Zen Eats Singapore

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After about 10 days in Hong-Kong i got the opportunity to visit Singapore for a few days and met up with some local friends as well as my old buddy olivier with whom i went to restaurant school in Paris over 15 years ago. He’s now the Food & Wine manager of the Scarlet hotel on Erskine street.

I think i averaged 7 meals a day while in Singapore and how can you not when you’re surrounded by cheap and delicious street food. Food courts, as pictured above, are everywhere in Singapore and one of my favorite was Maxwell Food Court near Chinatown. Each stand is a kind of mom and pops operation, some specialize in some sort of ethnic south-east Asian food while others produce Singaporean specialties. I haven’t been disappointed once but it would have taken me two full weeks to sample food from all the food stands. I need to go back. Gosh, i need to go back!

Brace yourself as this post is about 2 miles long. Don’t forget your GPS.

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When you’re a gwei lo wandering around the Ali Baba cavern of food it can easily get overwhelming. So i looked for familiar signs and it came in the form of an highlighted paragraph from Anthony Bourdain’s “The Nasty Bits” displayed on a food stand selling oyster cakes. It went like this: 

I wandered down to food stall number 5, an establishment called, appropriately enough, simply “Oyster Cake”. The woman proprietor proudly told me she’s been serving the same dish, and only that dish, for 45 years”. I figured, correctly, that after all that time she got to be pretty good at it. A throng of local customers lining up for the deep-fried Foochow-style beignet of oysters, minced porked, prawns, and batter, seemed to support that conclusion. I sat down at a center table (all the businesses share and jointly maintain the bare, bolted-down center tables), poked a squeeze bottle of spicy pepper sauce into the center of my cake, and gave it a good squirt. Pure goodness, washed down with a tall cup of fresh sugarcane juice from an adjoining stall.

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Well, i thought! If it’s good enough for Bourdain it must be good enough for me…

So i bought an oyster cake from the old lady in question and discovered they were also crusted with peanuts. Pork, prawns, oysters, batter and peanuts and .. deep fried. Love at first sight! I also bought a tall cup of fresh sugarcane juice from an adjoining stall and sat down at a center table. I poked a squeeze bottle of spicy pepper sauce into the center of my cake, and gave it a good squirt, and took a bit bite… i was in heaven for the next 10 minutes. Those oyster cakes were great. So great in fact i wanted to propose to the old lady but she didn’t seem interested at all. I suspect she already got an offer from Bourdain.

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This was a dish from another food stall. A deeply satisfying stir-fry made of pork, oysters, eggs and served with a spicy sauce. Singaporeans like their food spicy for the most part so it’s not hard to find squeeze bottles of spicy sauce about everywhere. For spicy food lovers, the best chili sauce on the planet (at least in my opinion) can be found in a restaurant called Big Bird in Singapore. I brought a few jars home. It made me cry of happiness!.. err.. or maybe it was spiciness.

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And then, there’s of course the legendary Hainanese (Singapore) chicken-rice. A local specialty considered the national dish. There are many restaurants who claim to have the best version but i’ve been told by locals Tian-Tian is one of the most popular and judging by the throngs of customers lining up, i kinda believe them. The dish consists of a whole chicken cooked in a fresh chicken stock flavored with ginger and garlic, the same stock is often used to cook the rice which they call ‘oily rice’ because it absorbs all the good stuff from the chicken. The dish is served with several dips, a really spicy chili sauce and a thick dark soy sauce. 

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A great place to have Satay in singapore is Lau Pa Sat. A food mecca located in a beautiful historic building in the center of town, a favorite of locals and tourists alike. I didn’t have my camera handy when i passed by unfortunately but here’s some chicken and pork satay from a different place. It cost me about $1 and it was damn good.

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After having eaten so much food you should definitely go to the temple to redeem yourself. It’s noon and you already had 4 meals and you should be feeling pretty guilty. The Buddha tooth relic temple on south bridge road has a giant vessel at the entrance for your satay sticks. People set them on fire before entering the temple and pray to the Satay Gods. It’s a very moving experience. The story doesn’t say in the Buddha lost his tooth while munching on chicken or beef but from the shape of the broken tooth i would say it was chicken, but i i leave it to the scholars to decide.

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When you’re at peace with the Gods you can go back for a little snack. This is a mostly vegetarian buffet to not offend them so quickly. No pork in sight, I’m feeling zen right now.

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You cannot write a post about Singapore without at least showing one coconut tree. So here you have it. It’s required by the internet police. If you need a little exercise you can head to the boardwalk and have a nice little walk while watching the sunset. Of course, i would never make the trip if there wasn’t some kind of food discovery to make…

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… and here it is!

Black pepper crab is another specialty of Singapore (there’s also chili crab). Local friends recommended the Long Beach seafood restaurant on East coast parkway, right on the boardwalk. They were the first to serve Black pepper crab in 1959 so i figured they had time to practice before my visit. I first wondered how the black pepper sauce could penetrate the shell of the crab but realized the shell is cracked, and the flavor very much inside too. The quality of the crab was amazing, meaty but sweet and perfectly accentuated with the pepper sauce. Perfect with a chilled pint of Tiger beer. Bak Ku teh is another local specialty, a pork rib soup in a spicy, garlicky broth. One of the best thing i have eaten in Singapore but no picture to share. It was very late at night..

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There’s also the district of Little India in Singapore that i didn’t get to explore as much as i wanted to but that’s where i had some very good Dosas with different dips. I forgot to mention in my last post i had some fantastic Indian food in Hong-Kong in an underground restaurant called Surya in Kowloon. The most authentic Indian food i ever got to try. The restaurant is a little hard since it’s in a building and at the bottom of several flights of stairs but definitely worth the efforts. Now, where’s good Indian food in New York? Does good Indian food even exist in New York? Is there any hope?  Someone please say yes!

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Dessert places aren’t hard to find in Singapore. They often sell icy concoctions of tropical fruits with coconut milk. Very refreshing in 80 degrees weather. I particulary loved the chilled mango soups with pomelo and tapioca (not pictured) and a mountain.. a volcano even!.. of shaved ice drizzled with mango coulis and fresh mango pieces. Too bad i didn’t have my camera with me because it was very impressive. The ones above had aloe, coconut milk, jellies and various local fruits on ice.

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This trip to Asia had an awakening effect on me. For instance i had the first banana worth calling a banana, i don’t know what i had before but it wasn’t what a banana should be. It was ripened on the tree and sweet, floral with a little tinge of citrus. Not the kind of bananas we get in the US. This food stand was selling banana fritters in Maxwell Food court and gigantic bushels of ripe bananas were hanging above the old man selling them.

Banana –> Deep Fried in Batter = Good. 

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I’m not sure i have the right name for the dishes above, the roll was filled with bean sprouts, egg and peanut among other things and was called Pokah but i couldn’t find anymore infos by googling the name. It was very good though. The one in a back was called fruit borah and i wasn’t too crazy about it. The sauce was pretty strong and it totally covered the flavor of the fruit. I guess there must be some better versions of it somewhere.

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Those were sweet coconut rolls with various filling but since by that time i was approaching a food coma, i don’t remember them very well. They were good and the texture was great. I wish i could have a little slice… now.

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Beef jerky and as a matter of fact, all kind of jerkies, are very popular in Singapore. There are lots of store competing for the title of best jerky in town, since i didn’t try all of them i won’t even go there.Those guys were grilling sheets after sheets of jerky at lightning speed. The meat was charred and slightly sweet and it was so good and addictive i had to smuggle some back to the US. No officer.. i have nothing to declare.. [looking at the ceiling with an innocent look on his face]

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Here you have it, friends! Hope you enjoyed my little tour and sorry if it took you half the day to get to the end of this post. Hopefully it will inspire you to go visit on your own. Cheers!

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  • http://missyallets.blogspot.com/ Stella

    Hey you, welcome back!

    Great post. Made me feel hungry again LOL.

    Well, the name of the roll you were unsure of was “Popiah”. Extremely good, ain’t it? I love it spicy, rolled with sambal (dried shrimp chilli paste).

  • Jennifer

    WOOT! GO ZEN! SOUNDS LIKE AN A_W_E_S_O_M_E TRIP, WHY WASN’T I INVITED…OH RIGHT, YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHO I AM…OK, WELL I LOOK FORWARD TO MORE OF YOUR POSTS. MAKE ME INSANELY JEALOUS. LOVE YOUR BLOG BTW. =)

  • Jennifer

    OOPS. FORGOT MY FIRST COMMENT DANCE *DANCES IN A STRANGE MANNER*

  • http://www.dirtykitchensecrets.com dirtykitchensecrets

    Sounds like one amazing food coma! I’ve always wanted to visit singapore and the itch has resurfaced in full intencity

  • http://www.redcook.net Kian

    Great post! Sounds like a wonderful trip.

    The vegetable rolls are called popiah or 薄饼 in Chinese. It is a Hokkien/Chew Chao style dish. The filling is made from jicama, bean sprouts, tofu and other vegetables. The dish behind it is Rojak. It is a Malay salad dressed with shrimp paste. I LOVE it!

    How come no mention of chili crab? That’s truly a Singapore national dish. And what about Laksa? Another popular rice noodles dish.

    I can’t wait for my trip to Singapore in August.

  • http://manggy.blogspot.com Manggy

    Well now, don’t look at the ceiling while in customs, that’s just suicide! He he he. I much prefer the street food of other southeast asian countries to my own, sadly. Much more interesting flavor and ingredient-wise. But I agree, the produce in these parts just cannot be beaten! :) I loved this “short” tour, Zenman. Thanks!

  • http://foodhuntress.blogspot.com enrisa marie

    Thank you for the tour. Your Zen-ness belongs to Asia – Buddha follows you everywhere. Love those icy fruit concoctions too. Like Manggy, I recommend that you enjoy street foods from our Southeast Asian neighbors. No, no, not around here…

  • http://www.whatdoiwant2cooktoday.blogspot.com Jan

    Wow – a fantastic post and all that food looks delish!
    Black pepper crab – mmmm yum I’d love to try that.

  • http://www.elinluv.blogspot.com Elin

    If you like authentic asian food, Hongkong,Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand would be the best place to go for. Each having their own specialities..glad you would want to come back for more :) and btw did you give a bottle of that chilli sauce and beef jerky to the immigration officer :P :) )

  • http://vanillakitchen.blogspot.com dawn

    wait….the satay gods? umm
    is this so not true? buddha broke his tooth on a satay? allllllrighty then.

  • http://colloquialcookin.canalblog.com/ Colloquial Cook

    I finished that jerky in less time than it takes to say “satay stick”. Forget private cheffing, and become CEO of Zen Jerky Import Export. You’d be doing the world a favour.

  • http://www.gracenotesnyc.com Grace

    My mouth is literally watering from all of those pictures! Looks like you had to be rolled back to NY :)

  • http://www.eatingclubvancouver.com _ts-eatingclubvancouver

    Nice, nice, nice. Man, I imagine I would ALWAYS be very full if I ever visit Singapore, especially since I have no self-control when it comes to food! =)

  • http://itsnotyouitsbrie.com Its Not You, it’s Brie

    I SO need to get out of town. Zen, do you need help on your cooking excursions? You have my email. What a fabulous trip. Did you meet Chubby Hubby?

  • http://itsnotyouitsbrie.com Its Not You, it’s Brie

    I SO need to get out of town. Zen, do you need help on your cooking excursions? You have my email. What a fabulous trip. Did you meet Chubby Hubby?

  • http://www.clumbsycookie.blogspot.com clumbsycookie

    Man, you can not do this things to me! You simply can! Gorgeous pictures by the way, but now I’m hungry! I should have really jumped into your bags and gone with you!!!

  • http://www.eatmeouttahere.blogspot.com Eat Me Outta Here

    Your post makes me want to book a one way ticket to Singapore RIGHT NOW!

  • http://thesplitpea.blogspot.com Eralda

    Looks like an amazing trip. Street foods are usually the best, given that they are purchased at not-so-shady stands. Beautiful photos. Now I just need to save enough to make my way eastward. :)

  • http://www.worldfoodieguide.com Helen Yuet Ling Pang

    Wow! You certainly ate well! I can’t remember which food courts I visited when I was in Singapore (long time ago), but I do remember eating like a king. And I had black pepper crab just the other week, but here in London’s Chinatown at a Straits restaurant! It’s been most enjoyable reading about your travels…

  • http://www.alwaysorderdessert.com Alejandra

    I think I always end up eating 7 meals a day when I’m on vacation. It’s practically a requirement!!

  • Michelle

    Haha…. Those are not beef jerkies. They’re seasoned sweetmeat made from pork and occasionally chicken. But pork gives the best flavour. I am happy u enjoyed your stay in my sunny Singapore. Come back soon!

  • http://mllenoelle.wordpress.com mlle noëlle of simmer down

    Thanks for the virtual taste-tour… I feel full just from looking at your photos. Jealous but happy for you that you got to go on such an amazing food advienture!

  • http://mllenoelle.wordpress.com mlle noëlle of simmer down

    (umm, that would be “adventure”) :)

  • Jessica

    Now you have tried the singaporean food, come down to try malaysian food too, bet you’ll have a post that is more than 2 miles long and even GPS wont be able to help ya!

  • http://sayangkuazura.blogspot.com Azura

    You should come down here!!! arrghhh I am gutted! looks like I am most likely to meet you in Hong Kong or NY . i got so much to tell you and yet can’t reach you.I will send you a long email tomorrow. take care gorgeous xxxx

  • Linda

    The kind of spring roll thingy is called Popiah, not Pokah :)

  • http://www.beaulotus.blogspot.com Beaulotus

    That’s the main reason why I’ve decided not to go back to Singapore this Summer. My waistline could not take another 2 months of 4-7 meals a day. I still haven’t lost all the weight that I’ve put on during my last few trips home.

    But boy do I miss Maxwell market, I used to work at MND next door so it was my canteen…