Day in the life: The Hawker Markets of Singapore (and other food adventures)

Hello from Singapore!

Land of ridiculous alien spaceship-shaped buildings.

*warning: multiple foodie recommendations ahead*

There is a notepad on the hotel bed with Josh’s scribbly, too-many-years-using-computers handwriting sprawled across it. It looks like a list of mostly restaurants, names of food stalls and hawker markets. I spot one or two tourist attractions on there: Cloud Forest, Gardens by the Bay, a few local watering holes. Amongst the list of unfamiliar things I spot a few familiar ones. Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice. Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle. Chilli crab and black pepper crab. I’ve read about these! My mouth starts to water.

“You will have blog material for weeks after I am done with you,” says Josh with a proud grin.

Look at you, planning a foodie itinerary and all. 

I’ve landed in Singapore on a Friday afternoon. It’s unbearably humid here, but I quickly adjust. The weather reminds me of back home in Indonesia. A wave of nostalgia hit me when I rode out of Changi airport in the taxi, passing the colourful tropical flowers that adorn the freeway into the city. It’s always the same flowers. The traffic is hilarious. I mean, it’s still Asia. Despite Singapore being well known for it’s law abiding citizens, I’ve lived the majority of my life in molly-coddled Melbourne where people shake their heads at the slightest bad road manners, so to me Singapore traffic is still pretty bad. Within less than half an hour, we were nearly run down by a bus and another car that merged into our lane without indicating.

I don’t even get offended by the bad-Asian-driver jokes, it’s kind of a sad half-truth :/

Josh has been here since Monday for work and they’ve put him up at the Fairmont in a ridiculous room lined with rich mahogany and Peranakan tapestries, and a view of Singapore’s waterfront to die for. Fancy. The space feels like the royal chambers of some exotic castle. Upon my arrival, after the hugs and the how was your flight? and the gees how hot is it? he spends about 10 minutes amusing me with the automatic curtain system. He’s trying so hard to cheer me up… I’ve had an interesting month – to say the least – and haven’t been myself lately. After weeks of coaxing me over the phone to pick myself up from a sprawling heap of meh up off my hotel bed in Perth every morning, my very concerned partner sternly insisted I take some time off work so he could host me in Singapore and take my mind off things.

“Think of it as an extended birthday week.”

He doesn’t dawdle about it either. I literally have no time to crawl into a ball on the very comfy looking bed and be all miserable and mopey for one bit. Less than five minutes out of my stuffy airport clothes and into some fresh summery shorts and tee, he has set his mind on a particular hawker market a couple of blocks from our hotel.

“I went to this market the last time I was here, and there’s a street lined with satay vendors selling all varieties of skewers. It’s amazing,” Josh proposes.

And so we walk. It’s about a 20 minute walk and it is a lot cooler than when I first landed at Changi. Lau Pa Sat hawker market is located in a beautiful historic building in the heart of the financial district. It’s a good introduction to hawker markets if you have never been to one before. Slightly more accommodating to tourists and expats (given it’s location) it is home to a broader array of general Asian cuisine; boasting Japanese, Filipino and even Indonesian food stalls.

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Exploring Lau Pa Sat market: salty sweet char kway teow with deliciously naughty chunks of Chinese sausage, and a succulent roast chicken rice dish Josh mistook for Hainanese chicken.

Despite seeing that we would be spoilt for choice with satay – and could possibly happily fill up on several varieties cheaply before heading off to find a local watering hole and cool off with some drinks – we opt to be sensible and aim to have a proper meal from the other stalls. Josh and I start on a beer and a handful of satays to whet our appetite before splitting up to hunt down some popular local dishes. The food here is dirt cheap. Well, not South-east-asia-dirt-cheap, but still pretty damn affordable. A char kway teow set me back $5 Singapore dollars whilst Josh found a roast chicken rice dish for $6. It’s apparently cheaper at the other more authentic hawker markets, but you can’t get good Asian food anywhere in Melbourne for that price.

The heat begins to get to us so we decide to stroll back to our hotel to change into something a little dressier and head out for some drinks. Across the road from the Fairmont is the famous Raffles hotel, home to Long Bar – the birthplace of the Singapore Sling cocktail. This is pure novelty though, and something I would recommend just for the hell of it because you’re in Singapore. For a hefty price of $30++  you can get the original drink here and it is severely watered down. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Singapore’s prices – everything you get that isn’t from a hawker market here has a ++ attached to the price. It means “add 10% service charge to the total, and add a bunch of other random charges to the bill”. It’s San Francisco all over again. At least you don’t have to tip here.

Lau Pa Sat Hawker Market: 18 Raffles Quay, Singapore

Raffles Long Bar: 1 Beach Rd, Raffles Hotel, Singapore

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A kilo of classic Chilli Crab from Jumbo’s Seafood by the river

Day two is sight seeing day.

In the morning, Josh explains that we have a lot to see and a lot of walking to do, so he instructs me to wear my comfy shoes. My feet are all torn up from the night before because they were still a little swollen from the plane and I had worn some not-so-comfy loafers to the market. Honestly Sha, who packs loafers to a tropical country?

My excited blonde Aussie tour guide has decided we must feast on chilli crab for lunch so that we have enough energy to get us through the day. He takes me to Jumbo’s Seafood, which sounds like a super tacky Californian fast food chain, but upon arrival looks more like your typical yum cha house. It is Saturday and the place is packed with families at 12pm on the dot. We are unable to get a seat indoors so we are seated out overlooking Riverside Quay, which is quite a stunning view even during the day. Do go here at night too though, as Riverside Quay becomes lit up after dark and transforms into a bustling strip of lively bars and restaurants.

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I ask for a fresh coconut to cool me down. Ahh…I love tropical countries. I love being able to drink fresh coconut water and then scrape at the coconut flesh from inside the shell.  Josh does the rest of the ordering: a kilo of the classic Alaskan chilli crab and a bowl of seafood fried rice to mop up the rich, spicy crab gravy to come. I wanted the fried mantau but he explains that they are small and meagre here.

The rice and the crab however… definitely do not come in small portions. They arrive shortly after we start on a glass of white wine a beer and I am slightly overwhelmed by the size of the crab. Josh thinks he has seen larger ones. The smell wafting out from the giant pot of red gravy is not fishy at all. It is sweet, and garlicky. The “small rice” is probably enough to feed a family of four. It is fluffy and packed with chunks of prawn, scallops, and snow white crab meat. Beautiful stuff.

How to eat Chilli Crab Gracefully

  1. Attempt to pick at exposed crab meat with chopsticks until they click against the hard closed shells.
  2. Attempt to hold one end of the shell with chopsticks whilst gracefully cracking the other end using the shell pliers provided.
  3. Fail. The juice erupts everywhere and bits of crab shell scatter across your plate. Luckily, they also supply you with bibs to protect your clothes, and a separate bag bib to protect your valuables.
  4. Ditch the chopsticks and the pliers and use your hands and teeth.

In contrast to our dinner last night, the prices at Jumbo’s are a little more extravagant. Between the two of us, the bill ends up totalling roughly $160. Those damn ++’s. The quality of the chilli crab here is very good. There is a lot of meat on the crab if you know how to extract it. My mother says the sweetest meat is found inside the claws. To get to it, you need to crack the shell with your teeth as un-gracefully as possible and suck it out. You lace the fried rice with the rich, spicy sauce and savour spoonfuls of the stuff in between strenuous crab meat extraction. Deliciously messy.

We spend the rest of the day with our bellies full in a state of bliss, exploring the surreal Cloud Forest, flower dome and gardens by the bay.

Jumbo’s Seafood Restaurant: 30 Merchant Road, # 01-01/02 Riverside Point, Singapore

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Char Kway Teow numero duo! A more savoury version in comparison to the one we found at Lau Pa Sat.

Feeling slightly broke from our lunch and catching taxis everywhere to avoid walking in the heat, we decide to go modest for dinner. We’re off to explore another hawker market, this time one slightly out of the way and more popular with the locals. Old Airport Road hawker market is about 15 minutes out of the city close to the Malay quarter, and it is a sprawling maze of highly recommended and sought after hawker stalls. Josh notes that we should make a point of finding the popular Hainanese style satay at Chuan Kee Satay, run by an old couple with 40 years + experience in making the smokey skewers. The difference seems to be in the sauce, which comes with a dollop of punchy minced garlic, and the sweet but light marinade on the meat. It’s 50 cents per skewer, and 50 cents for the rice cake. We order 10 chicken and 10 pork and a rice cake, which is similar to what we call a Ketupat back home in Indonesia. This set us back $10.50- slightly cheaper than the $14 we forked out at Lau Pa Sat satay street.

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Hainanese style satay

We also follow our eyes and start randomly standing in the longest and busiest queues to see what all the fuss is about. For $4 we find a hearty and rather large plate of Char Kway Teow and spend a delightful $3 on a plate of succulent fried dumplings. AMAZING. There are other dishes that catch our eyes as we look around at the other tables feasting around us, but I think our stomaches are still processing the Chilli crab and I am not starving enough to attempt a fourth dish.

Feeling a little happier with our frugalness at dinner, we decide to head back to Riverside Quay to see what the local bar scene is like.  Lots of locals emerge as the sun goes down and hang out along the picturesque river, setting up late night picnics and taking romantic strolls. It’s actually quite lovely, and the crowd is not so heavy or touristy.

Old Airport Road Hawker Centre: 51 Old Airport Rd, Singapore

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$3 plate of dumplings at Old Airport Road hawker market – holy bananas!

We begin day three very slowly, recovering from our Saturday night by lazily rolling out of bed close to midday and deciding to do brunch in Chinatown.

Now, Chinatown is home to several foodie meccas – the Maxwell food centre, the Chinatown “Food Street” (yes, there is a food street), and the wet market where you can find the local favourite: Ice cream sandwiches…literally. These are bricks of ice cream slapped in between a slice of soft rainbow bread. I remember having these as a child. They never struck me as odd at the time. I mean.. ice cream and pillowy sweet bread? Why the hell not?

We go to Maxwell food centre first to find some wanton mie and possibly some breakfast food if we can find some. Josh isn’t brave enough to try congee and to be honest, as much as I like congee it reminds me too much of recovering from the flu or some sort of sickness. Mother makes me congee only when I am unwell, because it is easy to eat and it’s basically the Asian equivalent to the European staple “chicken soup”.

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Wanton mie with char siu chicken, sambal and pickled green chillies

Only in Asia is in semi acceptable to eat wontons for breakfast. Hell, it is only 11am and people around us were devouring all sorts of hearty noodle and rice dishes, and there isn’t a piece of toast in sight. In hindsight, I realise we should have gone out of our way to try and find a decent Kaya toast, but the thought of feasting on noodles at 11am in the morning was just too enticing.

I find a popular wonton mie stall called Huang Ji (stall 29) that sells the dish for $5 for a “large”, but in comparison to the portions we had at Old Airport Road, this is actually quite small. The wantons are little pockets of juicy, silky, gingery things that melt in your mouth in between slurps of fine egg noodles slick with the mild sambal. They also sell flavoured egg noodles like red tomato noodles and green spinach noodles. I opt for the more traditional yellow variety.

Josh has been determined to find Hainanese chicken ever since he accidentally ordered roast chicken at Lau Pa Sat, so he comes back with a plate from the second most popular Hainanese chicken stall at Maxwells called Ah Tai (you should have seen the line for Tian Tian). This set him back $6.50 and comes with fluffy, rich chickeney flavoured rice and a savoury broth. The chicken isn’t as silky and melt in your mouth as I hoped, but it’s still very good.

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Hainanese chicken and rice

I shriek excitedly as we pass a stall selling “Nonya style pancakes”, which looks (and tastes) quite similar to the sweet version of Martabak from Indonesia. I insist to Josh that we get some – one coconut filled pancake and one peanut filled. Much lighter than the Indonesian version – which is usually drenched in sweetened condensed milk, butter and topped with chocolate sprinkles – the peanut pancake is a little dry but satisfies my Martabak cravings. We prefer the succulent coconut pancake, which is filled with freshly shredded coconut and is semi sweet.

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MARTABAK!!! (sort of)

It is one of the hottest and sunniest days here since my arrival, and we struggle as we try to explore Chinatown on foot. Chinatown in Singapore is unlike any other Chinatown I’ve ever been to in the world. It almost looks like a theme park. Rows of colonial style buildings with their intricate shutters surround a towering temple adorned with lanterns and offerings. Between alleyways, more colourful lanterns hang above our heads. We make a pit stop at Food Street for a beer and an ice cold treat – ice kachang! I haven’t had ice kachang in ages, and Josh finds it bizarre. Trust Asians to make shaved ice desserts filled with red beans and sweetcorn, topped with colourful syrups. I guess it doesn’t make sense when you are brought up with heavy desserts filled with butter, cream, sugar and eggs. But to me, red beans with shaved ice and sweet syrups make sense.

We are too full to try anything from the wet market and decide to find some air conditioned shelter in the form of shopping malls along Orchard road. This place is insane. There are rows upon rows of shopping malls lining one street, and every single one of them is quite surprisingly full. We visit out of sheer curiosity, even though neither of us find shopping a particularly exciting pass-time. The heavily air conditioned buildings are all so extravagant and tall…how many floors of shops do you need in one shopping centre when you have four other shopping centres in the same block??

Needless to say, our curiosity for Orchard road is short lived as we become bored of the atmosphere of sheer over indulgence. There are luxury cars parked lazily along the street, and people walking around carrying bags that cost more than a down payment for an apartment. Not our thing. Actually, kind of everything I hate about Asia condensed into one street. The excessiveness and the brand addiction and the constant need to flaunt the fact that you have money. Blergh. We move on.

Maxwell Food Centre: 1 Kadayanallur St, Singapore

Chinatown Food Street: 7 Smith St, Singapore

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Coconut sorbet inside of a baby coconut, topped with crushed peanuts

After cooling off back at the hotel, our next mission is to catch some views from above come night time. We go to the Marina Bay Sands for dinner – another insanely excessive world of luxury – so that we can easily make our way up to Ce La Vie for drinks after and enjoy the view, before strolling down to the water front to watch the light show. It is a packed itinerary and for a moment we panic because our decision to wait for a table at Din Tai Fung (GLORIOUS – will write a separate post about it) may cost us some drinking time. But once we get our table our food actually comes out quite quickly, and we don’t regret waiting at all.

We make good timing to head up to Ce La Vie for drinks before the place turns into a nightclub, marvel at the breathtaking views, and I get some great shots on Josh’s camera. I am beyond distracted and pleased by this trip, and it has certainly cheered me up.

The light show starts at 9.30, where the majority of the lasers are shot from our level, so we slowly part from our sky high views and head back down to waterfront to hunt for a good spot to watch the show.

Did I mention it is stifling hot today?

Boy we are really struggling. Walking along the water front, we spot an ice cream stall selling coconut sorbets in little coconut shells with a free cup of coconut water. SOLD. I forget the name of the stall, but you’ll know when you find it. The coconut sorbet is sweet and refreshing, and super icy. It instantly cools you down. The young coconut surprisingly has a lot of coconut flesh attached, and is a nice treat after you finish your sorbet.

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Kouign Amann from Tiong Bahru Bakery….no words can explain the deliciousness of this sinful pastry

Last but not least – a magical, devilish find on our last day in Singapore. I follow a lot of Singaporean food bloggers and instagrammers, and about a year or so ago I noticed that a certain pastry from a certain chain of bakeries popped up on my news feed a lot. And I mean a lot. The pastry has an incredible sugary sheen, and is the most perfect shade of golden. The hundreds of layers of salty-sweet buttery goodness is visible with the naked eye, and the scent is of luscious caramel and butter.

The Kouign Amann is a sinful little thing. Everything about this pastry screams over-indulgence. My partner melts into a pool of nostalgic kid-Josh as he becomes overwhelmed by the flavour.

“It tastes like ultra chewy and crunchy honey joys!”

No fair. This was his childhood whilst mine was shaved ice with red beans and ice cream in between loaves of bread?? If I had grown up eating stuff that tastes like Kouign Amann I would have more photos of me smiling as a child (I was a devil child during my toddler years, always sulking in photos haha). It all makes sense now.

Anyways, as promised, I’ll write up a separate post about our discovery of Din Tai Fung. Despite it being a chain, for some reason the restaurants here in Australia are overwhelmingly crap. To the point where I nearly walked out of the Sydney one. No words can describe the flavour that bursts in your mouth when you pop one of the Din Tai Fung dumplings into your mouth. To be continued….

Meanwhile, happy feasting and do mind your table manners!


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