Thursday, 17 May 2012

Singapore - Scratching Beneath The Surface

I'm a great believer in local knowledge, and I doubt that I would've ended up in the Tiong Bahru (中峇鲁) neighbourhood if local entrepreneur and blogger Eunice hadn't suggested meeting up there. Although only a short cab ride from Singapore's CBD, Tiong Bahru has a very different feel from the mix of skyscrapers and regenerated shophouses found downtown. That's due in part to some enlightened town planning in the 1930s that saw elements of art deco incorporated into the architecture of Singapore's first public housing project.

Anyway, enough of the architecture and history lesson; this is, after all, a food blog! The reason for visiting Tiong Bahru was to check out Sin Hoi Sai (新海山). In local parlance, this is a zi char joint (煮炒), one step up from a hawker centre but still quite casual. To use an Italian analogy, think trattoria rather than full-blown ristorante.

The food at Sin Hoi Sai is a bit like Singapore itself: a fusion of traditional and modern influences. Dishes like cereal prawns (麦片虾) where deep-fried prawns are tossed in an amazing salty-sweet-spicy mix of oatmeal, butter, curry leaves and chilli. This is a true Singapore original, with the key ingredient being a breakfast cereal called Nestum (thanks to Goz for the knowledge). Sadly, I don't think Nestum is sold in the UK, which probably rules out ever seeing cereal prawns on these shores. This is a shame, as they're SO damn good.

Another Singapore classic is deep-fried prawn paste chicken (har cheong gai 虾酱鸡). Sod Colonel Sanders and his mix of herbs and spices, these have nothing on the pungent prawn paste (har cheong 虾酱) in which the chicken is marinated in before it's deep-fried. Moreish doesn't even begin to describe the super savoury-umami attack on the senses unleashed by this dish.

Although Singapore's ethnic Chinese have gone down their own culinary path, there are still plenty of southern Chinese classics such as steamed egg (水蒸蛋) to be found on the menus of zi char joints like Sin Hoi Sai. We ordered a deluxe version that was made with bits of century egg and salted duck egg. It was good, with the savoury egg custard being properly silky, smooth and wobbly, but I couldn't help but feel the salted duck egg element was a bit muted.

While zi char, in general, is seen as a good value casual dining option, that doesn't mean you can't treat yourself. And as Sin Hoi Sai's calling card is its seafood, we went for steamed fish with coriander as the centrepiece of dinner. I can't remember what the fish was, but it was perfectly cooked. With some greens, rice, drinks, freebie dessert and, most importantly, great company, it was a cracking meal. So thanks again to Eunice for suggesting Sin Hoi Sai!

Sin Hoi Sai Seafood Restaurant, Block 55 Tiong Bahru Road #01-59, Singapore 160055
(Tel: +65-6223-0810) Nearest MRT: Tiong Bahru, Outram Park

Another locals' joint I visited was the modestly named Sin Kee Famous Chicken Rice & Fish Porridge stall that's located in the Mei Ling Market & Food Centre in Queenstown. While I have no doubt that their fish porridge (congee/juk 粥) is excellent, I was here for the Hainanese chicken rice (海南雞飯).

As we were a large group, we ordered a whole chicken, which came on two separate plates, with the rice served in separate bowls. The chicken was nicely done to perfection, juicy and tender (although to some heathen western tastes, it may seem undercooked). And the rice (cooked with chicken stock) was so tasty that I ordered an extra bowl. This chicken rice was really good, and I can understand why people travel miles to this corner of town for it.

To bulk out our meal we also ordered some fried dumplings (guo tie 锅贴) from a neighbouring stall serving Shanghai-style dim sum. These were bloody tasty, with their crispy exterior and juicy pork filling.

All in all, it was a fabulous lunch! And for that I am thankful to my long suffering Singaporean colleagues for taking me there, as I wouldn't have otherwise known about the food centre at Mei Ling Market. So much so, I feel really guilty that I had, occasionally, got hacked off with them for not always taking me to places serving local food.

Sin Kee Famous Chicken Rice & Fish Porridge
Mei Ling Market & Food Centre, 159 Mei Chin Rd, Singapore 140159
Nearest MRT: Queenstown

For more Singapore tips, albeit from a couple of years ago, please check out my posts on the restaurant scene and the cheap eats scene.


  1. DRRRROOOOOOOOOL. That all looks so tasty. I only went to Singapore once when I was about 7 and all I remember are the chilli crabs (which were, of course, amazing.)

  2. There is a place in London that you can get the famous cereal goz! Great write up and I am so pleased that you've featured my favourite dish - Hainanese chicken rice.

  3. Yummers! I love Singapore... I could easily live there for weeks and grow fat and happy. :)

    There's a very similar dish in London at Goldmine and Four Seasons on Queensway called Butter Prawns which is a Malaysian speciality. I don't think Nestum is used on these though but I could be wrong - I'm not too clued up on what the difference is between Butter Prawns and Cereal Prawns!

    Apparently they also serve them at Young Cheng on Shaftesbury Ave, but I wasn't able to successfully order them the last time I tried - suspect I need to try asking for them in their Chinese name next time!

  4. Lizzie - chilli crabs are fab, but the ones I had this time round didn't quite match up to those I had a couple of years ago.

    J - i'm impressed Goz has scored some Nestum!

    yeebot - the key difference between the two dishes is that cereal prawns are tossed in Nestum cereal. In Cantonese, cereal prawns are mat pei har while butter prawns are ngau you har.

  5. Having a someone to show you around a city or town is amazing, especially when they know the best places to eat.
    We have sadly lost contact with an old friend in Singapore, who was as passionate to show us his beloved country as he was in showing us all the good local places to eat.
    The Chinese breakfasts in a typical Singaporean joint somewhere in Chinatown ranks up there as one of the best meals of my life, and it was one of the cheapest as well.

  6. No picture of the rice?

  7. Mzungu - you really can't beat local knowledge!

    Thebao - sorry, but I started eating after I took the photo of the chicken, as I didn't want to lose out on the best bits!

  8. Yes, I have had a similar version of the Nestum prawns at Gold Mine many times. I know them as Gold Mine Prawns (kum san har) and I think it's off the menu, but am not sure if it's the same as butter prawns. It is super yummy though!

    Gold Mine's triple-steamed egg is also amongst the best in London.

    Next time you're in Singapore, another zi char place to check out is Le Chasseur. Their claypot rice is amazing because they still do it the old-fashioned way over a charcoal flame.

  9. Wow those cereal prawns sound really bizarre but strangely delicious. Loving your Singapore adventures Mr Noodles!

  10. Ooooh, they have steamed egg - my new favourite South Chinese dish ;) You are right about local knowledge being the surest route to great food wherever you go...

    Out of interest, what is the Nestum cereal like? Is there anything over here that is remotely similar that could be used a decent substitute?

  11. travelling tummies - interesting but surely without Nestum, they're not cereal prawns? Thanks for the tip, too.

    Cara - cereal prawns are very moreish! Sadly, this is the last of my posts from Singapore.

    Gworm - I know how much you love steamed egg! I'm no expert but I believe Nestum is a brand of sweetened porridge oats that is made by Nestle Singapore. While I guess you can use British oats, I am sure our SG friends will point out differences in texture and flavour etc...

  12. The deep fried prawn paste chicken - any idea where you can get this in London? Or indeed if?!

    1. Richard - good question! I can't be sure, but I reckon this is the kind of dish that might be hidden away on a Chinese language-only menu in Chinatown. I think, I'll be brave and ask next time I visit somewhere that serves Straits Chinese dishes!

  13. I'm going to Singapore next weekend! Can't wait to have nestum prawns :D