It’s been about four months since I moved to Singapore, and while that’s been enough time to get a decent handle on the island’s small but passionate craft beer scene, food is one topic I’m still somewhat loathe to talk or write about much. I know good food when I taste it, of course, but the volume and varieties of food in Singapore are fairly daunting, particularly when it comes to hawker food. I may feel the fried carrot cakes at my local hawker centre are some of the best in town, for example, but I can picture scads of incredulous Singaporeans blowing up the comments on a potential post about said carrot cakes with lists of 25+ hawkers who fry up far superior plates of the rich, greasy, gooey stuff — and they’d probably be right.
Singaporeans have a well-earned reputation for taking their food very seriously, and from what I’ve seen they generally fall on the skeptical rather than the effusive side of the food appraisal scale; spend a few minutes browsing restaurant reviews and ratings on the local HungryGoWhere food guide and you’ll see what I mean. Tough crowd, but then with over 100 hawker centres to choose from, each packed with vendors often specializing in just a few different dishes, locals have room and the right to be picky.
It does go both ways, however. When vendors offer a plate of food that for whatever reason doesn’t sit well, they can expect to never see that patron again, but serve them something special and they’ve likely scored a loyal regular. Unlike in other parts of the world (cough United States cough), there just isn’t much room for “just okay” when it comes to food in Singapore — that much I do know because, well, that’s the mentality I’ve quickly adopted too.
Fish Tikka Night at the Apolo
One place that’s won me over and that I’m not hesitant to lavish with praise is The Banana Leaf Apolo, one of the scores of Indian restaurants packed into aromatic streets of Little India. Open since 1974 and serving both northern and southern Indian cuisine, Banana Leaf Apolo is a stalwart in any Singapore guidebook’s food section and, thus, usually heaving with tourists on any given night. It’s a good sign, though, that said tourists have to fight the locals for a table, locals who voted this sparsely decorated joint as the best Asian restaurant in Singapore in the 2011-12 AsiaOne People’s Choice Awards.
Fish head curry is the restaurant’s calling card — in fact, they established a world record in 2007 when 30 chefs used 1,101 fish heads to make the largest serving of fish head curry made at one location — but that’s one dish I haven’t yet worked up sufficient gumption to taste. (I’m sure it’s wonderful and I’m sure I’ll try it at some point, but if having a little hesitation about digging into the severed head of a fish means I’m not a “foodie,” then I guess I’m not a foodie.) What I have tried, however, and what keeps me coming back regularly is the fish tikka, which my wife and I ordered on a lark and is now often the only thing we pair with our cold mugs of Tiger beer.
The hastily snapped photo above does this delicious Indian delicacy little justice. These crispy, meaty hunks of white fish — I think it’s red snapper, but it doesn’t really matter — are chunked up, rubbed with a mixture of pungent spices, smoked to perfection, and served with a wedge of lime, a simple, flavorful, agreeably healthy dish that can actually get you out the door of an Indian restaurant feeling full and entirely satisfied without the accompanying bloat. If you’re really hungry, order some garlic or butter naan to sop up the complimentary piles of veggies scooped onto your banana leaf plate, but consider starting with no more than that because you may just find yourself pining for another plate of fish tikka and pushing the restaurant’s hit-and-miss curries to the side of your leaf.
Is there better fish tikka in Singapore? Maybe, but when it’s done as well as it is at The Banana Leaf Apolo, I find it difficult to justify spinning the culinary roulette wheel and missing out on another taste of what I know is a winner. It’s only been four months, but I guess I’m becoming a little Singaporean like that.
The Banana Leaf Apolo is located at 54 Race Course Road in Singapore’s Little India. Open daily 10:30am – 10:30pm. +65 6293 8682.