Why Singapore is the World's Greatest City for Food – by Bibendum Head Chef Claude Bosi

Singapore // Photo by AhLamb/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

by Andrew Purvis, The Telegraph, March 20, 2017

When Bibendum, the celebrated restaurant on London’s Fulham Road, reopens after refurbishment on April 5, it will be the culmination of a manic few weeks for its head chef Claude Bosi. Fresh back from cooking with Heston Blumenthal in Courmayeur, Switzerland (at an event called Mountain Gourmet Ski Experience), the Frenchman has also found time to visit Singapore for inspiration, in between fretting about glassware, tableware, the typography of the Bibendum menus and the gourmet creations that will go on them.

Bosi is no stranger to such stresses. In 2000 he took the risk of opening Hibiscus in Ludlow, the Shropshire town that already had two Michelin-starred restaurants. Within a year he had won one Michelin star and, by 2004, a second. Having relocated Hibiscus to London in 2007, he lost one of his stars but regained it. In 2009 Hibiscus was ranked second only to Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in the National Restaurant of the Year Awards. That success continued until last October, when Bosi closed Hibiscus to focus on Bibendum. When I met him in the restaurant’s oyster bar, his voice was almost drowned out by power tools, but even mid-restoration, it was business as usual. Sir Terence Conran was about to arrive for lunch, adding an extra frisson, but what Bosi wanted to talk about was his recent trip to Singapore.

“I’ve been three or four times,” he said, “and I love it. It’s not just a great place for eating out, but also a city of many cultures, each with its own cuisine.” One of his favourites is Peranakan, the legacy of Straits Chinese who married into the local Malay culture. Key ingredients include coconut milk, galangal, pandan leaf and tamarind juice, and their classic dish is laksa – a spicy noodle soup.

“Singaporean cuisine has a lot of European influences, too,” Bosi continued, “and the French connection goes back a long way.” When Sir Stamford Raffles founded modern Singapore in 1819, he had a French botanist on board his ship – and the link back to France continued because Singapore was a trading port. 

“There are a lot of French nuances in the food, which is why I like it,” said Bosi. “It uses spices but it’s not too spicy. You could be eating in Europe.”

Fascinating and complex, Singapore and its food culture are hard to navigate without an expert’s steering hand. Here is Claude Bosi’s guide to getting the most from a visit.

To understand the cuisine, where should I begin?

One of the wet markets – morning markets with a “wet” section selling meat and fish, and a “dry” section for herbs, spices, grains, fruit and vegetables. You can see typical produce, from exotic vegetables to seafood. There’s one in Chinatown, one in Little India, and also Tiong Bahru [which is closed for renovation but reopens in May]. I was amazed by how clean they were – and there was no smell, no flies. That’s one of the great things about Singapore.

Most representative dish?

Chicken rice, adapted from a recipe brought from Hainan province in southern China. They poach a whole chicken and skim off the resulting stock. Some of that fat and liquid is then used – with ginger, garlic and pandan leaves – to cook the rice, producing a moist, oily dish full of flavour. The complexity is unbelievable, yet it looks so simple. You often have it with three dipping sauces, made with fresh sliced red chilli, ginger and garlic respectively.

Name a speciality that’s unique to Singapore.

Kopi gu you, which is coffee with melted butter. You put a little bit of condensed milk in the bottom of a glass, then pour in some black coffee and add a big knob of butter. It’s silky smooth and unexpectedly delicious. 

Any other peculiarities?

I love chwee kueh, soft rice dumplings topped with a spicy mix of preserved radish, fried garlic, chilli, toasted sesame seeds and soy sauce. It’s so tasty and a popular breakfast dish. I also loved the little coconut cakes called putu piring, made by Muslim ladies. These are steamed flour cakes made with rice flour, filled with gula Melaka (palm sugar) and topped with lightly salted shredded coconut. You have to venture to Geylang Serai for the best stall, where five pieces cost just S$2 (about £1.20). 

There’s a drink called a Michael Jackson, which you see everywhere. It’s soy milk with grass jelly in it, made from a member of the mint family with a slightly bitter flavour. The milk is white and the jelly goes to the bottom and is black, and you mix it up. It’s too sweet for me. The other novelty is coffee in a bag, which you see at hawkers’ markets. It’s the original takeaway, from way before Starbucks. The clear plastic bag comes with a carrying handle and a straw.

The 2016 Michelin Guide Singapore

The best place for brunch?

I went with a guide to Heap Seng Leong, a coffee shop on North Bridge Road. This old guy aged 80, dressed in pyjama trousers and a vest, has been making coffee there for 50 years. That’s where I had kopi gu you, the coffee with melted butter I mentioned earlier. He serves it with this delicious toast spread with kaya, or coconut jam. You dip the toast in soft boiled eggs mixed with soy sauce and pepper.

The other place I’d recommend is Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle, which has one Michelin star. It opens at 9.30am and we got there at 9am and there were 12 people in front of us. When we left at 10.30 there was a queue of 25 or 30. People are prepared to queue for up to two hours, just for a bowl of bak chor mee [minced pork noodles]. Mind you, they are amazing.

If you’re eating a bit later, at noon, the Tiffin Room at Raffles Hotel does a fantastic curry buffet. It serves “mean molee” curry – sea bass in a coconut gravy scented with curry leaves – and a Hyderabadi mixed vegetable curry with cashew nut and saffron sauce. They’re quite spicy with a North Indian influence and lots of flavour. I love curry at any time of day. I also had the best omelette I have ever tasted at Raffles one breakfast time.

Heap Seng Leong, Block 10, North Bridge Road, No 01-5109 (0065 6292 2368; no website). Coffee and kaya toast S$8.50 (£4.85). Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle, 466 Crawford Lane No 01-12 (no phone; taihwa.co.sg). The Tiffin Room, Raffles Singapore (0065 6412 1816; raffles.com/singapore). Curry buffet lunch S$60 (£35).

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What about lunch?

At Tiong Bahru Hawker Centre I had an oyster omelette followed by carrot cake – which is not what you think, not sweet but a savoury dish of fried radish, onions and egg. I also went to see this young guy, Terence Chee, who does hokkien hae mee (prawn noodles). He has this little stall in the Serangoon Hawker Centre called Xiao Di Hokkien Mee. He’s a young lad, 24 years old, working with his wife and brother, and they do just that one dish.

Another favourite for lunch is 328 Katong Laksa in Joo Chiat, where the dish to have is laksa. Its version is a spicy soup stock the colour of a flaming sunset, flavoured with coconut milk and dried shrimp and topped with cockles, prawns and tiny fishcakes. In it are thick vermicelli noodles cut into short pieces that can be slurped up with a spoon. You don’t need chopsticks.

If you’re brave, try Jin Ji Teochew Braised Duck and Kway Chap, where a lady has been cooking braised duck in the same stock pot for 20 years! Kway Chap is a soup made from duck meat and intestines with hard-boiled eggs, peanuts, bean curd, greens, preserved salted vegetables and flat rice noodles. It’s braised in a broth with soy sauce in it, which is why the stock pot is stained black. You eat the braised duck, then have the soup afterwards.

Tiong Bahru Hawker Centre, 30 Seng Pho Road (tiongbahrumarket.com). Small plates S$1-S$2 (60p-£1.20). Xiao Di Hokkien Mee, 153 Serangoon North Ave 1, Block 153 (0065 9062 1201). Prawn noodles S$5 (£3). 328 Katong Laksa, 1 Queensway, No 01-60 Queensway Shopping Centre (0065 9732 8163). Laksa S$4.50 (£2.60). Jin Ji Teochew Braised Duck and Kway Chap, No 02-156 Chinatown Complex, 335 Smith Street (no phone or website). Bento combo meal S$8 (£4.50).

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The best fine dining restaurants?

Restaurant André has two Michelin stars and is very charming. You walk past olive trees, then through into the restaurant, which is set inside a three-storey heritage house on the edge of Chinatown. It’s like going into someone’s home. 

The chef, Andre Chiang, is Taiwanese but trained in France, so his menus are a fusion of both. He does clever things, like crispy duck tongue with a quenelle of coxcomb and braised aubergine glazed in duck jus; and grilled fava beans in their pod, peeled and glazed with tarragon and shaved tonka beans. His dishes are beautifully presented, like miniature works of art.

Odette Restaurant is run by Julien Royer, a French guy, and also has two Michelin stars. It’s housed in The National Gallery Singapore, a new museum converted from the old Supreme Court building by a French architect. Royer’s food is in the European style. His tasting menus have included such things as heirloom beetroot done three ways; hay-smoked organic egg; Mozambique langoustine with oscietra caviar and mussels; and stracciatella artigiana burrata – a soft buffalo cheese from Apulia. One reviewer described his dishes as “intricately plated still-lifes”.

Restaurant André, 41 Bukit Pasoh Road (0065 6534 8880; restaurantandre.com). Five-course lunch menu S$198 (£115), eight-course dinner menu S$350 (£200).

Odette Restaurant, National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew’s Road (0065 6385 0498; odetterestaurant.com). Lunch: four courses S$88 (£50), six-course tasting menu S$128 (£75); dinner: six courses S$208 (£120), eight S$268 (£155).

Where would you go for an aperitif?

Ce La Vi, the Skybar at Marina Bay Sands, is very good; it has the best view over the city, and Gardens by the Bay. At the Regent Singapore Hotel, the Manhattan is one of Asia’s best cocktail bars. At Raffles, the Singapore Sling is the cocktail to have, of course. The official recipe is a gin base with cherry brandy, Cointreau, Benedictine, Grenadine, pineapple juice, lime juice and Angostura bitters, but there are many variations.

 Ce La Vi, 1 Bayfront Ave, Marina Bay Sands (0065 6508 2188; marinabaysands.com). Cocktails from S$10 (£6). Manhattan, Regent Singapore, 1 Cuscaden Road (0065 6725 3377; regenthotels.com/regent-singapore). Cocktails from S$10 (£6). Raffles, 1 Beach Road (0065 6337 1886; raffles.com). Singapore Sling S$32 (£20).

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The best places for dinner?

Labyrinth is run by Chef LG Han, who does traditional Singaporean food revisited – a bit modern, with interesting flavours, high-end but cheaper than André or Odette. He’s mixed-race; his mum is from Singapore, so he knows the cuisine. I like the curry puff, like a Cornish pasty with curry in it. His interpretation of it was light, full of flavour, a bit spicy, with a boiled egg inside. There’s also a playful dessert where you crack open what looks like a soft-boiled egg, and the yolk is mango..

The Clifford Pier, at Fullerton Bay Hotel, has superb views of the marina at night. It serves Western and Asian dishes, including Hainanese chicken rice, prawn laksa, bak kut teh (peppery pork ribs in broth, with fragrant rice) and mango sago pudding.

Labyrinth, Esplanade Mall, 8 Raffles Avenue (0065 6223 4098; labyrinth.com.sg). Four courses à la carte from S$54 (£30); 11-course tasting menu S$148 (£85). The Clifford Pier, Fullerton Bay Hotel, 80 Collyer Quay (0065 6333 8388; fullertonhotels.com/en/singapore . Three courses à la carte from S$88 (£50).

 

This article was written by Andrew Purvis from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.