Singapore: Pack a fearless palate

By Sharon Stephenson

Singapore serves up the food of the gods - and the devil, writes Sharon Stephenson.

If you've forgotten to pack an adventurous palate, there's still much for the hungry in Singapore. Photo / Bloomberg News
If you've forgotten to pack an adventurous palate, there's still much for the hungry in Singapore. Photo / Bloomberg News

"We have frogs," declares the sign at the entrance to the Singaporean wet market.

Sure enough, a stroll into the cavernous underbelly of the China Town Market reveals hundreds of shamelessly small crates crammed full of amphibians the size of saucers, their bright green skins glowing like neon against the gloom of the subterranean location.

One vendor, sensing my obvious Western discomfort at the sight of the tiny crates vs too many animals, stretches my tolerance like an elastic band by decapitating a frog in front of me.

Which could explain my sudden interest in the mounds of unusual looking root vegetables on the far side of the market.

Doomed frogs await their fate. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user William Gossett

Anyone who's chomped their way through Asia knows there's much that brushes up against the limits of conventional Anglicised tastes.

And although Singapore doesn't tend to throw as many culinary curve balls as some of its neighbours - think dog kebab, still-alive octopus and deer-penis wine - step away from the glittering boutiques and you'll find enough foodstuffs to raise your eyebrows.

At one tiny shop, where we escape from the midday heat, I spy platters of deep-fried scorpions, double-boiled crocodile soup and buckets of sleek black eels waiting to be someone's lunch.

Less confronting, but never going to make it to my "desert island" list, is the local speciality of century eggs, duck, chicken or quail eggs that have been preserved in salt and clay. The resultant black gelatinous breakfast smells more sulphurous than Rotorua and tastes like ... well, let's just say it's the work of the devil.

If you've forgotten to pack an adventurous palate, there's still much for the hungry. And the greedy. Singaporean cuisine is a mash-up of food cultures that borrows heavily from Chinese, Indian, Malay, Indonesian and even Western diets, thanks to the British who swept in on the monsoon trade winds sometime in the 1800s.

Toss in Peranakan cuisine, which features regional variations, and you've got endless dining choices.

"Singaporeans eat five times a day and while they're having breakfast, they're usually discussing what they'll have for dinner, but only because they'll have decided what to have for lunch the day before," says my guide, Wee Tee.

She's not making it up, either; we start the day with a local speciality, kaya toast (bread slathered with a sweet, gooey coconut curd and more butter than is strictly necessary), to the soundtrack of a neighbouring table loudly discussing which hawker centre serves the best satay bee hoon, a spicy riff on humble vermicelli.

The name "Maxwell" makes several appearances, so we figure it's a safe bet to follow their lead and try the Maxwell Rd Hawker Centre. More than 100 hawker centres dot this tiny city state, offering a sanitised version of the type of cooking that was once carried out on roadsides.

Maxwell Rd's pre-war market boasts around 100 stalls and, though the aesthetic is basic, that's not why hordes of office workers, labourers and families flock here.

They come to crowd the communal tables and pile their plates high with cheap and delicious offerings such as Hainanese chicken rice, carrot cake (not the iced one but a savoury omelette) and a fish head curry that could double as jet fuel.

Hainanese chicken rice is delicious. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Alpha

Wee Tee won't let us leave without trying a durian cream puff, some misguided chef's attempt to camouflage the foul-smelling, rotting-flesh tasting fruit (which are banned from hotels and public transport because of their odour).

"Durian tastes like heaven but smells like hell," laughs Wee Tee. "However, if you put them in a cream puff, they're delicious."

She's wrong, as it happens: you can throw as much carbs and dairy as you like at these fruit, and they'll still taste like hell.

A pot of Singapore's iconic chilli crab is just the thing to exorcise our durian demons, so we cross town to leafy Dempsey Hill. Once the home of the British Army, it's now a chi-chi village where the fat of wallet come to play.

We eschew expensive brunch places in favour of the LongBeach Seafood Restaurant, one of several in this chain which has been serving up fiery hot crustaceans for as long as anyone can remember.

They do claim to have invented black pepper crab, but it's been a few years since I ate chilli crab and that's what I've been dreaming about ever since my plane landed at Changi.

We gratefully accept the aprons provided and then make our way through a steaming pile of shell and meat which, only hours ago, was searching for its dinner in the waters of the South China Sea.

It is, like so much of Singapore, perfect.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies 12 times a week from Auckland to Singapore.

Further information: See yoursingapore.com.

Sharon Stephenson was a guest of the Singapore Tourism Board and Singapore Airlines.

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

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