What do you do when you plan your trip to a new city? If you’re anything like me you spend days scouring blogs, twitter, and various travel sites on the internet trying to put together a list of the “must do” (realistically “must eat”) places to visit.
So what if instead of spending all that time, you just relaxed and put yourself in the hands of a trusted advisor. A well informed local who could put together a list of awesome things for you to do/eat? Such was the proposition I received recently as an opportunity to visit Singapore on behalf of the Singapore Tourism Board was put forward.
“Impossible!” I thought, as the email came in from the PR reps. There was no way the itinerary could possibly satisfy someone with my obscure culinary obsessions… Oh how wrong I was. Whilst being led through the dried fish and spice laden halls of the dry goods section above Bugis Food Centre with our celebrity concierge Audra Morrice pointing out where her mum comes to collect ingredients for her homemade sambal and curry. I was in the midst of musty, dehydrated food heaven.
Audra was part of Masterchef in 2012, and clearly made it a lot further along the way than I did, a fact which I tried not to hold against her, because her love of food and all that goes along with it is compelling. Based in Sydney with her young family now, she’s a Singaporean through and through, as evidenced in a small alley way in the covered markets of Chinatown haggling over the price of some freshly cut durian with a crafty operator. In short, she was the perfect person to show me the sights and tastes of Singapore that I’d been missing.
Now of course the rest of this post should be read with the knowledge that I was invited to come to Singapore on behalf of the Singapore Tourism Board. The flights, accommodation, and daily activities were all paid for. In fact, if I didn’t have a massive craving for Bakkwa that needed to be satisfied with frequent nightly trips to Lim Chee Guan, I’d have struggled to pay for anything. I stayed at the very trendy Dorsett Hotel in Chinatown and had a friendly mini bus driver named Steven who let us bring durian puffs on board as long as we double bagged them.
Disclaimers aside, I can’t think of many things on the itinerary that I wouldn’t have done of my own accord. The tour was designed by Audra to give us an idea of what her Singapore was all about, and it was a feast for all the senses. It was facilitated by local tour guide Wee Tee, a lady whose innate Singaporeanness is second to none, and who only got funnier as the days went on. She took great delight in introducing me to the wonders of foot reflexology, which should actually be known as foot murder.
So in no specific order here are the highlights in photo form for you to peruse:
Chin Mee Chin Confectionery
An old school bakery of much repute on East Coast Rd. This was the spot Audra chose to take us to experience the joy that can only come from a sweet cup of kopi (strong coffee brewed with or without a sock and loaded with condensed milk) and some kaya toast with soft boiled eggs. Kaya is a sweet coconut jam made with eggs, and the best way to eat it is on some plain white toast with a slab of butter. Our group fortunately arrived early as a line started forming out the door not long after we arrived. I managed to eat about 4 soft boiled eggs with liberal doses of soy sauce and white pepper sprinkled over them. The kaya toast just works, I could eat it anytime of the day. Soft white bread lightly toasted and loaded up with melty butter and thick coconut jam is a superb match.
Chin Mee Chin Confectionery
204 East Coast Rd
+65 6345 0419
Tiong Bahru is an old area close to the centre of Singapore. It was Singaporeâ€™s first housing estate, built in the 1930s to the west of Chinatown, and has in recent years undergone a “gentrification” of sorts. With all kinds of new coffee shops, bars, and designer stores appearing in what previously was home to kopitiams full of mahjong playing old timers.
We took a little of the old and a little of the new on this visit. First up hitting up the hugely popular Tiong Bahru Bakery for breakfast pastries and specialty coffee supplied by hip new roasters Common Man Coffee (A collaboration between Perth locals Five Senses and Singaporean coffee trail blazers Forty Hands). My Kouign-Amann was crispy on the outside, soft inside, sweet and perfect. The coffee expertly poured by one of the most eager to please baristas I’ve ever met.
We took a short stroll down the road and Audra pointed out some pandan growing in a street front garden that I encouraged her to steal. We settled for a photo in front of it. Then onwards to the Tiong Bahru Food Centre and a little breakfast treat called Chwee Kueh. I discovered this on my last trip to Singapore, and was super happy when we made a bee line for the Jian Bo Chwee Kueh stall with aunty dutifully scooping steamed rice cakes out of their moulds onto a sheet of wax paper and lathering over a healthy dose of preserved radish and sambal. I played it cool for a while but when it was obvious that the rest of the party were lacking in the power eating department I stepped up and finished most of them. I can envision a future in which I eat this for breakfast everyday and am totally happy.
Tiong Bahru Bakery
#01-07, 56 Eng Hoon St
+65 6220 3430
Tiong Bahru Food Market & Hawker Centre
30 Seng Poh road
Now a slight divergence from the hawker stalls and local food as we headed to a little restaurant in Chinatown called Lolla. I was all ready to not like this place with its Spanish this, tapas that, and this is our version of what. Plus the distinctly not-hawker-customer-friendly price tags on the dishes… but damn if the food wasn’t good. Chef Ming is a young guy who is clearly keen to impress. We arrived for a lateish lunch and he was prepping pork skin for dinner service which was slow cooked overnight, then dried, before being deep fried into perfect crackling. The dishes I tried could not be faulted… a sublime seafood custard (think Chawanmushi with squid ink) topped with sea urchin. Then a slow cooked tripe that fellow offal fiend Rebecca and I could not go past, crispy gelatinous honeycomb. Then octopus, clams, smoked cheese. Washed down with a Spanish AlbariÃ±o I could have quite easily forgotten I was still in the heart of Chinatown with ducks hanging in windows all around me.
22 Ann Siang Road, Chinatown
To get us back on the local track, after lunch at Lolla we took a stroll around Chinatown, checking out the Buddhist temple (home to part of Buddha’s tooth), and the wet markets where old and young guys used very large cleavers to take the heads off very large fish. Small cages of frogs who had lost all hope of escape sat complacently awaiting their fate, and all manner of person haggled with vendors for the best prices. Outside the market old men played Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) and we wandered through streets of covered markets til that all too familiar smell of Durian filled our noses and Asian food novice Aleisha was given the baptism of fire into that most special of fruits. It didn’t go well.
Another day another market and this time it was Bugis. An area previously famous for lady boys during the second world war, we had no Adam’s Apples to be wary of unfortunately, just more great street food from the hawker centre and market stalls. Wee Tee our guide happily procured rojak for a snack and ice kachang and ice cendol for a snack dessert. I’m pretty sure it was mostly for her, but she let us have a taste as well. The hawker centre doesn’t just stop at the food level, head upstairs and you find yourself in the aforementioned dry goods section. Audra pointed out dried persimmon, all manner of dried mushrooms and fungi, giant bags of dried scallops and ikan bilis and a whole stall dedicated to dried sea cucumber, a food that must surely be close to the top of the list of ugly things that are crazy expensive.
Little India is an area like no other in Singapore. I have yet to reach India, but I have a pretty good idea of how it would feel from spending a few nights in Little India Singapore. The streets are heady with the smell of incense and dried flowers, and spices. Road rules and the regular orderliness of Singapore goes out the window and in the evenings an otherworldly noise envelopes you as the sound of thousands of voices speaking a hundred sub-continental dialects fills the night air.
On this trip Audra took us to a favourite restaurant of hers, the Madras New Woodlands Restaurant, which I was somewhat shocked to find was totally vegetarian. Of course the health conscious need not get too excited about that as plate after plate of fried breads like poori, dosai, and vadai rolled out onto the table. I mopped all of them up with coconut sambal and chickpea curry and washed it down with mango lassi. Meatless what?
Madras New Woodlands Restaurant
14 Upper Dickson Rd
+65 6297 1594
Adam Road Food Centre
Back to the hawker centre for dinner, and one I’d never been to before. Adam Road has a wide selection of classic hawker dishes. We started with some excellent sambal stingray, and sambal pipis, dabbled with some hokkien mee, satay, and a little black carrot cake (not actually made from white carrots, but with radish and sweet soy). I may also have downed a few of bottles of frosty cold Tiger beer with the help of Rebecca. Singapore is so far the only place where I will reach for a beer before anything else. The humidity in Singapore can feel like walking around in a warm bath sometimes, and who doesn’t like drinking beer in the bath? Am i right? Anyone…
Adam Road Food Centre
2 Adam Road
Boon Tong Kee Chicken Rice
You know what has been conspicuously absent during this post so far? Mentions of chicken rice. You only need to go to Singapore once to realise what a phenomenon chicken rice is, and how hotly debated the “best” version is. Don’t know how to break the ice with that cute girl at the hawker centre? Ask her where the best chicken rice is. It is undeniably Singapore’s national dish and for good reason. The perfect chicken rice is a transcendent experience. Perfectly steamed chicken bursting with succulent juices and umami packed rice that’s been cooked in chicken stock with some fat mixed in for good measure. Paired with the right chilli sauce, and some sweet sticky soy (and a little broth if you’re lucky), this is about as good as food gets for $3-$5 on average per serve.
Audra chose to take us to the River Valley outlet of Boon Tong Kee chicken rice, a chain that features in mostly all the “best chicken rice in Singapore” lists. Despite having been eating constantly for 3 days at this point, I had no issue in partaking in lusciously plump steamed chicken and flavourful rice, the chilli could have gone up a notch for me, which I guess means I’m becoming Singaporean because splitting hairs over amazing/cheap food is pretty much a national pass time.
Boon Tong Kee
425 River Valley Road
On the non edible side of the country, we also visited the S.E.A Aquarium (which was amazing, but made Audra hungry for seafood), and the alien landscape that is the Super tree grove in the Gardens by the Bay. The one certain thing about Singapore is that it is constantly reinventing itself. For an island state that turned itself from a collection of sleepy fishing villages to a global financial power player inside of one generation is astounding. That it continues to morph and grow and adapt is certainly no surprise.
That does make it pretty tricky at times to find the real Singapore, which for me is tucked away in the back streets and hawker stalls, on the ground floor of the not so trendy shopping centres, and anywhere the smell of durian and charcoal mix together and linger in the humid night air.
In case it wasn’t obvious at the top of the post, here it is again at the bottom. This trip and tour was made possible by the Singapore Tourism Board and was a part of their Celebrity Concierge program where you can take part of a unique service that pairs you with a celebrity with local knowledge of Singapore to help plan your trip. Go check out the site and see if you too can be a winner.
Thanks again to Audra and her excellent advice, and to the lovely people at Singapore Tourism Board (and the fearless Larissa) for giving this glutton another 50 reasons to love this country. If you haven’t been yet, I’m not sure how much I can stress this… go.