Singapore: Eat your way around Asia – on one island
Its rich multicultural heritage makes the city-state an exciting destination for a gourmet tour, as Sarah Barrell discovers
Sunday 29 April 2012
It's 10pm on a steamy Singapore evening and I have a date with a chef. I'm early, so I perch on a bar stool in her slick Holland Village establishment and wait. Given the name of the venue – the 2am Dessert Bar – it's no surprise that the bank of deep leather sofas and elegant communal dining tables have yet to be filled. A handful of poised patrons have arranged colt-like limbs over the immaculate white upholstery; nothing here looks like it's ever seen, far less indulged in, a dessert. But this isn't a steamed pudding kind of place.
On arrival, 2am's founding chef, Janice Wong, immediately summons up a sample of sweets: a sculptural chocolate and berry creation that resembles a feather-light volcanic rock; distillations of tropical fruit in jewel-like gelato crowned with "cat's whiskers" flowers. Each tastes even more incredible than it looks, with bursts of flavour and movements of texture that make renegade ingredients such as purple potato, basil and sea grapes sing.
Wong is the epitome of the adventurous, urbane and rootsy Singaporean chef that's changing the way people think about this so-called "sterile" Asian city. Beyond the Singapore Sling cocktail, most visitors don't associate Singapore with gastronomic creativity, despite the fact that this tiny city-state has a rich culinary heritage that draws on the cuisines of its pan-Asian populace. But a new breed of local chef is looking beyond the limits of the traditional hawker food markets or tourist-focused Michelin-starred restaurants.
"Singapore is an island. It imports almost everything," says Janice. "But there's so much we're missing growing on the side of the road or the beach." When she's not scavenging for native weeds and munching on crumbs of soil to help her understand the flavours of her environment, Janice is in her food lab, working with international chefs on scientific techniques. Her current project is to create dishes focused on poisonous local shrubs, the dessert equivalent of puffer-fish sushi.
In true Singapore spirit (many say dining out is a national pastime), I've barely finished dessert and I'm thinking of breakfast. Wong points me to Tiong Bahru Market in the eponymous 1930s residential district of curvaceous Art Deco homes and independent coffee shops. "You have to try the dao suan," she says. So, the next morning, I head to what looks like a multi-storey car park in Tiong Bahru. Despite the clean-up of the hawker markets, I still find this an authentic, smelly, fabulously frenetic place.
I sit at a worn Formica table to eat chwee kueh, glutinous rice cakes topped with preserved radish as oily sweet as caramelised onions. They are stupendously good but maddening to eat with chopsticks. It's like tackling jelly with a stick. Around me, old men suck up noodle soups with Dyson efficiency; mothers feed toddlers noodle trimmings, lovingly cut up with scissors produced from handbags. Faced with dao suan – a divine, sugar-syrup-drenched beany porridge – I'm almost defeated. Especially as it should be eaten with dough fritters. The yin-yang philosophy behind many Chinese-Singaporean dishes says one can't be eaten without its counterpart.
A post-prandial waddle through Chinatown's herbalist shops produces countless yin-yang examples. I take a tentative nibble of a thousand-year-old egg (in fact only days old) and a chewy bite of bak kwa (barbecued dried pork) from venerable supplier Lim Chee Guan. Based around the cuisines of its multicultural inhabitants, including Malay, Chinese and Indian, Singapore is a superb place to eat your way around Asia.
A late lunch at Blue Ginger restaurant introduced me to Peranakan or "Nonya" (grandmother) cuisine. With rich coconut sauces recalling its Malay heritage and the chilli its Chinese roots, time-consuming Peranakan is dying out in restaurants. Blue Ginger remains a Nonya stalwart thanks to a loyal lunching business crowd, food-savvy tourists and the fact that it serves "home cooking" in a sleek setting. Refined plates of traditional staples – kueh pie tee (tiny "top hats" stuffed with egg, prawn, turnip and sweet chilli sauce) and sambal terung goreng (aubergine in a spicy Malay-style sauce) had my palate galloping from China to Indonesia and back. A dessert made from the pungent durian fruit sent my nose somewhere else entirely.
Rejuvenation is the buzzword along the Marina Bay waterfront, where I took my stomach and nose for a post-lunch breather. Here, a forest of cranes fills the skyline. The boat-shaped SkyPark roof terrace of the Marina Bay Sands resort is a relatively recent addition here, lately joined by Daniel Libeskind's "Reflections" skyscrapers and, as of June, the vast Gardens by the Bay, a development of Eden Project-style greenhouses. Here, the Michelin-star-tourism buck is fuelling an influx of celebrity chefs such as Daniel Boulud, Wolfgang Puck and Joël Robuchon. From this shiny new neighbourhood, it's hard to imagine this city as anything other than a playground for international investment.
A final feast that evening at Wild Rocket, headed by innovative Singaporean lawyer-turned-chef Willin Low, reminds me that small and local prevail. Here, in this restaurant addition to a backpackers' hotel, I worked my way through such Mod Sin (Modern Singaporean) dishes as a seafood crustacean oil spaghetti with teeny Sakura shrimp, a Cambodian amok curry with black grouper, and Low's signature laksa pesto tiger prawns – made with coriander, candlenuts and dried shrimps, so good it made me reconsider the Genoese version.
It had nothing whatsoever to do with gluttony and everything to do with how well this blend of Peranakan, Asian and Western cuisine works that I considered squeezing in yet another pud: a Mod Sin panna cotta. Minty green from an infusion of pandan leaf and sitting in a pool of palm sugar, this was a panna cotta like no other. And as with each of the dishes I'd sampled during my belt-busting two-day culinary tour, it was palate-punching proof that Singapore is anything but sterile.
Sarah Barrell travelled with Singapore Airlines (020-8961 6993; singaporeair.com) which offers return flights to Singapore from £600 from Manchester and £625 from Heathrow.
Fort Canning Hotel (0065 6559 6770; hfcsingapore.com), set in the grand old British Far East Command Headquarters, has double rooms from S$350 (£174) B&B.
Singapore Tourism Board: yoursingapore.com
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