Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Singapore Part 1 - The Restaurants

I was fortunate enough to be in Singapore recently and I'm looking forward to share with you some of my foodie experiences. In this post, I'll be running the rule over restaurants serving up famous local dishes such as Hainanese chicken rice and chilli crab. For those of you who love food from Singapore's hawker centres, I'll be turning my attention to cheap eats in the next post.

Hainanese chicken rice
What is Singapore's national dish ? A strong contender is Hainanese chicken rice, so it was a bit of a no-brainer when I was asked what I wanted for dinner on my first night in Singapore. I left it to my colleagues to choose the venue, as I'm a great believer in tapping into local knowledge.

I had no idea where I was going to be taken when we left the office and the CBD behind us. Normally, I am intolerant of taxi drivers who don't know where they're going but strangely I took it as a good sign that he got lost. I had visions of being taken to some illicit backstreet chicken rice shebeen.

I was therefore a little disappointed that we ended up on the East Coast Road, about 10km from the CBD. Just how the cabbie got lost is beyond me, as this was a brightly lit main road. My disappointment soon faded when I was told that the East Coast is a great foodie area. As we left the taxi, I could see a row of eateries jostling for our attention. My colleagues then pointed out where we were going to eat and all was well with the world again.

Our destination was Boon Tong Kee, a mini-chain of Chinese home-style restaurants specialising in chicken. This place seemed strangely familiar and then it dawned on me that Su-Lin of Tamarind and Thyme had already sung the praises of this place. That's just bloody typical of Su-Lin, not content to be the first to blog about London's more interesting eateries; she also gets there first in Singapore too !

white-cut poached chicken
We went for their signature poached chicken aka 'white-cut' chicken, which was served separately from the rice that was cooked in chicken stock. The bird was juicy and moist and actually tasted of chicken; it went really well with the ginger paste and the special chilli sauce. One minor grumble was that the chicken soup wasn't served with this dish. That said the rice was that tasty, it probably didn't need the broth.

sotong sambal
Other dishes included sotong sambal (stir-fried chilli squid), deep fried tofu, and stir-fried gai-lan. These were all OK but you only really come here for the chicken. They also do a crispy fried chicken but we didn't try that. By the way, they also sell jars of the sauces such as ginger paste and chilli sauce (I am now a proud owner of both). Highly recommended but try to get a cabbie who knows his way round Singapore.

The other contender to be Singapore's national dish is chilli crab. Whilst Hainanese chicken rice is a dish that originated from China, chilli crab is an indigenous Singaporean creation. In common with Hong Kong, chefs from China that settled in Singapore utilised Western ingredients to create dishes long before the term 'fusion' ever came into use.

chilli crab
deep-fried mantou
The crab is served with rich gravy made with chilli sauce, garlic, rice vinegar, soy sauce, and good old tomato ketchup. Egg is swirled in at the last minute to make it even richer, this gravy demands to be mopped up with deep-fried mantou (Chinese buns). Mixing my food metaphors, this is the Asian equivalent of soul food.

My Singapore colleagues really know the meaning of hospitality and they took me to the No Signboard Seafood restaurant to sample this dish. This mini-chain has a number of outlets and we pitched up at the Esplanade branch but if possible, try and get to the Geylang branch, which is the most atmospheric.

Their chilli crab is renowned and the meat just eased out of the slightly pre-cracked claw. I loved it and couldn't get enough of the gravy, which I ended up spooning into the shell before eating it with the hai-gou (crab innards).

butter crab
In comparison, the butter crab was a bit boring but it would still better most crabs served in western restaurants. They also serve crab with ginger & spring onion as well as white pepper crab but strangely not the more renowned black pepper crab.

cereal prawns
I also liked the cereal prawns, which is another Singapore creation, big fat prawns deep-fried with cereal. I could pick out cornflakes but maybe they were Frosties, as they were quite sweet. Actually, such is the popularity of this dish, a special cereal meal has been developed to be used in cereal prawns (or so I've been told!).

steamed bamboo clams w/garlic
Many of the dishes here aren't exactly healthy so I was glad that we ordered steamed bamboo clams w/garlic. The just cooked sweet clam meat with garlic was a joy. Whilst crab is their signature dish, they also serve lobster, steamed fish, and a wide range of seafood. Another must visit.

Despite most of Singapore's population being ethnic Chinese, the Cantonese community is relatively small. However their influence on the local food scene is massive with many of the classier eateries being Cantonese.

One such example is Lei Garden, the Singapore outpost of a renowned Hong Kong restaurant group. This elegant restaurant is located in the Chijmes complex, a converted convent. Sometimes food in opulent surroundings can disappoint but the dim sum here didn't. In fact it was amongst the finest I've had in ages. Just look at how translucent the har gau wrappers are.

har gau (prawn dumplings)
black sesame balls
This exceptional quality ran through nearly all of the dim sum with the highlights being soupy Shanghai xiao long bao, silky smooth cheung fun, an amazing gingery cha siu bao filling and last but not least, wonderful black sesame balls. Oh and let's not forget the pork and century egg congee that was so tasty, we ordered an extra bowl. The dim sum menu is a bit on the short side but who cares when it's this good. If only London had a Cantonese restaurant of this quality.

PS: I've also been moonlighting and you can check out my guest post on The Grubworm by clicking here. Don't laugh but it's a recipe.


  1. Hey! Hmph.

    Anyway, re: cabbies, we had the same problem - they just want to take you where they want to take you, not necessarily where you want to go!

  2. Can't believe Su-Lin beat you there! The chicken looks great though. Can't wait for the hawkers market posts

  3. Haha - that is hilarious aobut Su-Lin.

    Interested to see deep fried Mantou. Jen has started feeding to me for breakfast everyday and I've never had it before. I don't get the deep fried version which I think I would prefer.

    On the chilli crab front - I have to say I really really like the look of that. Anything with a sauce which can be mopped up is great by me.

    Lei Garden - just by the pictures it looks better. I am still stolidly disappointed by our experience but it has led me to book some fancy pancy dim sum extravaganzas for the next two weeks. When you come out we will have it down!

  4. You have done well with your short visit to Singapore and Malaysia. You have been to quite a few of my favourites too!

  5. Su-Lin - thinking about it, I was perhaps naive in believing the cabbie was genuinely lost! Looking back, there was another incident in which my cabbie pretended not to know where the Maxwell Rd food centre. It wasn't until I remonstrated with him in both Chinese and English that he regained his sense of direction.

    GChick - that chicken was fine. We shouldn't really be surprised that Su-Lin beat me to it! She has a fine radar.

    Tom - I think the deep-fried version is only served with certain dishes and they were the perfect mopper-upper for the crab with the crisp outer.

    The standards at Lei Garden probably do vary from branch to branch. The IFC branch where you went, lost its one Michelin star whilst other Lei Garden branches in HK have gained one star this year.

    I'm looking forward to your further dim sum adventures!

    3HT - I did do well but credit should be given to my kind hosts for sharing their top tips.

  6. Glad that you like our Hainanese chicken rice - some find the dish rather plain. I mean, it's ultimately chicken and rice. :)

    One thing about the dish is that being chicken based, it's accessible to every single Singaporean regardless of their religion (i.e. no beef for Hindus and Buddhists, no pork for Muslims) and practically everyone can name their favorite store. Mine was in an old two storey hawker centre in Margaret Drive where Dad used to bring me as a kid. It has been torn down a couple of years back.

    Of late, there's this surge of 'cheap' chicken rice that goes for less than S$1 (app 50p) that offers slivers of chicken breast (which is cheaper than chicken wings and drumsticks in Singapore) with huge portions of barely flavoured rice. That's rather popular with students with limited budget but big appetite.

    Oh, as for the chilli crab, there's a huge hoohaa about who exactly come up with it. There's a hawker in East Coast (not sure whether he's still there) who claims that they created the dish by adding ketchup, chilli and eggs as gravy to crabs when a customer suggested that a couple of decades back. Oh well, no one knows for sure now. But my favorite is Melban at Ang Mo Kio.

    Well, if you are still in Singapore, do try out some durians at Geylang as well. Go for those which are still in shells and avoid those already laid out in styrofoam boxes. It's one of those fruits whereby you love or hate.


  7. LChow - the cut price chicken rice sounds bad. I was pleased we tried Boon Tong Kee, as it served the whole chicken.

    I love the stories about how dishes came into creation and I love it that there's contention as to who invented chilli crab! Sadly due to work, I didn't have much time to go to places further afield like Ang Mo Kio to try the food there. BTW - I'm not a durian fan.

  8. I was hurriedly dragging the scroll bar down the right side of the screen whilst speed reading and stopping to gawk at the odd photo when, BAM! That picture of the dumplings jumped off the screen at me. I long for those translucent morsels, probably more than I should.

  9. Amateur Cook - thanks! You've inspired me to write more about har gau - the king of dumplings.