Change is the only constant in Singapore’s restaurant scene. There are officially more top end restaurants per gullet than anywhere else in the world right now, and a constant buzz about the latest openings.
What makes the city so intriguing is that no one can agree on what truly Singaporean food actually is. It’s a complex blend of cuisines: Chinese, Malay, Peranakan, Indian – even Arab. Its beauty lies in its infinite variety and how it’s evolved from those various influences. At its core sits a vibrant hawker food scene with very affordable prices. Restaurants are open around the clock and often packed to bursting point.
I consciously avoided the star name imports, and ate some of the best (if most bizarre) food of my life
On my most recent visit I consciously avoided the star name imports, and ate some of the best (if most bizarre) food of my life – starting with breakfast. At any given kapitam – an old-school Singaporean café – locals start the day with runny soft-boiled eggs, mixed in a saucer and given a good splashing of soy sauce and white pepper; kaya toast, pappy white bread spread with a delectable concoction of fresh coconut, pandan, sugar and egg “jam” to dip; plus weak kopi, a thick brew of coffee strained through something resembling a sock and sweetened with condensed milk. Craving something less sickly, I learned to order ask for “kopi-o kosong” – unsweetened black coffee.
Kaya is a staple of the diet. I found it everywhere, from the comfortable terrace of Tong Ah Eating House (36 Keong Siak Road, Chinatown) where toothless elderly locals slurp contentedly whilst concentrating on a Chinese newspaper to the surprisingly good Singapore chain, Ya Kun Kaya Toast, whose stores have a convincing retro ambience and serve homemade kaya jam.
I was very taken by “carrot cake”, which is actually made with steamed white daikon radish fried with preserved turnip
The colourful one-storey Old Airport Road Food Centre is worth the trek out of town for its authentic and inexpensive hawker dishes, being made constantly from scratch. By far my favourite discovery was otak-otak which translates as “brain” and is made predominantly from fish (considered, perhaps, a local brain food). Madame Tie’s otak-otak, made with mackerel, shrimp paste, coconut milk, chilli paste and spices, wrapped in banana leaf and grilled over charcoal is wonderfully aromatic, savoury, palate-thrilling, and very moreish. I was very taken by “carrot cake”, which is actually made with steamed white daikon radish fried with preserved turnip, soy sauce, fish sauce, eggs, garlic and spring onions. It’s extraordinarily good served “black” with sweet dark soy sauce. More filling was char kway teow – flat rice noodles stir-fried with lard (for the best flavour), dark and light soy sauce, chilli, cockles, sliced Chinese sausage, bean sprouts and Chinese chives.
Hainanesechicken rice is as close to a national dish in Singapore as I found, and everyone here has a favourite stall. Oddly, the dish didn’t originate on the Chinese island of Hainan, but was invented in colonial Malaysia by Hainanese chefs cooking for the British. It incorporates tender steamed chicken, served slightly cooled, with fluffy rice, sliced cucumber, coriander, and two key ingredients – a sambal and bowl of chicken broth. Although I found Maxwell Food Centre, a converted 1950s market, disappointingly sanitised (here hawker promoters brandish laminated menus and charge well above the average), the especially fragrant Tian Tian chicken rice is worth queuing for. Aficionadas were ordering extras from a rail of “spare parts” – wings, claws, and so forth – to eat poached in broth, and although fascinated, I couldn’t quite bring myself to try them.
Halfway between hawker stall and café, Foong Kee Coffee Shop on Keong Saik Road is the kind of enterprise that I most enjoy in Singapore. The owner, a former shoe sales manager, took on jobs as a kitchenhand in a number of restaurants where he learned how to perfect char siew crisp roast pork. His has a smoky aroma, with an irresistible thin layer of fat and sticky, tangy skin. He prepares his own oyster and chilli sauce too, and his wife, a former hairdresser, makes definitive wonton noodles.
At 78 Mua Guan Terrace, in the heart of Singapore’s first social housing estate, Tiong Bahru, now a neighbourhood on the rise, stands the latest in hotelier and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng’s Unlisted Collection. Bincho is a traditional kopitiam coffee shop by day, an ultra-funky hidden yakitori-ya grill by night, and oozes underground style at any time. Entry is via an unmarked door within a copper-lined tunnel bar serving brilliant Japanese-inspired cocktails and rare sakes. The interior is distressed and upcycled with old schoolhouse tables and a decidedly cosy feel, but to best appreciate Japanese chef Asai Masashi’s charcoal-grilling dexterity, you should sit at the marble bar. Set menus at Bincho (from S$80) include slates of succulent salt grilled chicken; tsukune, grilled chicken meatballs with miso-rich sauce; aromatic grilled vegetables imported from Japan including red heart daikon and nagaimo (mountain yam), plus the lightest of chawanmushi, a savoury egg custard with a wondrous wobbly texture. The food and atmosphere are all highly conducive to striking up conversation with your neighbours – which I did.
Iggy himself is humble, yet gregarious and passionate, obsessed with food, and celebrated as a sommelier on an international scale
It was the intricate attention to detail that swept me away at both of Ignatius Chan’s high-end, polished restaurants. Iggy himself is humble, yet gregarious and passionate, obsessed with food, and celebrated as a sommelier on an international scale. His restaurants were twin gastronomic highpoints of my visit to Singapore. Kaiseki Yoshiyuki, named after its chef, is tucked away in the basement of a shopping mall next to the Hilton on Orchard Road. The décor is chic and low-key, with illuminated cases of origami providing decoration. Kaiseki, with its numerous ultra-seasonal courses, emphasises both simplicity and complexity; meals follow a set ritual and are served by the chef and an utterly charming, kimono-clad, hugely knowledgeable waitress. I wasn’t surprised to discover Yoshiyuki Kashiwabara’s impeccable culinary credentials include seven years as personal chef to the Japanese ambassadors in Singapore. Key treats were seasoned baby octopus, perfect tuna sashimi – firm yet melting, with rude freshness – and sublime sakuri ebi rice made with the tiniest and sweetest of translucent cherry blossom pink prawns, fished only in spring at Suroga Bay in Shizuoka Prefecture. It was thrilling to experience such extreme seasonal delicacies.
Iggy’s (number 12 in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2014), housed within the Hilton itself, is similarly svelte and understated, with just 28 seats. I adored the feeling of dining inside an exquisite lacquered bento box. Like Kaiseki Yoshiyuki, it has a truly outstanding Japanese chef, Masahiro Isono, who has worked at New York’s Masa and Kyoto’s Italian-Japanese Il Ghittone. Here, simplicity of presentation belies the complex technicalities in the kitchen. Lunch highlights included Japanese sea eel, pleated like an Issey Miyake shirt, with pickled vegetables and yuzu juice, and sea urchin with Japanese yam and a crispy, umami flourish of prawn floss. One of the standouts was my first ever taste of fresh bamboo shoots with squid, spaghettini and sudachi lime zest. Such is Iggy’s dedication to perfection that he has two runners buying Japanese fruit and vegetables in Kyoto on his behalf, and fish is flown in from Tsukiji Market in Tokyo twice a week.
The colourful restored Chinese shophouses throughout Chinatown are real gems of detailed craftsmanship, though none are as exquisite as the 19th century terrace house of Restaurant André on Bukit Pasoh Road. Endearingly, André Chiang himself has handcrafted not just much of the tableware here, but the decorative clay figurines that populate his restaurant. Taiwan-born, French-trained (including spells at Gagnaire and Robuchon), Chiang is definitely on a roll, winning Best Restaurant in Singapore while taking the number six spot in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and maintaining his position at 37 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Chiang embraces his own concept of “octaphilosophy”: for a diner it’s fun to try to tell which dishes best exhibit the eight varyingly abstract elements he works with: texture, memory, pure, terroir, salt, South, artisan, and (bit of a cheat, this one, given its seven fellows) “unique”. What he serves for lunch depends on the best available ingredients – so the menu only gets written at the last minute. Combinations include pistachio crusted milk-fed lamb with mustard seed, pickled oyster mushrooms and crisp polenta. For dessert there’s a mandarin, passionfruit, blood orange and citrus sabyon cheesecake. Next time, for dinner, I’m eager to try André’s signature ultra-decadent warm foie gras jelly with black truffle coulis. (Plus I’d already been able to sample one of his dishes ahead of time: André’s hibiscus ice cream is served at Bincho.)
The black nut – sometimes referred to as “Asia’s truffle” – is poisonous when first picked
I was completely smitten by the complex flavours of Peranakan cusine, currently enjoying a renaissance among Singaporeans keen to embrace their culinary past. Rooted in the 16th-century intermarriage of Chinese and Malay, it melds Chinese cooking styles with indigenous ingredients such as galangal, tamarind, turmeric, coconut milk and lemon grass. The result is a complex cuisine that is rich, gutsy and accented with tangy, pungent and sour flavours. True Blue (49 Armenia Street) is a good starting point for exploring Peranakan style, especially its rendang curries and chendol (a green bean jelly with pandan leaf and coconut cream).
More daring and elegant is newcomer Candlenut (331 New Bridge Road), where Malcom Lee prepares a modernist take on Peranakan dishes. Lee’s signature dish is ayam buah keluak which requires quite some explanation, not to mention dedication when it comes to cooking it. The black nut – sometimes referred to as “Asia’s truffle” – is poisonous when first picked, and must be boiled, then buried in ash for 40 days, then soaked for three more days to soften the shell. Once the nut is cracked open, the contents are combined with sugar, salt and a mix of spices, pounded and pushed back into the shell and served with an extraordinary spicy, deeply earthy, mole-like sauce redolent with tamarind. Lee makes the dish with 120-day aged, grain-fed beef short ribs cooked sous-vide for 48 hours. And after all that comes the funky taste of Singapore’s favourite fruit, the durian, so excessively pungent that it is banned from hotels and airlines, here served as a subtly flavoured panna cotta. Having found durian straight up from a roadside stall in the red light district of Geylang just too much, I was delighted to positively enjoy durian in this sophisticated guise, much to the bemusement of fellow Singapore diners. C
Sudi Pigott travelled to Singapore with yoursingapore.com