Saturday, August 17, 2013

Where I Do a 180 and Declare My Love for Singapore and My New Singapore Food Favorites

Maybe it was arriving yet again at the best airport in the world, Changi International Airport. Maybe it was landing here 40 minutes ahead of schedule. Maybe it was the fact that it was the first time I was out of the country again after being confined back home in the Philippines for six months. But as I made my way out from Tanjong Pagar Station towards the hallowed halls of Maxwell Food Centre, never mind that it was a hot and humid midday or that I had been up since 2 a.m. to catch my flight, I was feeling particularly giddy and overall happy that I was once more in Singapore.

Marina Bay, Singapore
One of the best places to go in Singapore in the evenings: Marina Bay

This tiny red dot in Southeast Asia was my first stop the first time I ever did a long-term extended backpacking trip in 2011. Admittedly, I was not impressed, daresay, I became a little bit depressed. Everything was too polished, sterile, and plastic. The artificial beach on Singapore's Sentosa Island with views of huge cargo tankers in the horizon was preposterously called Palawan, an island in my country I consider the epitome of tropical paradise. Tell me. How can I not be depressed?

This time, something had changed. I was happy being here. I had learned to appreciate, to really understand and appreciate Singapore for what it is—a food paradise. And I had learned from celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who loves this city, and from Jodi Ettenberg, the foodie traveler behind Legal Nomads, that food was one of the best ways to get into the soul of a place. Food is a particular people's history and culture in a plate. Singapore is one fantastic example.

So let me take you into the five delicious meals I had in Singapore, meals I shared with the locals (or semi-locals) of this wonderful foodie haven.

1. Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice

Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, Singapore
Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice in Maxwell Food Centre and its long lunchtime queue

I mentioned Anthony Bourdain earlier because my first foray into Singapore food for this trip is actually what he considered the best chicken rice in Singapore. And in a country whose people passionately love this Hainanese cuisine classic and have very strong opinions on how it should be prepared and eaten, that's saying something.

When I got to Maxwell Food Centre to meet Ren, a professional theater actor from the Philippines now working in Singapore, I instantly knew that Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice was the most popular stall here. That's of course due to Bourdain himself who featured it in his show. A long line of patrons could be found queuing in front. The funniest thing was, there were at least three other chicken rice stalls in that food center, but everybody was here. Now that's commitment.

Tian Tian Chicken Rice, Singapore
The very popular chicken rice from Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice. The question is, is it good? I'll never tell. Yes, it is.

The question now was, does the reputation live up to reality? Was Anthony Bourdain right, as he was when he had featured the Saigon Lunch Lady? The answer, of course, was yes. The rice alone, cooked in the same stock where the chicken was boiled in, was fragrant and flavorful. The chicken had all things ginger and spices working for it. I did not even mind that as condiments, they only had chili paste and dark soy sauce and none of the ginger paste. It made sense. The whole dish had already been sufficiently infused with ginger flavor. Simple dish. Exceptionally good.

2. Banana Leaf Apollo Indian Restaurant

Butter Chicken and Naan, Singapore
Butter chicken and naan from Banana Leaf Apollo in Little India. A little more expensive for my usual budget, but worth every Singapore cent.

Weeks prior, I had already been craving real Indian food. It had been a while since I had something close to the authentic ones I had in India and in Malaysia. Of course, Singapore, with a significant Indian population living in a little pocket of India in Asia called, well, Little India, also had good Indian food. I went to a mid-range restaurant, considered an institution in these parts: Banana Leaf Apollo. Here, my waiter, a fellow Filipino, recommended butter chicken to be eaten with plain naan, flat bread cooked in a traditional tandoor oven. It was a great recommendation. The butter chicken was super rich and creamy and it had just the right kind of spiciness. I could eat it every day.

3. Chinese Cakes: Chwee Kway and Chai Tao Kway

Chwee Kway, Singapore
Chwee kway or water rice cake. A very popular breakfast dish in Singapore.

Day two in Singapore and for lunch, I was meeting Junjun, a Taiwanese national now living and working in Singapore. I owed Junjun as she practically gave me some of her possessions when we met in Chiang Mai last year. She was moving to Singapore and I to Chiang Mai. Now I owed her more for introducing me to two of my new Singapore food favorites. They are Chinese cake dishes chwee kway and chai tao kway. We had them in Haig Road Market and Cooked Food Centre, located in Singapore's de facto foodie and red light district, Geylang.

Chai Tow Kway (Carrot Cake), Singapore
Chai tao kway, or carrot cake, actually doesn't use carrots, but rather bite-size pieces of rice and radish cake.

Chwee kway is made from rice flour and water, shaped into cups and then steamed to coagulate. It is then topped with savory, salty and quite pungent preserved radish bits. It is a popular breakfast dish in Singapore, justifiably so. The other Chinese cake dish is chai tao kway, more popularly known as carrot cake. Oddly enough, no carrots are used to make it. Rather, the dish is made from coagulated rice flour, water, and white radish. The small bite-size pieces of the cake are stir-fried with garlic, eggs, turnip and fish sauce, which go well with the clean taste of the cake pieces. It is really good. Should I find myself in Singapore again, it would be the first thing I'd eat.

4. Singapore Comfort Food

Salted Egg Fried Chicken, Singapore
Salted egg fried chicken is deep-fried crispy fried chicken but even more awesome.

Two of my long-time friends, Mar and Denise, are now living and working in Singapore, as with many Filipinos who sought greener pastures right here in Southeast Asia. I asked Mar, who had been living in the city-state for a few years now, what he considered his Singapore comfort foods. He brought us to a food center and a restaurant strip in the Upper Thomson area. I did not find the particular name of this hawker food stall but I do know that it is on the corner of Upper Thomson Road and Jalan Todak. Look it up. Upon arriving here, Mar ordered salted egg fried chicken, cereal prawns, and beef fried rice.

Cereal Prawns, Singapore
Cereal prawns is a Singapore food favorite. Succulent shrimps fried with corn cereal bits.

Salted egg fried chicken is basically deep-fried crispy chicken that is then stir-fried with a sticky sauce that uses salted egg. We use salted egg in a number of dishes in the Philippines but I never thought that it would go so well in a sauce for fried foods, especially chicken. It was salty, creamy, and well, it's fried chicken. Who does not like fried chicken? Then there was cereal prawns, basically prawns fried with cereal corn bits. The crispiness of the cereals goes well with the soft prawn meat. Finally, we have beef fried rice, which was so beefy flavorful I could practically eat it just as it is.

Beef Fried Rice
Beef fried rice. Rice unmistakably infused with beef and rich beef flavor.

5. Nasi Lemak

Nasi Lemak, Singapore
Nasi lemak is another Singapore food favorite. Rice immersed in coconut cream and then steamed.

It was my last day in Singapore and I had a flight that morning to Jakarta, Indonesia. I could not leave Singapore without having yet another Singapore food favorite: nasi lemak. I had it in a stall in Terminal 1 of Changi International Airport an hour before my flight. Nasi lemak is a Malay dish which is really all about the nasi, the rice. The rice is immersed in a coconut cream mixture and then steamed. It is eaten with fried chicken, fried fish, egg, and, of course, sambal or chili paste. The one I had here was particularly fragrant because of the pandan leaves also used in the cooking. It was the perfect goodbye meal in Singapore.

Bonus: My Favorite Beverages (available practically everywhere in Singapore)

Sugar Cane Juice, Singapore
Sugar cane juice. Freshly squeezed and refreshing.
True Iced Tea, Singapore
Lemon iced tea. Brewed from real tea leaves.

And so goes yet another trip to Singapore, which inevitably, justifiably, and rightly involved the best foods Singapore had to offer. I guess what I love most about the Singapore food culture is its no-bullshit kind of philosophy. It goes something like: I could not care less if I eat in this hot, humid, and packed food court and on this yellow plastic table. If the food is good, I'm happy. And in Singapore, food is almost always good.

Of course, I would not discover all of these Singapore foods without the people I shared these fantastic meals with. Towards them, I bear gratitude and at the same time, morbid envy as they live in a little place in Southeast Asia I have hopelessly grown to love.

Which places you've visited more than once did you do a 180 on? Did you hate it then like it or the other way around?

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