Singapore is a paradise for food, and to eat here, you must leave all notions of authenticity at Changi Airport before you step out into the humid, almost-Mumbai-like air. Take in the sights and smells of the hawker centres, arm yourself with disposable chopsticks, and get ready to explore Singapore’s national past time-Eating.
I’m heading there with Singapore Airlines for their World Gourmet Forum 2019. It’s a showcase of chefs and wine experts who are all part of Singapore Airline’s International Culinary Panel, responsible for the innovation and thought put behind the meals and wine served to us in the air. It’s going to be an exciting line-up as my eyes scan through names like Chefs Georges Blanc, Matt Moran and Yoshihiro Murata.
I’m flying business there, which in itself is a huge step-up, if I may say so. I’m always the first to complain about leg room back in Economy, but here I had enough space to prop up my legs and sleep, if I so desired. Let it be known that I did not in fact know how to navigate my seat buttons and had to keep shooting glances at the sleeping male on my right to figure just how he did it. With a plush sofa-like seat to sink into and noise-canceling headphones on, I’m up in the air in no time.
While I’m trying to watch a Nigella re-run where she’s making something vegan, my eyes follow the satay trolley that’s being wheeled out of the galley, and it’s honestly my first bite of Singapore. The peanutty satay sauce ladled generously over chicken and mutton skewers is more sweet than spicy. Cucumbers and onions are served as accompaniments, but they are left untouched because I’m barbarically tearing into my meat at this point.
I’m ambiently listening to Gok Wan as he seeks out Chinese cooks in Amsterdam while I busily scrawl all the recommendations that came in via Instagram neatly into my planner. I’m frankly as excited as a young schoolgirl to be on this trip, ready to sleuth my way through the different cuisines Singapore has to offer-Chinese, Indonesian, Malay, Indian-bring ‘em on.
The drive down to our hotel, I’m suddenly caught without wifi, but then we emerge onto Orchard Street. I catch a glimpse of Newton’s Hawker Centre as we turn, and drive towards the Grand Hyatt where I’ll be staying for the next two nights. The glitz of Orchard Street is a lot to take in, especially when I haven’t been here in almost a decade. Malls dot the street on both sides, Balenciaga ads tower over, and well-dressed locals and tourists hurry past us as we step out and claim our luggage.
The room at the Grand Hyatt has all the ritz you’d expect from the property, but it is also quite cosy. I tell myself I’ll draw a bath later, but I’m tired and tomorrow’s a long day, so it’s best to grab a quick meal and some early shut-eye time. I navigate the options at the dinner buffet and settle for a steaming bowl of laksa with noodles and a giddying array of condiments. I pile up the chilli flakes and sit down to slurp. The curry is spicy and sour, mellowed by the coconut milk. The whiff of shrimp paste is unmistakeable, as is the tamarind, which I love, but the crunchy fried fish I’ve spooned over the top is what really completes it for me. I get some chilli in my eye unfortunately and I’m blinded for a few minutes. Dessert as I nurse my one eye, is ondeh-ondeh or glutinous rice balls filled with liquid palm jaggery filling (gula melaka) that explodes as you bite into one. Just insane.
The main event
I’m happy I’m not the only one who suited up for this affair. I just want to look my best for when I meet chef Georges Blanc. The big reveal of chefs comes close on the heels of the announcement that Singapore Airlines has entered into a partnership with COMO Shambhala to add a wellness angle to their in-flight meals, so that the health conscious traveler can eat well in the air as they do on ground.
The smoke and light show reveal is very Masterchef-y as the chefs take to their cooking stations. The chefs are Sanjeev Kapoor of India, Georges Blanc of France, Matt Moran of Australia, Suzanne Goin and Alfred Portale of the United States, Zhu Jun of China, Carlo Cracco of Italy and Yoshihiro Murata of Japan.
Each of the chefs is to showcase a dish that will eventually be served in air to the passengers. Chef Zhu Jun makes a dumpling using tofu skin wrappers which he then marinates in a rich toasted sesame oil, Chef Matt Moran works with Australian lamb loin, and secretly, my favourite chef Georges Blanc does a simple dish of chicken with jus that is just outstanding. The most elegant dish in the room with no frills to it, I decided to ask the chef what was his secret to not-dry chicken breast, and he said simply, “Don’t overcook it”. About four minutes on the first side and 2-3 minutes on the next with some resting time so that it retains all the juices. No acid in its marination or the breast will toughen up. Later at home, I would be flash frying chicken breasts in my wok very briefly taking a note from chef Blanc to achieve one of my final dishes.
What I liked was how some of the chefs pointed out that they were trying to rope in seasonal elements into the dishes to make the menus more adaptable around the year. Longer flights to America would have rejuvenating meal options, rather than those that would bog down the passenger during the long flight time. Singapore Airlines is also partnering with vertical farmers to ensure that their leafy greens are as fresh as possible for their salads onboard. They shall also be swapping out plastic straws completely by September and have already opted for paper packaging for children’s toys instead of plastic.
After lunch we were escorted to the SATS in-flight catering centre to witness the innovation that goes into every meal served onboard a Singapore Airlines flight. The cutting-edge robotics going into the food production is frankly, quite genius and right out of something sci-fi. There are robot storage containers that will follow you without you having to tug them, controlled air pressure rooms where food is taste-tested, and automated machines that can cook 4000 portions of rice in an hour. There was this brilliant omelette carousel station manned by three people where perfectly cooked, still scrambled in the centre omelettes were getting finished, and I was mesmerised. With its new expanded facility in Changi North Crescent, SATS can produce over 120,000 meals daily. I’m shook.
It’s raining on our way back to the hotel. We’re talking the torrential kinds that I’m used to in Bombay, but I’m determined to step out. A man on a mission— to find food, wifi and some coffee. I take the subway down, underestimating how gargantuan Singapore is underground as well as above. Before I know it, I’m lost in ION Orchard mall. I’m aimlessly buying matcha chiffon Swiss rolls from Chateraise, Bak Kwa or cured pork jerky that’s salty and sweet all at once, and biting into Hokkaido cheese tarts. I’m the good kind of lost-like a kid in a candy store.
There’s a Mala Hot Pot at the mall I’m in, but the queue is too long, and I’m in no mood to get a pedicure while I wait (yes, this is an actual thing). I’ve also heard they put a teddy bear on the table with you if you’re dining alone. Instead I’m following Dhruv’s (@madonionslicer) recommendation and heading to Kam’s Roast close-by for some Char Siu. It’s either this, or a Filipino joint, Gerry’s for Sisig, which I couldn’t hit the same night. The char siu is one of the best I’ve ever had and the Lee Kum Kee glaze that comes in the jar doesn’t come close. Glazed “Toro” char siu, made with a pork belly cut that’s wonderfully fatty and treacly dark was had with wonton noodles. I must have been starving because I polished off my plate. Armed with an MRT card and a bag full of pork floss to snack on later, I emerge from the subway close to the hotel a changed man.
Day 3 I’m moving from the comforts of the Grand Hyatt to a small boutique hotel off Lavender street. The objective is to hit the hawker centres today, and so I meet Dhruv/@madonionslicer at Tuong Bahru hawker centre, where he quickly teaches me two things-queueing is paramount here, and you can book yourself a place at the tables by putting cards down. It’s lunch time at the hawker centre and I’m in line to get Prawn Mee from this shop that’s clearly one of the most popular in the whole centre. While not much to look at, the stir-fry before me has two kinds of noodles, an insane broth made with prawn shells and I want to say pork, plus more fresh prawns and a chilli sauce to have with it. If you’re into prawns, I can see you going back for seconds already.
Dhruv had a Lor Mee soup, thick from the cornflour slurry used to bind it, but the soup stock base itself was really good. There were shark fritters/nuggets floating in the soup, plus crispy bits on top with herbs, chillies and some hot sauce. This hawker centre also had a nice lady selling a homemade beancurd barley drink who showed us that her shop was famous because it featured on one of David Rocco’s shows. Also, Yakult is a legit thing here used in smoothies, which is great cause it’s probiotic, and hence good for you.
After a quick coffee and croissant at Tiong Bahru Bakery, I’m off to Bedok, a suburb of Singapore where celebrated food blogger Tony Boey of Johor Kaki will be walking us through the local hawker centre. I’m told that it’s spaces like these that are frequented by locals, as opposed to the more touristy hawker centres such as Lau Pa Sat. With only limited time on-hand, I’d much rather sit down to break bread, or in this case, pick noodles with locals.
The Bedok hawker centre has a famous Kway Chap shop that uses all parts of the pork including cheeks and intestines. Kway Chap is tediously cleaned and the lor or the braising liquid is meant to be quite aromatic. Everything simmers for long hours at a stretch before being served with eggs, beancurd and can be finished with fried onions and hot sauce.
A Chinese style clear mutton soup also caught my attention, because of the similarities to Paya soup, but Tony quickly explained that instead of spices, this soup is more heavy handed on herbs like liquorice and ginger to cut through the gaminess. It is at Bedok hawker centre that I try my first true Chinese carrot cake that’s basically stir-fried chunks of steamed radish cake, tossed in a wok with sweet dark soy to develop deep caramel notes, quite like kecap manis. Dhruv is quick to point out that a Fried Kway Teow would be similar in terms of flavour, so I should get a Ma la Xiang Guo to-go, which is a relatively new stir-fry dish in Singapore where you pick the vegetables, greens and proteins and it gets tossed in a hot sauce that ranges from mild to numb-your-mouth hot. There are also several stalls here that serve Malay Halal cuisine that I have to regrettably come back for on another trip, though if you’re there, the longest queue at the hawker centre was for a Botak Chicken Rice.
Dhruv’s been a treasure trove of recommendations on this trip so far. He’s a chef and with the help of his wife, they take Indian cooking classes in Singapore, and they have the cutest little puppo, so hit them up when you’re in Singapore next, or recommend them to friends. Check out his Airbnb page here where you can book an experience like I will the next time I’m in town.
On what will be my last full day in Singapore, I decide to explore the coffee scene in the city. I spot several cute cafes close to where I’m staying and pick Chye Seng Huat Hardware Coffee Bar for my first cup. The coffee bar houses the Papa Palheta roasters and is according to me, the finest coffee in all of Jalan Besar, if not all of Singapore, though I’m told Nylon and Symmetry are great too.
I’m in Chinatown only minutes later thanks to the super efficient MRT and come up the escalators to a large WeWork building. “Wow”, I say under my breath, “They’re everywhere.” There’s plenty of shopping to be done here. I need a few souvenirs, fruit (loquats and mangosteens), Chinese green oil that will no doubt leak into everything I own, and I’m also here to eat a particular dish, La Zi Ji from a small Sichuan restaurant in Chinatown that took quite a bit of work to find (stores 2/3, My Grandma’s Place on Mosque Street). Fried chicken with an insane amount of chillies that’s stir-fried with sesame and spring onions. You’ve got to pick out the chicken pieces with chopsticks as you go, and if you find it hot, you must take a large glug of chilled rice beer. It’s already the perfect weekend, I think, but I’ve already tainted it.
Dark rain clouds start to come together as I make my way to Haji Lane, which can only be described in cliched adjectives like urbane, hipster, cool and modern. It’s like a really narrow lane full of these endless colourful pop-up shops, quite similar to Neal’s Yard in London. There was a special Hygge shop, a shop for customised flip-flops, an antiques and records shop, and finally a little window where you could get yourself a slice of key lime and strawberry pie from Windowsill Pies, which I opted for. By now it’s raining with no signs of stopping, so I head back for a spot of rest before visiting Robertson Quay.
The walk by the riverside was fun and it’s littered with watering holes, fancy restaurants and concept stores of every kind. This must be where fancy Singapore comes to unwind. I want to stop for beer, but decide against it. I head to the small open-air hawker centre behind my hotel instead for some quick chicken and rice set with soup on the side, and get a couple of slices of cake from Black Fairy Coffee on my walk to the hotel after dinner. The salted egg yolk cheesecake has my heart. It’s dessert, but it’s not sweet— just the way I like it.
I’m leaving Singapore today and so, after I’ve had my coffee fix, I follow the locals, quite creepily too, during lunchtime to Swee Choon Tim Sum, a dim sum coffee shop of sorts. Everything looks really great, but if I have to queue up here, I’ll probably miss my flight. Instead, I head to the closest Din Tai Fung and quickly get my hands on some shrimp and pork soup dumplings or Xiao Long Baos and some shiitake and pork mince noodles. That chilli oil crisp condiment on every table is definitely worth trading your firstborn for.
When I reach Changi Airport, I realise there’s a Paradise Dynasty there and I’m feeling an instant pull towards the La Mian with prawn and pork wantons. Can I possibly sneak in another meal, I think to myself. Moments later, I’m practically a balloon when I finally float into the Silver Kris Lounge for my flight home.
I’ve pre-booked my meal on Singapore Airlines using the Book The Cook option available on Suites, Business class, and now very recently, to Premium Economy as well. I was told to opt for the Lobster Thermidor because it’s a classic, but Chef Zhu Jun’s Cod with Oriental vegetables and egg fried rice sounded like the best way to end what has been a brilliant food trip. The fish was perfectly cooked, still very juicy when flaked, and the fluffy bits of egg in an egg fried rice is my kryptonite if I’m being totally honest. I washed the meal down with a delicious Singapore Sling, which is a signature cocktail to order in air. You can also opt for a variety of wines, and even ask if they have a sommelier on board to help you navigate the different varieties of Burgundy on offer when you fly.
This time around, I knew how to turn my extra spacious window seat into a bed, and wasted no time slipping the giant comfy houndstooth pillow under my head and propping my feet up. Fittingly, Crazy Rich Asians was going to be my in-flight entertainment for the evening, and before I knew it, I was already counting sheep to Grace Chang’s serenading vocals.
Back home after such a fabulous trip, I wanted to make the kind of dishes that would remind me of Singapore, and also put some things on the table to show my family what they missed out on. The first is a dish of Satay presented differently with stir-fried chicken and thick rice noodles or bee hoon. The second is a Kway Teow with chard— a kind of word play there, but who doesn’t like stir-fried chard with flat noodles and a sweet and spicy sauce right? Last is a dish of prawns wrapped with bacon and a quick char siu glaze as an appetiser idea.