Ever since Thomas Stanford Raffles founded Singapore as a trading post for the British East India Company, this precious island nation has been at the crossroads of food, commerce and culture, capturing the imagination of the world. Singapore is one of the three remaining City States in the world: Monaco and Vatican City round out the club. Raffles set foot on this island back in 1819, in hopes of creating a British trade port that would rival the Dutch settlements in the surrounding areas. What resulted from that is a hybrid food culture that encompasses the best of Asian cuisine. Positioned off the tip of Malaysia, this small island nation has built itself on being an ideal, a clean, crime free country which through centuries of trade with surrounding nation has now become a place where eating has literally become a national pastime.
Tian Jin Hai seafood restaurant is a new restaurant but the food is oddly no newcomer to the local scene here. In fact, the chef had quite a following during his 10-year tenure at the Kopitiam MacPherson hawker stall that he ran at Jackson Centre. When the hawker centre was closed in September last year, owner-chef Francis Yeo, 51, went on a month-long holiday in China and the plan was to reopen in the Rochor area after that. But when he returned, he found that the shop space would not be ready for another four months. Not willing to sit idle, he went hunting for another location. Chance took him to the Marina Country Club in Punggol where a restaurant space had been left vacant for more than a year and the rest is history. I devoured his signature steamed sharks head with soy and ginger but really went nuts for his trio of mud crab dishes that I sampled. This was the dish that made Yeo famous for years at his hawker stall and in a country where chili crab is the national dish, his is the best one I have ever eaten.
Indian food is very popular in Singapore and Banana Leaf Apollo is the best restaurant to sample another staple of Singaporean food, fish head curry. Anita Kapoor took me there and when she gives you a recommendation you can take it to the bank.
We tried local Peranaken treats:
o Otak otak: sausage-like blend of fish, coconut milk, chili paste, galangal and herbs, wrapped and cooked in a banana leaf
o Shui kueh: steamed radish cakes with fried preserved radish topping
o Tulang: meaty bones in tomato-red gravy (slurp out the marrow)
o Che tow kway: omelette-like dish made from radishes, egg, garlic, and chili
o Beng Hiang Restaurant: fish maw soup with sea cucumber
I hit the hawker stalls at Zion Riverside Food Centre for some awesome clay pot porridges made with rice, loaded up at the Adam Road Food Centre: Bahrakath Mutton Soup King (soup with brains/ribs/tongues), Zaiton’s Satay (tripe satay), Yummy Rojak (mango, cuttlefish, cucumber salad) for halal snack food and stuffed my face at Peoples Park hawker center, although I am still pulling duck feathers out of my teeth months later.
Traditional Chinese Medicine is still a large part of daily Singaporean life and there is a restaurant called the Imperial Herbal restaurant at VivoCity mall where they provide convenient access to a Chinese physician to give consultations to diners. He can dispense herbal remedies if necessary. But more importantly he gives recommendations on the types of dishes you could have for the night – which ones would tone down your yang or replenish your ying forces.
The food is done pretty much in classical Chinese style, with a few fusion type innovations.
One of Imperial Herbal restaurant’s trademark dishes is the quick-fried egg white with dried scallop ($4), with polygonatum and ladybell root ground together to make a crunchy nest-like biscuit. I loved this dish and later found out it is good for the spleen and improves complexion.
Peranakan cuisine is the melding of the Malay and Chinese food traditions that date back thousands of years on the island. And while my Peranakan meals in Singapore were outstanding, especially the meals I ate both on and off camera at Big D’s Grill and at True Blue restaurant, where chef Ben Seck and his Mom cook with a skill set that is beyond fantastic, the best dish I ate all week in Singapore was at Mary’s Laksa stall. According to the ‘research’ the term laksa is used to describe two different types of noodle soup dishes: curry laksa and assam laksa. Curry laksa refers to noodles served in coconut curry soup, while assam laksa refers to noodles served in sour fish soup. Usually, thick rice noodles also known as laksa noodles are preferred, although thin rice vermicelli (bee hoon or mee hoon) is also common.
Curry laksa is a coconut-based curry soup that Mary makes in a style more reminiscent of shellfish bisque than of coconut milk. The main ingredients for most versions of curry laksa are shrimp, noodles, tofu, dried shallots, bean sprouts, blanchan, ground candlenuts and anything else the chef cares to throw in. Saying that Mary makes the best laksa in Singapore is akin to declaring that Paradise Pup and Hot Dougs make the best hotdogs in Chicago, but both are true I think. Let the arguments begin.