We could not stop eating in Singapore. For Nick, who thinks about what to have for dinner whilst eating breakfast, Singapore was a dangerous place. There was so much food on offer that we had to plan our days around meal times to make sure we didn’t miss a chance to visit one of the many hawker centres. Sure, there are shiny sights to see, tranquil temples to refresh your spiritual side and hyper-commercialised malls to lose all sense of self in, but what it came down to for us was the food. The obscenely delicious and bewildering cheap street food.
You might want to have some snacks at the ready now because reading any further will make you hungry – a bit like how watching Bake Off makes you crave cake.
We arrived in Singapore at 5am after a 9 hour flight from Fiji. Needless to say, we were tired. Our priority was for coffee. Very strong coffee. We set out around Chinatown naively hoping to find a hipster cafe serving flat whites and espressos, but it quickly became apparent that we weren’t in that kind of gentrified neighbourhood.
We started to worry that we wouldn’t find any coffee here and we’d be stuck with the sachets of instant from the hostel kitchen (the horror, oh the horror). But then we hit Chinatown Complex, a no-holds barred, multi-storey market. On the first floor, we found row after row of hawker stalls. Amongst them we found one that claimed to sell coffee, but there was no espresso machine in sight. Fearing we’d be served up Nescafe or worse, we ordered anyway – 1 black and 1 white coffee. It took us a while to explain we didn’t want any sugar – it seems everyone takes heaps of sugar here – but then we watched with great smiles on our faces as treacle thick coffee poured from a giant conical jug into 2 ceramic mugs, one of which had been prepared with condensed milk. These were topped up with hot water and we were given our first dose of kopi – coffee Singapore style. It was incredible. The smoothest coffee we’ve ever had, with deep rich roasted favours and just the right balance of bitterness. Flic, dubious of the condensed milk situation, was bowled over by the caramel sweetness. We ordered kopi with condensed milk every day since – the cheapest kopi can be found in the superb Chinatown People’s Park Complex – 1.60sgd for two cups! – and we found ourselves purposely avoiding places with espresso machines. Crazy.
We could go on for hours about the cut price Tiger beer served in heavy duty glasses with ice or the fresh juice stalls that will juice up pretty much anything you can think of (try soursop and kiwi fruit and you will not be disappointed), but we won’t because we’re here to talk food.
As a couple it’s healthy to hold different opinions, and for us this was the case with our favourite dish in Singapore. Nick was truly taken by the Mala Hot Pot stall which can be found in the already mentioned Chinatown People’s Park Complex. After trying to explain that we’d never tried hot pot and we didn’t know how it worked, the delightful old dear running front of house simply piled a large tray with an assortment of uncooked greens, phallic looking mushrooms, meats and, in spite of our protestations, thick slices of potato. With no idea what would happen next, we handed over 14sgd (about 8 quid) and were told to wait. After a few minutes, we were given a massive bowl of utterly delicious stew, containing everything that had been crammed onto the tray beforehand. It had all been stir-fried perfectly and combined with a red hot steaming broth. Not only was the stew bursting with chilli heat and tidal waves of omami, it was packed with Szechuan peppercorns. These little blighters caused a slight tingle on the tongue and the lips which quickly became all out narcotic numbness, somehow amplifying the chilli heat. Nick drank so much of the broth that he went into a sweaty face-melting chilli trance. Great fun for him. Not so pleasant for everyone else.
Flic’s favourite dish can be found in the always crowded Amoy Street Food Centre, tucked away behind the charming and shady Ann Siang Hill Park. The famous A Noodle Story stall claims to sell the only Singapore ramen in Singapore. A bold claim perhaps, but they’re clearly on to something because the lunchtime queue was about 30 minutes long and the two young chaps running the stall have been awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand, which is a kind of runner up prize to a Michelin star.
What we were served, after waiting in line in the stifling humidity of the food court, was just about worth the wait. The two hawker upstarts have clearly learnt their trade in some fancy kitchens because the bowl was a work of art to behold. With it’s carefully sprinkled garnish and perfectly arranged components, we had to check we were still in a food court – the 5.80sgd price tag was a good reminder.
What did it taste like? An oh-so-porky Singapore-spicy broth held together just beyond al dente wanton mee (noodles) with a Japanese style braised egg and slow cooked, super tender belly pork. This was accompanied by a prawn wrapped in spiralled potato which had been deep fried. What this addition had to do with Singapore is a little beyond us, as we didn’t see this carb-crustacean combo offered anywhere else. Still, it was pretty tasty and added some crunch to the dish. Altogether this was an impressive, if slightly pretentious, addition to the already vibrant Singapore food scene. The locals may grumble about the unnecessarily long queue and a loss of traditional cooking values (and they do have a point here) but if this finesse and fusion is the start of a new movement in Singapore street food, we look forward to tasting more of it soon!