The second leg of my recent Asia tour was in the fabled city-state of Singapore. I've been to Singapore before, so I had some high expectations for the food scene, coming in. With some experience under my belt, and in my belly, I came in knowing what I wanted. And boy did I get it.
Here's some of the amazing food I had in Singapore.
Kaya Toast made no real impression on me the last time I was in Singapore. I didn't really get what the big deal was. It's toasted white bread with some coconut-y spread in the middle. Big deal.
This time around I got it. A proper Kaya toast breakfast involves the above said bread, toasted to perfection and slathered with butter and some kaya spread. This is served typically with a couple of barely cooked whole eggs, and dark coffee.
After getting all the components, you break the eggs carefully into a small bowl, put in a bit of soy sauce and some pepper. Then you take the toast, dip it in the eggy mixture, and wolf it down. Wash it down with some sweetened coffee. It's that combination of the sweetness from the kaya spread, the smooth butter, runny egg, soy sauce, and sweet coffee that all come together into a heavenly breakfast treat.
Best way to start your day.
Laksa is one of the most popular dishes in Singapore. A Peranakan dish, it's a rich and spicy coconut flavored soup usually served with rice noodles and chicken.
I had what locals tell me is a sub-standard version of it from the Newton Food Center, and still it was one of the best things I've ever tasted. I loved the sweetness of the soup combined with the heat and many spices. The noodles were freshly made and the chicken tender.
Salted Egg Fish Skin Crisps
Salted egg fish skin crisps are the hottest snack in Singapore. And for good reason. They combine the best part of fish – the skin – that is magically crisped up to potato chip consistency. It's coated with egg yolk, chili, sugar, and curry spices for a very strange and wonderful taste.
The first flavor notes you get are the sweetness combined with the fishiness, then comes the egg, and the heat of the chili at the end that lingers.
There are several competing brands you can find in Singapore. Irvins is apparently the original, which I do enjoy a lot. I have had Auntie Esther's and Snacky & Crisps versions, which are also delicious. Irvins apparently won a blind taste test not long ago, so keep that in mind if you have a choice.
Best Hawker Market: Satay by the Bay
There are many hawker markets to choose from in Singapore, with their own specializations and charms. The best one I went to this visit was Satay by the Bay, in the midst of the lovely Marina Bay Gardens.
You can get lots of fantastic seafood at Satay by the Bay, as well as, of course, satay, grilled chicken, Indian food, and more. During my visit, we had some wonderful chili crab, tiny fried octopuses, prawns, and piles of pork and chicken satay on skewers. Don't miss it, if you are in Marina Bay. And bring all of your friends.
Veggie Dim Sum
I am not a dim sum fan. I find the flavors to be simplistic, the textures rather boring, and too heavy and greasy for me.
But my hosts in Singapore took me to an amazing all-veggie dim sum spot, of which apparently there are several in the city. I found the flavors refreshing, the textures interesting and I didn't have that gross heavy feeling after eating them.
I wish they had this in my city!
Sichuan Hot Pot
I had a couple of fun late nights eating hot pot with friends in Singapore. There was a lot going on at our hot spot joint — fancy noodle making by your table, people making balloon animals, festive birthday singing, even a place you could get a manicure in the restaurant! Here's a video of a noodle maker with his own sound track!
But of course the essence is the food experience, which is simple but very satisfying. Basically you order for the table one or two kinds of broth, which are kept boiling hot via heating elements under the table. You also order various things to throw in the broth, vegetables, tofu and all manner of meats. Then you cook it up, and eat it on tiny plates with sauces you customize to your liking.
Our hot spot spot was more toward the Sichuan end of the Chinese spectrum — so everything went from mildly spicy to completely nuclear. I usually like spicy foods, but after one night I was craving something bland for awhile afterwards. Still, a very entertaining dining experience with a group.
Best Coffee: Glasshouse
I found the Glasshouse Cafe in the charming and historic Chijmes center. (Thanks, Ana!) It's a beautiful, well-lit space with lots of greenery and modern furnishings. I had a delicious pour-over, a single origin Burundi that I wish I had brought home with me.
The barista knew his craft, and we chatted amiably about the coffee scenes in Singapore, Shanghai, San Francisco and South Africa. He also informed me that a portion of the profits from the coffee went back to the community it came from.
They also sold me some delicious salted egg flavored chocolate, because… Singapore.
Another strong coffee contender is the humble kopi o you can order from any kaya toast place. Kopi o is a basic black coffee with sugar. I prefer kopi o sieu dai, which is less sweet and very dark. So strong and reviving in the morning.
Best Pastry: Tiong Bahru's Kouign Amman
Tiong Bahru Bakery is a local Singaporean chain of French bakeries that's pretty damn fantastic. I had their basic kouign amman and a chocolate-almond croissant. Both were well made and fresh. The kouign amman was a thing of beauty – crispy sweet on the outside, rich and buttery on the inside. Their chocolate almond croissant was no slacker either. (Thanks, Ana!)
Another strong contender was Bake Cheese Tart's signature cheese tarts. Originally from Hokkaido, Japan, their version of the cheese tart is dense and caramelized on the outside and wonderfully gooey on the inside. Not too sweet, perfectly balanced.
Apparently San Francisco has a Baked Cheese Tart shop in the Westfield Mall, now! A pretty good reason to head to the mall.
Overall, an incredible food expedition to Singapore. These people know how to eat well.