The definitive highlight of my time in Singapore occurred two weeks ago when I had the distinct pleasure of taking a Makansutra Food Safari with Singapore’s semi-official hawker centre guru, KF Seetoh. I first became aware of Seetoh when he appeared on No Reservations: Singapore (as aforementioned, one of my favorite food shows), then saw him again last year when he was a guest judge on the Top Chef DC finale in Singapore. The day I arrived here I went out and bought a Makansutra Guide, which is like a Zagat guide for Hawker food, rating the best dishes and hawker stalls across the island. The top rating, 3 chopsticks, is called “Die die must try!” (said with Singaporean inflection, of course). In short, I kind of felt like a groupie getting to meet him.
In addition to being the international face of Singaporean food, Seetoh is also something of a local celebrity. I believe he has (or used to have?) a local TV show about food, and I’ve heard he endorses restaurants as disparate as KFC and Brussels Sprouts. Sure enough people came up during the tour and asked to have their photos taken with him.
The trip started by boarding a tour bus at the Singtel Comcentre behind Somerset. A number of other bloggers were present, along with expats from some other organizations and a few Singtel employees. Seetoh manned a microphone at the front of the bus and off we went toward the East Coast. He started with a brief recap of Singapore’s rich hawker heritage, talking about how the Hainanese were often the cooks (cooking for the British, Hokkiens and Teochew), and picked up on ingredients and techniques used by Indians and Malays. He told us that in 1950 – before indoor hawker centres were introduced – there were an estimated 24,000 street food vendors roaming Singapore.
Our first stop was at Mr Teh Tarik Eating House in Geylang:
We were here to try putu piring, a super-delicious snack (which I’d actually had, but didn’t know the name of) made from palm sugar steamed with rice flour, pandan, grated coconut and peanuts. Deeeeelish. I just googled putu piring and noticed that IeatIshootIpost dubbed this place “The Lord of the Pirings,” so check that out for more info. Needless to say, it’s a wonderfully mild, only slightly sweet snack. The uncle was also a total sweetheart, and seemed quite comfortable having his photo taken:
Our whole group ate at a long outdoor table at a restaurant whose name escapes me. We ate a number of Indonesian and Malay dishes, including Nasi Padang, blackened spicy squid, beef rendang, chicken with whole chilis, and a fabulous tofu and cabbage dish (also didn’t catch the name). It was all topped off with rice and a giant bottle of Tiger Beer. Despite the absolute cornucopia of offerings, Seetoh warned us that we should only fill our stomachs to 60% occupancy, max. I had a hard time restraining myself; the squid was melt-in-your-mouth delicious (I think we’d all expected something a lot more rubbery), the chicken had a nice kick, and the beef rendang was tender and oh-so coconutty. I only eat beef, like, twice a year but this made me consider eating it more often.
Our third stop was Sinma Claypot Live Frog, pictured above. This is an actual restaurant, and we were escorted to a private room on the second floor after passing tanks of live (live!) ribbitting frogs. Soon we were noshing on frog porridge (yup, tastes like chicken, save for those teeny tiny limbs):
Then came the piece de resistance: steamed shark head. The servers brought one out for each table and Seetoh dropped to his knees to inhale the delicate fragrance. He showed us where the shark’s eyes had been, and where the fin had been before being removed for soup. Consumption of shark is a controversial topic these days, but I figured if there was ever a time to try it now was that time.
Seetoh actually came over to our table to show us how to cut up and serve the meat. It was surprisingly gelatinous, even liquidy. As Seetoh so aptly put it, “If you’ve never had it before, it will probably remind you of snot.” The meat itself is very mild, which is why they drown it in that brown sauce somewhat akin to sambal (I believe, don’t quote me). I found that I actually preferred it with a bit less sauce.
I was pretty full – and getting worried about how my stomach would react to all these first time visitors – when the waiters brought out even more food, some of Singapore’s famous giant crab. At this point I was basically stuffed to the gills (seafood pun, get it?) but managed to take one little bite before exhaustion overtook me. Earlier on in the evening Seetoh had talked about the advent of Singapore chili crab in the 1950s, maintaining that “it’s a lot easier to eat it than to cook it” [in light of the many spices required to make it properly]. After this meal I have a new appreciation for how tough it must be to cook.
Our FINAL stop of the night was in familiar territory: Makansutra Gluttons’ Bay along the Esplanade. It’s actually a small hawker market comprised of some of Seetoh’s favorite vendors, and he served us a dessert he claims to have come up with on his own: banana fritters with kaya fondue. For those unfamiliar with kaya, it’s a wonderfully ooey gooey coconut jam that Singaporeans put on toast for breakfast. Banana fritters are a popular dessert here, and I’ll give Seetoh props for pairing them with a slightly more liquified version of the island’s best sweet sauce (I was so relieved we didn’t have to eat black beans or corn).
I’m not sure I’ve ever consumed so much delicious (and varied) food in one evening, but I had a truly amazing time. Seetoh is not only hilarious, but he simply radiates passion for local food in the way he speaks and describes it. He draws out words, emphasizes certain syllables, and describes dishes as “gorgeous” and “out of this world, man.” It’s a trait I noticed when he guested on Top Chef, and it was really cool to see it carry over into real life. I enjoyed the tour so much, in fact, that I plan to take my parents on it when they come to visit in March (they’re equally starstruck by Seetoh, who just appeared in the US again on Anthony Bourdain’s new show The Layover).
In addition to the epic makan session (“Makan” is a Malay word for “to eat,” by the way), I really enjoyed getting to see Geylang come alive at night, and meeting lots of other cool expats, including bloggers Laura, Myra, Bec and Antonio and foodie man about town @yongfook. Many, many thanks to Singtel, Goodstuph and NotaTourist.sg for inviting me to come along and let me do my thang:
I’ve written too much, per usual, but will write more next time about the launch of NotaTourist.sg. In the meantime, do check it out and kindly revert back to me, ok lah?