Singapore in 5 Meals

Wanton mee

Hey. I’m struggling to believe I moved to Singapore 17 years ago, and that realisation sent me on a little meander down a culinary memory lane recently.

When I first rocked up I could not believe the food, mainly because it was so cheap and delicious. There I was eating hawker meals every day, because it was cheaper than attempting to cook the same thing at home myself (there should be a warning sign in that), and after a couple of months I weighed myself and discovered I’d stacked on nearly 10kg! How did that happen?

Well, obviously when you’re cutting costs, as hawkers are forced to do – Singaporeans may pay through the nose for fancy foreign food, but they complain bitterly when their favourite local dish goes up in price – then something’s got to give, and the first thing will be the quality of the ingredients.

You’re eating palm oil, sunshine.

It doesn’t help that I gravitate to the most calorific meals in existence. A rich, coconut-creamy laksa? My mouth is watering just contemplating it, but it’s probably in the region of 800 calories, and with precious little nutritional value either.

Even when I tried to eat healthy, my complete ignorance of how things were cooked led me astray. How could I put on weight eating Hainanese chicken rice? It’s just chicken and rice after all. Except the rice is cooked using the chicken fat. No wonder it’s so delicious.

Anyway, with a plan to go to the gym every day, I figured I could revisit some favourites.

The first was a chicken rice in a downtown shopping mall. The ambiance was crap, but the price was reflective of that. I went the whole hog and spent $6 on a set, which meant I got some vegetable and a soup as well. The soup was basically a shallot and chicken broth, so nothing special. I’ve had a peanut soup before, which sounds odd, but tastes better than you think.

The chicken was chopped with the bones in – not my favourite – but the garlicy chilli sauce was just perfect, and the rice rich and obviously fatty. Not the best chicken rice ever, but for $6 I’m not complaining. It would have cost me $4 all those years ago.

The next day I was in the ‘burbs near Upper Thompson Road (sight of the Singapore Grand Prix back in the day – I wish I was around to see that before it was canned in the 1970s), and stopped for a wanton mee (pictured above). I got upsold and ordered some soup with bigger dumplings in it too. The main dish was a bit light-on for the roasted pork, but the noodles seemed fresh enough. Plus there’s that lovely sambal belachan – chilli cooked with shrimp paste – to add some salty/fishy spice. Hmmmm.

Nasi Padang

Moving yet further into the wilds seldom seen by tourists, the next day I stopped at an eating house in Sembawang for some Malay food. I love this place, actually. It’s run by a bunch of nice older ladies who seem to actually enjoy what they do, and it shows in their food. A plate of rice with sambal chicken, fried bean sprouts, a fried egg and some peanuts with ikan bilis (teensy little dried fish) on the side. Delicious, and again, somewhere around $6.

Another day saw me in an outer suburban shopping mall, braving the early lunch hour (everybody eats at 12:30!). I had a char kway teow, which is a flat rice noodle dish with prawns, fat, cockles, fat, bean sprouts, fat, dark soy sauce, fat, egg, and some other secret ingredients, possibly including fat.

Bizarrely, some locals arrived and ordered the dish at the same time, and had theirs cooked first because – get this – they didn’t want spice! Weird. It was delicious, but I suspect it may have been fattening. I don’t know what makes me say that. And I reckon $4 doesn’t buy you any ingredients with nutritional value, either. Certainly green vegetables were conspicuous in their absence. Good for a hangover though.

Finally I went to Poison Ivy, which is on an organic farm – one of about one in Singapore – and had a curry. Okay, it’s more expensive than hawker food, but I did get vegetables, which is rare, and they were grown locally too, or so they claim. All for $20 with lime juice and coffee.

Now, I didn’t manage to hit some of my other favourites – Indian served on banana leaf at Samy’s for instance, or sambal sting ray, or chilli crab, or laksa, or bak kuh teh, or nasi lemak. But I need to spend at least a year on an exercise bike first.

Maybe that’s the list for 2015. That and a heart transplant.






Hi Tony,

Its open fire, roasted chestnuts and red wine time of year. And to think, all of that without cranking the airconditioner up.

Funny, no snow on the ground in the mountains yet, but we are already thinking about spring/summer again. That may have something to do with a little party we are planning in the spring…or because we are hanging out to slide down a hill and ride a lift back up again. Not sure which, maybe a little from column A and a little from column B.

Been working silly long hours, both of us, so the cooking has taken a bit of a backseat. Weekends have been our saviour. A chance to spend a few hours in the kitchen and get a few things made and frozen.

Come winter proper, we’ll be back at Mt Buller every weekend. Might put pay to some of the weekend cooking. Going to have to find a solution for that at some point.

Hey, when was the last time you made dumplings? Yeah, thought that might be the case…why would you make dumplings if you can buy them in Chinatown for a couple of baht each? Ok, so I spent a couple hours mixing up some minced chicken, lemongrass, ginger, coriander, garlic, chilli, sesame oil and Xiao shin wine and then folding a teaspoon full in some gyoza wrappers. Sure, I cheated at this point…I didn’t make the gyoza wrappers. Store bought. Not half bad though.


Try this, some chicken stock, ginger, dark soy sauce bring to the boil, add the dumplings and after a while, Chinese broccoli, oyster mushrooms and some egg noodles. Great fast winter filler.  Wash it down with something zesty like an aged Petaluma Riesling.


Do you ever get home at the end of the day and just have a hankering for something? Even if it means standing in 12C and rain whilst bbq’ing some chicken thigh fillets marinaded in cumin, sumac, turmeric, dried chilli, garlic and olive oil. But even more challenging, proving and baking some Turkish bread at the same time. Throw a little thinly sliced cucumber, chilli relish and tahini (with hot water and freshly chopped parsley) and you have a killer chicken burger!

Speaking of bread. I did a bread making course at the Abbotsford Convent over summer. They have an amazing wood fired oven, but doing a course there on a 40C day is not advisable. Was a great course, but I was scanning the paper today and low and behold, there is a pic of Baker Bob. Ok, it wasn’t such an inspiring story to go with the art. Seems Baker Bob was dabbling in other sorts of dough.

Revisited an old fav on Friday night. Not sure if you’ve been to Old Kingdom? It’s a Melbourne institution. Forget the menu, little on it that you would want to order. Duck is what it is about. It’s a duck 3 – way. Starts off with Peking duck, moves on to duck stir fry then finishes things off with duck bone soup. Wash it down with a bottle of pinot noir, either red or sparkling…who knew that Champagne would go so well with duck?!

Quieter time planned this week. I think I’ve done my bbq’ing for the week. Might crank the heater and hang out inside. Perhaps even light a fire and find a suitable bottle of red. Maybe a Forest Hill Cabernet?

Greener Pastures



Tender and delicious (left). Farmer (right).

Great Dan. While you were braving Melbourne’s winter to barbeque/smoke fish, I was busy making a lamb ragù and home-made Pappardelle in 37-degree heat!

At least the weather came to the party and I got a storm when I was dishing up, so with the air-conditioning cranked up it seemed an appropriately wintery night for a hearty slow-cooked meal and a glass of red.

Greener grass; it’s a great motivation, no?

Oh, and if you’re American, that’s 99-degrees F. Please, get a more sensible system – 0-degrees for freezing water and 100-degrees for boiling it makes comprehending it so easy. Your option is 32-degrees and 212? Really?

The lamb was sort-of made up, but something like this: Brown lamb pieces in a heavy cast-iron pot, set aside. Add onion and pancetta and cook until the onion starts to colour. Deglaze the pan with a glass of wine, add stock, tomato paste, carrot and a bay leaf or two and simmer for three hours or so.

The pasta’s about the opposite in terms of cooking time. Mix about 1.5 cups of flour with two eggs and a generous pinch of salt. Knead and set aside for 30 mins. Run it through the pasta machine and cut into wide strips. Cook in boiling water for about 2 minutes.

There’s no substitute for fresh pasta like this. I don’t have anything against dried, but in this case the firmness of the fresh pasta was perfect for the fall-apart ragù. A little good quality parmesan cheese across the top and you’re away.

I’m almost embarrassed to say it, but we drank a bottle of Jacob’s Creek cab sav with it. In my defence, I had to buy it at the supermarket, and it was the Reserve variety, which is much better than the usual stuff. And it cost US$25, which is more than enough for a night at home, and at the low-end for a drinkable wine in these parts. Sigh.

My winter didn’t last long though. The next day I made omelettes stuffed with fresh crab, coriander and a chilli-jam dressing. I can’t get over the fact that I can get the crab meat, freshly-cooked and picked, from the supermarket for less than the price of lamb.

And really, when the temperature is in the high thirties, who wants a heavy winter meal?

Smoker’s cough


Oh, I get it.

With the advent of review sites like Urbanspoon and Yelp (in the US), you open the door to “professional” reviewers and casual diner/reviewers alike. What I don’t get is complaining about a restaurant experience on social media. What happened to speaking to someone at the venue?

On the other hand, raving about the latest place, because, well, it’s the latest place is equally annoying. In Melbourne the trend is for “south of the river” residents to brave the hipsters in the north to “find” that “undiscovered gem”. Really? You do realise the locals had been eating there for the last 12 months. They’re not anymore.

Wagyu. That’s my beef (pardon the pun).

Over the course of the last few years, we have seen a distinct swing to the use of wagyu beef, except at some fast food joints. But, I was under belief that the whole wagyu thing was that is extensively marbled with fat so that it is uber tender. At least that’s what I encountered with steaks in Japan. So, why is it that every pub, restaurant and burger joint (there are too many of these) is spruiking a wagyu burger? Last I checked ground/minced beef was tender, well, because it was ground/minced. Did I miss something?

Call me cynical, but I suspect this is so we can be charged $20+ for a wagyu burger which is comprised all of those cuts of meat which we just don’t really want to know about. I’m probably happier with a burger made from nice meat from any old bovine for half the price.

Ok, so hindsight is a pretty good thing. Should have considered things a little more last night. But it seemed like a damned fine idea at the time.


Take 1 x 750g rainbow trout (sadly it was farmed, not wild), clean, season and place on BBQ (not over heat) with smoker box full of hickory wood chips. Sounds pretty fine, yeah?

Ok, so taking the washing off the line beforehand would have been sensible.


Despite winter being upon us, I do so like firing the BBQ up drenched in sub-tropical, lush, verdant green foliage. Alright, it currently is a somewhat overgrown jungle.

You’ll be happy to know that the trout was sensational, if I do say so myself. Matched it was a warm middle eastern cous cous salad. Pretty easy, mix some sumac, cumin, ground coriander and fennel seeds with your cous cous and cook per normal. Sprinkle with some goats cheese, pomegranate seeds and chopped parsley.


I know, a healthy meal. Even better with an aged (2009) Petaluma Riesling. So much goodness.


Web of Deception




Hey, “The leading independent guide to what’s on in Singapore” recently launched a mobile app. Having never heard of City Nomads I thought I’d check out its website, and chose a restaurant review at random, just to see what it’s all about.

Wading past the usual lifestyle writer’s clichés – Sabai Fine Thai on the Bay is, of course, ‘nestled’ in its location. Nestled being the only way a lifestyle writer can describe a physical location. ‘Nestled in verdant greenery’ is a personal favourite and overused phrase, as though greenery is any other colour.

There was a mention of ‘pleasing verdant foliage’ in another randomly-selected review on the site, so I’m saying they’ve got all the boxes checked. Then again, another food blogger went the whole hog with ‘nestled among lush greenery’ for his review of the same place, and yet another went with ‘soaked in quiet greenery’. I’m assuming he took a wetsuit.

But back to the Thai restaurant. Apparently the chicken wings were ‘joyful’, which would seem odd given they’d been hacked off a chicken and subsequently stuffed and fried.

But the one that really hit a nerve was this: The ‘duck red curry’ came in a ‘light red curry sauce containing lychees, an unusual but brilliant addition.’

Lychees in gaeng phed ped yaang are an ‘unusual’ addition? Oh come on: 90 percent of the red duck curries I’ve ordered have had lychees in them.


Some lychees, yesterday

I’m an old fart I know, but this sort of uninformed opinion masquerading as knowledge really pisses me off.

If you’re going to make a statement of fact, maybe you should try to ensure it is actually factual. Ever heard of Google? It is a place to start, though may well lead you to other similarly uninformed opinions on the Web.

Herd ignorance; just what the world needs.

Now I know I’m picking on City Nomads unfairly, it’s not as though they’re the only amateurs in the field.

It is possible to write with some humility and informatively when you’re new to something, but in most cases  you want reviewers who have some experience in the field about which they write.

This is problematic in the lifestyle media for reasons made clear on City Nomad’s website in a job advertisement. You too could join the City Nomads team as editor, the gatekeeper for all the opinion and facts (along with the spelling and grammar) that warrant publishing, and earn a grand sum of S$3-4k a month for your trouble. That’s US$2.4-3.2k.

Stop and think about that for a moment.

Unless you’re living at home with mummy and daddy (a distinct possibility in the world’s most expensive city) and they’re picking up all your bills, that’s not going to leave a lot of spare cash for dining out at anything other than hawker centres. So where, other than hosted media tastings, are you going to get the experience you should have in order to do the job properly?

I’ve long maintained that to write about lifestyle it helps to actually have a lifestyle, but frankly most publishers don’t see it that way, choosing instead to exploit juniors who perceive the business as glamourous and are willing to accept inequitable wages as a result.

If you’ve ever wondered why reviews in the so-called lifestyle media tend to be as gushing, and as adjective- and superlative-laden as the marketing materials from which they are so often cut and pasted, or why they’re so often ill-informed and undiscerning, then wonder no more.

Do we deserve better? I’m not so sure we do, given our penchant for consuming our media for free on the Web. Maybe the old model where experts were paid a proper living wage to write reviews and we paid for the privilege of reading them was better?


Anyway, now I’m done venting my spleen, last night’s dinner was based of a recipe  in an old Donna Hay magazine. Thai herbs, duck, home-made chilli jam, and fresh lychees. They were an unusual, but brilliant addition.

Back to basics


Hi Tony,

I can’t agree more. In fact, a container of frozen chicken stock has been pulled out to make some chicken and leek pies for tonight’s dinner.

We were so pleased to be invited to a great friend’s 30th birthday party on Saturday night. A trip back up to central Victoria, this time to Oxley (just down the road from Beechworth). “C”’s family have a beautiful property just out of town, where we pitched a tent and donned our “vintage ski gear”. My ski pants must have shrunk in storage…

The food put on for the party was a lesson in keeping it simple. Surrounded by some amazing producers in Oxley, it was a delight to see it celebrated. Local, Brown Brothers’ wines (I was particularly partial to the Prosecco and the Chardonnay), a locally cured leg of ham, a couple of cold smoked whole salmon, more Milawa cheese than I have seen in my life and to wrap things up, local Milawa Bakery salted cornbread rolls stuffed full of coleslaw and the most amazing slow cooked lamb. Melt in the mouth. Proof that if you start with great produce, treat it with the care and attention that it deserves, you simply can’t go wrong.

So, how do we city dwellers find such wonderful produce? That is the big question. Perhaps a trip up to somewhere like Oxley or Milawa for the occasional sourcing trip? The other option which seems to come to the fore from time to time is to buy straight from the producer and have it shipped. I haven’t tried this yet, but perhaps it is time.

No doubt there were some sore heads the following morning. A few passed our tent in the wee hours of Sunday morning. I must admit I had to stifle a chuckle when I heard “…I can’t feel my face…” upon passing. Pretty sure a breakfast roll with some re-warmed lamb would have fixed most of the ails.

We had to sneak way to get to Meredith’s birthday lunch on Sunday. A stop at the Oxley Take Away for breakfast, again, simple fresh eggs, local cured bacon on Milawa Bakery bread with some relish. Worthy.

Inspired, I’ve got a loaf of pasta dura proving. I know, it is a Tuesday night and already pushing 9pm but another 30 mins of proving and a hot, hot oven with some help from a water spray, and I will have a loaf of bread with crunchy crust crying out for some Beechworth Honey from our last visit. It’s not going to help my waistline, but oh so tasty.

We have a long weekend coming up. Me thinks that some time in the kitchen is a must.