Brummie Tummy abroad: Singapore

Breakfast at Tiong Bahru

So the first part of my trip was a week in Singapore. Before my trip, I had already researched things like what and where to eat, which hawker centres were better for what, what the weather was likely to be like. Hell, I even got some travel guides (which I never got round to reading because I was so busy). But the truth of it all is that I’m not too sure if reading the travel guides would have helped me because as much as I was a tourist in Singapore, I was very much living like a local. So let’s get the biggest thing out of the way – The heat. Singapore is HOT, I mean VERY HOT. I don’t think there are words to adequately describe how hot the place is. I knew that it was going to be hot and was prepared to be all sweaty and needing to shower a couple of times a day, but I still found it to be stiflingly hot – And this is late October. It wasn’t so much the temperature – It didn’t dip below 31c for the whole week that I was there, but rather the humidity didn’t drop below 82% for the week I was there and *THAT’S* that what makes you suffer. I mean, I know I sweat at the slightest heat anyway, but the sight of my sisters all dripping with sweat too confirmed that it was more than a tad warm. Actually, it was so humid that there were thunderstorms every day for the latter part of the week I was there, it was a lovely cool relief when it rained, but the rain absolutely poured down when it did. And when the rain stopped, the air was fresher, but it still quickly returned to being sticky and humid – So much so that I swear you could see the steam rising from the fallen rain water which was heating up.

Rain!

As for the food, Singapore is truly a brilliant place to eat – At very worst you’ll get a mediocre meal and even that’s not going to happen very often. In my first 3 days there, every meal I ate was better than the previous meal – And it wasn’t like the previous meal was bad in any way. My first meal in Singapore made me realise just how high a standard of food Singaporeans eat at; I was taken to a food court in one of the large modern shopping malls in the centre of Singapore mainly because it was air-conditioned (my family obviously know me well enough and didn’t want me to suffer anywhere without air conditioning on my first night!) and a wide selection of dishes were ordered – including must-haves live chicken rice, chicken satay, seafood laksa, popiah, top hats, baby oyster omelette and of course, char kway teow. What struck me was that even though we paid above average for the dishes because we were in a food court (although the char kway teow still worked out at £3.50), the quality of food we had (although low by Singapore standards) was still exceptional and miles better than what we would get here in the UK.

Seafood curry laksa Popiah Top Hats chicken and pork satay Baby oyster omelette Char Kway Teow

However, if you’re in Singapore, then you simply have to brave the heat and eat at least once in a hawker centre. To call it a food court would be to do it a disservice because they’re so much more exciting than the kind of food courts we get here in the UK. For a start, the food at hawker centres tend to be cooked freshly and you won’t get anything reheated in a microwave in a hawker centre. Plus, the food is a lot cheaper in hawker centres but you’re in no way suffering in quality as a result. If anything, paying more for a dish means you’ve been overcharged (or you’re paying for somewhere air-conditioned) rather than suggesting that you’re paying for better quality food. Some of the most delicious food I ate in Singapore was from a Hawker Centre – The Chwee Kueh from Jian Bo Shui Kueh at Tiong Bahru was incredible; the rice cakes were light and fluffy (when you think they’d be quite solid and gelatinous) and the topping of minced preserved turnip was packed full of umami to go with the bland rice cakes, and at $1.80 (90p) for 6, an absolute bargain – But when you can get an oyster omelette for between $2 – $6 (£1 – £3), this is how cheap it is to eat out in Singapore.

Jian Bo Shui Kueh Chwee kueh

What’s more, there aren’t the usual stiff rules that we get here in the west; Take breakfast for example, we’re used to having to having something that isn’t too heavy and as a consequence eat something that is not only light, but enough to set you up for the rest of the day. The latter part is the same in Singapore, but when you have a city full of good eats as you do in Singapore, why would you deny yourself anything that’s tasty just because it’s breakfast? I mean, it’s still a meal, right? And well, why can’t a bowl of steaming curry noodles or a plate of roast meats and rice set you off on the right note for the day just as a bowl of congee or kaya toast and soft-boiled eggs does? I don’t mean to imply that ALL Singaporeans eat something like a bowl of prawn curry mee for breakfast, but want to emphasise the point that if someone chooses to eat something a bit more hearty for breakfast, people don’t bat an eyelid and more importantly – They’re given the option to do so. Kind of makes a mockery of fast food restaurants who try to dictate what food items you’re allowed to purchase and consume from them depending on the time of the day.

Morning Congee Kaya toast breakfast

Add to this how all Singaporeans are incredibly friendly and polite: There was a bit of the “Brit Abroad” syndrome for me in that it would appear how most of the locals speak at least 2 languages fluently (and probably speak English better than myself), compared to me who can converse in English but found that my Cantonese wasn’t as useful here as in Hong Kong. Weirdly, I could actually speak to more people in Hakka in Singapore than I could in Hong Kong, but we eventually found a common language between myself and native. Even when we were struggling to find a common language, there was a patience from Singaporeans that I had never encountered before on my travels as generally people walk away if they don’t understand what you’re saying, but in Singapore they try to help and communicate with you as best they can. Plus, it’s incredibly safe in Singapore; if you drop your wallet in a public space, you’re more likely to get running after you to hand it back to you rather than try to swipe it for themselves. I mean, I dropped my wallet in Tiong Bahru food centre whilst I wandered around all the different stalls to see what was on offer and when I went back to my table a good 15 minutes later, my sister handed me my (dropped) wallet and said that somebody walking past spotted it on the floor and pointed it out to her – And be completely honest now – Could you expect this sort of behaviour all the time where you live? If you’re ever stuck, or lost, not only can you approach any local and a) expect to find a common language you both understand, but b) they are more than willing to help you. What’s more, there isn’t a sense that it’s all false and for show – People are genuinely happy to help you. When you walk into a store and the assistant welcomes you, it’s not just because they’ve been told to say it to you – They genuinely welcome you to their store and hope you have a good day when you leave. My absolute favourite example of local Singaporean friendliness was actually in the lift of the Apartment block I was staying in; I was there with my sister and brother-in-law travelling in the lift up to the 15F with a local schoolboy. We’re all minding our own business and not really saying anything but just before the schoolboy exited the lift on a lower floor, he looked at and wished us all a good day. It’s simple and plain good manners, but it struck me how even at an early age, children are taught to be respectful and courteous. As M said after the schoolboy exited the lift; “Singaporean children are *SO* polite!”.

Inside Tiong Bahru

But let’s go back to talking about food: I’ve already stated how I’ve eaten some of the freshest seafood in Singapore and how eating here is of a high standard – But I’m lucky in that I come from a family who appreciate good food and so was taken to some really good places to eat. The fish head curry I ate on the outskirts of Chinatown was simply mind-blowing; the broth was not only coconut-ty, but there was a lot of tamarind to give it a sourness which combine with the spices and heat. The Fish head itself was tender, but what made it was the broth it came in – I could have drunk that by the gallon if given the opportunity.

Detail: Claypot curry fish head

Actually – And I can’t believe that I nearly forgot about this – Our last night in Singapore was spent going to the “Ultimate Hawker Fest” which was basically some of Singapore’s top hawker vendors were invited to produce and sell their best dishes alongside some of the city’s top chefs who each created their own version of hawker classics. The idea was that you’d buy a book of tokens and use the tokens to pay for the dishes, and the real kicker? It was all for charity. So whilst prices were a LOT more than what you would pay for them in a hawker centre, you didn’t mind so much as the proceeds went to local charities – We really were eating so other people could eat.

The setup was basically a load of gazebos erected in cul-de-sac between some of the larger hotels and a shopping centre (This is Singapore, so even an alleyway is clean and sanitised) and by the time we got there just after it started at 5pm, it was already heaving with people – So much so that in what appeared to be an incident of terrible event management, they couldn’t set up tables and benches quickly enough for everyone. If it weren’t for the fact that H was louder and brasher than most people around us that we managed to get a table and benches. The plan was that I got to sit and make sure nobody else tried to take our hard-fought bench and table, whilst everyone else took the tokens and went to queue at various stalls to get food (which we had spent the previous evening deciding on which stalls we wanted to go to). Bit by bit, the food came in: Hainanese chicken rice from Tian Tian which was truly a cut above all the others we’d eaten previously – The chicken was incredibly tender and moist, even the breast meat was so tender that it would seem to melt in your mouth and the seasoning of the rice was spot on. We got some Muah Chee from Hougang 6 Miles Famous Muah Chee which was OK, but not really my thing but it’s worth mentioning that although the prices were a lot higher than you would normally pay, not only was it for charity but also the portions were very generous. I mean, if you went to any kind of food festival in the UK, the portions are not particularly generous but here at the Ultimate Hawker fest, they weren’t that far off full portions which added to everything.

And then it rained. MY GOD did it rain. Actually, it wasn’t just rain, it was another thunderstorm in Singapore – The sort where the sky goes black and last for a couple of hours as the rain comes down so heavily that you struggle to see a building in the background which you could clearly see when it wasn’t raining. Given it was an outdoor event, everyone took shelter in the covered walkways at the side and I looked on sadly as the chicken rice I was saving for everyone else to eat (as in I didn’t eat it all) got rain-soaked and then cleared away. It actually rained so hard that there was about 3 inches of water within 40mins..

Chicken Rice Tu Tu Kueh DSC_0896 DSC_0905

However, kudos to the same event management team whom previously got it so wrong in not setting up enough tables for people (or quickly enough) in that despite the pouring rain and rumbling thunder, they managed to set up some more gazebos and move all the seating so that you effectively had a covered area for people to sit down and eat (They also dried all the benches and tables once they were under the gazebos). Plus, whilst most people in this Country would go home at the first hint of rain (or the vendors would pack up and leave), the resilience of Singaporeans was demonstrated in that for those waiting in a queue when it started raining simply brought out their umbrellas and moved up the line after people who didn’t come prepared for the bad weather left the queues. Good on them, I say!

Untitled

So we all got a bit of a soaking but some of my sisters had been queuing for so long that they refused to give up their spot because it rained, so despite the rain pouring down, we still got food being returned to the bench we’d snagged under the covers of the new gazebos. But most, if not all the food we got to try was truly exceptional – The Boston Lobster Laksa – by Chef Eric Teo of the Singapore Chefs Association was a thing of wonder given it was so creamy and rich from the coconut milk, yet finely and delicately spiced enough that it didn’t overwhelm everything, and the lobster was perfectly cooked. And the Bak Kut Teh from Song Fa Bak Kut Teh was absolutely perfect for that damp, steamy evening – Warming from the pepper yet the ribs were deliciously tender and soft. I must admit that I didn’t really know that much about Bak Kut Teh before I went to Singapore and didn’t really know why people went on about it, but after trying it that night at the Ultimate Hawker Fest – It’s all I can think of currently and will be making that as soon as I have the time and ingredients to do so. Even the food we took back to the apartment – in particular the tofu dessert from Happy Boy was delectable. Again, it’s not like we’d previously eaten bad tofu dessert or any other versions of the food we ate that night, but on the whole, the food eaten at the Ultimate Hawker Fest was a cut above anything we’d eaten. It’s just a shame that we all took a soaking in the thunderstorm and had to queue for ages (Q waited for 2 hours for the Ultimate Pork Belly & Wagyu Beef Satay – by City Satay), but it was certainly an experience for us all to remember.

Boston Lobster Laksa Eating the laksa Bak Kut Teh Side of pig's trotters for Bak Kut Teh

OK, I didn’t manage to see all the parts of Singapore which I was hoping too – I didn’t get to go on a Night Safari, or to Little India, or Ku Dé Ta to see the views from the Infinity Pool. But I like to think that I’ll go back to Singapore one day – After all, there’s still a lot more of Singapore with really good eats to try. I just need to make sure I go at a time of the year when it slightly less hot..

Merlion and surroundings

You can view all pictures from my trip on my Flickr page

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3 thoughts on “Brummie Tummy abroad: Singapore

  1. Amy Seton

    Your pictures are awesome and the write-up made me want to jump straight on a plane. Thanks for a fantastic post. Where would you go in Birmingham for Singaporean food – if anywhere?!

    Reply
  2. YSL Post author

    Thank you very much for your nice words.

    To be completely honest, my trip to Singapore has made me realise just how pale an imitation of Singaporean food we get served in restaurants here in the UK. Blue Piano was pretty good when I last went and I’ve yet to try Blue Ginger. But in all honesty, you’re better off with home-cooked food for some dishes..

    Reply

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