Yams, red beans, creamed corn, white fungus, grass jelly, black glutinous rice. Perhaps these ingredients don’t immediately conjure up images of tempting sweet treats, but in steamy Singapore—with the addition of shaved ice, fresh fruit, palm sugar, colorful syrups, coconut milk and other goodies—they morph into a medley of exotic desserts.
I just returned from a week in Singapore where I was tagging along with my husband, who presented at a conference there. I couldn’t miss a trip to this unabashedly food-obsessed city, where you really can’t walk two steps without bumping into tantalizing aromas emanating from cafes, food stands and hawker centers (organized street food vendors). In this modern multi-cultural society, where impossibly high angular skyscrapers tower over warrens of ethnic neighborhood shops, Chinese, Indian, Malay residents and foreign visitors all join in a tireless search for the best grub the city has to offer—in local parlance: “die-die-must-try.”
Singaporean specialties abound, like chili-crab, fish-head curry, oyster omelet, chicken rice and a multitude of variations on spicy noodles. But for my few days there, I needed a quest with a smaller focus, so why not a sweet one, sampling as many desserts as possible? (Actually “desserts” is somewhat of a misnomer, as these sweet treats are more often consumed as afternoon or late night snacks.)
Straddling the equator, with temperatures often in the 90s and the air thick with tropical humidity, icy treats offer natural refreshment in Singapore’s year-round heat wave. Although many have roots in neighboring cultures, the fantastical shapes and colors of these cooling combinations make them Singaporean classics.
Ice Kachang — the quintessential Singaporean dessert takes a mountain of shaved ice, douses it with a rainbow of syrups and sprinkles on toppings such as soft red beans and creamed corn. I ordered mine with a dusting of chopped peanuts for an extra dimension of crunch.
Chendol — the key ingredient in this icy treat is the jelly-like green noodles flavored with pandan leaf, layered with cooked red beans, chewy palm seeds, coconut milk and a sweet brown syrup.
Every Singapore resident I asked offered encouragement and advice on my sweet-seeking journey. They also cautioned me not to eat too many treats with creamy, coconut milk. (“Not good for the tummy.”) Luckily, there were a profusion of more delicate sweet dishes to choose from.
Ice Jelly — utterly light and refreshing: shaved ice with cold translucent jelly globules. I had mine topped with mango.
Steamed Papaya with Snow Fungus and Almond — served in light syrup. The snow fungus adds the texture of a dainty, frilly sponge. I enjoyed it cold, but it also comes hot, as do several other desserts with a hot/cold option.
When the Singaporean sky turns black and hurls lighting bolts, thunderclaps and pounding rain, it’s an invitation to duck into a cheerful neon-bordered café for a warm bowl of comfort, such as sweet black glutinous rice cooked into a velvety pudding, drizzled with a swirl of coconut milk.
Other warming choices:
Bubor Cha Cha — chunks of cooked yam and sweet potato with colored bits of chewy coconut jelly swimming in warm coconut milk.
Chinese culture often cites the health benefits of certain foods to balance one’s yin/yang, for specific ailments or populations (e.g. pregnant women). A sign in Food Republic’s Ice Shop proclaimed Red Beans with Lotus seeds “great for getting rid of dark circles under the eyes,” so there was no way I could pass that up.
The places where I sampled these treats varied as much as the flavors and forms they took. From fancy food courts in high-rise shopping meccas, like Wisma Atria’s Food Republic to beloved, old-fashioned, open-air Hawker Centres (Maxwell Road in Chinatown, Tekka Center in Little India and Lau Pa Sat in the financial district).
A visit to the National Museum of Singapore’s vibrant Living Gallery of Food provided the back-story to the city’s obsession with street food. Itinerant street vendors have always played an important role in this multi-cultural city. Since the 19th century, they traveled door-to-door preparing and peddling their wares or setting up carts and stands on the riverside. In the 1980s, as part of a project to clean up the river, Prime Minister Lee mandated that hawkers leave the riverside and take their places in designated hawker centers.
Scores of hawker centers, which are wildly popular with locals, are scattered around the city, each features vendors from various cultures, side by side, selling freshly made dishes at rock-bottom prices. You can have some Indian roti with your Malaysian beef rendang and finish off with sweet Chinese ah bolin (glutinous rice balls filled with yam, bean or sesame seed paste).
After spending an hour immersed in the museum’s videos, oral histories and food artifacts, I gained an appreciation for the context of Singapore’s food focus. As one hawker interviewed in a museum video explains, “Food makes us all equal, rich and poor, people of all races.”
And now, to Oakland…
I’m afraid that Singapore’s signature sweets, Ice Kachang and Chendol, have not yet made it to the East Bay. But don’t despair. Oakland Chinatown is home to two spots known for “Hong Kong style desserts ” where you can sample several treats remarkably similar to those I recently enjoyed.
Yummy Guide — For a few years now, I’ve been working my way down the menu of this totally unassuming Chinese cafe. I’ve tried black sesame-stuffed mini-dumplings in hot ginger syrup, various warm creamy puddings and the same steamed papaya and white fungus I had in Singapore (but on a chilly day, I ordered it hot–mmm). On the cold side, my favorite is Mango Queendom: a marvelous medley for a mango maniac, whose silky mango pudding and chunks of fresh mango are topped by creamy sago pearls (like a lighter tapioca) plus surprising morsels of pink grapefruit.
Shooting Star Cafe — around the corner from Yummy Guide, I just discovered this flashier spot with a star-studded blue ceiling, that offers a wide array of slushies, ice creams, waffles, crepes and hot desserts such as black sesame soup, red bean soup, and black sticky rice with coconut milk. Their cold choices feature a variety of mixed fruit with sago and jelly grass. And in case you get a late-night urge for a bowl of sea coconut stewed with rose, it’s good to know that they are open until 2am.