Before our brief foray to this modern anomaly in our southeast Asia adventure I had images of sterility and functionality with little soul to be found, aside from the plentiful food scene created by the mass convergence of cultures. Upon entering the airport it was evident we were miles away from the usual rundown airport with prop planes and tarmacs where passengers wander to what they assume is their plane. The air conditioning was so powerful I spent the majority of the time in customs, which wasn’t much as it was an extremely efficient experience, shivering.
Back in May my single trip turned into a duo, and here in Singapore we would become a trio with Alex’s brother joining us for the last weeks of our trip.
After a quick, clean, and efficient MRT ride to our hotel we set about exploring the city. As food is the primary motivation for our travel to this city, we headed out for a cup of kopi-c (coffee with condensed milk) and kaya toast (coconut jam). The coffee was good, but the kaya toast was the clear standout. Why we don’t eat this every morning in the States is absurd. Thin slices of toasted, crunchy bread are slathered in jam and sandwiched with a healthy slab of butter. It is ridiculously delicious, and learning how to make it at home is now a top priority.
We spent the morning meandering the streets of Chinatown, which aside from a few streets with a gross display of useless and gaudy tourist bric a brac, the area certainly exuded more culture than I had anticipated. Though lacking the grime and pungent nasal assaults of other Chinatowns, it wasn’t without its charms or intriguing temples which plumed with joss smoke. It did feel at times a bit artificial, the way much of the city does. Everything is relatively new, and even “old” temples have undergone renovation, or else the surrounds are starkly contrasted with clean wide alleyways and modern shops. While it was refreshing to view the city without the occasional waft of an open sewer the lack of gritty alleyways, chaotic walkways, accosting smells, and general in your faceness made it feel a bit, lackluster. The culture is there, I’m sure, but it certainly isn’t palpable. And isn’t that the point? There are areas of Singapore that aren’t nearly as sterile, but our limited time prevented us from seeking them out. Next time.
Also conveniently located in Chinatown is the Maxwell food center, one of the many Hawker centers that provide Singaporeans quick cheap (and delicious ) meals. These places are at the heart of the city, and visiting without ever entering one of these foodie enclaves would certainly be unadvised. We ended up eating twice here, sampling an array of foods, including porridge and chicken rice. Our general method of exploration was to find the longest lines and order what everyone else was. It never fails. One our first visit we noticed several stands selling soya bean curd. One was sold out, but was getting more in that evening. We vowed to return to sample what was clearly in high demand. Upon returning we found a massive line were locals we’re order quarter quarts of the original curd (almond had sold out within a few minutes) by the bag full. We waited in line and bought just one container. It was a mistake. The curd was unbelievably smooth, better than most custards I’ve ever had. It wasn’t liquid in the least, but when you put I’m your mouth it literally melted. It had a mellow, slightly sweet flavor and wasn’t even a bit heavy the way custards tend to be. We could have eaten far more, but of course, upon returning they had already sold out. It ended up being one of the best things we ate in the city.
Our second day brought us to the botanical gardens, a sprawling sanctuary in the otherwise concrete centric city. We spent a few hours wandering around, particularly interesting was the patch of rainforest that had been preserved and used to cover the entire island.
Our food oriented traveling has often resulted in a bit of frustration, as we occasionally have to go relatively far out of our way to find something we’ve heard is worth the trip. But, sometimes we can’t find it, or it’s closed. This time our attempt to locate lunch ended up being a several hour adventure. At the end we wound up with delicious bowls of Laksa soup, but it was quite the endeavor to find. After our 3pm lunch we felt a coffee was in order. I had heard about a boutique coffee roaster in between little India and Orchard road. They can’t legally sell you coffee, but they can give you saplings of what their brewing and you can donate per cup what you think it deserves (usually between S$ 4-5). Walking along the road, searching for Papa Palheta we could suddenly smell the sweet aroma of expertly roasted beans. We must be close. But as we continued the smell faded away, we doubled back and found a small sign indicating we should enter from the back alley. We skirted the building and found a small, smart courtyard with a large glass window looking into a coffee bar that could easily be in New York. We found it. We sampled different roasts and brewing methods, from flat blacks to espressos to cold brews everything was amazing. The trick is, to sit at the front tasting bar and let the expert baristas take care of you. Trust them, they know what they’re doing. I had forgotten what truly good coffee tasted like, the sort where it actually tastes better black and not muddled with milk and sugar, clean, bright, earthy, or chocolatly. I missed this. It s the perfect way to idle away an hour. The staff wasn’t remedy knowledgable and eager to answer any of our questions. The singular experience made our aching feet worth while.
And then, after this very brief visit we head to Kuala Lumpur, in search of more food, of course!