Photos ©2013 by Linda Popovich
Periodically, as you walk through Singapore’s busy streets, a powerful mélange of sweet, fragrant, and pungent food aromas will waft past your nose from the front doors of its many restaurants. Fish paste. Ginger. Curry. Seafood. Roast meat.
Singapore’s population of 5.2 million tends to eat out more than they do at home because the food is cheap and with the 25th highest standard of living in the world, Singapore has become a nation of unabashed and discerning “foodies” — on steroids. Proof positive: the island, measuring 15 miles by 25 miles, boasts over 40,000 restaurants. Compare this with the measly 20,000 restaurants in New York City with a population of 8.3 million and you get some idea of what food means to Singaporeans!
Eating is the Singaporean national pastime and if it were an Olympic event it would be no contest. Singapore can legitimately lay claim to being the “Culinary Crossroads of Asia” and its phenomenal variety of restaurants is a heady manifestation of this heritage.
With Singapore’s diverse ethnicities of indigenous Chinese, Malay, and Indian populations all demanding their favorite foods, plus savvy expats who also have their favorite eating houses, Singapore’s eclectic array of restaurants and foods is staggering.
Here is a sampler: a handful of Singapore’s fine restaurants for you to enjoy.
Samy’s Curry House
Second only to my favorite curry emporium in the world (the International Curry House in Hong Kong), Samy’s Curry House on Dempsey Road in Singapore’s beautiful Tanglin Park has become an institution for all things spicy.
Located in a former department of defense building, a remnant of Singapore’s colonial times when Britain ruled the roost in S.E. Asia, you’re hit by a powerful curry and spices odor that permeates the entire room when you walk in to Samy’s. My favorite place to sit, when I lived here several years ago, was outside at a round table on the narrow tiled deck despite
Singapore’s steamy evening humidity, and the table was free the night I visited. Off to a great start!
Although you won’t find pristine white tablecloths and sahib Indian waiters here, and first time visitors are often taken aback at the unpretentious surrounds, you come here to be taken back to colonial times, even if just for a couple of hours.
At Samy’s, large scoopfuls and chunks of curried chicken and prawns are served from metal buckets and plunked onto huge banana leaf “plates” and your utensils look as if they might have
been picked up from a Goodwill store. And it’s just fine to eat with your fingers. Samy’s is not pretentious, nor pretty, but dining here is one of the funnest meals you’ll ever have.
Restaurant director Ms. Nagajyothi is hosting us tonight, and she’s determined to have us try every curry on the lengthy menu. Very few curry houses can field such an endless variety of hot curries as Samy’s, and after an hour of sampling the excellent North and South Indian cuisine, lingering between bouts, we finally call it quits.
We’ve tried tender, hot curry mutton; large, hot tandoori prawn; chewy curry squid; tasty masala chicken; chicken Tikka; melt-in-your-mouth curry fish,; curry crab; potato masala; palak paneer; Kashmiri Naan bread; biryani rice; and probably a few other curries that the serving staff slipped past us while we weren’t looking.
Wash the curries down with limejuice, sweet laasi or mango laasi, or a cold beer and you have the perfect accompaniment for an enjoyably spicy meal. Samy’s is now a third generation family-run restaurant, and its reputation lives on with great gusto. If you’d like to get a good feel for how and where Singaporeans dine, Samy’s Curry House is a great place to visit and mingle with the locals.
The Tiffin Room, Raffles Hotel
And speaking of curries . . . . Sampling the gourmet curry buffet at the world famous Raffles Hotel Tiffin Room is as much an experience as a dining event — a considerable contrast with the casual atmosphere at Samy’s Curry House.
The Restaurant Manager, Rajanesh Shetty, hosted our Tiffin Room curry buffet graciously and Chef de Cuisine, Kuldeep Negi, honored us with a visit. Both men fully understand the depth of the tradition of dining at Raffles Hotel. They don’t take their jobs lightly because Raffles is often referred to as the world’s greatest hotel. Stand out the front of this magnificent, white marble, perfectly restored, stately old colonial mansion dating from 1887, and you’ll soon agree. Raffles exudes the halcyon days of the Raj.
The Tiffin Room hosts both a lunch and dinner buffet featuring spicy curries and other exotic dishes. And in mid-afternoon, you can partake of an authentic English High Tea, complete with finely steeped tea, scones, finger foods and light desserts.
The dining room’s name, Tiffin*, is derived from the colonial era English light mid-day meal, and Raffles Hotel has long perpetuated this tradition, resurrecting it in 1976.
A lunch or dinner at Raffles is considered a tourist “must-do.” If you ever want to impress anyone, or celebrate a special occasion, reserve a table for a meal in the Tiffin Room. Raffles remains popular with Singaporeans, resident expats, and tourists alike, and is considered a prestigious place to eat.
Expect to dine in style here — this is a white tablecloth and fine silverware restaurant. There is a dress code, so this is definitely NOT a beach shorts and sandals joint. You’re expected to wear a shirt, long trousers, with jackets being optional. Women are expected to wear dresses, skirts or trousers.
What can you expect to eat at the Tiffin Room Curry Buffet? The food assortment is bewildering, and my best advice is to have small portions of everything and then go back and pile on the curries and delicacies that you enjoyed the most.
The Tiffin Room menu changes frequently, but always retains some of the favorite staples. Some examples: Shakarkandi ki chat (sweet potato with chili and Mango powder); Gazar AurCoconut Salad (Carrot with Curry Leaves, Coconut and Mustard seed); Dahi Bhall (Lentil Dumplings with Tamarind, Yoghurt and Mint); a selection of chutneys and pickles; Aloo Moti Tikki(Deep fried Potato with Corn and Mango powder); Achari Tangri Kebab (Chicken marinated with Pickle Spices, Yoghurt, and cooked in Tandoori), and those are just a few of the starters!
Popular main courses include Ghost Roganjosh (Kashmiri Style Lamb with whole spices, Onion and Tomato); Jhinga Kadhai (Prawns and Peppers cooked with Onion, Tomato and whole Coriander); Paneer Butter Masala (Cottage Cheese in Tomato based sauce and fenugreek leaves); and many other curries.
The dessert gallery also represents a formidable challenge: Gazrella (Carrot pudding); Gulab Jamun (Fried Milk Dumpling with Saffron Sugar Syrup); and one of my favorites, Zafrani Kheer (rice pudding with Milk), amongst others.
Don’t expect your Tiffin Room experience to be cheap — you’re paying for the Tiffin Room ambiance and the large team of expert cooks in the kitchen, steeped in the fine art of making tasty curries.
And while you’re at Raffles, make sure you tour the hotel’s museum and take a walk around the hotel grounds to admire the gorgeous colonial architecture. The hotel is a tourist attraction in its own right, complete with gift shop and boutique galleries. And of course you must have your photo taken with the superb Sikh doorman — a truly magnificent specimen who is probably the most photographed man in the world.
Located in an unpretentious doorway on bustling Tanjong Pagar Road, the Blue Ginger restaurant gives a marvelous crash course in Peranakan food, and introduces the western palate to some delicious Chinese-Malay dishes that will be remembered for a long time.
The Blue Ginger is the sort of place where the locals go after they’ve been away from Singapore for a few days or a week or two, and need some good traditional local food to get grounded again, after eating bland western fare.
Peranakan dishes are a delicious fusion of traditional Straights Chinese and spicy Malaysian food, also called “Nonya” food. Peranakan food is a tribute to the Straights Chinese women who intermarried with local Malays, and had to make do with local herbs and spices, as substitutes for their unobtainable Chinese ones. The result is a mouth-watering spread of spicy, aromatic dishes unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before.
Located in a refurbished Chinese shop house, Blue Ginger restaurant is a long narrow room, with contemporary decorations of leather and gold, hanging lights, and a wooden floor. You won’t find rustic old style Peranakan artifacts and artwork lying around for effect; rather, the cooking aromas provide a feeling of a cozy Peranakan home and I’m sure bring back fond memories to older Singaporeans who were brought up in Peranakan homes.
We placed ourselves in the capable hands of the restaurant manager, Alan Foo, our charming and friendly host who chose our dishes and delicacies to give us a broad-spectrum taste of Nonya food. And he succeeded admirably. Every starter and main course, mercifully served in small bowls, was superb, leaving us yearning for more.
What does one find in Peranakan dishes? And, more importantly, what do they taste like? For starters we tried the otak otak (grilled, spicy, minced fish meat wrapped in banana leaf); Ayam panggang (grilled, deboned chicken and drumstick flavored with coconut milk and exotic spices); and Ngo Heong (fried homemade rolls of minced pork and prawns with five-spice powder).
Then we were served Assam Puteh (a traditional recipe of minced pork and crabmeat balls with finely sliced bamboo shoots); steamed seabass with preserved bean paste, fresh garlic, chili and spring onions; and Udang Masak Assam Gulai (fresh tiger prawn simmered in spicy tamarind gravy with lemongrass flavoring). I’m sure Alan Foo slipped in a few other delicacies too, but we were too busy trying to stay abreast of the wave of spicy and delicious dishes that crammed our table to try to identify them.
After these dishes we couldn’t contemplate one of Blue Ginger’s tempting desserts, but I seriously considered the Durian Chendol, the house favorite of red beans and pandan flavored jelly in fresh coconut milk and sweetened with gula Melaka and durian purée. Ok, perhaps I did have this, and enjoyed the aftertaste all the way home in the taxi.
Blue Ginger deserves its fame among the Singaporeans, and is yet another place where you will mix with the locals and perhaps have some nice cross table conversations once you’ve broken the ice.
Pan Pacific Singapore Hotel
I’m always dubious about the quality of food I find in hotel restaurants, but now and then I encounter such outstanding hotel cuisine that it borders on the gourmet. And so it was with the fine restaurants at the Pan Pacific Hotel Singapore.
Dining here is world class. The Pan Pacific’s contemporary high-end food court —suitably named The Edge — consists of seven Asian and Pacific “stations”: Chinese, Malay, Indian, Singaporean, Thai, Japanese, and “Pacific Signature,” creating a deluxe indoor “Hawker Center” that is currently the talk of the town. It’s all stainless steel and decorated stalls here, ultra modern and fashionable.
The Edge is far more than a Hawker Center though — you can walk around the stations and graze at each one, picking out your favorite dishes to create a truly international dining experience. You can sit down, talk to the chef at each station, order your food prepared just the way you want it, and watch while the chef cranks away. It’s interactive and the hotel goes so far as to refer to it as “theater” which may not be far from the truth.
Across the cavernous lobby, opposite The Edge, is a fine Chinese restaurant called Hai Tien Lo that serves outstanding traditional Cantonese dishes. If you are a lover of gourmet Chinese food (or even if you’re not), you would be remiss if you didn’t dine here at least once. Hai Tien Lo is the talk of Singapore and serves some superb dishes.
In contrast to The Edge, using a contemporary setting, Hai Tien Lo serves traditional Cantonese dishes that have been tried and tested for thousands of years, with some new interpretations and twists.
noun Indian or dated
a light meal, esp. lunch.
ORIGIN early 19th century: apparently from dialect tiffing [sipping,] of unknown origin