Eating in Singapore...Chowzter Asia 2015's Foodiest City

The Chief Chowzters of Asia Pacific
I was in Singapore again a couple of weekends back which is always a good thing for a food lover.

I was there for the Chowzter Asia’s Fast Feast Awards 2015. The trip, hosted by Chowzter, turned out to be three days of great eating. It consisted of a variety of dishes, local and international, street food and high end, classic eats and new kids on the block which when put together gave an insight into why Singapore won the ‘Foodiest City in Asia’ awards in the 2015 edition of the Chowzter Asia Awards.

Our group was an interesting mix of food enthusiasts, bloggers, restaurant owners, food walk hosts, writers representing different cities in Asia and Australia and it was great meeting them, learning from their experiences and getting to know their cities.

I was representing Mumbai as its local Chief Chowzter.

My first lunch of the trip showed that how you can score a good lunch in Singapore just by serendipity. I had checked into our hotel, the pretty nifty, modern and luxurious, Carlton Central near Chinatown and then headed out looking for lunch with my friend Kaniska, who is the Chief Chowzter from Kolkata, and Shibaji who is the CFO of Chowzter.

There is so much good food around in Singapore that it turned out that all we had to do was cross the road in search of lunch. There were a couple of shops where people were queuing up to  eat, always a good sign, and we decided to join them. Both looked like very basic places, non-airconditioned, a few tables and chairs at the centre. I decided to go with the shop which had a Chinese signboard with YT written in English. Would be even more authentic, I quipped.

People went to the counter and chose curries laid out there and were served rice with this. You were charged according to the number of curries and vegetables that you took. I later got to know through twitter these places are called ‘economical rice centres’. Three of us ate for 14 Sing Dollars and the food was pretty good. I looked around and saw quite a few people eating a pork belly curry and chose that. Turned out to be really lovely. The pork was soft and the soy based sauce had a lovely mix of salt and sweet and combined well with the rice and completely overshadowed the rather bland bokchoy that I also took.

pork belly with rice

With Kaniska and Shibajida

Our dinner was far from ‘economical’ and instead of Chinese was modern Japanese. We ate at a newly opened place called Izy near Club Street. The scallops in the sashimi (no sushi in our meal), the fried chicken with mayo (best in Singapore claimed the friendly maĆ®tre d), the wagyu with truffle (tender meat infused with heady flavours) were dishes that were bursting with flavour and left us breathless with delight.

scallop sashimi

Japanese fried chicken

Wagyu with truffles

Between the lunch and the dinner we saw the range of meals one can have in Singapore in terms of budget and cuisine which helped the city live up to the Foodiest City billing.

We walked down Club Street near Ann Seong that Friday night to our hotel. This street is closed to vehicular traffic at night. It is full of restaurants that lay out tables in the middle of the road converting the street into a party zone at night. Very chic, very international, very buzzy and a contrast to the tranquility of the night lanes of Chinatown down the road. Club Street on weekend nights seems to debunk notions of Singapore being a quiet, boring city.

club st on friday night
We had Christine, who is on twitter as @camembaru, the Chief Chowzter for Singapore talking us through her city during the trip. Here's her blog.

We went to Tian Tian at Maxwell City Centre for the famous chicken rice which had won Bourdain over. Like in my last trip, this time too I went back after the first visit to have another bite of this chicken rice. That’s how much I love the fragrant rice and juicy chicken served here.

Tian Tian chicken rice

We went to the famous Sungei Road laksa which I had been to on my last visit too. They laksas had gone rather cold this time after the 25 of us in the group photographed them and I felt that the proportion of noodles to the soup was a bit too skewed. Christine said that the noodles are broken in advance so that they can be eaten with a spoon. I would have enjoyed it more had there been more of the broth. The huge queues, outside the stall, bore testimony to the popularity of the laksa though. I had quite enjoyed this in my previous visit.

Sungei Road laksa

two many photographers spoil the laksa

Sungei road laksa

Christine took us to a couple of places which are not as famous as Tian Tian and Sungei Road laksa.

One was to Kway Guat Huat where popiah is said to have been introduced to Singapore. Popiah is a version of rice paper rolls. We went through a demonstration on how to make these conducted by the original owner's daughter and current owner of the place. I can’t say that I am a big popiah fan. 

popiah demo

I found the neighbouring area with a number of Malay Muslim shops, traditional bakeries and little restaurants very interesting and different from the glass and chrome of modern Singapore.

This is indeed a city of contrasts where the old and new still coexist. Whether peacefully or not is tough for an outsider to say.

We also went to the Fishball Story at the Golden Mile food court. This is quite a unique place as it is run by young, 24 year old, Douglas NG. Douglas NG uses his grandma’s recipes to make fish balls with swordtail fish and doesn’t add any flour to the fishballs. He starts work at 4 am every day and continues till sold out in the evening. The fish balls are very flavourful and I loved the spicy sambal hit of the flat noodles it is served with. 

What makes Douglas unique is that he is one of the few young people who works in a hawker centre. If you look at the reasonably priced street food options in Singapore, you will see that most of these are run by elderly folks. There are hardly any young folks who want to enter into this tough trade it seems.

Fishball noodles at Fisball story

With Douglas of Fishball story

This is something which bugs Singapore street food evangelist, Seetoh, whom we met at a pop up organized by Pepita from Manila in Singapore. Pepita won the Chowzter award in 2014 and is famous for her lechons (suckling pigs, stuffed with rice, roasted on a fire pit). I had dreamed of trying a lechon ever since I got to know about it on one of Bourdain’s shows. The succulent, delicately flavoured meat with crispy crackling and chubby fat of Pepita's lechon lived up to my expectations.

Seetoh told us about how he hopes that the hawker food ethos of Singapore doesn’t die out.

His passion for street food is truly admirable.

Pepita from Manila


With the legendary Seetoh

Another new discovery in the trip was Roland Restaurant. Going to a seafood restaurant in Singapore is de rigeur when you come here for a conference. These dinners are multi course events which end with crab, usually the famous chilli crab for outsiders. The common names in this circuit are Jumbo, East Coast and No Signboard restaurants. I had not heard of Roland before.

When we went into this building parking lot converted into the restaurant I saw that it was full with local families and there were hardly any tourists around. The folks who run Roland said that they don’t really fall in the tourist map which possibly explains why I had never heard of them.

The owners claim that the ketchup based chilli crab of Singapore was apparently invented by a lady in their family, the current owner’s grandmother. She had come up with the original recipe according to the folks at Roland which then, over the years, was embellished with eggs and an assortment of sauces by other places. The red colour of the dish make Westerners feel good about being able to tackle chillies. The colour actually comes from ketchup and the dish is not too spicy.


Pomfret two ways

Chilli crab at Roland

The salted yolk crab at Ronald

I am not a big fan of chilli crab and in each trip to Singapore am introduced the other local crab preparations which I end up liking better. I am fond of the black pepper crab and quite enjoyed the salted egg yolk crab with tapioca chips and curry leaves at Roland, that Christine got us to try.

Another dish the I really liked at Roland was the pomfret done two ways. I feel that this dish is the sort that one could get at Ling’s back home which made me feel very proud about Ling’s. Incidentally Ling’s does a Singapore chilli crab which local blogger, Sassy Fork, loves. I order the pepper crab at Ling’s though when I feel indulgent enough to order crabs.

The Chowzter Awards function was held at a very interesting place called Wild Rocket. If Roland is a classic Singaporean restaurant then Wild Rocket is at the other extreme as it offers what they call Mod Sin. Here, lawyer turned chef, Willin Low uses Singaporean cooking principles in modern formats. A bit like a Singaporean equivalent of Manish Arora’s Indian Accent in Delhi or chef Joy’s Bohemian in Kolkata.

The seating at Wild Rocket is casual rather than stuffy. The plating of the dishes are very beautiful and very modern. I was won over by the pomelo and tiger prawn salad which had a frozen coconut milk dressing which captured the brilliant flavours of a great laksa. The Chilean sea bass with congee was pretty good. The Peranakan styled keluak (nut) rice served with a 48 hour slow cooked beef was a flavourful counterpoint to the robust meat.

Pomelo salad with frozen coconut dressing

Wild Rocket

Slow cooked beef with rice

The dinner was a great example of a well thought through menu which was very international in appearance and yet very Singaporean at core.

The awards night threw up lot of interesting winners across categories from Asian and Australia. All the winners were very distinctive, local restaurants chosen by the Chief Chowzters on the basis of outstanding dishes served there rather than mere popularity.

You can see the list of winners here

I was thrilled to receive the trophy on behalf of Mumbai’s Sneha  whose beef fry won in the Tastiest Beef category. Was an honour to come back to Mumbai and give them the prize. Hopefully someday we will get to taste it again. It is off the menu now thanks to the beef ban.

Our last day was a free day and I joined Kaniska and had our favourite Ya Kun Kaya toast and runny eggs and coffee for breakfast, shopped like mad at Gap (the only place where clothes seem to fit me!) and then headed to Muthu’s to once again enjoy the fantastic fish head curry that I tried out and loved during my previous trip.

Ya Kun Kaya toast
With Kaniska

fish head at Muthu's

Well here’s raising a toast to all the Chowzter Award winners and a big congratulation to Singapore on winning the Foodiest city award.

The Chief Chowzters of the winning cities

 Disclaimer: The trip to Singapore was hosted by Chowzter. Travel and stay was born by them and the meals too