More than a decade ago, when circumstances brought me to the city of Singapore, all I knew was that it was a clean, efficient gateway to the world with glitzy malls and a superb airport. The years have flown by and as I have my eaten my way through the passage of time, Singapore has rewarded me with food experiences that will remain an integral part of my life for a very long time. Along the way, my food horizons have expanded significantly.
Sitting on a Singapore Airlines flight in 2003, I may have predicted a few events and gotten them mostly wrong. But I would not have predicted craving a morning breakfast of Kaya Toast (Kaya is a local jam made with coconut, eggs, pandan and love) dipped in runny soft boiled eggs, spiced up with pepper and soy sauce and washed down with Kopi (the local coffee with its own set of alphabetical suffixes, Kopi – C, Kopi –O. Almost like vitamins, only more nourishing). I would not have thought that poached chicken with rice prepared in chicken broth with dollops of garlic and chilli sauce could set right a hectic morning at work. And not in my wildest imagination would I have thought that craving for late supper would mean Ba Kut Teh (a peppery pork rib soup that is accompanied with salted vegetables, rice and chilies) on Balestier Road.
Yes, the city is a global ‘hub’ of anything and everything. That reflects even in the sheer variety of cuisine available in the restaurants ranging in affordability from astonishing value for money to eye-wateringly expensive. But if you are the sort who loves a local meal, Singapore could reward you with a different meal every day of the year and have a fair bit to spare. In a city of immigrants, what is local is difficult to define. But there is something unique about being an immigrant in Singapore. You feel like a local not by what you do or how you speak. You feel local by how you eat. The day you stand in queue at a hawker centre and order your first plate of prawn noodles, have it served to you in minutes, help yourself to the sambal in the sauce pot, queue again to order a fresh fruit juice or a cold barley, and then train your eyes to spot an empty seat –you’ve settled in. You start having favourite hawker stalls, because the prawns are good, because the aunty gives you a familiar smile and knows your preference, you think nothing of selecting dried tofu skin and extra fish balls for your yong tau fu as if you have done it all your life. There is no easier way to settling in. It helps if you are ready to eat anything. It helps if anything is mostly delicious local food that is an amalgamation of centuries of different cultures, carried to its shores by commerce and conquest.
I used to be a regular at the Serangoon Gardens Hawker centre in Singapore. It’s a large, bright hawker centre that offers a wide variety of fare. Lunch hour brings out office workers in droves to sample the many delights dotted all over Serangoon Gardens. As I walked around, I would contemplate my choices. I could opt for a plate of fried Ipoh Hor Fun (flat rice noodles with some greens and fried dumplings), or maybe some Nasi Lemak (Malay-style rice served with a selection of meat, vegetables and dried anchovies). Ultimately, I may settle for a Black Carrot Cake (made entirely of radish and eggs with chilies and dark soy sauce) and washed it down with a glass of fresh sugarcane juice.
One of my earliest hawker centre memories, though, was in the Central Business District where my office was located. The hawker centre was located behind a building called the White House. Although anything but presidential, the hawker centre sees plenty of business from the gleaming office towers that look over this tiny relic that seemed determined to be a bit grungy. Equipped only with Indian Chinese food terms such as Manchurian, Hakka and Schezwan (add random bits of chicken, paneer or prawn to it) and thoroughly unfamiliar with food terms such as hor fun and prawn mee, I made a few tentative steps towards one of the stores and asked for fried noodles with chicken. The subsequent interrogation of the type of noodle I wanted, did not enlighten me in any way to change my answer. I wanted fried noodles. Fortunately, the lady at the store took matters in her own hand and served up some flat noodles stir-fried with chicken and vegetables with plenty of chillies. It hit the spot. For the next week, all I was doing was returning to the same stall and pointing to the noodles I wanted to sample next. Then the chicken was substituted with slices of pork, prawn dumplings, beef and fish. Sometimes I would suggest a combo, and she would vehemently shake her head in disagreement. I always deferred to her judgment and experience. A smile meant I was on the right track, a shake of the head meant no. By the end of a few months in Singapore, I knew hor fun, mee sua, lor mee, mee pok, kway teow, bee hoon and ee foo. They were my friends. Some tasted better in soupy broth, some were better stir-fried.
As my footprint of hawker centres expanded and I lived and worked in different areas, these are the friends that have welcomed me and helped me settle in. Just walking across to the nearest hawker centre and looking for them, tasting them and quickly firming up my favourites. From the initial chicken hor fun (fried, no gravy) in Tanjong Pagar, to Serangoon Gardens for my favorite Ipoh Hor Fun. A journey of a few years captured in two plates of noodles.
Any trip to a hawker centre will also bring you face to face with dozens of chickens poached or roasted and hung waiting to be chopped up and served to you with rice. Chicken Rice is as close as you can get to the national dish of Singapore. The tastes are simple. The chicken tastes mostly like chicken, the rice is fragrant with chicken broth and pandan leaves, and you can control the fire in your mouth by being judicious about the amount of garlic chilli sauce you dab on. But nothing is that simple in the world of food. There is Chicken Rice and there is good Chicken Rice. And then there is Chicken Rice that makes you emit a long sigh, so tender is the meat of the chicken and so delicately fragrant is the rice. The Maxwell Road Food Centre induces that sigh in me. Not too mention, Pow Sing in Serangoon Gardens and Boon Tong Kee on River Valley Road. But this is a very touchy topic. Almost every Singaporean is capable of telling you why their preferred choice is the best.
For those unfamiliar with Singapore, the areas that these establishments are located in would roughly be the business district, downtown and edging towards the north of the city. Garnish these locations with Singapore’s efficient public transport and it means that you are never too far away a long sigh of satisfaction.
Much as I dove in at the deep end of the local food scene in Singapore and got rewarded with so many great tastes and flavours, I would also credit the city with feeding another obsession of mine. Coffee. The Baristas and the Café Coffee Days were on their way to mushrooming in India when I left in 2003. But it was in Singapore that I truly grew to appreciate a well-made coffee, the importance of the right beans and the true pleasure of a fresh espresso. In course of time, I acquired my own coffee machine at home and learned to turn my nose at the big chains like Starbucks and Coffee Bean. Either the beans are roasted excessively or there is too much water in the coffee.
The two chains are institutions around the world, but I have moved on. With an outlet as individualistic, quirky and delightful as Papa Palheta, it is not difficult to move on. Started by a young bunch of people who are passionate about the cup of coffee, and aptly named after a Brazilian who made coffee accessible to everyone in Brazil by having an affair with the Governer’s wife in neighbouring French Guyana, a trip to Papa Palheta felt like dropping in to an old friend’s house. There was no formal sitting area. You sat in the courtyard, by the stairs, inside a large living room on the carpet or on the sofa. The staff served you heavenly coffee made from beans that were freshly roasted on the premises. You were not hurried along as you enjoyed the coffee, contemplated its rich taste and realised that this is the kind of place that serves happiness with a single-minded pursuit. When you felt the need to leave and return to the world, you become aware of the fact that there was no price list. You paid what you thought the coffee was worth. Papa Palheta was an oasis in every sense of the word. My coffee obsession in Singapore has only gotten stronger. Papa Palheta lives on in newer avatars. I indulge my fascination in a separate chapter.
But there are other coffee chains. Some which have been instrumental not only in indulging the coffee habit, but a lot of other obsessions. Spinelli’s on Orchard Road was a hangout for the three of us whenever Ani and Priya were visiting. World peace, Indian politics, common friends and uncommon peeves have all been discussed over an assortment of Americanos and Macchiatos. With great natural skill, every conversation around Saddam, Bush and Harry Potter neatly evolved into a discussion about food. It was coffee that fed the obsession of endlessly talking about food. It was coffee at Spinelli’s that led to the conversation about chronicling our memories and love for food. It is apt that mentions about love for coffee find its place in a piece on Singapore. The city that brought the three of us back together and fed us enough good coffee to fuel the conversation that planted the thought of writing this book as a collaborative effort. We could have been anywhere. But as it turns out, we were in Singapore.
This is a city that is transforming itself at an astonishing rate. In my time here, entertainment and food districts have been born, transformed, re-invented and given way. The skyline of the city continues to sprout bold new statements of glass and steel. Almost in keeping with those statements, renowned chefs and restaurant brands from all over the world have started to open up trendy new establishments here. The feverish pace at which new outlets serving fine dining cuisines are opening up almost seems like an attempt to match the energy of the local hawker centres. While some of these restaurants undoubtedly serve up creations that satiate the taste buds and roast your credit card, there are few I’d go back to repeatedly. But one place that has kept me coming back time after time is Wild Rocket.
This is a restaurant whose food carries a signature of boldness. Run by lawyer-turned-chef Willin Low, it is not classic fine dining. In fact the air is distinctly casual. Western dishes are given an Asian twist both in ingredients and in preparation. So a spaghetti pesto will be laced with Laksa leaves and the panna cotta will be infused with pandan and served with Gula Melaka – local palm sugar syrup, sweet and almost alcholic. Wild Rocket is great dining with its roots in hawker fare and is described by Willin as Mod Sin (Modern Singaporean) cuisine. He says that the roots of his cuisine lie in cooking Asian food with Western ingredients during his student days in London. And maybe that explains why it does not feel like classic fusion cuisine where you are not quite sure as to what you are eating.
This cuisine is fusion with strong traditional roots, born out of necessity and coupled with imagination. Willin certainly displays enough imagination in every item on the menu. I would highly recommend that you try out this restaurant tucked away in a quiet hill top corner of downtown. Enjoy every morsel of whatever you order but do keep space for dessert and order yourself the Panna Cotta with Gula Melaka and the Strawberry Cheesecake. The Panna Cotta is infused with the fragrance of pandan, a local leaf that finds its way into many South East Asian dishes and desserts. The dessert is served in a little well of Gula Melaka. The joy is in how well the flavours match. Then, kick it up a notch and attack the strawberry cheesecake. This does not look like a cheesecake. It is served in a martini glass and is served deconstructed. You can see the mashed strawberries, the cheesecakey bits and a crunchy layer. Nothing merges in to the other. Take a spoon and dive through the layers, make sure you get a bit of everything and taste heaven. Willin has refreshed his menu several times, but in a list of bold and delightful experiments in his menu, the strawberry cheesecake has endured. Some formulae are perfect the first time around. But yes, if you do feel the need for a chocolate dessert, then go ahead and order the molten lava chocolate dessert. That’s an overwhelming hit too. Wild Rocket constantly reinvents itself. But in a world of fine dining where you could not know where you are in the world, a meal at Wild Rocket tells is fine, innovative food that belongs to Singapore.
The formula for eating in Singapore is simple. And I think it has stayed the same for centuries. Immigrants have arrived at different notches on the scale of time to a port city, a trading outpost for the East India Company, a centre of commerce, a regional hub, a global financial centre; they settled in and introduced a new strand of cuisine or a way of eating. In a city of immigrants, this got assimilated very quickly. Pick the moment in time in the history of this country and you have an emerging food trend to mirror the times. Alternatively, and conflictingly, for a city that is described as ‘dynamic » and “formulaic », the food scene here is nothing but dynamic. Hong Kong may be more organic, and anyone from Kuala Lumpur will tell you that certain cuisines are more authentic in KL, but Singapore is truly a coming together of vastly different cultures and cuisines that any other city in Asia, perhaps in the world, will find difficult to match.
Nothing illustrates thus variety better than two of my favourite venues to drop in for food, be it shopping or eating. Little India, which feels more like India than Singapore. Its suprabhatam music in the temples, the fresh flowers and some of the chaos on the streets lend it a feel that is at once a bit out of tune with the rest of the city as well. Almost as if it is intentionally being preserved in the manner. Given my Indian roots. I dive in quite regularly into some of the restaurants along Race Course Road or Serangoon Road. But the true jewel of Little India, for me, is the wet market at Tekka Centre. Far removed from the sterile supermarkets attached to shopping malls, Tekka is a busy, bustling collection of stalls of fresh produce, fish, meats, vegetables, fruits and flowers that will have you scrambling for the recipe book ever so often.
There is not a single ingredient that you would need in Indian cooking that you could not get here. The most precious discovery for me was the variety of river fish available here. Fish like Rohu and even Hilsa – which any self-respecting Bengali will say tastes best when it emerges from the Ganga or Padma – are available in plenty. I would go so far as to say that the strictest of Hilsa connoisseurs would fail a blind taste of the freshest Hilsa from Bangladesh compared to what is sold in Tekka. I remember a trip once when my mother and I went fish shopping. She had her doubts about the Hilsa being any good and turned around to ask me the same in Bengali. The fishmonger, who was very obviously Chinese, did not wait for my answer and launched into a short Bengali sentence assuring her about the quality and the taste. That is what commerce does to people. Needless to say, the Hilsa tasted spectacular.
Tekka also has a hawker centre that has people forming long queues outside one biryani stall. I can only describe myself as a Biryani snob and therefore have resisted that queue. But I do get the feeling that the resistance is weakening. I will join the queue one of these days. Oh, and if you are in this part of town, do get around to Murugan’s for a meal of idlis served with four chutneys that you are unlikely to forget anytime soon.
The second venue is at the other end of the spectrum. We are talking about a restored black and white colonial bungalow nestled in a quiet residential area, serving some of the most succulent Peking Duck in town. Min Jiang is a great venue to entertain guests while eating well. Any place that takes orders for the duck when you are reserving a table gives you the idea that they take the activity of roasting their ducks very seriously. While the Peking Duck is very much the area of focus, the rest of the menu does an admirable job of satisfying your taste buds. The helpings are not very large and almost everything tastes really good, including the Xiaolongbao – a dumpling filled with pork broth and pork. The eaterati of Hong Kong and Shanghai have very often dismissed the notion that good Xiaolongbao can be found in Singapore. But many of those who have made the trip to Min Jiang have altered their opinion.
Then they take a bite of the roasted duck, carved, folded, dipped in sauce, the crispy skin that yields perfectly and all opinions veer round to the same conclusion. Life is good. As you sit comfortably in the balcony of the colonial bungalow with sweet smelling flowers in their evening bloom and contemplate your next course, you could almost be forgiven for thinking that nothing could really go wrong in this world.
The worlds of Tekka and Min Jiang could not be further apart, and yet they are in the same city; much like the worlds that collide when we make good friends. Lynn is one such friend. Our worlds collided when we moved in next to each other. She is a foodie with a great eye for the good things in life. We very quickly discovered that we liked to put away a few good meals together. Somewhere in that process, she threw down the gauntlet by presenting me with a book, “Passion and Inspiration” by Justin Quek. The author is a celebrated chef instrumental in the setting up some of the most remarkable restaurants in the region. The book in question is a collection of some of his favourite recipes that look delectable in the glossy pictures featured in the book.
My cooking efforts till then had largely been Indian or basic Italian and Chinese. Between Lynn’s enthusiasm, subtle urging and the book’s deceptively approachable recipes, I took it upon myself to cook some of the recipes. Squid ink pasta, cauliflower foam, raspberry coulis – it all sounds nice in menu descriptions. When the chef happens to be you, those descriptions transform themselves into daunting tasks. For the first time, I actually found myself keeping a timesheet so that courses were prepared and presented as they are meant to be. And in cooking from that book, I grew to truly appreciate the true art and craft of a chef, who imagines and puts together a meal that is appreciated and has people returning for more.
Coming back to where it all started, Ani and Priya moved to Singapore in 2010. They had made numerous trips to the city and were familiar with most of its layout and geography. But now we play food guide to each other. This represents the first instance when the three of us are in the same city since our college days in Bombay. We had discovered our mutual unhealthy obsession in Hong Kong. But to say that Singapore became our laboratory would not be stretching the truth. We discovered new places and established old favourites we went back to. We dipped our pratas in curry at the Empire Café, egged each other on at Jones the Grocer, felt comfortable with the pizzas at Spizza, debated the Kaya toast of Ya Kun or Killiney and ended up voting for YY Kafei Dian on Beach Road. We whipped up meals simple and great at home, and moaned about the price of wine in Singapore while cracking open yet another bottle. The list of places to try keeps increasing, ideas flow and some take root. One such idea is in front of you. It would not have happened without us being back together in Singapore. And it definitely would not have happened if we had not all obsessed about the strawberry cheesecake at Wild Rocket. Some ideas are worth eating for.
When I first moved to Singapore, I remember a few times when I would get into a bus and just sit in it till it reached its final destination. I would get off the bus and mostly be greeted by the sign of an interchange, where you could pick your next destination, hop in to an MRT or take another bus. It was a little game for me to get familiar with the city. And then, I would chance upon the food stalls and feel less like a stranger. Time and circumstances have changed. Singapore now is familiar.
Nam and I built a new life together. Now we call Vietnam home. But a part of us has stayed back in Singapore. That’s the thing about being an immigrant. It does not feel like home till one day no other place also feels like home. But the friends I have made have offered me comfort and love. They will be friends for a very long time. And that includes you – hor fun, mee sua, lor mee, mee pok, kway teow, bee hoon and ee foo.