Singapore might lack the edginess of other SE Asian cities, but the place is a street-food paradise. Open-air food markets and hawker stalls housed in the bottom of shopping centres fulfill the needs of the local community. It can be a whirlwind stepping into one of these markets for the first time. The night we arrived we headed straight from the airport to East Coast Lagoon Food Village where, in the middle of greasy ugliness brought on from a long-haul flight and the hit of humidity, we had out first taste of SNG hawker markets. I didn’t get any photos that night as I was just in the mood for catching up and replenishing my fluids via the tallies of beer that were on offer. But I sternly suggest that anyone arriving and in need of a feed head straight here to start repairing the damage the flight may have done to you.
As the friends we were staying with lived in a great apartment in Little India – we headed to Tekka Centre to sample the hawker stalls for breakfast. The great thing about hawker stalls is that the people operating them have a tiny selection of food that they have been serving every day for decades – and usually passed down through the family – so you know it will be good. And if you’re still not sure, the places with the long lines are a good starting point. Briyani for breakfast served not on a plate but a palm leaf for added authenticity? These guys knew their stuff and it was all freshly cooked that morning. WordMonkey opted for the stuffed roti which is the equivalent of a very thin naan bread folded many times to hide the delicious filling of egg, onion or cheese – and a pulled chai tea didn’t go astray either.
Being such a small country most of the food – whether it be fruit and veg or meat – has been shipped in from Malaysia. As you fly in over the city you do notice the astounding numbers of cargo ships docked just off the coast of the island. But it is in these markets that you get a sense of the produce on offer and the place the hawker stall owners come to shop and stock up for the day ahead. A large majority of the apartments for expats in SNG lack any real kitchen so even though they may want to buy the fresh produce to cook at home it makes more sense to come to a hawker stand where it will cost between $2.50-$3 for a large plate of food to fill you up nicely.
One of the things I have missed since traveling through SE Asia is the fresh sugar cane juice that is made in front of you by pushing the cane through metal rollers, watch your fingers, kids. It is a freshness I haven’t been able to replicate anywhere else in the world.
Across the road from this particular hawker market is a supermarket best known for it fresh marine life that can be filleted in front of you for you to take home. They have live frogs, but I found this deep-freeze to have the most comedic value.
On the opposite side of the waterway across from Marina Bay Sands is the best vantage point for photos – but we also came across this ice-block stall. Frostbite is the first boutique ice-block stall and uses only natural ingredients. Being an average temperature of 35 degrees and high humidity, they were much needed. We each picked one to have and proclaimed them to be THE best ice-blocks that we had ever eaten – fresh fruit no concentrate – delish. There is a huge market for this place to roll out and would easily find a home in Melbourne. But flavour aside – $12 for a single paddle pop was a touch too much in my book.
Our next stop was Chinatown where our friends introduced us to Lan Zhou La Mian – the one place in town that pulls all of its own noodles at very reasonable prices. We tried the fried Hokkien prawn noodles, spring onion crepes (more pastry than crepe but tasty all the same), pan-fried pork dumplings and finished off with the sweet and (not unlikeable) grainy textured red-bean paste pancake.
That night we headed for food and drinks with a difference. The place was Chinatown Complex Food Centre – Paradise Garden where @mchopkinson promised that we would get a good feed but also track down one of the only places in SNG serving international craft beers. As he is a Melburnian this is something he has really missed since relocating to SNG and it was a godsend when he and a mate stumbled across this place a few weeks back. But first the food.
When dining out in the hawker stalls it’s a great idea to send everyone off in different directions to source food and have everyone meet back at the table with their winnings so you can share. It is great communal dining and you get a chance to try a whole bunch of dishes – especially useful due to the differing cuisines on offer at each market. My first stop was Ah Ling Cooked Food (duh!), which specialised in fried kway teow – one of the national dishes of SNG.
Satay also never goes astray here – especially at $0.45 a stick. And a serve of wonton noodles with some fresh char sui added to the mix nicely.
But the main reason for being a stop on our travels was The Good Beer Co, which has only recently been set up by a Singaporean beer lover who changes his selection depending on what is requested / available on wholesale at the time. Alcohol is expensive over here anyway so why not go for something a little more rare rather than another Tiger beer? The expats are starting to hear about his place and with the great selection of beers on offer at this alternative hawker stall.
Continuing the food crawl that night we ended up at Esquina – a hot new place by Jason Atherton – he of London’s Pollen Street Social - one of the places our friends from London continue to rave about. And you know you have found a good place when some of London’s best chefs have dined here and signed their thanks on the pillars outside the restaurant - Sat Bains being the most recent visitor.
The space is tiny with only 12 seats at the bar inside or 4 tables available outside – so it is best to come here a little later in the evening to ensure you bag a seat. The menu is small and gives you everything you would expect from a high end tapas joint from a well known name in the business. But be warned that by dining a little later you may miss out on the daily specials.
Even though we were pretty darn full from our hawker exploits an hour before we hit the ground running. We opted for the sautéed fat prawns, with garlic and chilli, beef sliders with a good slick of chilli jam and fresh pickle (would be perfect as a beer snack) and the pork belly, which came crowned with crackling as light and chewy as popcorn.
Desserts came in the form of the chocolate mud cake ringed with orange citrus and a dish that could be pulled straight from the menu of Pollen Street Social – basil sorbet sitting on a bed of freshly juiced watermelon.
The next morning it was back to the markets for breakfast, and what better to start the day than with coffee in a bag? I matched that with a Lai Hang pork rib prawn mee – a flavourful stock with fresh juicy prawns from the market garnished with bean shoots. Grabbing a shared table is very similar to what Anthony Bourdain does when visiting Singapore as every local wants to impart their knowledge about the best stalls to visit, the proper way to eat what you have ordered or to tell you what they are having for their breakfast. It really makes you feel welcome.
We then caught a taxi to Strangers Reunion – read the review HERE (soon). Don’t be one of the people who bypass the two-time Singapore Barista Champion.
Heading back to the East Coast I had heard about the chance to go prawn and lobster fishing. Having only ever threaded prawns onto a hook – I was keen to get involved to catch a few. Really – how hard could it be? Just off the beach are some manmade pools with locals relaxing with line in hand perched over the water. They are watching the mass of prawns creeping towards their bait waiting to make the kill – but the prawns are feisty little things and unless you have the timing just right, the line will most probably come up empty. But sometimes you come up trumps. They provide a BBQ to cook your haul on but if you only have two prawns between the four of you (as we did) it seems a bit silly to start a log fire from scratch.
Walking to a local bar we happened past Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice – made famous by Anthony Bourdain’s show – No Reservations. Originally starting as an unknown stall in one of the many food courts by Madam Foo Kui Lian, Bourdain said “when you dine at this legend, you must not miss this legendary dish”. It is not just the chicken that makes the meal – as Anthony Bourdain also said – the rice can be taken alone, it must have been cooked in chicken stock it was so flavourful. Although simple, it delivers a taste that develops wonderfully and engages with the senses. The chicken rice itself is light, smooth and buttery with a hint of garlic, and served slightly cool, which is refreshing on a hot day. The coolness is a perfect counterpoint to the fierceness of the chilli that you add. But who can go past some sweet and sour pork and strips of fried pork?
Onto another destination with a few international beers – you wouldn’t think that Ocean Kingdom Seafood Restaurant would have a secret to hide. But it does and is the perfect stop on a hot and sweaty day.
Onto Haji Lane for a bit of boutique shopping – a good way to part with some cash for product that you wouldn’t be able to find in Australia.
That night we headed to Marina Bay Sands Hotel - and this place can rival any hotel in Vegas. It has its own riviera, floors upon floors of the world’s best brands showcasing their wares, and exclusive restaurants by Tetsuya and Wolfgang Puck. But the real reason you come to MBS is to take the lift to the top floor, grab a cocktail at Ku De Ta and take in the views.
As per our review of Strangers Reunion, there are many locals trying to pull off the Melbourne cafe experience without much luck. I tried Smitten Coffee and Tea Bar, which had the full set up but no soul. It seems like someone’s parents footed the bill just to give their kids something to do. And I swear to god that the coffee roaster was so clean that it must never have been used – more just put on show – which is such a disappointment. And no extractor fan so only cold food from the display cabinet.
One team that is doing it properly is Toby’s Estate. With the capital behind them they have a roaster in working order with bags of beans ready for roasting, a fully functioning kitchen putting out the closest thing to brunch and a knowledgeable staff who can walk you through both the coffee and food that they have on hand. They also have coffee tastings and a coffee degustation – certainly setting themselves apart from the mediocre crowd.
Finally to use up our SNG dollars we headed back to the Arab Quarter and bought up a storm. If you are visiting, ensure you give yourself a few hours to poke around the great stores here – it is the closest thing to Brunswick St with items that you wish were available at such good prices.
If you are visiting SNG I suggest you get the good word from @mchopkinson – he is a friend cheffing over there and has his finger on the pulse of everything food. I can’t wait to go back for another visit. But the next time we have a post with him, it will be in November as he and his beautiful fiancé are getting married at Craggy Range Winery in NZ. We will be having our first visit to NZ and will be travelling the north island for a few weeks before another visit back to London (via Milan). So if you have any must-see/do destinations in NZ and Milan please do comment to your heart’s content as we need all the help we can get!