Hungry Abroad: Singapore, Part I

I hope you don’t feel that I abandoned you! It’s been a month since my last post because my dear husband and I went on a trip to Asia! … and then I found myself infected with a tropical bug that made me pretty miserable for a few weeks. I’m feeling much better now thanks to Alberta Health Services and my best girls, Ciprofloxacin and Metronidazole!

Let’s put all that behind us and talk about our first stop – Singapore! I was so excited to show Matt one of my favourite places in the world. It’s a great soft landing for an Asian adventure as English is one of their four (!) official languages, the people are incredibly friendly and the food knocks it out of the park. Every meal we had was a highlight, but I’ll try to pare it down to the essentials. In part I, we can warm up with a few of the snackier items we tried on the first leg of our trip!

One of the first things we did was head to Singapore’s Kampong Glam or the Malay-Arab Quarter. It’s home to the Sultan Mosque, trendy photo ops, shops and restaurants on Arab Street as well as the Malay Heritage Centre, which includes a lovely spice garden! If I’m honest though, we were mostly in the neighbourhood with plans to try teh tarik (“tea pull”), a mixture of hot black tea and condensed milk that’s been “pulled” or repeatedly poured back and forth from an elevated height until the beverage is frothy and cooled to a comfortable drinking temperature.

There are several places serving teh tarik in the Arab Quarter, but we happened to first see it at Dapur Penyet’s D’Penyetz (23 Baghdad Street), a Singapore-founded Indonesian fried chicken chain. We skipped the food and focused on our goal:

Hungry in Calgary | Singapore Teh Tarik
Teh Tarik, made by “pulling” hot black tea with sweetened condensed milk

The flavour profile reminded me a lot of a hot chocolate – it was definitely deeper and richer than a regular old milky tea. If you’re curious to try it yourself, this demo is easy to follow!

One of my favourite habits we formed during our three night stay in Singapore was stopping for kaya toast early each morning at City Square Mall (180 Kitchener Road) across the street from our wonderful hotel (we love you, One Farrer!). Kaya is a sticky, sweet spread made from coconut milk, eggs, sugar and sometimes pandan leaf, an ubiquitous SE Asian seasoning. Kaya toast is made by sandwiching the spread and other toppings – my favourite is the classic butter pat – between two slices of toast. As simple as that! Most customers were dipping theirs in soft boiled eggs, but we loved it all on its own (with an iced condensed milk coffee, of course!)

Hungry in Calgary | Singapore Coffee
Kaya Toast and Iced Coffee at Toast Box in City Square Mall

We tried a different place every morning, and can recommend the two ubiquitous and popular chains we kept seeing – Toast Box and Ya Kun Kaya Toast. This made for a light, sweet and comforting start to our day and gave us the energy we needed to pack our bodies into the train at rush hour, find our heartier second breakfast (because I turn into a hobbit when I’m on holidays), then walk for hours and hours and hours all over the city.

Hungry in Calgary | Singapore Kaya
If you can’t see the 4 tbsp of butter I ate in my toast, did the butter ever even exist?

Simple, yet delightful. If you get a chance to try kaya, you should go for it! It’s very nice and easy on Western palates.

The first morning we woke up in Singapore, we had our quick kaya toast stop before heading out… everywhere actually. We walked down Clarke Quay, the Boat Quay, wandered by the water a bit, then decided to aim for the Gardens by the Bay and walked there through the Marina Bay Sands (yes, the cruise ship perched precariously on top of three hotel/retail towers). We are talking hours and kilometres of walking in the sun by this point. Multiple applications of sunscreen later, we arrived at Singapore’s super cool botanical gardens.

Hungry in Calgary | Singapore Shellfish
So many restaurant seafood tanks lining the Boat Quay

I highly recommend checking out Gardens by the Bay if you get a chance while you’re there. We paid up front for tram tickets (uh yes please it was 35 Celsius and so muggy) as well as tickets into both the Cloud Forest and Flower Dome attractions, which could be found at the end of the tram ride. The Cloud Forest was our favourite. For starters, the first thing you see when you walk in is this:

Hungry in Calgary | Singapore Waterfall
And it only got prettier from there!

Between our forays into these lovely air-conditioned spaces, however, we needed a snack. When we noticed the Majestic Bay Seafood Restaurant nearby (18 Marina Gardens Drive #01-10), we had to check it out and order a few dim sum items to tide us over until our real lunch a few hours later, right?

The atmosphere was lovely with lots of indirect sunlight filtering in and views of the walking paths (read: excellent people watching!) There were also the obligatory gigantic tanks of live fish and crabs waiting to be plucked up for someone’s dinner. Sorry, friends! Also worth noting if you plan on checking this place out – it’s the kind of establishment that puts peanuts and moist towelettes on the table for you, but you’ll be charged for them at the end of the meal. This isn’t uncommon in Singapore and it’s OK to gently push these to the edge of the table if you don’t want to use and pay for them.

Hungry in Calgary | Singapore Milk Buns
Crispy Soft Buns with Condensed Milk

In keeping with our canned dairy theme, we ordered the crispy soft buns and condensed milk (亷奶炸饅头). I used to eat these all the time when I lived in Taichung and have intentionally avoided finding them in Calgary due to their ability to make me lose all control over my face, hands and body while I scarf them down. Majestic’s version of these little fried buns had a crispy, barely oily exterior (yum!) with a soft, bread-like interior perfect for tearing apart and dunking in sweetened condensed milk.

Hungry in Calgary | Singapore Crab Bun
Signature Seared Singapore Chilli Crab Meat Buns

Another highlight was the signature seared Singapore chilli crab meat buns (招牌香煎辣椒肉蟹包).

Hungry in Calgary | Singapore Crab
A zesty interior!

The crab meat was sparse, but the small amount in there was sweet and juicy, plus the chilli sauce had a lot of kick. The buns were crisp on the bottom with a soft, pillowy chew to the remainder of the bun. The warm nuttiness from the crown of toasted sesame seeds took this flavour combo to the next level. If you want to try Singapore’s iconic chilli crab but can’t justify the cost, I can definitely recommend this economical way of sampling a little bit of that sweet, spicy flavour.

When we finished at the gardens, we caught the train to Chinatown just in time for a torrential dump of rain. After dashing between eaves and loitering in damp Chinese temples for what felt like forever, the weather finally cleared and we were able to navigate through puddles and soaked streets to get to the Maxwell Food Centre (1 Kadayanallur Street), one of Singapore’s most famous hawker centres.

Hungry in Calgary | Singapore Tian Tian
A spot so popular they have two stalls instead of one!

Singapore’s hawker centres are big, semi-outdoor food courts with a long history of making people extremely happy. It’s best to bring cash and an appetite, because you can find tons of amazing street food, baked or fried sweets, fresh juice and cold beer. If you’re overwhelmed by your options, a good rule of thumb is to go to any stall where there’s a long line. We were there specifically to visit world famous Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, the stall so nice they named it twice.

Hungry in Calgary | Singapore Hainanese
Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice with Chili Garlic Sauce and Cucumber

Hainanese chicken rice is a Singaporean staple adapted from a dish first brought over by Chinese immigrants way back when. Singapore’s version requires poaching a whole chicken in nearly boiling temperature water, then dunking the cooked chicken in very cold water to produce a gelatinous layer over the meat. The rice is cooked using chicken stock, garlic, ginger and pandan leaves. Tian Tian’s is served with their bright, extremely spicy garlic and chili paste as well as a few fresh cucumber slices to cool down your mouth. The chicken was perfectly poached to a soft, tender texture that melts in your mouth. The rice was fragrant, savoury and hitting all the umami notes we were craving after a long day in the sun.

Hungry in Calgary | Singapore Lime Juice
Lime Juice

Our mouths cooled down even more after we clued in and picked up a classic Singaporean lime juice. It’s a stronger flavour than what we get from the limes back home and sweetened nicely by the man at the juice cart – very refreshing! 

Next time I’ll talk about some of the sit down meals we had in Singapore. Stay tuned!

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