Jiak like a local

A culinary adventure reveals Singapore can be a great host to vegetarians too

By Text and pictures: Sibendu Das
  • Published 15.07.18
  •  
The Dusk restobar has fabulous views over the Singapore straits and offers scrumptious food and heady cocktails

We were a group of six journalists from six parts of India — three strict vegetarians including one who’s the happiest when his plate has dal-chawal on it, one non-vegetarian whose meat bowl includes only chicken, one who eats everything that moves, and another (myself) who loves all kinds of meat but is allergic to shelled seafood. To curate a meal map across Singapore for such an odd mix for a five-day trip would be quite a task... or so we thought. 

That was until we walked into our first food stop, Good Old Days, a big cosy restaurant in the heart of Sentosa Island. Their menu has almost everything Singapore is known for — Hainanese Chicken Rice, Singaporean Laksa, Beef Hor Fun and desserts like Ice Kachang and Chendol. One of us even ordered a plate of samosas to go with some cool daab pani in a fancy shell. There were two Indian set meals on the menu, with all the usual suspects — Paneer Makhani, Aloo Gobi, Yellow Dal, Fish Curry and Okra Masala. One dish was missing though — the famous Singaporean Chilli Crab. I wasn’t disappointed much, thanks to my allergy.

Back in the mainland, Little India is an area dotted with Indian restaurants — Murugan Idli, Komala Vilas, Saravana Bhavan, Mumbai Magic, Kaka Ka Dhaba, Amber Tandoor.... For a while, you might forget you are in Singapore.
On the top floor of Mustafa Centre on Syed Alwi Road in Little India, Kebabs ’n Curries is a huge glass dome-shaped restaurant that crisscrosses northern and southern India — Mutton Pepper Fry, Andhra Kozhivepudu, Banarsi Seekh Kebab, Navaratan Korma, Kolhapuri Palak, Gosht Vindaloo, Methi Machchhi.... The lentil-loving elderly member in the team flashed a 1,000-watt smile at the sight of Tadkedar Dal. 

Given that Tamils and Malayalees together form two-thirds of the Indian population in Singapore, there are quite a few local dishes that reflect south Indian flavours, including their Fish Head Curry and Roti Prata. 

Aher Soup is one of the tiny kiosks at Wisma Atria Food Republic that has got a Michelin Bib Gourmand

At the Amara Sanctuary Resort in Sentosa, there’s a self-help kiosk with an elaborate Kacang Putih table at the reception. Originating from Indian settlers, the Kacang Putih snack is a childhood favourite among locals — an assortment of steamed and roasted lentils, peanuts, chickpeas and green peas, usually served in paper cones outside cinemas and schools.

The north Indian gujiya is sold in a savoury avatar with a new name, Curry Puff, on the streets. Stuffed with a chicken-mushroom filling and some with sardine, it’s a common snack in Malaysia and Singapore. 

Our dal-chawal-rajma-loving gang had a surprise on the final day. Lunch was booked at The Song of India, a Michelin-starred Indian restaurant, headed by chef Manjunath Mural from Mumbai who curated a veg and a non-veg five-course menu. The highlights of my platter were Mustard Enhanced Smoked Salmon, Tandoori Chicken and Bhuna Lamb Gosht. The lime sorbet dipped in truffle oil was a hit with everyone.

That was just before we left for our return journey.

HAWKERS’ TREATS

There are many hawkers’ markets and a visit to at least one of them is a must if you’re a foodie. You will find them in designated areas inside malls and other enclosures, where kiosks are lined up from one end to the other with tables and chairs in the middle. It’s like a mini food court. 

A wide selection of seafood, several options of flavourful Malay, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese dishes make these hawker centres a favourite among local residents. Some of the popular hawker centres are the Geylang Serai Market, East Coast Park Lagoon Food Village, Newtown Circus Food Centre, Simpang Bedok Food Centre and the famous Lau Pa Sat, a giant old building dedicated to food, at 18 Raffles Quay. It’s a myth that vegetarians won’t find anything to eat at these centres. There were many stalls with a variety of options. 

If you are on a tight itinerary that doesn’t allow you to explore hawker centres across the island, you can simply walk into the Wisma Atria Food Republic on Orchard Road, the city’s most happening shopping street. Ideally you should carry cash as most of the hawkers don’t accept cards. 

At a kiosk called Aher Soup, selling Japanese soups and meat bowls, I ordered Steamed Pork Ribs with Blackbean Sauce for six Singapore dollars along with their best-selling chicken and beef soup, Buddha Jumps Over the Wall, for nine Singapore dollars — one of the best meals I have had in Singapore. No wonder, the tiny kiosk was awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand last year.

PERANAKAN

The popular Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine is native to Singapore, handed down by the descendants of early Chinese migrants who settled and married local Malays; the food is an amalgam of both cultures. Our introduction to Peranakan flavours happened with a meal at Whole Earth, a restaurant “that happens to be vegetarian”, according to its owner Phyllis Ong. Their Penang Rendang, a shiitake mushroom dish, was my favourite. 

There are several street food/hawker kiosks that have been awarded Michelin stars, including one named Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle in Outram, Singapore, that holds the record for serving the cheapest Michelin-starred meal in the world (for 2 Singapore dollars). 

With more than 35 Michelin-starred restaurants in the city, and many more Michelin Bib Gourmands, good food is a given in this island state. Our tour guide claimed that more than 70 per cent of the local population preferred eating out rather than cooking at home. One can see why. 

Then there’s Satay Street, a road running parallel to Lau Pa Sat food market, which closes at night to traffic to host late-night crowds. Satays are grilled skewers of meat, traditionally made from fillets of beef, chicken and lamb, and served with slices of cucumber and onion, and rice dumplings called ketupat. 

NIGHT OUT

Ann Siang Hill

Visit Ann Siang Hill in Singapore’s famed Chinatown after 7pm. Every Friday and Saturday, the road lined with beautifully restored heritage buildings that have been turned into restaurants and bars is closed to traffic from 7pm to 2am. Tables are set, chairs are placed around. Some of the city’s busiest speakeasy bars and cocktail boutiques, bistros and cafes, restaurants and barbecue diners are located on this stretch. 

Dessert at Coriander Leaf

We walked into Coriander Leaf, a restobar run by Samia Ahad, a chef and F&B entrepreneur of Bangladeshi origin, where after a heavy dinner we went up to the rooftop bar and raised a toast with Singapore Sling. Probably the drink that best represents Singapore — a heady and colourful gin-based concoction. 

It’s makan time!

Singlish is the most-spoken language in Singapore, which is a funny mix of English and a smattering of Malay and Chinese. Here’s a t2oS guide to Singlish terms that can help when hungry!

Jiak: It means ‘eat’ in Hokkien, a popular dialect in Singapore. “Want to jiak?” which also means “Do you want to eat?”

Makan: Means ‘meal’ or ‘to eat’.

Shiok: It’s a universal Singaporean expression for something that looks, feels or tastes good. Often used after a satisfactory meal.

Tapao: The Singlish equivalent of ‘takeaway’.

Boleh: A Malay word for ‘can’ or ‘possible’.

Chope: Means to reserve a place or call dibs on something. If you see a pack of tissues on a seat or table at a hawker centre during lunch hours, try your luck elsewhere, the spot has been ‘choped’.

SKYLINE VIEWS

A visit to the Marina Bay Sands hotel is a must. Head to Ce LA Vi (pic above) on the 57th floor and unwind with a glass of Penicillin (a potent whisky cocktail) and admire the magnificent Singapore evening skyline. We understand it’s all sun, sand and sea in Singapore, but pack at least one set of formals to enter this space. Chic and classy, Ce La Vi will leave you happy high. One can also plonk themselves at 1-Altitude (1 Raffles Place), another popular drinking den, famous for its 360-degree view of the city from its rooftop bar. 

We were completely floored by Dusk, a restobar at Faber Peak in Sentosa Island. With a view of the Singapore Strait dotted with tiny twinkling islands and vessels, Dusk and its ever-smiling staff pampered the non-veg glutton in me with Truffle Steak Fries, Foie Gras Pizza and a medium rare beef steak, alongside their signature cocktail Dusk Till Dawn (loaded with gin, vodka, rum and tequila). The best time to visit Dusk? Isn’t the name a hint enough?