(Posted by Xavier, photos and side commentary by Kristin)
Flying into Singapore we knew we were in for a treat in our dining experience. But where to start when everything sounds new? Lucky for us, on our plane flight to Singapore one of our choices for in-flight viewing, was an episode of Anthony Bourdain in Singapore. Bingo! Taking pencil to paper, or in our case finger to iPhone, we jotted down places and dishes to try.
On our first day out and about we actually ran right into one of the places. Unfortunately the original owner had moved on and a close friend had opened his own restaurant in the same place. Talking with the new owner we decided to give the place a try. I tried what was the old signature favorite, “Dragon Shrimp Soup”, and it was good, but not exactly what I was hoping for.
Our next venture was to look for “Bismillah Biryani”, highly recommended by Lonely Planet (we always take those with a grain of salt). Subwaying to Little India we quickly found the place, and both of us ordered up Mutton Biryani. If you have no idea what this is, it’s basically lamb that has been baked with herbs and spices (watch out for the whole cardamom seeds) and mixed with rice. The aroma was enticing as was the shami kabob and papadams we had with it. It was tasty, but clearly the place was coasting on its positive reviews from years past. It was kind of shabby, so we didn’t even bother to take a picture.
Let me remind you that half of the experience of fooding around Singapore’s ethnic neighborhoods is the fantastic smells of herbs, spices, broths, curries, hitting you in the face, not to mention the visuals that go along with it. You can’t stop your salivating glands from screaming at you “STOP AND GET SOME OF THAT RIGHT NOW AND PUT IT IN MY MOUTH!” The trouble is choosing a place and not knowing if it’s good. Kristin and I finally started to let our instincts take control.
Walking along Arab street our hunger pangs took over. Dang! Everything smells so good! Turning down a small street we decide to try a place called “Zam Zam” JACKPOT! Well supposedly they’re well known for their Murtabak, a thin pancake (think crepe) filled with ground meat and onions. I decided to also try some of their herbed and spiced coated fried squid, just a small order because I didn’t know what to expect. Oh baby, did I blow it. Small order!? I should have ordered the king size plate. That squid was fantastic and I will always dream about tasting that again. The Murtabak was excellent and a new favorite on our food list too.
On our excursion to the island of Pulau Ubin we arrived hungry after our long subway and bum boat ride. Taking a wrong turn (thank god we took that wrong turn due to inadequate signage) off the boat we came across a small rustic resort that had a small thatched roof cafe that was open. Not really expecting much we ordered some kind of Thai style crispy fried chicken and some vegetables called Hong Kong Kailan with garlic sauce. Kristin is very good about eating her vegetables and is always on the look out for them on menus. Our order arrived and we tried the chicken, not bad, pretty good, tasty. Now this stuff called kailan. Oh my god, are you kidding me. We absolutely devoured it. Chicken what? Bring me more KAILAN! One more for the “always order list”. I mean, the only way I can describe it is that Kristin and I will always remember our first bite of Hong Kong Kailan with garlic sauce with heart shaped pupils. We didn’t even take a picture because we never imagined it would be so memorable, and once we tasted it we couldn’t put our forks down until it was all gone.
One place we would have liked to had eaten at was Sammie’s Curry House, which came highly recommended by everyone, including Mr. Bourdain himself. But alas, it was a little too far out of the way for us in our limited time traveling around Singapore. Michael, our trusty hostel owner suggested the “Apolo Banana Leaf” instead. It’s just as good, easy to get to, and all the celebrities go there, he said. (Michael doesn’t like having his picture taken).
Good enough, lets go! We knew going in that this would be our most expensive meal in Singapore. If I told you what we have been paying for meals you’d fall over in disbelief. Let’s just say we were eating on a McDonalds budget, but eating like kings! Walking into Apolo Banana Leaf waiters attended to us quickly. The smell was intoxicating. Okay, I’m going for it. Crab marinated and simmered in freshly ground spices. Squid, “black”, simmered in spices and black sauce. Kristin had the mutton curry set (with vegetables!).
Who needs napkins when you can lick every drop of nectar clean off your fingers. Sorry folks, but eating with your fingers is how you do it here. Thank you Singapore!
In our half day with new found Singapore friends Kian and wife Lin, they asked us what we like to eat. Quickly assesing that I was the adventurous type, Kian suggested that I try a Singapore staple, Laksa Otah (with cockles). Sure! I’m in. What I didn’t know was that this was going to be a macho dude face off of the spicy food type. So we arrived at a hawker center where supposedly the best Singapore Laksa Otah is served. The ladies decided to take a back seat to this adventure. Kian did the favor of ordering the two bowls of Laksa. Now along with the bowl of Laksa comes a fish paste wrapped in a banana leaf and a spoon full of chili paste. Oh yeah baby, now your talking my style. I hesitated a while before mixing the fish and chili paste so that Kristin can have a spoonful or two. She definitely was not into the cockles. Once Kristin finished having her spoonfuls, carefully avoiding the cockles, I mix in the fish and chili paste. Wow, what a difference. Talk about kicking it up a notch. It’s a totally different soup. I have no idea what Kristin and Lin were thinking as both Kian and I finished up our laksa as beads of sweat pour off our face. It was absolutely delicious. Kian and I definitely bonded over that bowl of laksa and I thank him for turning me on to one of Singapore’s best meals.
On a last note of our eating experiences in Singapore, Kristin, being the coffee connoisseur that she is, wanted to have and order correctly her “kopi C kosong”. Now let me explain, that they love their coffee with milk in Singapore, but the standard kopi is with sweetened condensed milk, sometimes with added sugar, making it some really sweet coffee. But that’s how everyone drinks it. And if you know Kristin, she has her coffee with milk and no sugar. So ordering coffee with no sugar, still gives you coffee with sweetened condensed milk, making the coffee sweet. So after several tries at ordering coffee, and Kristin’s sweet tooth shooting off the scale, she finally got it right: kopi (coffee)-C(Carnation evaporated milk, rather than condensed milk) kosong (“without”, ie. without sugar). Although, I have to mention that you need to be extra forceful in ordering it this way because over here they just can’t understand why you would drink coffee without any kind of sugar at all. And even after you repeat it several times they look at you all confused wondering why the heck would you order coffee that way. Best part about this story is Kristin has now started to like a little sweet in her coffee. Oh! And the way they mix and pour the coffee is a real art form.
Straining it through a cloth mesh bag (looks almost like a sock) then pouring it high over head into a container and then again back into the cup. Giving a slight frothy topping. Mmmmm. One more “kopi-C kosong”, please.
And finally, Kristin’s favorite, pandan bread! This was one of the any varieties of bread offered for breakfast at our fine hostel (with Nutella!). It is not green from mold, but from the pandan leaf, which is magically delicious. It tastes a bit like vanilla, but a little smokier. It’s hard to explain, you just have to try it for yourself!