In July 1993, the New York Times published a cartoon by Peter Steiner of a dog sitting on a chair in front of a computer with his paw on the keyboard, saying to his doggy friend on the floor beside him: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Although the cartoon did not receive that much interest at the time, it has steadily grown in popularity ever since, expressing both one of the best and worst things about the internet: the disconnect between users’ online and real life personae. As I made my way to a Marylebone wine bar one chilly night late in 2005 to meet a fellow-blogger called Johanna that I had only ever met via online conversations, this cartoon was very much on my mind. What if we had nothing to say to each other in real life? What if she was loud and obnoxious in person? What if she turned out to be an axe-murderer? Or… a dog?
I needn’t have worried. Conversation flowed easily and the more we spoke, the more common ground we found. A tentative glass of wine turned into a shared bottle, soon to be followed by visits to each other’s homes, meeting each other’s families, and two years later, a week long holiday together in Austria with both our partners/families in tow. Over the years we have spent Christmases together, skied together and hiked together; we have hosted parties and blogging events together; I have watched two of her children grow from toddlers to teens and one from teen to young professional. So when she announced that they were moving to Singapore in 2010, we were both a little distraught. “I’ll come and visit!” I promised… and in 2013 I did just that. Within hours of landing we were sitting in a small local hawker centre, talking and laughing and feasting – and just like that my love affair with Singapore and its food was born. Since that first visit in 2013, I have been to Singapore four more times, each time discovering some new facet of this diverse and fascinating city-state, or some new dish to crave.
I had hoped to visit again this year, combining a visit to Johanna with visit to friends in Sydney but… alas, Coronavirus has put our plans on hold. But a woman can dream, can’t she? The world is cautiously starting to open up again, flights are taking off and borders reopening, and I know that some day soon Singapore will be ready and waiting for my and Johanna’s delicious reunion. Until then, here are a few of my favourite Singapore foodie experiences that I am looking forward to sharing with her once again.
A Singapore Sling cocktail at Raffles
Yes, it is a travel cliché, but sometimes you just have to start with the clichés (and it provides you with an excuse to snoop around the gorgeous colonial architecture of this iconic hotel!). The Long Bar at the exuberantly colonial Raffles Hotel started life as a long line of tables (hence the name) under the cast iron verandah along the facade of Raffles Hotel, where young men would sit nursing gins and watching the passing parade on Beach Road. At the time (the early 1900s), etiquette dictated that ladies could not consume alcohol in public, so any woman wishing to preserve her social status would reluctantly order teas or fruit juice. But in 1915, Raffles’ enterprising bartender Ngiam Tong Boon created a gin-based cocktail which also contained pineapple juice, lime juice, curaçao and Bénédictine. Ngiam recognised a niche in the market and decided to create an alcoholic cocktail that looks like socially acceptable plain fruit juice (with the Benedictine supposedly adding a pink and feminine flair!) but is actually infused with alcohol. And thus the Singapore Sling was born and it remains popular to this day. Although you can enjoy it at almost any bar in Singapore, there is something endearingly nostalgic about enjoying it in the Long Bar at Raffles, with its faintly steampunk vintage fans.
Food shopping at the Tekka Centre wet market
There are few things I love more than visiting markets when I travel abroad – and if you are like me then Singapore will be your idea of heaven as there a number of markets crammed into the city. The city’s oldest, largest (over 280 stalls!), most culturally diverse and my favourite is the wet market in the Tekka Centre in Little India. Spread over 2 levels, it combines a conventional market selling clothes, bags, household goods etc; a hawker centre serving outstanding Indian foods like roti prata, medu vada, rojak and biriyani; and a bustling wet market selling fresh fish and meat; exotic fruit and vegetables; and all manner of culinary ingredients like dried shrimps and spices. All of Singapore’s cultural diversity is on show here and you will hear English, Hokkien, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and more as you rub shoulders with other shoppers haggling for a bargain. It’s a great place to learn not only about the food and cooking of Singapore, but also to experience the melting pot of its cultures. And to enjoy a delicious meal!
INSIDER TIPS: As the name suggests, the floor is continuously hosed down, making it slippery and wet, so closed shoes are recommended. The freshest fruit and vegetables are usually to be had on Tuesday and Friday mornings. Cash only.
A supperclub event at Ovenbird Home Cooking Adventures
One of the downsides of visiting a city as a tourist is that you seldom get to experience how locals live. Of course, I am lucky in that I have a good friend in Singapore and I love staying at her home, but her life and perspective is that or an expat rather than a born and bred Singaporean. So I was thrilled on one of my trips to be invited to a meal at Ovenbird’s Home Cooking Adventures – a home restaurant or supperclub operated by the hugely talented Jeffrey Yeo from his home in a typical Singaporean apartment block. Jeffrey describes himself as a home cook with a “healthy obsession with knives” and who loves to experiment with different culinary techniques across multiple cuisines. Although Jeffrey did not initially train as a chef and only started cooking seriously in his 30s, having grown up in a Chinese family in Singapore he has always been immersed in the major cuisines of the world, especially Singapore and Southeast Asia. Once a month, Jeffrey organises an “Experimental Kitchen” meal where he cooks for a small group of guests in his home and shares his delectable fusion food and excellent wines. The menu changes every month, and it’s always paired with wines that Jeffrey sources personally (and if my visit is anything to go by, he has outstanding taste in wines!).
Image © and courtesy of Jeffrey Yeo
Walking through his front door in an unassuming Singapore apartment block reveals a spectacular, stylish pared-down space with polished grey floors that match the smooth exposed concrete walls. The focus in the lounge is on two wall-mounted bicycles (Jeffrey is also a keen triathlete) and photos of his adorable daughter line the walls. The open-plan kitchen with a large island is where all the action happens, and this is where I spent most of my time, chatting to Jeff and a procession of friends who assisted him with prep and serving. The meal is served in the air-conditioned and glass-encased dining room and as each course was served, Jeffrey was on hand to explain the origins of the dish and how he had tweaked traditional dishes to put his own spin on them. In particular, it was fascinating to hear how the traditional Peranakan dish of popiah takes 3 days to cook properly from scratch. Highlights from our meal included Hokkien-style double boiled chicken & dried scallop soup (from an old family recipe); tea-smoked duck breast cured with Szechuan pepper and five-spice; traditional Kin Men Hokkien popiah (which has over 13 ingredients and takes 3 days to make); Singapore black pepper crab made with Kampot pepper; and pandanisu (tiramisu infused with home-grown pandan leaf essence). This was possibly one of my favourite meals out I have ever had, anywhere – Jeffrey is both a superb chef and a charming host; I loved the apartment; and his friends who helped with the prep were such fun to chat to. When I return to Singapore I would happily schedule my visit around another meal at Ovenbird!
INSIDER TIPS: During the Covid-19 pandemic, Jeffrey has been unable to host meals at his home but he has been providing customers with the option of delivered or collected meals. Each week’s menu is released on Sunday on his Shopify site but you have to be quick – dishes sell out fast! You can also keep up with what Jeffrey is cooking and get updates on when he is able to start hosting meals again on his Ovenbird Home Cooking Facebook page.
Laksa and oyster omelette (orh luak) at Lau Pa Sat hawker centre
Lau Pa Sat is my favourite hawker centre in Singapore – and I am not afraid to admit that this has a lot to do with its beautiful structure, excellent ventilation… and free wifi! Lau Pa Sat means ‘Old Market’ in Hokkien, referring to the beautiful octagonal structure’s history. The market started life as Telok Ayer fish market built in 1924 on the Singapore waterfront, but the market eventually had to move as Singapore’s land reclamation project altered the shoreline. The building which was to house the relocated market was made of cast iron in Glasgow and shipped to Singapore before being constructed at its present site in the Singapore CBD. The market remains one of the oldest Victorian structure in South-East Asia. When the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) line which runs underneath the building was being constructed, the building was literally taken apart and put into storage, before being reconstructed on the same site, officially renamed Lau Pa Sat in 1989, and reopened. It is well worth a visit, even if you only want to see an elegant Victorian cast-iron structure.
But when I go… I go to eat! And the two things I always order are Katong laksa and orh luak. Although there are many variations of laksa, the Katong variation is my favourite, consisting of a spicy noodle soup flavoured with spices, coconut milk and dried shrimp, topped with ingredients like cockles, prawns, fishcake, tofu, bean sprouts and boiled egg. It is comfort food extraordinaire. My other Singapore favourite is orh luak or oyster omelette. The first time this was described to me I was super dubious – I like my oysters freshly-shucked with shallot vinaigrette: why would I ruin them by putting them in an omelette?? But orh luak is to omelette what kaiserschmarrn is to pancakes – more of a shredded egg matrix in which barely cooked and still-wobbly fresh oysters nestle. If you are not an oyster lover, it probably is not for you… but personally I can’t wait to get back to Singapore to have one.
INSIDER TIPS: Instead of traditional Katong laksa, try Assam laksa – a very different dish made with mackerel and tamarind. When visiting any hawker centre, it is worth checking out where the longest queues are as this often indicates a local favourite. If you see someone eating something that looks really good, don’t be afraid to ask what it is called and which stall they bought it from – you can pick up great tips this way.
A craft beer with a view at LeVeL33
I am not a regular beer drinker. Sure, I will have beer if I am watching rugby, or at Oktoberfest – but other than that the occasion has to be fairly special to get me to have a beer. I think it is fair to say that drinking a flight of craft beer 33 floors above Singapore’s Marina Bay, overlooking the lights of the Marina Bay Sands hotel is a fairly special occasion. LeVeL33, situated in the penthouse of the Marina Bay Financial Centre in downtown Singapore, is the world’s highest urban microbrewery. As soon as you enter, you are reminded by the beautiful copper brewing kettles on display behind glass in the restaurant that beer takes centre stage here – but my tip is to skip the restaurant and lounge and head for the terrace where the views are seriously breathtaking. The microbrewery produces five beers on-site, all unfiltered and unpasteurised, namely 33.1 Blond Lager, 33.15 India Pale Ale, 33.3 Stout, 33.4 House Porter and 33.9 Wheat Beer. All these are always available but in addition, resident brewmaster Gabriel Garcia also brews a range of exclusive one-off seasonal beers that only flow until the tap runs dry. On a beautiful night, there are few places in Singapore I’d rather be.
INSIDER TIPS: If you can’t make up your mind, try a flight of all five beers that the brewery produces – a great way to get to know your favourite. Prices are lower before 20h00, so go for sundowners.
A chilli crab feast
Ask anybody “what MUST I eat when I go to Singapore?” and I will guarantee you they will say chilli crab. The dish was born in 1956 when Cher Yam Tian and her husband Lim Choo Ngee began selling stir-fried crabs mixed with a chilli and tomato sauce from their pushcart. The growing popularity of the dish and the success of their business prompted the establishment of a restaurant, Palm Beach Seafood, along Upper East Coast Road. Although the original restaurant and pushcart are long gone, Palm Beach Seafood is still thriving and now resides in the exclusive Fullerton hotel. The dish, however, remains largely unchanged: stir-fried mud crabs smothered in a sauce that combines the flavours of chillies, ginger, garlic, ketchup and fermented soy beans to form a rich and delightfully messy dish. Although Palm Beach Seafood is credited with the invention of the dish, it is today regarded as one of Singapore’s national dishes and is served in seafood restaurants all over the island. It is traditionally eaten with bare hands (use breadrolls to mop up the sauce) and restaurants often provide bibs, wet towels or finger bowls so that diners to clean their hands after their meal. Don’t be put off by the name – it really isn’t very spicy, just decadent and delicious.
INSIDER TIPS: The sauciest, messiest and most delicious version I have had was at Red House Seafood. For a variation on a theme, try another Singapore favourite, black pepper crab – Johanna swears by the Blue Lotus to get her fix.
Traditional Peranakan popiah and kueh pie tee
When I first arrived in Singapore I had no idea what Peranakan meant, and only a very vague idea of the city-state’s diverse national cultures (of which Peranakan is one). But on my first morning in Singapore, Johanna took me off to sample some Peranakan food, and it was love at first bite. Peranakan cuisine (or Nyonya) cuisine comes from the Peranakans, descendants of early Chinese migrants who settled in Penang, Malacca, Singapore and Indonesia, inter-marrying with local Malays. It is therefore not hugely surprising that there are parallels between some Chinese and Peranakan dishes – with popiah being an excellent example. Popiah are essentially fresh, unfried spring rolls, made of a very thin wheat flour wrapper which is spread with a sauce such as hoi sin, shrimp paste or chilli sauce before being filled and rolled. The filling traditionally consists of mainly finely grated and steamed or stir-fried turnip, (which has been cooked with a combination of other ingredients such as bean sprouts, French beans, and lettuce leaves), along with grated carrots, slices of Chinese sausage, thinly sliced fried tofu, chopped peanuts or peanut powder, fried shallots, and shredded omelette. Other common variations of popiah include pork (lightly seasoned and stir-fried), shrimp or crab meat. The entire process of preparing the wrappers and all these ingredients, and allowing them to steep together to meld the flavours takes three days if done properly, so sadly it is becoming rarer to find these at hawker markets. The other dish I was introduced to that morning remains one of my favourite finger foods ever: kueh pie tee. These are basically small fluted crispy pastry shells which you order together with bowls of filings and then you fill them to your own specifications before devouring them. Fillings traditionally include savoury yam, carrot, shrimp, shredded omelette, chilli sauce and fresh coriander leaf. Pop them in your mouth whole or nibble them into submission (I have tried both…) – either way, they are delicious and definitely worth seeking out.
INSIDER TIPS: You will often find one stall selling both popiah and kueh pie tee – and often the most unassuming stalls will sell the most delicious examples. Johanna swears by My Cosy Corner – a tiny and unassuming shop in the Coronation Plaza mall on Bukit Timah Road.
A dessert tasting menu at Janice Wong’s 2a.m. Dessert Bar
I love the novelty and surprise of a tasting menu – but how often do you find a restaurant that offers a dessert tasting menu? And how much better would it be if that restaurant were open late so that you can end your night there sometime after midnight with innovative desserts and cocktails? All of the above are reasons why I can’t wait to go back to the 2a.m. Dessert Bar. The brainchild of Janice Wong, two-time winner of the Asia’s Best Pastry Chef title, the restaurant is situated in trendy Holland Village. It’s not the easiest place to find, so there is a slightly subversive feel of going to a secret club (hint: it’s behind the food complex an up the stairs!). Inside, the space is divided into the seated bar area where you can watch the chefs at work (my preference), some larger shared high tables, and some white leather “beds” to lie back on while enjoying your desserts. The menu is divided into Classics and Contemporary, and there is a suggested drink paired with each. From the Classics menu I tried the dark chocolate tart with blood orange sorbet & salted caramel sauce (paired with a glass of dessert wine) which was a perfect balance of decadent and refreshing. From the Contemporary menu I tried the cassis bombe with yoghurt, elderflower foam and plum liqueur textures. This consisted of an aerated sphere (think meringue-ish) made of blackcurrant and white chocolate, filled with elderflower shiso foam, on a bed of shiso granita with yuzu pearls and blackcurrant pastilles. It was an intriguing mix of textures and bold, exotic flavours – but what I loved even more was the cocktail it came paired with: the umeshu cotton candy cocktail. This sweet, fruity cocktail is served in a martini glass and made from ume plum liqueur and topped with candy floss – who can resist candy floss in their cocktail?? Definitely on my list to return to!
INSIDER TIPS: To get there, get a taxi to Holland Village and find the restaurant directly behind the food complex on Lorong Liput Street – take the stairs up to the first floor. Since my last visit, the restaurant now also has a small savoury menu alongside its desserts, for those who lack a sweet tooth.
These are just a few of the foodie reasons why I can’t wait to be able to travel back to Singapore again one day soon! Every time I go, I still discover new experiences – and so will you when you get the chance to explore Singapore once again.
SAFE DINING IN SINGAPORE
Singapore has been very proactive in combating and containing the Covid-19 pandemic, and the food and beverage sector is no exception. There has been a carefully controlled and phased approach to restarting economic activity and a national certification scheme called SG Clean was launched in April 2020. The scheme has encouraged businesses (including food and beverage sellers providing take-away or delivery options) to apply for certification which can be displayed to provide customers with peace of mind that strict hygiene standards are being followed. Additionally, when the food and beverage sector was allowed to reopen fully as from 19 June 2020, a number of further measures were put in place via a government advisory document to safeguard the health of not only diners but also staff at restaurants, hawker stalls and other food and beverage outlets.
The measures include:
- The Government’s SafeEntry digital check-in app has to be implemented for customers at all food & beverage outlets where diners are seated. SafeEntry check-in is done by scanning a QR code or entering a customer’s national identity number and the data can be used to facilitate contact tracing in the event of an infection.
- Food & beverage outlets must conduct mandatory temperature checks on customers at entrances before they enter the premises. Anybody showing visible symptoms or having a high fever must be refused entry and advised to seek medical attention.
- Although not compulsory, the Government strongly recommends that food & beverage outlets implement strategies to limit physical contact between customers and employees, including the use of mobile ordering; pre-ordering; replacing paper menus with scanable QR codes at each table that display the menu on the customer’s mobile device; and contactless electronic payment solutions.
- Where people are dining in groups, each table or group will be limited to five or fewer persons, with at least one-metre spacing between different tables or groups. Family-style shared dishes are discouraged – dishes should either be divided up and individually served to customers, or at least every customer should have their own serving utensil to avoid sharing items.
- Where tables and seats are fixed, such as in hawker centres, they must be marked out to accommodate groups of no more than five. This means that some seats at hawker centres may be marked as being not in use and customers may not use these.
- All food & beverage employees, customers, delivery personnel and other onsite personnel must ensure that they have their masks on and fitted properly at all times, except when actively eating and drinking.
- Automated hand sanitiser dispensers will be installed at all NEA hawker centres and markets, near the entrances/exits and lift lobbies of each food centre, as well as near tray return racks.
- Food & beverage establishments must ensure that common spaces/items (e.g. utensils placed in common spaces) and high-touch surfaces such as counters, menus, tills and electronic ordering kiosks) are frequently and thoroughly cleaned/disinfected.
Although not compulsory, clear plastic table-top separators that place a barrier between diners at shared tables are being trialed at selected Kopitiam and Food Junction food courts – if they prove effective then they might well be rolled out more extensively across Singapore.
Travellers to Singapore can be confident that when tourism resumes, the country values their safety and has taken extensive measures to combat and contain the spread of Covid-19.
If you enjoyed this post about Singapore, you should also read:
- 9 Tips for making the most of the Singapore F1 Grand Prix
- Exploring Singapore’s amazing cultural diversity
- Review: Flying Singapore Airlines Business Class Heathrow to Changi
- 9 Things you need to eat in Singapore
DISCLOSURE: I have been compensated for my time in creating this post and I enjoyed some of the experiences above as a guest of the Singapore Tourism Board. Others were paid for by me as part of holidays which I funded myself. I was not expected to write a positive review – all views are my own and I retain full editorial control.
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