Singapore Eats: Discovering One of the World's Great Food Cities
Another morning we start the day at the Tekka market and hawker center in Little India. Here we eat chicken briyani with long-grain multi-colored basmati rice (the chicken was amazingly intense in flavor) and a long, log-like masala dosai, filled with potato, and then a tall, cone-like tissue prata, a sugar-coated confection that tasted like a fine French pastry chef's palmier. A few blocks away, at a large and handsome restaurant called Muthu's Curry, we dig into a Singaporean Indian specialty, fish head curry, which is just what it sounds like: a large fish head, full of sweet meat, in a delicious vinegary, spicy broth with eggplant.
But there is so much more. At a hip little pan-Asian place called Ding Dong, we eat barely cooked fresh prawns marinated in red curry and then deep-fried in a dramatic-looking carbon-black tempura batter, and crisp-fried wisps of pig's ear served in a paper bag with Sichuan peppercorns and lime, and 40-hour beef cheek rendang with puffed wild rice and crispy herbs, and, and, and. The modern Peranakan restaurant Candlenut serves a fixed-price dinner only, which ranges for us from spicy Australian beef flank satay, wing bean salad with dried shrimp, and tiger prawns with petai beans and fried shallots to blue swimmer crab coconut curry, line-caught wild cuttlefish in their own ink with tamarind and chiles, and an impossibly intense but irresistible dish of Japanese wagyu beef in a sauce of buah keluak (Pangium edule), the processed fruit of a tropical tree that can be turned into a dense, almost chocolatey sauce. (Indeed, one of the desserts offered is a buah keluak ice cream with caramel crumble and chocolate sauce.)
The eating just goes on and on. We devour chilli crab, black pepper crab, cuttlefish with morning glory greens, coffee pork ribs, prawns fried in an oat crust, and much more at Keng Eng Kee (whose chef and co-owner, Wayne Liew, will be in New York for Singapore Restaurant Week, September 18 through 24). We walk through the Katong quarter in Joo Chiat with Damian D'Silva, a tall, soft-spoken restaurateur (Immigrants Gastrobar) who embodies Singapore's racial mix: His mother is Chinese and Peranakan, his father Eurasian (presumably with Portuguese blood, judging from D'Silva's name). "Joo Chiat," he tells us, "was one of the first places in Singapore where the five main groups got together and got along — Chinese, Malay, Indian, Peranakan, Eurasian."
D'Silva takes us into a veritable museum of Peranakan culture, Peter Wee's Katong Antique House. The soft-spoken, white-haired Wee shows us his collection of memorabilia — photos, books, artifacts of all kinds (including a Chinese rendering of the Virgin Mary; many Peranakans are Catholic), a kitchen full of old cooking vessels and implements. "The kitchen is the stomach of the house," he says. "The kitchen produces the food that feeds the family that feeds the ancestors." He pulls out a dusty bag of ground coriander, immensely fragrant, almost fruity in aroma. This is used to season a typical Peranakan dish called hati babi bungkus, literally wrapped pork heart — though it's made not with the pig's heart but with its liver. "You can't just grind coriander seeds," says Mee. "You must clean them, dry them, remove the husks, slowly pan-fry them, and then grind them."
On the street with D'Silva we stop at Bee Cheng Hiang, an outpost of a chain shop making and selling bakkwa, very thin sliced marinated meat (mostly pork) grilled into an almost jerky-like state (in China it is more likely to be air-dried than grilled). "This is essential for Chinese New Year," says D'Silva, "and they double the prices then." At another stand, Kim Choo Kueh Chang, we eat glutinous rice cakes enclosing ground pork and water chestnuts flavored with coriander and soy, wrapped in a banana leaf. Banana leaves figure again at a shop called Nam San Mackerel Otah: They're wrapped around seasoned mackerel paste, then grilled; we peel back the leaves and snack on the orange-hued, slightly chalky interior.
Our Singaporean menu just keeps going on and on. At the spectacular Sky on 57, on the 57th floor of the landmark Marina Bay Sands complex — three curved towers of apartments, offices, hotel rooms, and restaurants surmounted by what looks like a gigantic arced patrol boat — Justin Quek, a Singapore celebrity (who will join Wayne Liew in New York for Singapore Restaurant Week, September 18 through 24), serves elegantly French-influenced fare that still maintains a strong local identity: osetra caviar concealing a smooth, light mousse of mackerel; raw seafood with ginger flowers and plum sauce; braised rice noodles with king crab and pickled green chiles; wild Tasmanian coral cod in sweet-and-sour chile sauce; slightly smoky black pepper lobster; thin-sliced marinated flank steak with hoisin sauce; pandan leaf ice cream with ginger mousse…
It's possible to pretty much eat around the world in Singapore. The city has a number of good Spanish restaurants, for instance, several of them distinctly Catalan in flavor (the great Catalan chef Santi Santamaria was opening one at Marina Bay Sands when he died suddenly here of a heart attack in 2011). The newest of these is Foc (the Catalan word for "fire"), under the direction of Michelin-starred Nandu Jubany, whose main restaurant is Can Jubany, in the hinterlands of the Barcelona region. Here, chef Jordi Noguera serves deep-fried miniature squid exactly like you'd get on the Costa Brava, airy salt cod fritters, deliciously smoky octopus Galician style, watermelon gazpacho with olive oil ice cream, paella-like fideuà noodles, and more dishes that transport the diner temporarily to Spain.
From Spain to Japan: There are two branches here of Shinji by Kanesaka, an offshoot of sushi master Shinji Kanesaka's two-Michelin-star Tokyo original. We choose the iteration at Singapore's historic Raffles Hotel, where sushi chef Koichiro Oshino gives us a dazzling omakase menu, nicely anointed with tiny cups of cold Juyondai Bessen Junmai Ginjo sake from Yamagata prefecture (whence Oshino also hails). At the 220-year-old Japanese cypress bar, we eat marinated raw bluefin tuna with baby spring onion and egg yolk miso; Japanese figs with sesame sauce and tiny bits of shrimp; bracingly fresh flounder and red snapper sashimi (all the fish here comes from Japan, four times a week); a remarkable tasting of three kinds of uni, long spike and short spike from Hokkaido and short spike from Kyushu with nothing but Japanese sea salt as a condiment; Hokkaido shrimp sashimi; live conch and two-week-aged tuna with soy spiked with shiso blossoms; abalone steamed for five hours with abalone liver sauce (new to us and memorable); bonito that was somehow smoked but still raw, with Japanese lime; hairy crab with vinegar-ginger sauce (one of our favorites among many great dishes); rare roasted tuna cheek — "Better than beef," says Oshino; Japanese pear sorbet; and then a parade of perfect sushi, followed by a "dessert" of uni topped with salmon caviar and toro so finely