249 Riley St, Surry Hills (Sydney)
Phone: (02) 9281 2880
Caveat: this visit was in January 2012!
Everybody loves a good holiday. It’s always fun to visit somewhere new, explore other cultures, and- OK, let’s cut to the chase, it’s all about eating different food. At least, it should be. For this reason, it’s imporant to choose your travel partners wisely. Last year’s fatty tour of Hong Kong is a case in point, and this year, my short visit to Singapore was the same. I’m very lucky to have been travelling with someone who eats, and loves eating, as much as I do.
We were in Singapore for 5 days, and spent the majority of our time eating at various hawker centres, because that’s how we roll. It’s something of a travesty that people visit South East Asia and don’t eat the local street food, because not only is is dirt cheap, it’s often where some of the most amazing food can be found.
We were staying in Clarke Quay, one of the major tourist centres. It’s pretty convenient and central, though I think the only time we ate there was upon arrival at around 9pm after Jetstar had delayed our flight for two hours in Melbourne. Chinatown is within walking distance, and the MRT and bus system makes it so easy to get around, there’s not really any reason to feel limited to the local area in which you’re staying.
The closest hawker centre to where we were staying was the one at the base of the Hong Lim complex. It seems mostly geared to daytime customers, with about half the stalls open in the morning, and most of them trhoughout the day. We stopped in there a couple of times on the way back to the hotel later in the evening for a juice, but the stalls were mostly closed by around 8pm.
My friend Ms D spent part of her childhood in Singapore, and has many ties there, so she visits fairly often. Her favourite thing for breakfast, that you can’t really get in Melbourne, is Char Kway Teow (CKT). Hong Lim happens to have a CKT specialist, so of course, for my first breakfast in Singapore, I had to have it!
However, not everyone enjoys the novelty of having non-traditional breakfast foods for breakfast, so I got it to go, and we wandered off to another floor of the hawker centre to find toast.
The contents of the paper parcel looked like this:
They really should try doing packaging like this in Australia. I’m fairly sure it’s more environmentally friendly than all that plastic we use, and it’s so cute!
After a little culture at the National Museum – go there just to see the swinging chandeliers, they’re amazing – we headed to Killiney Curry Puffs, near Somerset station. The mee rebus there was recommended by people on the iEatHawker app, but to be honest, it was pretty boring. There wasn’t a lot of flavour to it, nor a lot of chicken. However, I don’t know if that makes it inauthentic. Let’s not get into that, because the only version I’ve ever tried is at Malaymas in Melbourne – which I love – but this was a poor cousin. The curry puffs, however, were great! A flaky, short pastry which pretty much must have lard in it, and a medium spicy filling with chunks of potato and little nuggets of minced pork. Worth visiting for, even if they are mildly lukewarm.
After va little more culture at the Singapore Art Museum – of the more contemporary art kind – we wandered up to Bugis, where we wandered through a rabbit warren of market stalls, full of cheap clothes geared at local youths, little touristy knick-knacks, and LED signs advertising the sex shops upstairs. And then we stumbled upon this:
That’s right, Chinese Burger! It’s basically a flat mantou that’s been seared on both sides, with a pocket cut into it. Then it’s stuffed with braised pork and shredded cucumber. It’s a pretty great snack.
Stumbling out of the little warren of seedy shops, Chinese burger in hand – and mouth – we came across the adjacent hawker centre. And it being dinner time, the place was heaving with locals chowing down on all sorts of food. Now our plan was to head down to the Maxwell Road hawker centre to track down some Tian Tian Chicken Rice – which has a reputation for being the best in town – so we resolved not to eat anything subtantial here. I settled on “Fried oyster” (which sadly was more like an oyster omelette than fried oysters) and the better half chose some fried carrot cake (which turned out to be more like the Vietnamese bot chien than the Chinese luo bo gao).
Unfortunately, even though we abstained from serious eating, we didn’t make it to Maxwell Road that night – we were sidetracked by another hawker centre, I think it was the People’s Park Food Centre, but we got a little lost, so I can’t be sure… anyway, we got chicken rice from one of the few stalls still open – we’d left our run a little late, it seemed – along with some water spinach (also known variously as tong xin cai, eng cai, tun sum choi, rau muong and water convolvus. Basically, it’s the hollow one with the spear-shaped leaves, if you’re looking for it fresh.
This chicken rice was pretty good, though the chicken itself was a little on the tough side. Not by Western standards, but if you’re in Asia, you expect your chicken to be hua, or silky smooth. Still, even mediocre chicken rice in Singapore appears to be pretty good.
The next day, after breakfast, we headed over to Little India, a colourful and vibrant little enclave, which has a very different feel to Orchard or Chinatown, and is adjacent to a little backpacker hub. I was on the hunt for fried shrimp-paste chicken wings, but it appeared that the place I had been referred to was no longer there. So we wandered around a little, until we came across a whole lot of Indian people eating with their hands off banana leaves. Could there be any doubt that this was where we needed to be? I think not.
For a pretty paltry sum, we were presented with a banana leaf each, the basis of the vegetarian thosai. Waiters came around with buckets of vegetarian curries and dhals and raita and rice and pappadums, and kept offering you more if you ran out of any particular item. Neither of us needed top ups of the curried bitter melon. Everything else was great, though, and we shared a chicken masala as well between the two of us. Mr J opted for knife and fork, but I went native, eating with my hands, because food always tastes better that way. After a few minutes of hoeing into my lunch, I noticed the Indian man sitting adjacent to us giving me death stares. It was a couple of minutes later that I realised his disgust wasn’t anything racially motivated, but rather directed at the fact I was eating with my left hand! A tremendous faux pas on my part, as the left hand is considered unclean, and you only ever use your right to eat. Oops! Being left-handed, that had completely slipped my mind. So much for cultural sensitivity…
That night we met my cousin for dinner at a Korean restaurant near Maxwell Road called 2 Days 1 Night. It seemed pretty popular, as we had to wait for a table, and I could understand why, as the food was great – in particular, if you go, try the spicy tofu soup. There’s some sort of yam or cassava in it that gives it an amazing consistency.
Anyway, the next morning, being Sunday, we decided we needed to have a Western brunch. Or should I say, Mr J decided. So we headed out to Hatched, a little cafe near the Botanical Gardens. The eggs were cooked pretty perfectly – runny yolk and just-trembling white – and the slab of smoked salmon underneath was nicely cured, too.
It was a little odd that they felt it necessary to serve more carbs with the dish, however, in the form of mashed potatoes with some sort of mushroom gravy.
After brunch, we wandered around the Botanical Gardens a bit, until it started raining, so with more hours to kill until our High Tea at Halia – inside the Botanical Gardens – we caught a bus down to Orchard Rd in search of a certain four-lettered store beginning with M. Cut to an hour later, when we returned to Halia, and were joined by @euniceseow who had recently moved back to Singapore from Melbourne.
This is a High Tea – or Afternoon Tea if you like, I don’t quite understand the distinction – set for two.
Overall, it was pretty good, and great value at $28++ SGD per person. We were a little dismayed at the lack of sandwiches, however, and the fruit scones weren’t great. I don’t really remember what everything was, because I tuned out when the waitress was explaining everything (I fell into that trap of taking photos at that point).
The next day, back at the Hong Lim food centre, I discovered why Ji Ji Wonton Specialist has such a great reputation, and lines stretching back 10 or more customers while other stand owners are idly chatting with one another. I ordered the noodles with char siu and sui gao (not on the menu, but I prefer sui gao to wontons), and they’re really something to behold; springy egg noodles with a sticky, sweet soy sauce, topped with choy sum and sweet roasted pork, with a bowl full of pork soup dumplings each with a whole prawn encased on the side. Something else to behold is the efficiency of the girl who works there. She calls out down the line in quick succession, taking the orders of not the next two or three customers in line, but the next TEN! She must memorise them all, because she takes no notes, and she gets every order spot on.
We went to some other hawker centre that night, and had chicken rice (again)… we got a bit obsessed with it all. This one was decent, but again, not spectacular. I did finally get to Tian Tian Chicken Rice at Maxwell Road, but not until my quick stopover on the way back from Viet Nam. I’ll post those photos soon.
Mr J had a conference to go to for the next couple of days, so I took the chance to try something outside of a hawker centre. I went to Din Tai Fung, in the basement of 313@Somerset. Of course, I had the xiao long bao. They were pretty good, but I’ve had better – at Din Tai Fung in Hong Kong!
I also tried another ‘local specialty’, a chilli crab steamed bun.
These are a nice idea, but the crab doesn’t really shine through; they’re too salty, and the chilli oil/juice went everywhere.
What was a nice surprise was this little cold salad of pressed tofu, chives, bean shoots and bean thread vermicelli. A black vinegar and sesame vinaigrette finished this off superbly. There was a hint of chilli, and it was very refreshing. I’m making this the next time I’m going out for a picnic.
So those who have been to Singapore before – indeed, those who have not, but know of its culinary reputation – will note the glaring omission from this list of noms. That’s right, no chilli crab (except in those woeful buns). That’s because someone (not me) doesn’t eat seafood. On our final night there, we were at a little food centre next to Aljunied station, and I decided that I had to have crab, no matter what. Unfortunately, this place didn’t do chilli crab – I know, right? – so I just went for the crab with egg. I thought it was going to be crab with salted egg yolk, but it was just scrambled egg. And it was pretty gross. At $20 SGD, it was the most expensive hawker food we’d had, and to be honest, it was probably the worst. Next time, I’m going back to Jumbo.
Here’s a map of some of the things we did/saw/ate in Singapore (and some we didn’t get around to).