Crab night in Singers

If you read all the food travel sites, then you would could be forgiven for believing that Singapore is all about Hawkers markets or Singapore Chilli Mud crab. And as a tourist there, it is relatively easy to get advice on where to go to get these things. Of course, in doing so, you run the risk of ending up at the same venue as hundreds of other tourists: Maxwells Food Centre for Hawker food and Red House or Jumbo Seafood for Chilli crab. And the food at these places is pretty good. Red House was the first restaurant to serve the fiery, but sweet chilli crab with mantou to mop up the sauce. Mantou is a plain Chinese bread bun that, in my days living in China in the 90’s, was served mostly for breakfast. It was a cheap food that was not usually served in high-end establishments. How times have changed! Just as lamb shanks in New Zealand have been re-invented as a top-end restaurant dish, the quality of the mantou is now used by Singaporean food bloggers as the barometer for a good chilli crab restaurant.

Singapore at night

Singapore at night

When I travel, I like to find an authentic local experience. I would rather squat on tiny plastic stools on a dirty lino floor, hole-in-the-wall, street-side place with locals than a white-tie establishment. But it isn’t always easy to get off the beaten tourist track and find these places. Last time we were in Singapore, we were lucky enough to be at a conference held out at the National University of Singapore at Kent Ridge – a long metro ride from Orchard road or at least 30 minutes in a taxi. There were no tourists milling around out here and just a few Western ex-pats at the local shopping mall. But our Chinese-Singaporean contact told us how to get even further out of town (metro with 1 change) to a neighbourhood area of Clementi. From the station you need to pass through the modern shopping mall with its cute, sweet bakeries and expensive watch shops, out the back and into the local neighbourhood of high-rise apartment buildings. Then around the back of the shops selling plastic buckets and cheap Chinese clothes, to the hawker food stalls crowded out with local Singaporeans. There were big queues at the satay stall and a smaller gathering at the stall selling pig’s organ soup with black pepper (much nicer than it sounds!). Everything was cooked fresh and sold until they ran out. Then the shutters came down. There was Malay food next to Nyonya food. Indian food next to Chinese food. Halal dishes next to Pork dishes. Duck, chicken, offal, soups, curries, fried fish, dried pork skin (sweet), tofu, pork belly, century eggs.  It was all there. Squatting on impossibly tiny plastic stools at formica tables, that were slightly sticky from the last occupier, we scoffed a range of dishes from different stalls and washed them down with an ice cold tiger beer (that can only be served by the slender girl in the Tiger Beer uniform!). The Clementi market closes early as the locals eat in a hurry and head back to life in the apartment buildings that tower over the crammed hawker market below. We metro-ed home to the University knowing that we’d had great food evening.

Clementi Hawker Food

Clementi Hawker Food

On our last night in Singapore we decided that we did need to have crab. We both LOVE crab, and cook it at home whenever we can get reasonably priced fresh crab at our local fish shop (not often). Graeme does the best salt, pepper chilli fried crab ever. But when in Singapore, mud crab is a must. But first things first; an aperitif was in order to whet the appetite. Friends had recommended we do the tourist thing and go to the top of Skypark at Marina Sands – a skyscraper in which the top levels of the building are shaped like a boat. The infinity pool on the top floors goes right to the edge of the deck to peer over a 57 storey drop to the city below. As a major sufferer of vertigo, this wasn’t my idea of fun, but (at a distance of 10 m from the edge) the views were fantastic. You can pay $23 Singapore to go to the 56th floor observatory deck to look at the views. Or you can say you are going to the bar or the restaurant and ride to the 57th floor for free. Of course cocktails or wine are at least $23 a glass at the bar but that way you get to the top floor and a drink, for the same price as just the ride. A gin and tonic is only $18.

Marina Sands towers

Marina Sands towers

If you don’t mind the breath-sapping height,  the views are spectacular. We could have just taken photos from the one side only, had a quick look at the jaw-dropping pool and left without going to the bar, but watching a small child swinging at the railings right on the edge necessitated a drink. The views from the bar deck were amazing as well, and not as stomach-clenching after a good cocktail. To soak up the “Geisha Delight” we ordered crab cakes. Crumbed balls the size of a walnut in a very Western style, but packed with real crab meat. They were delicious fresh bites of fried goodness, at a price.

From the high-end of Singapore, we jumped a couple more metro rides to the Geylang neighbourhood that Graeme had spied on a previous night (Aljunied metro stop). He liked the look of it for the older looking streets and buildings, where throngs of locals were eating on the streets. We walked around a few streets, down some side lanes watching the hubbub and feeling slightly out of place before we came upon a branch of No Signboard Restaurant. This crab restaurant started humbly as a stall in a Hawkers Market that didn’t have a signboard because the owners couldn’t afford one. They also took the risk of selling crab at a Hawkers market, an unknown at the time. The food worked so well that they ended up turning it into a restaurant. And now they have a few of them. We decided to try their signature crab dish, which is NOT the chilli crab, but the white pepper mud crab. A perfect combination. The pepper is hot enough to counter the sweetness of the crab and leaves a nice tingle in your mouth. But it doesn’t drown overpower the succulent taste of the crab. It is aromatic, warm, and spicy, but subtle. So much that it highlights the delicate sweetness of the crab. We chose a kangkong (water convolvulus) with sambal dish to complement it, as it has Graeme’s favourite ingredient- belachan. Delicious! It was honestly the best crab meal we have had in a long time, made even better by the surroundings of a real United Nations of locals of varying ethnic backgrounds enjoying the same thing.

White Pepper Crab

 

 

No Signboard

No Signboard

Leaving the restaurant and walking along the street only heightened this feeling of a multi-cultural neighbourhood with different ethnicities all living together in harmony. Yes, it is something of a red light district and, yes, sometimes you feel like you are sitting in the middle of a neighbourhood scene in an Asian gangster movie. But it is very safe, and great for people-watching. Every corner had an open-air eatery with small stalls around the edge and an array of grimy plastic tables and chairs in the middle, spilling out onto the foot path. Locals were queuing up at the different stalls for their speciality and then sitting with everyone else to eat and drink.

geylang

geylang

Chinese fish maw soup next to Indian naan and curry or Halal Soup Tulung (spicy bone soup). Avoid the Sin Huat “Restaurant” heavily promoted by Anthony Bourdain (but still grimy and real). If the prices are anything to go by, fame has got the better of them! Instead go where the locals are lining up for noodles pulled by hand the traditional way-with the noodle-meister stretching the dough out between his hands, arms outstretched as far as possible and swirling it around to create the individual strands. The stall nearby, using the antiquated machine to make the noodles was no less intriguing.  Although we had just eaten, we felt the need to stop and try a bowl of noodles topped with pork, swimming in a delicious clear broth. Washed down, of course, with another Tiger beer. We happily sat there people-watching for the next two hours before catching the metro to the airport for our flight out. The experience was so good that a month later, as we passed back through Singapore as transit passengers, we decided not to waste the 4 hours sitting in the airport, eating over-priced average food. Instead, we jumped on the metro and repeated the white pepper crab experience at No Signpost and topped it with beers and 2 dishes at 2 different corner eateries.  This time we braved the pig’s intestine soup, which was fantastic, but we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to eat the fresh frog soup. Watching the live ones in the tank on the counter was a little off-putting.  The roasted duck parts on rice were also a little unusual. Apart from the heads, I couldn’t really tell what was sitting on my pillow of rice, but whatever they were, they were rich and delicious. The Tiger beer Girl graced us with her presence, resplendent in branded faux leather mini-skirt. It was hard to leave to catch our flight home!

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