Sunday, January 2, 2011

Eating Singapore: Seafood

After many weeks of traveling and eating, I find myself back in Boston, with a half-empty fridge and a growling tummy.  Nothing to be done, I suppose, other than to revisit past gastronomic glories . . . .

My gluttonous exploits in Singapore left me with an extra five pounds and a hefty number of photos.  Since we tried various iterations of our favorite dishes, rather than describing the eats chronologically or by restaurant, I thought I'd go by genre, starting with Singapore's gorgeous seafood.




Singaporeans do amazing things to mollusks.  Mussels, clams, conches . . . if it has a shell, they find a way to make it taste delicious.  At the hawker center at Makansutra Gluttons Bay, my mom insisted that we try the fresh cockles.  The rough-looking dudes at Boon Tat Seafood quickly wok-steamed the cockles and served it with their house chili sauce.


On first glance, I wasn't that impressed.  But you crack open the shell, use a toothpick to spear the delicate meat, dip it into the sauce, put it in your mouth and . . . a huge punch of flavor hits you.  The brininess of the cockles was so intense and savory that I swore up and down that there was a black bean sauce infused into the dish.  My mom -- and a quick look at the menu -- confirmed otherwise.  And that calamansi-infused chili sauce is seriously tasty.  (Calamansi is a tiny citrus, sort of like a slightly savory lime, that Singaporeans put in everything.)


Singapore is probably most famous for chili crab.  (For more on this, you have to check out Big Apple Nosh; she experienced crab paradise on her trip to Singapore.)  But I'm a lazy girl, and seeing that no one was offering to crack crabs for me, I decided that crabs involved too much work and ordered a chili black pepper shrimp instead.

Boon Tat's version was good.  No surprise: Singaporean black pepper sauce is a sticky, spicy, savory, and sweet soy and pepper reduction that would be tasty on anything, even a shoe.


For my sister, Singapore seafood is about one thing and one thing only: screw chili crabs, what she wants is grilled monkfish.  And she wants it at just about every meal.

Monkfish is the football player of fish: ugly, hefty, and meaty.  It's got the firm texture of swordfish, and is sometimes described as "poor man's lobster."  Singaporeans and Malaysians figured out how to make it tasty and moist by schmearing it with a thick chili paste, wrapping it in banana leaves, and grilling it.  Served with a twist of calamansi, the monkfish is transformed from fug to fab.


Aside from grilling technique, what makes a great monkfish is the chili paste.  Other than chili, it usually has cilantro, ginger, tumeric, and maybe a bit of belacan (a shrimp paste).  The one at Boon Tat had the perfect combo of heat and savoriness; I was less impressed with the blander version we had a the Old Airport Food Centre (though it did not prevent my sister from eating the whole dish on her own).


By now, it must seem that every seafood dish in Singapore is prepared with calamansi and chili.  But we also had great seafood prepared "nonya" style.  Nonya or Peranakan cuisine is a fusion of Chinese and Malaysian-Indonesian cooking styles, and the Chinese part of the mix tamps down the spice a bit.  The emphasis on the savory and the unami can be a nice respite from the bold chili flavors of mainstream Singaporean food.  At Blue Ginger, we tried "Sotong Kunyit," which is squid stir-friend with tumeric and tamarind.  The squid was perfectly cooked -- al dente, not at all chewy -- and was coated in a subtly spicy, sweet and tart sauce.  

After all this shellfish, I have a lot to repent for on Yom Kippur.  But damn it was delicious!  And did I mention that seafood is super affordable in Singapore?  

2 comments:

BigAppleNosh January 2, 2011 at 8:29 PM  

Looks soooo delish - especially the cockles! I'm heading over to Singapore next month - maybe one day our trips will coincide!

lavenderpug January 3, 2011 at 9:09 AM  

everything looks amazing. your description of the cockles is mouthwatering. and i cannot get over the awesomely-named gluttons bay.

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