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In the lion city and across the waves

Durri Bhalla writes about the cuisines of Singapore and Indonesia in the third of her five-part series on Southeast Asian food

Durri Bhalla   |   Published 30.05.21, 12:08 AM

This edition of my Southeast Asian culinary journey will cover two countries, due to their similarities in food — Singapore and Indonesia. Singapore is one of Southeast Asia’s most modern countries and truly a melting pot of culture and cuisines. The city blends Malay, Chinese, Indonesian and Indian food, and now boasts of some of the most exquisite restaurants of the world. Also, my constant craving for street food is what draws me to this fascinating country, making it one of my most favourite culinary destinations in the world. Indonesia is not too far away when it comes to its food. One of the most delicate to taste, yet complex in its ingredients, the recipes date back to a few hundred centuries, when the country was a trading hub for spices. Here I have simplified some of the most popular dishes from both these beautiful countries, making them easy to make without compromising on flavour.


This Indonesian street food is a good way of having your five-a-day. Nutrients packed with flavour will keep you wanting more. Here is my version of the Indonesian Gado Gado, a very healthy salad indeed.



  • Chinese cabbage: Cut fine
  • Radish: Cut into fine rounds
  • Beetroot: Cut into fine rounds
  • Baby spinach: ½ a bunch
  • Red cabbage: Finely shredded
  • Tomatoes: Cut into chunks
  • Cucumber: Cut into small chunks
  • Tofu: Cut into pieces and sauteed till brown
  • Potatoes: Boiled and cut into chunks
  • Bean sprouts: A handful
  • Broccoli: Some florets, blanched
  • American corn: 2tbsp, blanched
  • Prawn crackers
  • Peanut butter sauce: Slightly thinned to use as a dressing (see Satay with Peanut Butter Sauce for recipe). Can add a little lime juice and salt to taste


Place the vegetables in a salad bowl. Drizzle the peanut butter over it. Toss well. Crush some prawn crackers over it and serve immediately while the vegetables are still crunchy. A tip for keeping the vegetables and salad leaves crunchy is to immerse them in ice water for 10 minutes (and pat dry) before serving.


This dish, introduced in the early 1900s, became so popular among the locals that it was designated the national dish of Singapore. What differentiates this crab stir-fry from the others is its unique sweet, sour and spicy sauce. Available in most street food dens, one cannot leave Singapore without giving this a try.


  • Crab: 800g, or 4 medium size
  • Oil: 6tbsp
  • Black bean sauce: 1tsp (optional)
  • Chicken stock: 500ml
  • Spring onion greens chopped: 3tbsp
  • Tomato puree: ¼ cup
  • Tomato ketchup: ¼ cup
  • Corn flour: 1tsp (mixed with 2tbsp water)
  • Butter: 1tbsp

For the chilli paste (rempeh)

  • Red chillies: 5, long
  • Shallots: 10 (or 1½ onions), chopped
  • Garlic: 6 large cloves
  • Ginger: 1-inch piece, chopped
  • Galangal: 1-inch piece, chopped (1½-inch piece of ginger)
  • Lemongrass: 1 stalk, only the white part and chopped into rings
  • Tomato paste: 3tbsp
  • Rice vinegar: 1tbsp
  • Shrimp paste: 1tsp
  • Palm Sugar or Brown sugar: 4tsp
  • Salt: To taste

For the garnish

Spring onions, red chillies deseeded, cut and julienned, and coriander leaves.


⦿ Put all the ingredients for the chilli paste in a blender and make a smooth paste.

⦿ Heat 4tbsp oil in a wok or pan and add the chilli paste. Fry the paste on medium heat till the raw smell dissipates and you see the oil separating from the mixture. Then add the black bean sauce and fry for few seconds more. Remove and set aside.

⦿ In the wok heat 2tbsp oil and add the crabs. Fry on high heat till the colour becomes red (about 2 minutes). Then remove the crabs and keep them aside.

⦿ Put the chilli paste back in the wok and add the stock. Bring to a boil. 

⦿ Now add the crabs, cover and cook on medium low flame for 15 minutes.

⦿ Now this next step may sound tedious and repetitive, but it is very necessary. Remove the crabs once again from the sauce and set aside.

⦿ Now add the tomato puree and tomato ketchup to the remaining sauce in the wok and stir well. Make sure the heat is back on full whack.

⦿ Add the cornflour mixture. Stir well. In quick succession, add the chopped spring onions and butter. Keep stirring the mixture at all times. Now, put the crabs back in the sauce and cook for a couple of minutes. Check that the consistency of the sauce is to your liking.

⦿ Before plating, check for seasoning. Typically, I like mine very hot and end up slicing a few red chillies for added kick.

⦿ Serve garnished with red chilli and coriander leaves. Best had with hot rice. You will need a large, empty bowl for the shell.


Satay is one of the most popular street foods, both in Singapore and Indonesia. It is served as a starter in most restaurants with a peanut butter sauce. Satay itself means any protein cooked on a stick. Here, I have used chicken, but vegetarians can opt for firm tofu or pineapple. Both are equally delicious and good party starters.


For the satay

  • Chicken thighs boneless: 4, cut into medium strips

For the marinade

  • Lemongrass: 2 stalks, only the white part finely chopped
  • Shallots (onion): 3 (one medium size), chopped
  • Garlic: 6 cloves
  • Brown sugar: 1tbsp
  • Ginger: 1-inch piece, chopped
  • Coriander powder: 1tsp
  • Cumin powder: 1tsp
  • Soya sauce: 1tbsp
  • Oil: ¼ cup

For the peanut butter sauce

  • Peanuts: 200g, roasted and ground coarsely
  • Onion: 1 large, chopped
  • Oil: 2tbsp
  • Coriander powder: 1tsp
  • Cumin powder: 1tsp
  • Red chilli powder: ½tsp (or to taste)
  • Garlic: 5 cloves, chopped
  • Lemongrass: 2 (only the white part), chopped into rings
  • Brown sugar: 2tbsp
  • Coconut milk: 1½ cup
  • Fish sauce: 1tsp
  • Soya sauce: 1tsp


⦿ Blend the ingredients of the marinade into a smooth paste and marinate the chicken in it for six hours or overnight. It should be covered and kept in the fridge.

For cooking the chicken

⦿ Take bamboo sticks (easily available in stores) and thread three strips of chicken on each.

⦿ Heat 2tbsp of oil and cook the satay chicken on both sides till it is tender and turns slightly golden.

⦿ You can alternatively use a barbecue grill (as done on the streets of Singapore) for a rustic charred effect.

For making the peanut butter sauce

⦿ Heat oil in a pan. Add the onion and saute till golden. Now add garlic and saute till the raw smell goes. At this stage, add the coriander, cumin, red chilli powder, brown sugar, coconut milk, fish sauce and soya sauce. Let it simmer for 3 minutes.

⦿ Add this mixture in a blender with the peanuts and blend well. Check for seasoning and texture. In case it is too thick, you may add a little coconut milk to loosen it up.

⦿ Serve the satay on a platter with a generous dollop of the peanut butter sauce. Any leftover sauce can be put between two slices of bread for a midnight snack.


This is a popular fish dish from Indonesia that is very quick and easy to make, yet is full of flavour. It often comes with any kind of white rice, Asian greens and a chilli paste.


  • Bekti: 500g of fillets cut into big squares

For the marinade

  • Lime juice: 2tsp
  • Chilli or sambal paste: 3tsp
  • Kecap Manis: 3tsp (Alternatively a mix of 1tsp oyster sauce, 2tsp light soya sauce and ½tsp brown sugar)

For the sauce

  • Kecap Manis (or my version as mentioned above): 3tsp
  • Shallots: 4
  • Red chillies: 3
  • Lime juice: 1tsp


⦿ For the marinade, mix the lime juice, chilli or sambal paste and Kecap Manis (or my alternative). Marinate the fish and keep aside for 15 minutes.

⦿ For the sauce, put the Kecap Manis (or my version), shallots, red chillies and lime juice in a small pan and simmer it just to make it warm.

⦿ Grill the fish in a pan with butter till it is cooked on both sides. Place the fish on a serving platter and pour the warm sauce over it. Sprinkle with some roasted sesame seeds.

⦿ Best had with rice or a salad.


Hainanese chicken rice is a dish of poached chicken and flavoured rice. It is usually served with a chilli sauce, spring onions and ginger sauce, and a dressing of Kecap Manis (or my alternate as shown below) with a cucumber garnish. It was created by the immigrants from Hainan in southern China, who adapted it from the Hainanese dish Wenchang Chicken. This dish for me is truly comfort food — it is light, easy to make and literally dances in the mouth in pure Hainanese style. There are three parts to this dish: the chicken (whole with skin), the condiments and the rice. If you follow my recipe step-by-step, you will not go wrong!


For the chicken

  • Chicken: 1 whole
  • Sea salt: To rub the chicken inside and outside
  • Water (or chicken stock): 4 litres
  • Ginger: 3-inch piece, chopped in chunks
  • Spring onion stalks: 5
  • Chicken cubes (bouillion): 2

For the spring onion and ginger sauce

  • Spring onions: 4 (in full)
  • Ginger: 1tbsp, chopped
  • Sea salt: 1tsp
  • Oil: ¼ cup
  • Sesame oil: 2tsp

For the chilli sauce

  • Red bird’s eye chillies or any long red chillies: 6
  • Ginger: 6 thick slices
  • Garlic: 6 large cloves
  • Brown sugar: 2tsp
  • Sea salt: ½tsp
  • Chicken stock: ½ cup
  • Lime juice: 1tbsp
  • Oil: 2tbsp

For the dressing sauce

  • Sesame oil: 1tbsp
  • Light soya sauce: 2tbsp
  • Oyster sauce: 1tsp
  • Chicken stock: ½ cup

For the rice

  • Oil: 2tbsp
  • Chicken fat trimmings: From earlier
  • Garlic: 6 cloves, chopped
  • Jasmine rice: 1½ cup, soaked
  • Chicken stock: 3 cups


‣ Step 1: The chicken

⦿ Take a whole chicken with skin on. Cut the neck part and the fatty ends. Keep these bits aside for the rice. Rub the chicken with sea salt inside out.

⦿ In a large pot, put the chicken stock or water. In it, put the ginger and spring onion stalks. Then add the chicken cubes (bouillion).

⦿ Now gently put the chicken in the pot until its fully covered in the liquid and let it simmer for about one hour. While the chicken is cooking, you can start with the condiments and the rice.

‣ Step 2: Condiment No. 1. Spring onion and ginger sauce

⦿ Coarsely blend the spring onions, ginger and sea salt. Remove to a bowl.

⦿ In a small pan heat ¼ cup of oil and 2tsp of sesame oil. When it comes to smoking point, pour over the onion and ginger mixture. Stir well to combine all the ingredients. Keep aside. Condiment one is complete!

‣ Step 3: Condiment No 2. Chilli sauce

⦿ Blend coarsely all the ingredients except for the oil. Then heat oil to smoking point and pour over the chilli paste. Stir well to combine. Keep aside. Condiment No. 2 is done!

‣ Step 4: Condiment No. 3. Dressing sauce

⦿ Mix the sesame oil, light soya sauce, oyster sauce and chicken stock. Combine well. This sauce is for drizzling over the chicken. This is my substitute for the Kecap Manis.

‣ Step 5: The rice

⦿ In a pot heat the oil and put the chicken fat trimmings from earlier. Cook on high till the trimmings turn brown and all the flavours are released in the wok. Then discard the fat.

⦿ Now add the garlic to the chicken oil and cook till fragrant.

⦿ Add the jasmine rice and mix with the garlic and oil. Add 3 cups of the chicken stock in which the chicken was poaching. Cook till the rice is tender and the water has evaporated. Switch off the flame and let the rice cook in its own steam for 10 minutes.

‣ Step 6: To serve:

⦿ Gently take the chicken out of the stock. The rest of the stock is a soup to be had with the dish (after straining).

⦿ Carve the chicken through its joints, i.e., legs and breast. It doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect as long as the taste is intact.

⦿ To plate, fluff up some rice from the pan, and place a generous serving on the plate. Add the chicken pieces either on or to the side of the rice. Then drizzle some of the dressing (Condiment 3) over the chicken.

⦿ Use the other sauces (Condiments 1 and 2) to further enhance the flavours of the rice as per your taste.

⦿ Garnish with freshly-sliced cucumbers, green onions and a bowl of the clear soup.

⦿ During parties, I often keep all three condiments in large sauce bowls so that guests can add as much or as little as they want.

Pictures by the author and istock.

Durri Bhalla is a cookery expert and author of Indian Bohra Cuisine and Inner Truth To Good Health And Weight Loss. You can find her at @DurriBhallaKitchen on Instagram, Durri’s Kitchen on Facebook and Durri Bhalla on YouTube.

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