Singapore, we miss you! Writing part II a couple of months after our trip is only reminding me of the bitter sadness I felt the day we packed up to leave. If part I didn’t convince you to visit, some of these stories just might.
When I lived in Taiwan in 2011, Taipei-based Din Tai Fung was enjoying an explosion in popularity and new locations were popping up all over Taiwan. Since then, the restaurant brand has grown to over 160 locations worldwide, but there are still none in Canada! (My MP and MLA have long since stopped taking my calls about this issue.) My Taiwanese friends were going to find it much too touristy for our visit with them the following week, so I had to convince Matt to squeeze in a meal at one of their Singapore locations. It was a perfect (first) lunch stop after our 17.5 hour flight.
Din Tai Fung is sometimes credited with having popularized xiao long bao (小籠包) in the Western world. You might have heard them referred to as “Shanghai-style” or “soup” dumplings filled with hot pork and broth. To eat them, you’ll want to lift one (gently!) with your chopsticks, dip it in your own mix of slivered ginger, vinegar, soy sauce and chili oil, then lift it onto your spoon. Poke a little hole in the wrapper, drink the soup (carefully!) and then pop the whole thing into your mouth. Repeat!
If you find yourself overwhelmed by all the options, another popular item there is the shrimp and egg fried rice. This dish comes loaded up with spring onion, fluffy scrambled egg and large, juicy shrimp. They go light on the seasonings so it’s just the gorgeous main ingredients coming through in every addictive, umami mouthful.
If you have room, I also highly recommend the sweet steamed buns for a small dessert. We had a couple of my faves – red bean paste with a flavour profile similar to chocolate as well as black sesame, which has a toasted, nutty flavour. As a peanut butter lover, Matt declared black sesame to be his new favourite as well!
By the time dinner rolled around for us on our first night, we were both pretty exhausted from the swampy heat and the long walks exploring our neighbourhood. We were just a few blocks away from Little India, so we wandered over to MTR (Mavalli Tiffin Rooms) for a vegetarian meal. MTR is a small, unassuming but popular spot specializing in dosa. Dosa is a popular South Indian lentil-based crepe with a slightly sour flavour from the fermentation of the batter.
It was a little intimidating walking into a spot where everyone else seemed to be a regular and knew exactly what they were doing, but I spotted a dish I’d tried before and loved – the classic masala dosa (only $6 CAD). It’s a thin crepe made with a rice and black lentil flour, then folded to form a crispy shell around a filling of zesty spiced potatoes. Carbs. For. Days. Most patrons were eating with their hands, but I couldn’t manage this one very easily without a fork. At least we clued in and used the convenient hand washing station before committing too severe a faux pas.
We also learned that a popular South Indian breakfast option is set dosa – a stack of smaller dosa cooked to crispy perfection on one side, leaving the other spongier and covered with adorable bubbles. These were easy to tear apart for dipping into the accompanying chutneys. At only $5 CAD, these tender, chewy pancakes won Matt over big time. This was Matt’s first time trying dosas and he was already happily googling where we could find them in Calgary before we’d even stepped out of the restaurant.
Most of our meals in Singapore were done on a budget, but we did find one nicer restaurant we couldn’t resist – the brand new Farrer Park location of the Curry Culture. The Curry Culture prides itself on traditional recipes with a focus on quality ingredients. The prices here were closer to what you’d expect for an Indian restaurant in Canada, but the restaurant decor was luxe, the cocktails were stunning and the food was exceptional.
Liquor is expensive in Singapore, so we saved our cocktail orders for drinks we were sure we’d love. Matt wasn’t disappointed when he ordered a Mango Maya made with mango nectar, rum, coconut and mint. This drink was creamy from the coconut milk, sweet from the mango and refreshing thanks to the mint, which also made me feel like I was sipping a super healthy green smoothie. You’d have to switch to something more simple and local like Tiger Beer if you wanted to get a buzz on a budget, but that doesn’t make these tropical cocktails any less satisfying.
We split a kathi roll for an appetizer. Kathi (or kati) rolls are a street food originating from Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) and they’re basically a thin flatbread wrapped around a spiced filling. Neither of us had tried one before, but we were really impressed by flaky, tender roti wrapper (reminiscent of a Chinese-style scallion pancake) and the spicy filling studded with generous hunks of paneer. For anyone who hasn’t tried paneer, it’s just a firm, fresh cheese and you’ll see it used as a protein in vegetarian dishes at many Indian restaurants. It takes on the flavour of whatever it’s cooked in, so as you can see in the photo, it’s quite orange from the spices that were used to make the filling.
We weren’t very hungry yet thanks to our 14-hour jet lag, so we only ordered one main – lamb korma with a cashew and rose flavoured curry. The pieces of lamb were perfectly tender and like heavenly little pillows of meat. The curry sauce itself was so luxurious that we had to put in a last minute order for naan so we would be able to soak up all of this goodness.
The saffron basmati rice was unreal – we always order rice by default, but were blown away by this flavourful option. Every grain was beautifully tender and aromatic. It was almost a shame to cover this with our curry. Next, the emergency order of garlic naan came out and took this meal to the next level. It was packed with flavour and had just the right amount of char. Even the air bubbles would let out gentle wisps of garlic fragrance as you bit into them. Chewy, crispy, tender and impossible not to shovel into your mouth at full speed.
We had room for just a couple of bites of dessert, so our server recommended a small dish of gulab jamun and ice cream. Gulab jamun are small, extremely sweet and dairy-based fried dough balls that are then soaked in syrup before serving – ours came out with a cardamom-spiked syrup and shaved almonds for added texture and flavour enhancement. These small bites provided a huge punch of sweetness to end this incredible meal.
On our last day in Singapore, we were excited to make a brunch of a dish we’d been eagerly looking to try throughout the entire trip, nasi lemak. Nasi lemak is a Malay breakfast dish based around a creamy scoop of rice, but it’s all about the accompaniments. You can get a plate for a couple of dollars at many Singaporean hawker centers, but we had heard great things about a trendy, newish place called Coconut Club. Coconut Club is located in Ann Siang Hill, a trendy part of Chinatown known for the bars and restaurants occupying its beautifully restored shophouses. Coconut Club has a lot of great side dishes and snacks, but the main event there is definitely the $13 plate of nasi lemak.
Coconut Club focuses on high quality ingredients (like a specially imported species of coconut!) while still providing traditional accompaniments. Their basic nasi lemak includes coconut rice, fried chicken thigh and drum, sweet and spicy sambal (chili paste), salted peanuts, a fried egg, sliced cucumber and crunchy, salty ikan bilis (anchovies). Any combination of these ingredients made for a wild and delicious mouthful. The chicken wasn’t coated in heavy breading, so you were able to focus on the flavourful skin and the juicy, moist meat inside. The satisfying crunch from the peanuts and anchovies complemented the creamy rice and egg yolk perfectly. The sambal was simultaneously way too spicy for us and also completely addictive.
We had so much fun eating our way through a weekend in Singapore, but despite the literal tears I cried while we looked out on the river from the Boat Quay on our last afternoon, it was time for our next adventure – Hoi An, Vietnam!