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Singapore and brief excursion to Thailand food blog

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OK - so I think it's very fitting for my 1000th post that I start this food blog...  I love eGullet, and have been a member for several years, but I don't post that often, and have never done anything like this, so please bear with me!!!


My wife and I left NYC for Singapore on July 1st, at 1:25AM on an EVA flight connecting through Taipei, Taiwan.  There used to be a direct NY to Singapore flight on Singapore Airlines, but SA discontinued it a few years ago.  I like the long overnight flight to Asia because, on a 14 hour flight, it gives you plenty of time to eat (they feed you very well on those flights), medicate yourself and sleep for 6-8 hours, then wake up and watch a few movies before landing at about 6AM.  Plus, since the flight leaves so late, it makes it much easier to sleep on the flight (especially after working a full day beforehand).


The EVA flight is quite comfortable, even in coach.  When I say they feed you well, I mean it - dinner was a stir fried chicken with steamed bok choy and rice, with many sides.  Throughout the flight they came through the cabin with mustard coated fried chicken sandwiches as snacks, then breakfast of pork congee with many sides (including a package of fish floss).  Sorry, I didn't take photos of the above - I was exhausted!


We had about a 2 hour layover in the airport in Taiwan, so what does that mean?  Time for dim sum and beef noodle soup!!!


This was our breakfast destination


Left to right, Xie Long Bao (Shanghainese pork soup dumplings), char siu bao (fluffy buns filled with BBQ pork - although this Taiwanese version was not nearly as sweet as the typical Hong Kong version), Taiwanese beef noodle soup, and a loose leaf oolong tea.  With the waters, cost about US$20!!!  It was quite the feast, especially after the constant EVA flight 'buffet', and the fact that they were going to feed us again on our next flight to Singapore!

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We landed in Singapore around noon, and thanks to their ridiculously efficient and clean and beautiful airport, we were in a cab headed to our hotel by 12:45 at the latest.  I didn't take any pictures, but to give you an idea, the baggage claim area (as well as the rest of the airport) is filled with tropical plants and flowers.  There are flowering gingers and orchids everywhere.  The main wall of the 3 story atrium that contains the baggage claim has a living wall filled with hundreds of plants, and a waterfall!  It makes JFK looks like sh*thole it really is.... it is always depressing coming home! But always inspires me to make a living wall in my apartment! ha!


The airport is about 20-25 minutes outside the center of the city, and the trip (usually devoid of traffic) is very pleasant as the highway is lined with, you guessed it, tons of flowering, lush tropical plants.


We actually weren't very hungry by the time we got to the hotel, and after unpacking, it was about 3PM, so just decided to skip lunch and have an early dinner.  By the time 4:30-5PM rolled around, we were exhausted, and looked to grab something fast to eat and go to bed early so we can get up and out the next day.


The ION center mall is a short walk from our hotel, and in the basement (like in most malls there), there is a food court.  As an American, I cringe when I think of the term food court.  I think of horrible fast food chains, crappy pizza, etc.... but not here.  The food court is an indoor and air conditioned "hawker stall", which has been made famous worldwide by St. Tony Bourdain, patron saint of foodies everywhere.  The food court is filled with stalls serving Cantonese roast meats, prawn noodles and laksa, Nasi Goreng, etc...  Sorry - I was too tired to take photos, but here'sa link to some info: http://foodrepublic.com.sg/stores/ion-orchard


We settled on Indonesian BBQ chicken:



This is a photo of my beautiful (and exhausted) wife enjoying a version of curried chicken, while I had the BBQ chicken.  They also had a quite decent sambal which is next to my BBQ chicken.


Coming soon: more food photos from hawker stalls, including the extremely famous Tian Tian Chicken Rice....


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I think it is great that you are sharing this adventure with us and I shall eagerly read your posts.


Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

My 2004 eG Blog

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Yes, I do speak the language, as (conveniently) the defacto language is English!  Yes, there are many ethnic groups living there - about 70% ethnic Chinese, then smaller percentages of Malays, Indians and Peranakans (which is a group of people whose ancestors - both Chinese and Malay - intermarried several generations prior) and then a small percentage of others.  My wife has a facebook friend who we met for dinner one night who is Peranakan, and graciously took us to a great Peranakan restaurant, and over the course of the evening gave us a great education on the people in his country.  I'll put the details of that dinner in another post - we have emailed him to get names, descriptions, and ingredients of some of the dishes we had - it was a great meal, but since he did all the ordering, I don't remember the details....


While here in the US, we think of Chinese people speaking Mandarin; from his point of view, though, Mandarin is a construct created by the Chinese government during the people's revolution.  According to him, Chinese people speak various dialects (usually only one at a time) like Teochew, Fujianese, Hainanese, Shanghainese, etc., depending on their place of origin, but are tought to speak Mandarin in school.  Many of the ethnic Chinese who live in Singapore came there several generations ago (before the revolution), and do not speak Mandarin, but actually speak their home dialect... English has become the defacto standard that most people speak to some degree or another, otherwise most Singaporeans wouldn't be able to communicate with each other, nonetheless outsiders.  I've seen a few interviews with Li Kuan Yu (the father of modern Singapore), and it was his strong opinion that everyone there speak English, since there would be no other way for them to grow quickly and entice outside investment.  Obviously, this has paid off and has come true, as Singapore is the fastest growing country in SE Asia.


But this fact makes it very convenient for Western travelers as most everyone you deal with (taxi drivers, restaurants, shops, etc.) speaks English.  Some people speak it better than others - with some people communication can be a little difficult, but not impossible, but with most, it is quite easy.  Our friend, for instance, speaks English as his first language - although he does so with a Singaporean accent, which to my ear is very distinctive.


Not only that, but it is definitely the cleanest and safest city in SE Asia that I've seen...  coming from NYC, walking around Singapore is a relaxing delight - I never had any worries as their crime rates are ridiculously low - plus there is practically no litter, homeless, drug addicts, etc.  This partially because of the extreme consequences for possession or sales of drugs (death penalty), and a 2% unemployment rate.

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I think it is great that you are sharing this adventure with us and I shall eagerly read your posts.


Thanks!  I was more than partly inspired by reading about yours and Kerry's travels and experiences!

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OK - so I did forget one food related item in my description of the first day - partially because I didn't take a picture of it.  After landing around noon, and getting to the hotel, we were pretty tired, so we decided to take a walk around the neighborhood of the hotel - which is a shopping area called Orchard Road.  I guess it's like the Singapore equivalent to 5th Avenue in NY, lined with malls and stores, many of which were ridiculously expensive - think Cartier, Louis Vuitton, etc...  There are also some more decently priced stores selling more local stuff too though... but the area is very nice to walk around with its wide sidewalks, lots of tropical plants, and pretty fountains.


As we were walking, I had wanted a snack, and remembered a vendor of fried snacks from a previous trip - called Old Chang Kee. Unfortunately, I didn't take any photos, but here's a link to their website showing their products: http://www.oldchangkee.com/our-products.htm

I got the fried crab claw on a stick, fried shrimp on a stick, and crab nuggets (like a chicken nugget, but made with crab).  Very tasty, and not very greasy.


So, the next day, we woke up on time and feeling refreshed.... time to eat!  We decided to have breakfast in the hotel so we wouldn't have to wander around, starving, while we found somewhere to go, and from past trips there, the hotel usually has a great SE Asian buffet that is definitely NOT what you'd think of as a typical US hotel breakfast.  Unfortunately, we were quite disappointed by this hotel breakfast - it mainly had dishes catering to westerners, although done in a very nice way.  Even their fruit was disappointing!  I'm not a huge fruit fan (especially here in the US what with the sad excuses for fruit that we have that are picked unripe and 'ripened' in a warehouse) - but in SE Asia I go crazy for their fruit.  Unfortunately, this hotel had other plans and their selection was of typical western fruits - watermelon, cantelope, apples, etc!  ARRGGHH!!!!


But, we did have fun for lunch.. so here we go.  One stop on any foodies agenda while traveling here is to go to Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice in the Maxwell Road Hawker center:




Not only is chicken rice one of the 'national dishes' of Singapore, but this place was made extra famous by local food pesonality KF Seetoh, and our own St. Bourdain.  Ever since, this place has 20-30 minute lines for this:




There are 3 basic components to chicken rice, which different people put in various orders of priority: the chili sauce, the texture and flavor of the rice, and the chicken.  The typical process is that the whole chicken is cooked in a master stock of previous chicken stock flavored with aromatics such as garlic and ginger.  It is poached very gently and then once cooked, the chicken is dunked in ice water to set the gelatin under the skin and stop the cooking process.  The stock is then used as the liquid to cook the rice, resulting in a very chicken-y tasting rice.  The process of cooking the rice is typically that you rinse/soak the rice, then drain and fry in melted chicken fat with garlic and ginger.  Once coated with fat, you add the chicken stock.  In most places, chicken rice is also served with a chicken consomme as a first course.  Tian Tian's rice is excellent - both in texture and flavor.  Probably the best we've had over a few different trials over the 2 trips we've taken.  Their chicken also has great texture - but I'm not a huge fan of their chili sauce.  It has good flavor, but is very spicy, and they certainly don't provide enough of it.  Also, personally, I like more ginger in my chili sauce.


Tian Tian, though, has become too busy for its own good, IMO... they no longer provide soup (which they did on earlier visits a few years ago), and they are a little cheap with their chili sauce - even when you ask for more, they give you a bit of a dirty look...  Chicken rice is also typically eaten with a thick, sweet soy sauce, which some people (me included) like to mix into the chili sauce, and is usually provided in a little dish.  Not anymore - now, they give you a squeeze on the plate and off you go!  No soup for you! (They're actually quite nice, but very busy so they don't have much time for pleasantries).


The yellow drink next you see in photo is what they call "lime juice" which is really limeade.  It is ubiquitous in hawker centers everywhere.  The typical hawker center is set up in the following way: There is a large building that has a roof but no walls.  Many stalls are set up one next to the other selling a variety of foods.  Right near Tian Tian is a stall selling Fuzhou Oyster pancake (we didn't get that on this trip), roast meats, noodle dishes, fish dishes, etc.  There's probably a hundred different stalls in that hawker center.  At leat one of the vendors just sells drinks - lime juice, sugar cane juice, and various other fruit juices...  the better ones will squeeze their own - even the sugarcane juice, they have a press right there in the shop and practically squeeze it to order.  This place uses a concentrate and then adds a few extra limes, which is typical.


And of course, when in asia, I love eating vegetables (not true here in the US).  Pictured is a nice plate of baby bok choi, stir fried with garlic and topped with fried garlic.


ETA Old Chang Kee's web site

Edited by KennethT (log)
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For dinner, we went to one of our favorite hawker centers - the East Coast Lagoon Food Centre.  This place is unique because of its location and setup (not to mention a few of its vendors).  It is about a 15-20 minute car ride out of the city, in the middle of the East Coast park - which is an area on the ocean where families go to picnic, ride bicycles and relax.  Most hawker centers are how I described before - a building with a roof and no sides.  Consequently, it can get quite hot in these things!!!  The east coast lagoon is setup as a giant open space - there is a ring around it that has the vendors, and the inside has a bunch covered picnic tables - so it's much cooler there since it has no roof.  This food center is not far from the East Coast Seafood Centre - which is an area by the water that has maybe 4-5 seafood restaurants all in a row, most with nice pretty outdoor seating.  We didn't go there this trip, but I can post photos of it from the last time.


Here are a couple of shots (they didn't come out so well) of our seating area:




One thing the east coast lagoon has is a small satay club - basically a bunch of stalls ina  row, all selling primarily the same thing - grilled satay and chicken wings.  The satay is very different from what we think of here in the US.  Here, we have large chunks of meat (pork, chicken, beef) on skewers - but there, the pieces are much smaller so as to increase the surface area to volume ratio.  Also, there, there is typically no pork since most of the satay vendors are muslim.  Instead, they have mutton (yum!)



Chicken wings



Chicken and mutton satay


Also, you see the requisite lime juice on the side.


Another great stall in the East Coast Lagoon is Roxy Laksa...  they are one of the innovators of the Katong style of laksa, and I have to say that it was the best version I have had.  The broth is rich and coconutty, with a great flavor of the shrimp paste, chili and laksa leaf.  Here it is:




Finally, from another stall, we got this GIANT prawn, cooked with garlic:



My hand is there for reference....


And, of course another wonderful vegetable - belachan kang kong - water spinach (also called Morning Glory) cooked with fermented shrimp paste, chilis and garlic:




Edited by Smithy
Removed extra photo (and comment) at member's request (log)
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What fun! Thanks for posting these photos.

Can you describe the limes? Are they like the Persian limes that we routinely see here in the States?

I'm craving satay now. Thanks for the observation that their meat chunks are usually smaller for a better surface to volume ratio. Makes sense. I'm going to adopt that trick.

Nancy Smith, aka "Smithy"
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"Every day should be filled with something delicious, because life is too short not to spoil yourself. " -- Ling (with permission)
"There comes a time in every project when you have to shoot the engineer and start production." -- author unknown

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I LOVE the SE Asian limes - they are definitely not Persian limes (AKA Tahitian lime, AKA Bearss lime) - which are not a true lime at all, but a cross between the true (SE Asian) lime and a lemon or citron.


The SE Asian limes are like key limes, I think genetically they are the same.  They are small, have seeds, thinner skins and have a different flavor -  more pronounced aromatics, and I think they're a little sweeter.  I generally prefer them to the Bearss limes, but they are more labor intensive as they're smaller and have seeds.  I can and do get them here, but they're expensive - like $4-5 a pound!  I keep thinking that one day, I'm going to change out my Bearss lime tree that I have for a key lime tree... but my Bearss lime is several years old, and we've gotten attached to it, and I'd hate to kill it for no reason...  But, I don'tthink I have space for 2 lime trees.... :(


ETA: not only are the satay smaller - but the marinade and sauce are not typical here....  the marinade is a bit spicy and savoury - and the accompanying peanut sauce is not just peanut butter and coconut milk - it is much more complex, almost like a curry, and uses chopped peanuts as opposed to peanut butter.  It is also a little sweet, probably from palm sugar.

Edited by KennethT (log)
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It was raining when we woke up the next day - so we decided to stay in the hotel for breakfast so we didn't have to wander around in the rain looking for something to eat.  However, this time, I was determined to see if I could get something better than the standard Western buffet, so I asked if they had a menu - which to my delight, they did, and had a few very good options:


I got a wonton noodle soup:



my wfe got a very nice version of Nasi Goreng:




I should actually clarify one thing when I keep referring to what I ate, vs what my wife did.... we actually share everything so we can try more things - but when I say what I got or she got really refers to what she ordered and ate first, before we switched plates.


As luck would have it, it stopped raining as we were finishing breakfast, but as it was still showering, we thought it was a good opportunity to go to the Gardens by the Bay.  As some people here know, I love the idea of greenhouses and growing things in controlled environments.  Well here, they take it to the extreme.  In the Flower Dome, they recreate the dry characteristics of the mediterranean, and of various deserts - in the middle of hot, humid Singapore!!!  The Cloud Forest recreates the atmosphere at the top of a mountain in a tropical rain forest.  And these places are huge!  I can't imagine the undertaking that went on to create them....








Next up, lunch!

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For lunch, we went to another of my favorite hawker centers, the Hong Lim Food Centre.  This center is not pretty, and it is certainly hot and sweaty.....  BUT it has 2 stalls I LOVE - Outram Park Char Kway Teow, and there is a drink vendor across the way who makes his lime juice from scratch (not concentrate), and also makes an awesome fresh squeezed sugar cane juice.


One of the best foods on earth comes from here:




As a testament to how good it is, here is a photo of the line - with no help from St. Bourdain, btw:




Here's a fun Where's Waldo, or rather Where's Ken... can you spot me in the pic above? Hint: I am the lone white guy near the end of the line....


So, without further ado, the Char Kway Teow!




Yes, it looks like a burst colostomy bag, but oh, is it tasty... and horrible for you.  The cook wakes up very early in the morning to first render his lard.  The rendered lard is used to cook the noodles, which is sauced with barely set eggs (think carbonara), soy, chili, and who knows what else.  The noodles are a wide, flat noodle, but there are thin crunchy noodles included as well, along with cockles (very briny), and cubes of puffed, crunchy, rendered lard.


Also in the photo, my wife has the best lime juice around (note it's non-fluorescent color), and I have a freshly pressed sugar cane juice, which is surprisingly not that sweet as it has nothing added - it's just the juice of freshly pressed sugar cane.  Later on, I got another lime juice for me.


While we were at this center, we also picked up a laksa from Sungei Road Trishaw Laksa, who gave me a whole story of why their laksa is so good as he was serving me...




And, without further ado, the laksa:




Even though the cook gave me a great story of how he makes his laksa, I would say that it paled by comparison to the Roxy Laksa... don't get me wrong, it was very good, but the Roxy Laksa was superlative.

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Like others I am incredibly jealous of your good fortune to try such food. I know very very little of Laksa except from a package but even that is intoxicating. The flavours are so other-worldly to me.

Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

My 2004 eG Blog

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Yes, I love laksa when in Singapore - there is nothing else like it!  The laksa I can get here in NY is just not the same... it's not even close to as good as the Sungei Road laksa, which wasn't even close to the Roxy Laksa....  plus, I think the availability of laksa leaf (the namesake of the dish) that is sprinkled on top and a main flavor component is very limited here.


No worries rotuts, we're about 1/4 of the way through!!!!

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OK - fruit interlude....


This is a picture of my favorite fruit in the entire world:



and the inside:




This is a mangosteen.  The rind is extremely tannic and bitter and not eaten.  The fruit is made up of a few segments (usually 5-7) that look like cloves of garlic.  The flavor is hard to describe - sweet, sour, juicy (run down your chin juicy).. when I'm in SE Asia, I can't get enough.  I try to pick up a big bag on the first or second day of the trip, then I eat 3-4 per day...  The way it usually happens is that I ask the concierge for the location of a fruit market where I can get them, which is usually met with the response to go to a supermarket (many times in a mall)... this has happened on 3 separate trips with 3 separate concierges...  btw, the supermarket mangosteens are always ridiculously expensive (compared to the local markets) and usually inferior in quality.  Luckily, I usually stumble into a fruit market as the trip goes on and pick up a bunch more.  For the record, I found a great fruit market right outside the Hong Lim Food Center.  On getting back to the hotel, one of the porters said "hey - that's a bag of mangosteen" and we proceeded to have a 10 minute conversation about it.  Turns out, his family used to be mangosteen farmers in Malaysia, but he did not want to go into the business and moved to Singapore to work in hotels.  He asked how I usually opened them, and when I answered "with a knife" I was given a proper tutorial on how to do it with your hands... which, after trying, was a vastly superior method.. I guess he should know, right?!  So, the photos above were actually taken on a trip a few years ago, but I didn't take any on this trip showing the new-to-me method....


And who can resist this:




Durian!!!!  This is a photo of some inexpensive ones, however, some can go for over $50 a fruit!  Here is a shot of my wife bravely probably holding her breath:




I say that because durian, especially when fresh and in season (like it is now), STINKS!  It smells like a medicinal garbage heap with dead things in it....  and the smell is pungent - you can smell a durian vendor from across the street.  It is so bad that it is not permitted on public transportation, in hotels or other public areas.... However, many people in the region love it - it has a great creamy texture unlike any other fruit - it's almost like custard.  And it's slightly sweet, and doesn't smell like rotten fish in your head.  We thought it was quite pleasant... BUT, it does have a slightly medicinal flavor to it - it reminded me of when I was a kid and had ear infections and they would give me the pink antibiotic... I actually loved the flavor of that stuff as a kid and couldn't wait to get an ear infection...  the durian reminded me of that, but the smell lingers in your head for hours..,

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Post #13:


I hope that is not a pineapple plant behind your wife. :-)


Had durian yet? :-)



Nope, not a pineapple plant, but it is in the bromeliad family... there's actually a great bromeliad garden in the Singapore Botanical Gardens (just recently declared a UNESCO world heritage site).


And re: durian, you just beat me to it!

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it seems a 




is about 75 cents USA


do you have any idea why the Durians vary so much in price ?  Size ?  Flavor ?


im always curious about what food costs here and there


If you can, would you add the cost to some of your Killer Meals ?


esp. the hawker stands


many thanks again !

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Yes, at the time, the exchange rate was about 1.35SGD to 1USD.


Local food, in general, is pretty cheap... the char kway teow is like SGD$3 or 4, which is similar to teh cost of the laksa.  Sometimes they add a dollar if you want extra shrimp, or extra cockles or fishcake.  The chicken rice is usually about SGD$4-5 per plate, and the greens are usually about SGD$3... so eating a meal in a hawker center is quite a bargain.


I think the variation in durian price is related to supposed quality... but I can't say that I'm such an expert... I think the more expensive ones are less fibrous (more creamy), but we only really tried it once (and then it stayed with us for hours) so we didn't have much of a basis for comparison.

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OK, so chronologically speaking, our next meal was dinner at a family Peranakan restaurant in the Joo Chiat neighborhood, but since I don't have the info yet from our friend, I'll skip it for now, and come back to it...


First, let me take you back about 10 years, when my wife and I were just married, and we went on our honeymoon to Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam....  at the time, I had a friend who had just returned from living in Sing. for the past 6 months, who gave us bad advice - he said, don't waste too much time in Singapore - sure, it's clean and nice, but it's not that interesting...  little did I know what a food wonderland it was... serves me right for taking that advice!  Anyway, because of it, we only spent 2 days there, but still managed to get some really good food....


This is the East Coast Seafood Centre, by night:




You can see that there are a bunch of seafood restaurants, side by side, and tables in the open air out front.  Just to the left of the walkway is the ocean.


Many of the restaurants here are constantly vying for the title of who makes the best chili crab - another national dish of Singapore.  Some years it's UDMC, other times it's Jumbo... in retrospect, I think that there are lots of other places that make it better than both of them, but the drama is always entertaining.  Here are some photos inside the Long Beach UDMC restaurant.  They have lots of fishtanks full of live fish and shellfish.  When you place your order, the 'fisherman' comes out with a net and catches your choice, then brings it into the back to be cooked.  Sometimes, when he'd go for the prawns, they would literally jump out of the tanks!








This last photo is of the Sri Lankan crabs, which are the crabs used for the chili crab, among other crab dishes.  These things are huge, and filled with tons of meat.  I love the flavor of crab, but usually find it too much work for too little results.  Not so with these - the claw alone produces a chunk of meat the size of a small fist!


And a dark and not so great shot of the chili crab:




We didn't go back to the East Coast Seafood Centre this trip, but it hasn't really changed, so I figured I'd show it....

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Back to the present day....


The next day, we went for lunch to Little India to the place with supposedly the best Biryani in Singapore:




Biryani is a rice dish, where rice, meat and spices are layered in a pot, sealed and then cooked (supposedly) over charcoal so the spices perfume the rice and meat.  This is the way it had been done for a long time, until some restaurants started taking shortcuts - cooking the rice and meat separately, and then combining later.  So, as a way to distinguish themselves, the restaurants who did it the traditional way started calling it "dum biryani" - although really, the phrase is redundant.


Here's a sign on their wall:




This is because many biryani places add curry or gravy on top of the rice to compensate for the lack of flavor in their product.  This sign makes it so you don't bother the owner with questions like, "where's the gravy on top?".


Here is another sign on the wall - pretty self explanatory:




And here's their menu, rotus - note the prices, this place was pretty expensive:




Least unhealthy?  How unhealthy is it normally????  What have we gotten ourselves into???


We ordered a goat, and a chicken biryani:








There are a few things to note as a visual mark of quality: first, look how long the grains of basmati rice are.  Basmati rice lengthens as it cooks - and the highest quality rice will lengthen the most.  Second is the hallmark of a proper dum biryani is how the grains of rice stay separate and don't clump together.


What you can't tell by the pictures is the heady, perfumed aroma these dishes had.  They blew me away. Period.  One of my favorite meals of this trip. And that is saying something!

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