Surprising Horizons

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Singapore Food Staples: Popiah (and some more Carrot Cake)

Balestier Road is an odd one. You can go there with a very wild and varied shopping list (freshly ground coffee, light fittings, a fancy new toilet, and you could stay in a cheap but dingy hotel if all the shopping wore you out). I will miss walking down Balestier.

It is also known for it’s wide variety of food offerings. Balestier Food Centre is a small but well stocked hawker centre. When I arrived in Singapore back in 2011 it was being refurbished (it does have some decent toilets there it has to be said).

I went there one evening during the World Cup to grab some eats and found the Miao Sin Popiah stall run by two very friendly ladies. Popiah wasn’t on my mind but it certainly was one of the foods I hadn’t tried yet so when I saw it I had to get it. I saw it and I got it. Along with a reacquaintance with carrot cake (white) and an introduction of black carrot cake. Popiah was $2 and the medium sized carrot cake was $4.50.

First up popiah. It has it’s origins in the Fujian province in China and it takes the form of a crepe type of spring roll with a filling of thinly sliced tofu, chopped peanuts or peanut powder, fried shallots, and shredded omelette. The fillings change per establishment. It’s nice, light, and has nice combination of soft and crunchy. The crepe wrapping is thin but has some substance to it which adds a little sandwichy feel to the eating process. Mechanism.

I’ve talked about carrot cake before; the white variety. So when I saw the black variety I had to get to sample the dark side too. The blackness adds a sweet dark sauce to proceedings so along with the white carrot cake flavours of eggy and white radish goodness (with a little spicy kick). I actually would get the black one over the white one. Once you go black…

I was very happy to get the small little dish of popiah scraped of my list before I left Singapore and I would definitely pick it up again as a nice little light snack or starter to a main meal.

Singapore Food Staples: Rojak

“You must try rojak before you leave Singapore” some crazy person said to me at some point. So with my days dwindling down on the red dot I wandered many a hawker centre and decreed that if I saw it I would eat it. I saw it. I tried to eat it.

The venue was the Golden Mile Food Centre on Beach Road which is quite a large eatery you can browse through to find your poison. I found rojak.

Rojak is a fruit and vegetable dish. Rojak means “mixture” in Malay. It’s a mixture of fruits and vegetables but it’s totally ensconced in a gritty paste mixture of water, shrimp paste, sugar, chili, and lime juice. Singapore rojak tends to have cucumber, pineapple, puffy, deep-fried tofu and youtiao (cut-up Chinese-style fritters) and raw mangos and green apples. All topped atop with crushed peanuts. They were all apparent in my dish in abundance.

At first, I was surprised by the taste and I thought I actually liked it. That passed. I just didn’t like the combination of contrasts between sweet and sour and fruity and savoury. I chose the $4 dish which was the equivalent of a Starbucks Grande. I guess. I valiantly tried to battle my way through it and attempted to find a combination of tastes that I liked. I kind of liked the apple bits and the tofu bits but that’s if you forced me.

Anyway, sadly, this was one of the last dishes I tried and it was my least favourite. But I’m glad I tried it. Like I tried to ride a skateboard once. I won’t be trying it again. It’s just not nice. But try it if you like the culinary clash of sweet and savoury from time to time.

Singapore Food Staples: Chicken Rice

THE national dish of Singapore. Probably. Capital “the”. Just in case you thought I was being liberal with the shift key.

“Chicken rice, really!?” I hear you scoff and mumble around your KFC. Listen up. It’s good. Better than finger lickin’. Trust me.

You can get chicken rice everywhere. I went to a hawker centre that was near me. No reason other than location. Everyone has their favourite; don’t bother me. So I went to Zion Food Centre and was drawn towards Boon Tiong Kee Hainanese Chicken Rice and their $4 Chicken Rice Set Meal. A steal. I didn’t steal it. I paid for it.

I went for roasted chicken because I like that more than steamed. With the set you get a small bowl of broth, a side of green veggies, and a dome of rice. Keep an eye out for the vat of spicy chili sauce to add to your dish. Highly recommended addition.

I was very happy with all of this for just $4. That’s the thing about Singapore; you can eat cheap if you want to. And it will be delicious. Hopefully. This was.

The broth was of undetermined origin. I would guess chicken bone broth or something. It had a volume to it; it wasn’t just chicken flavoured water. It was more chicken than water.  More machine than man.

The veggies were nice. Probably the least flavourful in the set but a nice counterbalance to the chicken flavoured everything else.

The roasted chicken itself was nice. Nothing spectacular but nice. $4 nice. Resting on a sleeping bag of cucumber slices.

The rice was tasty. With chicken rice dishes the rice is usually infused with garlic and chicken stock so it really elevates the usual rice flavour to something is more entertaining to the palate. Your palate. Adding a little chili sauce (which is usually quite thin) adds a little bit more pop to each bite and leaves a nice mouth buzz.

Mix it all together in one and you get some nice mouthfuls of different textures and tastes throughout. I can’t stress enough how much good value can be found in Singapore’s hawker centres. I’m cramming in as much as I can before I shuffle off.

 

Singapore Food Staples: Laksa

Forgive me for being biased but I believe Asian food has the most willingness to surprise, scare, delight, and excite the weary eater. One of the most low key foods you can have in Singapore is laksa. I mean low key in a way that it’s a nice gate-way to the world of Singaporean/Asian dishes. There’s a lot more scarier dishes out there.

But, of course, there are different versions of laksa. But, of course.
I’ve had many. I like them all. I won’t stand in the corner and fight for one in particular but I will tell you why I like katong laksa. Because I had that today and that’s what I remember.

After walking back from the Istana where I had my improptu photoshoot with Donald Trump I wandered in a post-presidential daze to Janggut Laksa on the 4th floor of Wisma Atria. The Food Republic there is quite reasonable (for Orchard Road) and has an excellent range of local fare.

Ignoring and laughing at all signage directing me towards a meagre small bowl I opted for the $7.50 large bowl. Again, not cheap by hawker centre standards but cheap enough for Orchard Road.

On first slurps of a Katong Laksa you get a gritty texture to the soup base. Which is nice. It adds a bit more depth to the taste and feels more wholesome. The grit is ground up dried prawns for your curiousity. Maybe you didn’t want to know that. Another difference between other laksas I have had is that everything is spoonable in a Katong Laksa; the noodles are cut up into more scoop-upable sizes. Which is why they only gave me a spoon until I asked for some chopsticks. Which probably insulted them on many levels. Then I realised I didn’t really need it. Laksa lesson learned.

This laksa was delicious. Both sweet and spicy. Both gritty and smooth. The Laksa noodles, coconut milk, curry soup base, chili, dried shrimps, cockles, prawns and fishcake marry each other perfectly. The fish cake slices with a hint of faint fishiness contrast the punchy cockle taste which hits you with an ocean wave flavour. Getting a mixture of everything with each spoonful is the beautiful part of eating a laksa; and one that I will miss when I leave Singapore.

You should leave a laksa behind with slight spicy after burn on the back roof of your mouth from the spice and sambal, with the remnants of sweetness on your tongue from the soup and shrimp, and with a salty aftertaste from the cockles. And all of those tasty memories are very much welcome.

R.I.P. Anthony Bourdain

Singapore Food Staples: Roti Prata

On a gloomy, overcast Saturday morning I uberred (soon to be Grabbed) my way to Roti Prata House on Upper Thomson road for some…roti prata.

Roti prata is….a kind of flatbread/pancake which can come with many different fillings. Inspired by south-Indian cuisine it’s found in Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia.
Roti means ‘bread’, and prata or paratha means ‘flat’ in the Hindi language. So there. Flat bread.

Roti prata can be served with a myriad of fillings (or toppings) which speaks volumes about the versatility of the dough/butter combination of the bread that they use. I opted for the popular egg and onion combo which comes in at a paltry $2.

All roti prata dishes come with a side bowl of curry to dip merrily away. And merrily away I dipped.

The dough is light and crispy and with the egg and onion combo it makes for a pleasing forkfull. With a slathering of curry on the roti another layer of taste is added on to the whole shindig.

I would probably order the egg, onion, and garlic roti next time to add a little bit more flavour. I found myself wanting a little extra kick of something. The curry, although tasty, was a little lacking or a little thin and the egg and onion combo needs something to help them get over the finish line. Garlic could be the answer. For a day starter roti prata is definitely a cheap and cheerful option to get the day off on the right footing.

The service was prompt and efficient and the food is really cheap. I was going for seconds but some fine workers started grinding boulders in the construction site next door. Next time. Next time. Find The Roti Prata House here:

Singapore Food Staples: Mee Siam

I meandered towards Robert Mee Siam recently to try out a quite underwhelming (visually) dish called Mee Siam. It was perhaps one of the weirdest (but not in a bad sense) taste experiences so far. “What even is it?” I asked as I experienced the various tastes with each chopstickfull? Let me ask the internet…

Ok, so Mee Siam mean Siamese Noodles in Malay. It’s a bunch of vermicelli noodles (bee hoon) plunged into a shallow bowl of sour sweet gravy accompanied with a boiled egg, chives, and little crunchy airy fried bean curd things. Added to it, is a dollop of sambal chili paste which I found to be more sweet than spicy. Prior to serving some generous squeezing of lime took place.

I accompanied mine with some sugar cane with lemon drink thing. Was nice.

The elderly couple who run the Robert Mee Siam stall were very friendly and the wife half of the partnership was curious about me as I waited for the husband to serve up their pride and joy. And laughed at me when I asked for chopsticks as opposed to the old fork and knife.

The gravy definitely has the most influence in this dish. Made up of (or as the internet tell me) a concoction of rempah spice paste, tamarind and taucheo (salted soy bean) it has a gritty but light texture. It definitely leans towards a sweet sector of the taste spectrum with tart undertones. You can see a few chili flakes floating around in the gravy but it certainly is not spicy (or I’m becoming immune like a hawker centre super hero).

The vermicelli noodles are soft and when eaten with a few crunchy bean curd cubes, some chives, and a bit of egg it actually is a pleasing taste mixture of flavours.

Mixing the sambal chili paste all through the dish makes the most sense and getting everything all mashed around gets the myriad of flavours clambering over each other throughout the meal.

All in all, an interesting and unique dish with some very unexpected and unusual flavours. I think I liked it. But it was weird. I would try it again. I think.
At $3 a serving, it’s a perfect introduction to a dish you may not go out of your way to try.

Find Robert Mee Siam here (the car park outside the Whampoa Food Centre also houses some Blue-crowned hanging parrots at random times):

Singapore Food Staples: Nasi Lemak

Nasi Lemak is probably the most boring looking plate you might get in Singapore but it packs a huge amount of flavour in its different elements. Trust me.
Originating in Malaysia, this dish brings together fried chicken, coconut rice, fried egg, dried/fried anchovies, and sambal (a sweet and sometimes slightly spicy sauce). If you’re lucky the odd cucumber slice might be tossed in for good measure.

I found my way to Changi Village (it’s out there Jerry) and queued up at the popular Mizzy Corner to grab my Nasi Lemak. They have a couple of different versions but I just went with the original fried chicken one at $3.50. You can see the different options beside each yellow letter on their stall display.

The fried chicken was succulent and the fried skin gave way into the juicy white meat underneath perfectly. I found that mixing up the different food types led to the best results taste-wise. A little chicken, a little rice, a little sambal? Lovely. A little rice, a little egg, a little anchovies, a little sambal? Beautiful. A bit of cucumber, some chicken, a little egg, and sambal? Not bad at all. The sambal binded a lot of the different foods together into cohesive taste bundles. The anchovies acted as a french fry of sorts with a hint of fishiness but mainly added some nice crunch to a mostly soft dish (even the fried chicken skin had a softness to it).

I just ended up blending everything together with my fork just to get all Forrest Gump on the dish (you never know what you gonna gid). Nasi Lemak is a great stop-gap dish to keep you going during the day as the different elements make up one satisfying but not overly filling dish and you’ll be ready to tackle dinner in a couple (or 5) hours. I recommend!

Changi Village is also a place that is pretty cool and steeped in history. I’ll let you read the small print. Click for bigger below.

Singapore Food Staples: Fish Head Curry

One of the ones I was not looking forward to on my Singapore Food Staples list was Fish Head Curry. I don’t deal well with seeing the once living creature on a plate. I have a very precise set of skills in disassociating live animals with dead meat. It’s how I survive. And now with my daily diet leaning heavily towards vegetarian/vegan and the seldom meaty splurges I dive into are the ones on this list, the disassociation is waning somewhat and I am feeling more guilty with every meat dish I try.

Onwards, though, I am still enjoying meat so onwards into the breach! And with Fish Head Curry I was Mariana Trenching this thang. We loped along to Samy’s Curry restaurant on Dempsey Hill to hit this thing…head on.

The dish is commonly found in Singapore and Malaysia but steeped in Indian and Chinese cuisine. The fish head is served in a curry which is quite spicy (but not overly so) with a strong tomato taste throughout. Some ochre and eggplant are floating around in curry. When the bowl arrives the fish head is nicely camouflaged in its own meatiness and it’s only when you start dishing out the meat that the true head form takes shape. There is no hiding from the fact that this dude was once living.

Served on a banana leaf at Samy’s, the obvious accompaniment for a curry style dish is some naan bread. Gathering fish, vegetable, and a slathering of curry within a pillowy cushion of naan gives you the perfect bite. The fish (white snapper so we were told) was more akin to chicken in mild mannered taste and not at all fishy; quite light and refreshing. Chicken of the sea?

Going, going…..

Gone. At least this fish was not wasted in any way.

The small Fish Head Curry at Samy’s goes for $21 and it was good as a starter for three people sharing. We did binge on some biryani dishes after this to fulfill all dinner expectations that were had.

Samy’s itself is an interesting place, hidden amongst the foliage and amongst some other eateries. It has a good reputation and for a reason; the food was solid, tasty, and of a good quality. The service was little so-so with English a little rusty on their behalf (and maybe ours) but nothing to stop going back to (although they did charge us for something that wasn’t delivered but it was easily taken off our bill). The interior is 1980s school cafeteria in, oooh let’s say,….Ireland?! But you aren’t going for the interior you are going for their menu contents. And the menu contents are something you will come back for.

Singapore Food Staples: Kaya Toast

It’s probably up there with other Singapore food staples like Chili Pepper Crab. Kaya Toast. A simple yet unique little breakfast/brunch dish that can be found throughout the island. Killiney Kopitiam is a well established franchised eatery…place which was founded back in 1919 in its original building on Killiney Road. Hence…the name. Right? Nowadays Killiney Kopitiam can be found in around 30 different locations around Singapore. They can also be found around different Asian countries including Malaysia, Myanmar, and Hong Kong.
We waddled along to the Siglap outlet to meet a passing friend. It’s quite small but seats outside were available and acquired.

If you’re going for Kaya Toast you need to get the set. $5 will get you the toast, tea, and two soft boiled eggs. The tea is sweeeeetttt. I’m not trying to be hip there, fellow kids. It’s sweet. It’s made with condensed milk so as you stir it up it gets even sweeter.  When you let the tea drop off your spoon it drips slowly and with a thick mindset. I had a few sips as tea is not in my daily intake radar and I can confirm its sweetness. The cup and saucer felt so nicely quaint though; memories of train station cafes and more substantial breakfasts of the past. The Starbucks age has ruined me.

All together it doesn’t look like much and, yes, the Kaya Toast disappears way too quickly due to my sweet tooth urges. But it was comfortable. Just right. Crack the two eggs into the bowl underneath and you have some dipping sauce for your toast. Result.

The kaya. What is it? It’s pretty much coconut jam. It’s nice. Too nice. Each slice of toast has also got a stow-away chunk of butter just to notch up the calorie count a little bit more – suggesting a long walk home is in order. Each bite is sweet and coconutty, if you get a chunk of butter in a bite this is balanced out with a salty buttery taste which creates the age-old salty-sweet battle over your taste buds. A war with only winners. Apart from the fat accumulating in the areas you don’t want it.

Listen, I don’t know if the soft boiled eggs are for dipping your kaya toast into. But I did it and it was great. So the egg flavour piled on top of the sweet kaya and the salty butter just ramped up each bite to another level. I enjoyed it immensely.

Yes, a recommended Singapore dish for sure. You can’t go wrong with Killiney Kopitiam for your Kaya Toast experience (or for any of their other Singapore staples either) due to their reputation and history.

Singapore Food Staples: Biryani

What comes into your mind when you hear and see the word “Bismillah”? I’ll wait. Yeah, I thought so. Will not let you go.

Anyway, Bismillah translates from Arabic into “In the name of God” so plop it before Biryani and place it above a restaurant and you expect heavenly things. And, actually, the biryani at Bismillah Biryani is good. Tasty and very very filling. We swam to Bismillah on a very rainy day on the outskirts of Little India.

Bismillah opens every day at 6pm. At 6:01pm we arrived with umbrellas in tatters. Perfect time to be there with both the timing and inclement weather meaning the service was in existence purely for us. On first impressions the interior of Bismillah is quite…red. A little run down looking with the upholstery on the chairs needing a good nuclear decontamination. Hazmat suits and power hoses would be good.

A little starter of some vegetable samosas ($1 each, good value) and some spicy dipping sauce. These were hearty, hot, and welcoming. The pastry was quite thick and the filling was a nice mixture of vegetables blended together for a pleasing bite. Or two.

The biryani that is dished up at Bismillah is of Pakistani and North Indian origin. More traditionally labelled Dum Biryani the main difference, so it seems, is that in Dum Biryani everything is steamed together over coals whereas in normal Biryani the meat is added separately later. The main difference to the diner is that the dish is mainly dry with no oily-ness with the gravies you find on normal Biryanis. Perhaps healthier? Who knows.

So what do you end up getting in a chicken biryani dish? A pile of basmati rice with two pieces of chicken (bones n all), a hard boiled egg, and fried onions. Obviously the chicken is marinated in a bunch of herbs and spices which adds another layer of complexity and deliciousness. You do get a bowl of yogurt based sauce to add a little bit of moistness to proceedings. If that floats your boat. It was nice to add it from time to time but not totally necessary if you had a nice mix of egg, chicken, onion, and rice balanced on your fork.

Having tasted the goat (it’s written as kid goat on the menu which is a little bit more ghoulish) biryani I would probably go for that next time as it seemed a little bit more flavorful. Chicken goes for $9 and goat for $15. You can get “double” versions of these which I find find crazy as I side-stepped through the open front of the restaurant and set off walking home to try and work off the fullness I was feeling.

All in all, a very tasty take on a biryani in a no fuss yet no frills restaurant.

 

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