“I have one more day in Singapore. I feel I’ve seen a lot, but if you have any suggestion of places not to be missed, please don’t keep it for yourself”, I am telling the Indian taxi driver while looking at his reflection in the rearview mirror.
“Have you been to Little India?” “Yes, yesterday”, I reply to him while rewinding different scenes in my mind: thousands of people walking chaotically, millions of garlands in blatant colours hanged all over the place, the intoxicating smell of burned incense.
“You might want to try Little Thailand. It’s on Beach Rd, in the Golden Mile Complex. And if you walk towards Arab St, you will find a small Vietnamese place with the best baguette in Singapore. They stuff the bread with juicy beef and mouth-watering pickled vegetables. This is a good authentic place, not like Jumbo Seafood. Famous among tourists, but not of high quality. I am a foodie, so I know what I’m talking about.”
“My friend, we are talking the same language! Take me to that Vietnamese place,” I hear myself saying with a smile in my heart and a twinkle in my eyes.
(The Singaporean Chinatown)
I knew from the beginning that Singapore is a heaven for foodies. I was mentally prepared for heartburn and a flare-up of my acid reflux because I wanted to try the food without restrictions.
My hotel was situated in the Kampong area, close to the Arab quarter and on the same street with the Sultan Mosque. Apparently, it was a cool area with a myriad of small and not so expensive bars and restaurants. I noticed several buildings covered in street art – nothing controversial though, let’s not forget about the draconian laws in Singapore – and I thought the walls looked better this way, colourful and happy.
On my first day, I had a Cantonese style steamed sea bass with plain rice and leak. A simple dish, but the fish and the sauce were delicious. The price was around 20 Singapore dollars (SGD). Later on, I enjoyed a Turkish coffee, strong and tasty and sweet, while facing the golden dome of the Mosque.
(The Sultan Mosque)
In the evening, I took a 40-minute boat trip from Marina Bays to the Clarke Quay area. I saw a plethora of restaurants on the riverside so I got off at Boat Quay to explore them. For dinner, I chose a restaurant randomly.
They all had almost the same menu. I served scallops and steamed asparagus combined in a thick sauce. The dish surprised me with its fresh and bright flavour. This time, due to location, the price was higher: 65 SGD, no alcohol included. It was my most expensive meal in Singapore.
Next day, Ray, my friend from Hong Kong, came to meet me in Singapore. Together we had a clear plan ahead: the best brunch place and the best dim-sum restaurant, both recommended by a good friend of Ray who has been living in Singapore for a couple of years.
Dong Po Colonial Café was supposed to serve a delicious brunch. Close to my hotel and to the Mosque, it took us less than 10 minutes walking to get there. It looked like a canteen, with a menu based mostly on toast and eggs: sugar and butter on toast with eggs; peanut butter on toast with eggs; honey on toast with eggs. I can’t mix sugar with boiled eggs, this is an unacceptable fusion for a Romanian! Hence I asked for toast with plain butter or cheese. The woman behind the counter who was never smiling couldn’t grasp what I was trying to order. Toast with no sugar? Toast with cheese? For her, the simple concept of cheese was inappropriate, it was even a sin. After some negotiations, I managed to get my plain butter on toast with two very soft eggs. Too soft. Coffee was also quite tasteless. Ray, on the other hand, was eating quietly. She seemed very pleased. Her toast had a reddish dried shrimp paste spread in a rather thick layer. It was tasty and spicy. I took a bite and then looked disappointed at my almost-raw-eggs and almost boring toasted bread. Maybe I should have mixed peanut butter with eggs after all.
In the evening, we had dinner with Ray’s friend and her big group of buddies. We all gathered at the “Hand in Hand Beijing Restaurant”. I felt like a spoiled kid. Being the only European at the table who visited Singapore for the first time, I was allowed to start the tasting for each dish. And boy, we ate a lot of dumplings, we tried two types of soups and a peculiar dessert – the deep fried and caramelized yam (a kind of tropical/subtropical sweet potato).
While I loved the dumplings, I was not pleased with the potatoes. I need the so-called CCC desserts – “chocolate with chocolate and chocolate”.
(the unfamiliar yam dessert and some colourful bubbles that I have no idea what they’re called)
To end the night properly, we tried a Cantonese place in Chinatown, famous for its sweets: Mei Heong Yuen Dessert. I ordered the Mango Pomelo Sago, a dessert I first tried in Hong Kong two years ago – a summer sweet course, made of creamy mango pudding loaded with soft tapioca pearls and pieces of mango and pomelo. Although it doesn’t have chocolate, I felt an explosion of flavours for my taste buds. It was light and fruity but sweet enough to make my eyes smile. I can’t say the same about the Durian cake, this stinky, controversial, alien-fruit that is not really a fruit, but a mix of flavours that individually are amazing (onion, garlic, strong cheese, dill, beef meat), but all combined create an unexpected, hard-to-digest, confusing result.
I tried the cake because my new group of friends made me curious. Half of them liked it very much, while the other half was disgusted only by the thought of durian.
I didn’t like. I didn’t feel nauseous after my first bite, but it was clear that my brain was rejecting the idea of a second bite.
Our next day started on a more spiritual note: Ray and I visited the beautiful Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum, located next to a Hindu temple – sacred places of different religions located on the same street in harmony and peace.
However, an intense spiritual experience requires a good meal after.
We tried laksa in green curry (a very spicy noodle soup with, well, green curry, seafood, sprouts) and scallops with broccoli. No croissant, no fried or poached eggs, no coffee. A different kind of brunch for me.
The peak of my culinary escapade was the Vietnamese place that the taxi driver told me about: Co Hai. The baguette was indeed delicious, the beef was as juicy as I hoped, but the surprise was that cup of coffee with condensed milk, my first Vietnamese coffee ever.
The intense flavour of roasted coffee beans was simply a transcendental experience.
Afterwards, full and pleased, I decided to visit Little Thailand. If I managed to see the Singaporean India, China and Turkey, exploring the Singaporean Thailand was a must.
The Golden Mile Complex welcomed me with strong odours: toxic plastic, grilled meat and fish, mould. Vendors were selling mango and lychees and custard apples, candies smelling like plastic because of their cheap package, clothes, dried prawns and mobile cases. The sellers didn’t speak English so I had a difficult time to find out the names of those fruits I’ve never tried and I’ve never seen. I asked random people to tell me the names of custard apple and rose-apple. One man gave me a few longans, which are small and sweet fruits very similar to the lychee. I didn’t see durians, so I assumed it was banned in that place. Too stinky.
(Buddhist monk in Little Thailand)
I arrived at the hotel late. I was not sleepy because of the persistent jet lag. I told myself I need to have another Vietnamese coffee before I am heading to the airport at 10h10. But the next day I overslept and I missed my cup of black magic potion. I am still craving…meaning that I already know where my next culinary immersion will take place.