Tuesday 22 April 2014

Singapore Sling, Raffles Hotel

So many drinks have a story behind them.  Sure, lots don't but many do.  And stories are to be celebrated.

The Singapore Sling, the city state's contribution to worldwide imbibition, is no exception.  To find out what that story is, you have to visit Raffles Hotel

Raffles (as it is generally known) is not – as the name seems to suggest – and trendy Chelsea hangout for late-teenagers but instead more of an memorial to Singapore's colonial past.  Named in honour of Sir Stamford Raffles, whose name appears around the city, and who can take credit (and blame) for much of Singapore's Nineteenth Century development, it is a towering edifice of Victorian style in a far-away land.  Today it is more of a mall (and a strangely quiet one at that) than a hotel, but peering around one can still catch a glimpse, every so often, of the colonial glory the building once embraced. 

The setting for our drinking, however, is the Long Bar.  Due to the fame of the Singapore Sling, this is the one part of the building that seems far from quiet.  In fact, unless you've booked in advance or come at a particularly antisocial time, you're likely to face a pretty hefty wait for a table – that or be shunted upstairs to the, sadly rather empty and soulless, less popular bar. 

The bar itself is a testament to the time it was built. It's decked out exactly as one would suspect it might have been when Raffles was first developed (although, in fairness, I have no idea whether this is affected or preserved chic). It's all wood panelling, tiled floors...

...and slowly flapping fans.  Once presumably cranked by some poor punkhawallah, now they are electrically operated and add a real sense of what the place may have been like (although they add nothing in the way of ventilation whatsoever). 

The floors are a sight as well.  Not something one usually picks up on, but for this: there is an old habit of serving the drinks with little bags of peanuts in shells.  As if one were sat in an old gentlemen's club, the fashion is to munch away, discarding shells on the floor.  The end result is a big mess, but again some kind of historic, colonial feel is given off.  Like it or not (and I make no comment), it gives the place an air of authenticity – even if it is (as well it may be) completely inauthentic.

But enough of this chat.  On to the drink.

The recipe for the Singapore Sling, it turns out, is hotly disputed.  It's not disputed like a martini is disputed (ie, how many parts gin/vodka to martini, but that's pretty much all the argument you get).  No, it's disputed right down to what on earth goes into it.  The recipe given by Raffles is as follows:

30ml Gin
15ml Cherry Heering
7.5ml Dom Benedictine
7.5ml Cointreau
120ml Sarawak Pineapple Juice
15ml Lime Juice
10ml Grenadine
Dash Angostura Bitters
It's a lot to cram into a cocktail, and it makes for a pretty sweet concoction.

A friend of mine rather snootily described it as the worst Singapore Sling he'd ever had.  I don't know about that - but then, this was the first Singapore Sling I'd ever had, so what do I know.

But look, here's the thing: You don’t go for the quality of the drink, as such.  Nor do you go because you love Singapore Slings (although if you do, GO).  You go because going is like dropping into La Floridita in Havana and drinking a daiquiri, or visiting Harry's Bar for a Bellini.  Sure, they may not serve the best, or even the most authentic, versions of the drink.  And certainly they're going to flog you the most expensive one you'll ever taste.  But you haven’t gone to have the best, or the truest, or the greatest, or the cheapest.  You've gone because you're visiting the place where the drink was invented, like a pilgrimage (without the religion) to try to rub off some tiny vestige of what that place was like, what the history of that drink is, how it came to pass.  And the Long Bar at Raffles can give you that.

 - GrubsterBoy -

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Maxwell Hawker Centre, Singapore

Anyone who's ever been to Singapore will be familiar with the concept of hawker centres.  In fact, lots of people who haven’t been to Singapore will be familiar with hawker centres as well – thanks, in a large part, to the work of Street Feast London / Tweet Up's Hawker House.  But for those visiting Singapore, like myself, for the first time, a visit to a hawker centre is an absolute must.

The hustle and bustle is really quite something as well.  I went relatively early on at lunchtime and already the place was heaving – barely enough room to find a corner of a table to perch at.  Hawker centres are sometimes talked about as if they are the heart of Singapore – and I can see why.  Here you will find all walks of life – families out with kids or grandparents for chicken and rice, Singapore's ultimate comfort food, to high-flying suits, scoffing down noodles and fish balls. 

Maxwell Road's hawker centre is (I am told) amongst the best.  Located in Chinatown, it has a very Chinese-focussed cuisine.  But that's not to say that you won’t find plenty of other foodstuffs on the menu – from Arabic grills to Indian curries - all washed down with copious fresh juices and kopi.

At the nearby Chinatown Heritage Centre I learned that food hawking started in Singapore in the late Nineteenth Century, as the booming populations began to flog (or hawk) their edible wares from the five foot way in front of each shophouse.  However, it wasn't until the mid-Twentieth Century that hawking really exploded in Singapore, with the occupation of the Japanese during the Second World War.  The economy took a nosedive and so, in an effort to scrape together a living somehow, locals began to cook and sell food for very low prices.  Such hawking was eventually formalised into the hawker centres we know and love today.

Today's hawker centres are a little different to how I imagine the first centres looked.  They are big, clean and well run.  Each little booth contains a stovetop or other cooking apparatus and encompasses an entire kitchen – bringing in the fresh produce and turning it into ready-to-eat food. 

The biggest challenge I faced was choosing between the hundreds of offerings.  Eventually, I just had to plump for something.  Following the rule that lots of people = good food, I joined the back of a long queue.  Pretty soon I found myself at the front of that queue, utterly bewildered and unsure what to do.  The friendly chap who ran the booth offered to do my a mixed plate.  I readily accepted. 

What is it all, I hear you cry? Well, here goes: fried noodles; spicy pork sausage (red ringed meat); bean curd (yellow cubes, top of the plate); egg and pork cake (browny-orange cubes, bottom of plate); fish ball (looks a bit like a tater tot, left of the plate); and neck of pork fried in the skin (underneath the whole lot, not shown).  The two sauces are sweet plum (left) and fiercely hot chilli (right) (YUM).  All washed down with a mug of green tea.

I cannot recommend a visit to a hawker centre more highly.  The food is fantastic, the atmosphere electric, and the price unbelievable.  In a city that prides itself on its food but has seemingly no limit to what it's prepared to charge it was fantastic to eat like a prince whilst paying like a pauper.

 - GrubsterBoy - 

Monday 14 April 2014

Singapore Chilli Crab, Jumbo Seafood

Visiting Singapore, my friend said that there was one thing I absolutely had to do (food-wise, at least) before I left: eat crab, Singapore style.  We headed down to Jumbo Seafood to give it a whirl.

There is something of an ongoing argument that all Singaporeans appear to be engaged in: which is better, chilli crab or pepper crab.  As there were only two of us it would have been impossible to have both, so we really were forced to make a decision – we could only indulge in one.  Given the option I took the very tough decision and plumped for chilli crab.  It was not a decision I would come to regret.

We accompanied our crab with a couple of other bits and pieces from the menu.

First up (and intended as a starter, although the rather sketchy service meant that it actually arrived after the crab) was dragonfruit and lobster salad.  The combination of the tangy fruit and rich meat was fantastic.  I cannot, however, recommend the lashings of mayonnaise that accompanied the dish.  Also, sadly, the lobster meat was bordering on the sparse…

Still, a seriously beautiful looking dish.

We also ordered up a big dish of peeled oatmeal prawns.  These were fantastic.  No two ways about it.  The prawns are coated in a big helping of panko breadcrumbs and desiccated coconut.  This gave them a sweet, dry, crunchy coating to match the succulent, rich shrimp meat inside.  Astrid warned me off ordering the oatmeal prawns in their shells: if you do so, all the pleasure is lost, as you rip off the crunchy coating to get at the meat inside. 

For double the pleasure, by the way, please let me recommend that you take an oatmeal prawn and give it a big dunk in the crab sauce (if eating chilli crab).  It's amazing. 

However, all this is so much stuff: the star of the show is the crab.

Now, you know you're in for a treat when the staff bring you bibs.  This was one of those times.  In fact, bibbing is absolutely essential – throw all your pretentions and shame out the window, you need the bib.  In fact, you need one of those biohazard suits, because this is going to go everywhere.  It's not like eating lobster in Maine, where you risk flicking a drop of butter on your shirt.  No, you're going to get sauce everywhere.  So bib up. 

They’re also pretty amusing. In fact, it wasn't long before a bit of entertainment at bib wearing just turned to all-out absurdity.

Chilli crab is cooked in a big, hearty red sauce.  The crab is trimmed, chopped and chucked in in pieces, so that it cooks in the sauce.  Presumably the brown meat seeps out of the head to mingle with the sauce, which is a rich tomato, garlic, egg and peanut concoction.  Don’t be put off by the moniker either – whilst there's a definite chilli flavour and a kick of heat, it's really quite mild.

I loved this stuff. Absolutely loved it. I mean, I love crab – and, in fact, most shellfish (and all shellfish with legs). This was a revelation. You see, I'm usually one for banishing sauces. Steak tastes better, for instance, without hiding its flavour behind ground peppercorns and cream. Battered cod is not improved by lathering it in mayonnaise, tarragon and pickles, or drowning it in vinegar, or coating it in sugary tomato paste. Sauces should be, at best, a compliment, not a feature.

But here, however, it is the dish. It is its heart and soul. The sauce is every bit as much a feature as the crab. You're ordering sauce, like one might order soup, and being grateful that it comes with beautifully tasty crab meat at the same time. Because the sauce is flipping brilliant and as much part and parcel of the dish as the crustacean it accompanies.

And Astrid was right.  Crab eating – at least, chilli crab eating – is an essential 'must-do' for any foodie visiting Singapore
 - GrubsterBoy -

Tuesday 8 April 2014

Cocktails and Nightlife, Singapore

This started out as a food porn post. But then I got kinda carried away and wanted to show you some of the highlights of Singapore's awesome skyline by night.

After drinks on a roof bar (Singapore is full of them, it's amazing), we headed to Catalunya for cocktails as it was a Wednesday and Wednesday's is 'one-for-one' (English: two-for-one) cocktail night at Catalunya. 

I'm jolly glad we went, actually, because the cocktails were pretty damn good.  The highlight has got to be this quirky little number - made with Amaretto, honey, lime juice, Amontillado sherry, gin and cheese.  That's right.  Cheese.  It's even garnished with a little sliver.

They even bring you a little cocktail test tube - in it's own wee ice bucket (or perhaps that should be 'ice baked bean tin?) - to top up your drink, in case the first glass isn't enough.  Which, let's face it, when it comes to cocktails it never is.

Also, the eats were pretty damn good.  We had a spherical olives too, which were wholly unimpressive to look at and incredibly amazing to eat.  I won't spoil the fun but just think a little... Heston.

Then it was on to Ku De Ta for more drinks and more stunning views.

- GrubsterBoy -