor associated with street food, the hygiene standards are really high, and each hawker centre has to shut down compulsorily for four days every month for maintenance.

Times are changing

With limited land available and a limit to reclamation, Singapore loves to squeeze out maximum utility from minimum space and repurposing the old. Dempsey Hill, once a British cantonment and barrack for soldiers, is a swanky gourmet and shopping district spread around a gently sloping hill. At PS Cafe and its sister concern ChoPSuey, dine indoors or outdoors, feasting on rib eye steaks, pastas and wine. Ann Siang Hill, once a spice plantation of nutmeg and mace, is a buzzing F&B district crammed with rooftop bars and restaurants. Critically acclaimed Lolla offers tapas-sized portions of house specials — toasted sourdough with kombu butter, cured meat platter, Iberico pork collar, lamb rack and more.

The sheer diversity of dining locations in Singapore is mind-boggling. There’s a 34-seater Gourmet Bus that tours the city while offering an excellent wine & dine experience.

At Gardens by the Bay, a nature park, dine at the IndoChine in a ‘SuperTree’, sit outdoors at Satay by the Bay, or opt for a seven-course dégustation menu at Pollen inside the Flower Dome in a plush indoor setting. You are ushered to the counter for exquisite desserts. Try the pumpkin ice cream, caramelised pumpkin seeds, fresh blueberry, and white-chocolate parfait garnished with pumpkin seed oil.

At Botanic Gardens inside the National Orchid Garden is Halia, ‘ginger’ in Malay. Their chilli crab spaghettini and paperbag fish are signature specialities, as is their version of Singapore Sling using Hendrick’s gin that contains 11 botanicals, and notes of cucumber and rose.

Local desserts like chendol (shaved ice with pandan jelly, red beans, coconut milk and gula melaka) are legendary. For a special treat, head to Janice Wong’s 2am dessert bar in Orchard. Paired with saké or exotic cocktails, try their signature desserts, Tsujirihei green tea tart, Kyoto Garden and Blackforest Cornet, offered in a dégustation menu classified as Zen, Playful and Natural respectively.

In Cacao Forest, the Earl Grey bergamot chocolate mousse, forest fruits, miso and ice cream were shrouded in a ring of cotton candy. As the crème de cacao liqueur and vanilla whiskey were poured on the fluff, the ‘forest’ disappeared before the eyes.

The iconic Singapore Sling, a gin-based cocktail infused with Grenadine, was crafted in 1912 at the Raffles Hotel so ladies could drink in public without inhibition. When the Americans came here after World War II, they were looking around for Philly Cheese Steak sandwich (much in vain); that’s until someone decided to stuff country sandwich bread with meat and eggs, and called the Asianised version ‘Roti John’!
Singapore thrives on culinary inventiveness. Bon appétit!