I had unfinished business with Singapore’s food offerings, lots of it. Singapore is damn expensive though, and not much other than the food was compelling enough for a trip back. But sometimes the vagaries of life bring about interesting circumstances. Case in point: I accompanied a good friend as he was medically evacuated from Sabah to the top-notch Raffles Hospital in Singapore, giving me an opportunity to further my Singapore explorations.
This exploration was rather geographically limited, as I was on a short leash around the Raffles Hospital in Bugis, taking short expeditions out for lunch and dinner. As such, it wasn’t necessarily the top spots for certain dishes, but it was a chance to try some new stuff.
Murtabak on Arab Street
Arab Street is only a couple blocks from the hospital, and there is a row of restaurants on North Bridge Rd at the corner of Arab Street, across from the Sultan Mosque, with Zam Zam being the most prominent, though I ended up at Al-Baik, at the other end of the block. I was interested in trying the murtabak, which is a thin, crispy, flaky dough (same as a roti) that is stuffed with meat (lamb in this case) and onions, and comes with a small saucer of curry sauce to dip it in. The flavor was good, but both the meat and the pastry were very dry and overcooked. From another vendor, this would have been very good.
Sungei Road Laksa
I’ve been on a mission to ferret out the best laksa anywhere we touch down in Malaysia, and it was with a deep sense of failure that I returned from our Chinese New Year trip to Singapore without having been able to try one of Singapore’s top laksas. So just in case my friend miraculously recovered in two hours and we were sent home, a second lunch was necessary to rectify my former failings. Sungei Road Laksa is at the top of many Singapore laksa rankings, and it was a short jaunt away.
Reassuringly, there was a line of people waiting for bowls of laksa, and I joined the supplicants. One of the most notable things about Sungei Road Laksa is that they are one of very few who still use a charcoal fire to simmer the broth, which many claim gives it a subtle smokiness. Each bowl of laksa is prepared individually and involved an interesting process, wherein the bowl was filled with noodles and broth, then the broth was poured back out into the vat, and it was refilled and poured off a few times. My guess is this cooked the noodles and infused them with the flavors from the broth, and may incorporate a bit of the charcoal smoke.
The bowl of laksa was on the smaller side, a perfect second lunch serving. It did in fact have a faint, haunting, smoky note to it. The broth was richly briny, balanced with creamy coconut, a medium spice level, and a subtle touch of torch ginger. There were slices of springy fish cake, crunchy bean sprouts, bright cilantro, and thicker, rounder noodles (very much like spaghetti) that were cut bite-sized. Apparently this cut noodle is part of the Singapore style, which I like – you can eat it with just a spoon, and you don’t end up slurping long noodle strands until they whiplash hot chili oil into your eye. Another key thing with this laksa, is the schmear of sambal paste on the side of the bowl if you want a bit more spice, and most importantly, the scattering of fresh, raw, bright, briny blood cockles on top, which offered a raw taste of the ocean as will as another bit of crunch.
I understand why people rave about this laksa. It is in fact one of the best I’ve had anywhere. Oh, and it’s $SGD 2. Yeah, go here. Unless it is Chinese New Year, in which case, make a return trip for it.
Golden Mile Complex
It turns out my last visit to Singapore, when I thought I had found the Thai stalls at Golden Mile, I was actually across the street at Golden Mile Food Centre instead of in the Golden Mile Complex. The complex itself is entirely Thai, with the ground floor consisting of primarily food stalls, the second floor has a Thai grocery store and lots of Thai massage parlors, and scattered throughout the whole are karaoke joints and night clubs.
We stopped in Diandin Leluk for lunch. It was good, though I suspect some of the smaller stalls probably had more authentic, cheaper, and all around better food. I had a pork laap and a som tum. The som tum was a bit disappointing: too sweet, too much fish sauce, and though hot, not nearly as face-meltingly so as a really good som tum usually is. The laap was better, a big pile of offally, porky goodness. It wasn’t quite as finely minced as laap usually is, so there were lots of recognizable chunks of intestines, liver and skin. The flavor was good, hot but manageable chili level, and not as much toasty rice powder as I would prefer. Diandin Leluk was decent, though next time I’d go with one of the smaller stalls.
Another feature of Golden Mile Complex is the grocery store on the second floor. It’s a treasure trove of Thai ingredients – spices, rice, condiments, curry pastes, etc. as well as a selection of produce, fish and meat. There are a couple of food stalls there as well, including one that has about four different varieties of Thai sausages smoking away on a grill, which were excellent and cheap.
Hot and Sour Soup near Albert Food Center
I was trying to locate any hawker food courts in the Bugis vicinity, but Googling food around the area mostly turns up lists and lists of shopping mall dreck – endless dessert places, Western chains, slightly more upscale yet less authentic and less tasty restaurants. I want the street food damnit. I was really hoping that a map of all of the hawker centers in Singapore would exist out there somewhere. Seems so obvious.
Googling wasn’t able to help me, so I had to just wander aimlessly. On my last morning, sure enough, two blocks away was the Albert Food Center. Albert Food Center was a typical Singapore hawker center, with all of the standards – chicken rice, countless variations of mee, seafood soups, coffee and juice shops, etc. A block or so south of the main hawker court, there is another row of food stalls. One of these caught my eye with a Hot and Sour Soup, which was excellent. It seemed to be a cross between the typical Chinese hot and sour soup, with laksa. It had that distinctive sour vinegar note, along with a good chili kick, but it was also creamy and a bit sweeter due to the addition of coconut milk. Ground pork, spaghetti-style round noodles, and a generous pile of fried shallots made it a very filling and satisfying breakfast.
Szechuan at Chong Qing Grilled Fish
Just across from Bugis Junction shopping center is the short Liang Seah Street, which is lined with a number of Szechuan hot pot restaurants. Chong Qing Grilled Fish is well-regarded, so we checked it out for a Szechuan lunch. I had high hopes after my previous amazing lunch at Old Chengdu in Chinatown. Chong Qing’s specialties are obviously the grilled fish and hot pots, neither of which we tried. I was hoping to recreate my revelatory experience with Kou Shui Ji, or mouthwatering chicken. It was good at Chong Qing, though the sauce was not nearly as complex, intense and amazing as at Old Chengdu. As a main I opted for the sizzling lamb platter, which was a generous pile of tender sliced lamb, stir fried with cumin, coriander, ginger, a bit of Szechuan pepper, and lots of green chilies. The flavor was deep and rich, though not as spicy as I was hoping for, but was still the standout dish of lunch. A brown sauce-braised chicken was a bit bland, as was stir fried cubes of pork. Their hot pots are probably a better choice here, and for other Szechuan dishes, go to old Chengdu.
I eyed this up on my last trip but hadn’t heard anything about it, so it just didn’t make it through the gastronomic triage. Fortunately I stumbled across it my last night and am so glad I did. First, it’s delicious. Perhaps more importantly, it’s fucking primal, and it’s fucking fun to eat.
The bright red plates of Sup Tulang at M A Deen Biasa at 95/97 Jalan Sultan drew me in this this night, and it is supposed to be one of the best places for it outside of the Golden Mile Centre. The epicenter of this dish seems to be the basement level of the Golden Mile Food Centre a few blocks away, and Haji Kadir seems to be the top-pick there.
Sup Tulang is hard to miss when you pass it by, as it is a heaping pile of lamb bones that are a bright, glaring red, and usually everyone in the vicinity is dripping in the vermillion sauce. Sup Tulang translates to either “soup bones” or “bone soup,” though it would seem to me the former is more apt, as it isn’t so much a soup as a pile of bones in a sauce. Mutton femur bones are used and are stewed for many, many hours, and served with a deep, rich sauce, complexly layered with ginger, galangal, cumin, coriander, garlic, chili, tomato, and more. And more than a little red food coloring.
There are shreds of meat on the bones, but this dish originated from bones left over from making stock or soup, so most of the meat has been removed. The meat scraps, as well as the tendons and cartilage which are quite soft from the long simmering, provide the bulk of the dish. But the real point is the marrow in the bones. You have to suck, poke, pry, pound and coax it out. Some places offer you a straw to slurp it out, which seems eminently sensible. I was reduced to using the ass-end of my fork and lots of slurping and sucking. Graceful and dignified, yes. First date appropriate? Absolutely. If he or she isn’t horrified at the spectacle of you covered in gory spatterings of lamb cartilage and chili sauce, eyeballs sweating and snot pouring out of your nose, and unable to clean yourself with no napkins in sight, they’re a keeper.
Sup Tulang is typically served with cubed baguette to sop up the gravy. I wasn’t a fan of the bread served – too soft and bland, diluting the flavor of the sauce too much – so I just ate most of it by the spoonful. A roti would be a great alternative. It seems it is also not typically served with napkins – a phenomenon I have noted on a couple of occasions in Singapore when they are sorely needed – so bring your own, or pay the extra charge for a small packet of tissues.
I sincerely believe Sup Tulang belongs in the pantheon of iconic Singapore dishes and no food trip to Singapore is complete without it. This was the winner of this trip.