Tuesday, 10 April 2012

singapore: the dessert diary

singaporean's desserts are brighter than the
colourful windows at the mica building
my other half loves sweet things. he always likes a sweet something to conclude a meal and is quite content eating a couple of squares of chocolate or a dollop of yoghurt with fruit compote on most nights. he’s a real fan of my crumble, especially pear crumble with a candied ginger crème fraiche. he’s definitely not a fan of south east asian desserts though, so i could never coax him to try steamed egg custard buns whose sweet-salty flavours i so love. red bean steamed buns were totally out of the question. in singapore, i renewed my efforts to get him to try some of the malay, chinese and singaporean sweets and can say with certainty that i cemented his dislike for south east asian desserts. what’s more is that steamed buns and mango pudding aside i completely agree with him.

if i were allowed only one word to describe singaporean desserts it would be ‘psychedelic’. as a child when my family and i took weekend trips to the murree and nathia gali we would indulge in thick slices of buttery pound cake with cups of doodh patti (cooked tea). the cake was so rich it would leave the skin of your fingers soft with butter. but i always suspected that the yellowness of the cake was doctored as it was uncomfortably neon in its brightness. small bakeries along the mall in murree would sell luridly bright neon green, pink and yellow layer cakes with butter cream. i never ate these. then i came to singapore and discovered a world of desserts so bright and psychedelic that it made the pakistani cakes of my youth appear subdued. delicate layers of malay kuih were distractingly bright, their neon akin to the highest setting on the saturation filter in photography. most of these are based on a combination of coconut milk, rice flour, tapioca flour, pandan leaf flavour with agar agar used to set the ingredients together. food colouring is used to produce exaggerated shades of green, pink, purple, blue, yellow, red and orange.

pyschedelic bobo cha-cha
cold desserts like ice kachang and bubur cha-cha are equally pyschedelic and are based on a combination of shaved ice flavoured with sweet syrups or coconut milk. ice kachang includes red beans, sweet corn and palm seeds. o and i tried bubur cha-cha (often known as bobo cha-cha). this is a typical nyonya dessert associated with the peranakan chinese immigrants who settled in the straits. their cuisine is popular in singapore and is a mix of the varied heritage of chinese along with the local non-muslim women that many of the chinese men took as their wives. like ice kachang, bubur cha-cha starts with a base of shaved ice seasoned with spoonfuls of coconut milk. this is topped with cubes of boiled yams and sweet potato. brightly coloured and very tasteless tapioca flour jellies help work your mouth muscles and tapioca pearls add another less demanding exercise of the same. it wasn’t our cup of tea!

the dim sum and steamed bao stall at lau pasat
to be fair there are some south east asian desserts that i really enjoy. o is not a fan of pillow soft steamed buns with centres of red bean paste or yolk rich custards with a slightly savoury edge. i had a lovely steamed custard bun at lau pasat to round a dim sum lunch. i also fell in love with steamed yellow cake, essentially a lighter steamed version of pound cake that i found in chinatown people’s park centre. i tried some local biscuits with pale green centres of pandan leaf flavoured filing. these were salty sweet and would be nice with teh. i introduced o to my all time favourite chinese dessert that is mango pudding. i love mangoes especially pakistani ones with their intoxicating sweet smell and smooth yellow flesh. the perfect summer dessert is diced chilled mango with squiggles of cream. mango pudding is a similar partnership but takes the form of a milk jelly. evaporated milk, mango puree and cubes of mango are set using agar agar. carnation milk is served on the side. presumably it is intended to cut through the sweetness but it has the opposite effect as its peculiar saltiness amplifies the sweetness of the mango. the best one we had was at crystal jade in holland village.

gula melaka pandan cake
to make up for the bubur cha-cha mishap i tried to find o some nice desserts. cedele’s gula melaka pandan cake (palm sugar and pandan leaf) is a celebration of local flavours. the chiffon cake drew colour and flavour from pandan leaves. it was sandwiched with a layer of kaya (coconut jam) and finished with a gula melaka cream-cheese frosting, which tastes a bit like a caramel. it’s only weakness was the density of the chiffon cake most likely through heavy handed mixing. but this is something that can be fixed. my own selection of earl grey affogato with earl grey and fig ice cream was excellent as the ice cream was smooth with the figs providing a chewy contrast. it melted into the affogato to create a cooling tea. i'd definitely recommend both of these to you if you are in singapore.

singapore's sky line in the early afternoon post rain
on our last day in singapore o and i went to ps café, ann siang hill. we sat on the roof terrace serenaded by jazz and surrounded by the glass jungle of singapore’s skyline. an earlier rain shower had drawn the heat from the concrete leaving a pleasant coolness that is so rare in singapore. i had a lemon and honey soother as my sweet conclusion for the day. o had a thick wedge of flourless orange cake with a crown of orange peels. a orange butterscotch sauce and a scoop of vanilla ice cream added more moistness to the cake. i know that o really enjoyed it. as for me, i was content with his company, the jazz and the glass lit skyline around me. 

a special mention goes to freshly baked by le bijoux’s chocolate sponge cake. shaped like a loaf it is has a rich chocolate flavour and a light texture. it reminded me of american devils food cake sans frosting. o insisted on trying laurent bernard whose french patisserie at robertson quay has a distinctly european décor. unfortunately the chocolate soufflé was disappointing with an overreaching egg flavour. it was overcooked and had none of the lightness that is characteristic of soufflé. the raspberry sorbet and pistachio ice cream were excellent though and o’s rum and raisin hot chocolate was outstanding. dark liquid chocolate generously spiked with rum. the raisins are a slightly fiddly addition but their rum plumped bodies made it impossible to leave them seated at the bottom of the cup. so when o was done drinking his hot chocolate i finished them with a spoon.
american ice cream parlours like marble slab, arizona based cold stone creamery and ben and jerry’s are very popular in singapore so if you don’t fancy ice kachang’s and bubur cha-cha you can always head to these for a cold treat. the americana in singapore be it the numerous and familiar chains like the ice cream parlours mentioned above, or nantucket and mrs. fields cookies and places like wendy’s and california pizza kitchen made me miss arizona palpably.           

o and i revisited our childhoods with tubs of movenpick bought from the japanese supermarket near our place. when we were little these were a real treat and one of the few international ice creams available in pakistan. now of course you can get häagen-dazs and there is the homegrown hotspot that brought classic american flavours like cookie dough and chocolate fudge brownie to pakistan. but to return to movenpick, the tubs are square now and not oblong with a see through cover as we remembered them. the maple walnut was excellent but the strawberry was disappointing. our recollections were based on one that was more like strawberries and cream with a pale pink colour. this tub of movenpick strawberry was sweeter, brighter and tasted slightly artificial. perhaps singapore’s love of neon had crept into the box or our memory failed us. 


  1. Always a delight to read, you never fail to make me hungry even if i am eating while reading your blog.
    TC, Khaleeli

  2. so sorry you didn't like the shaved ice desserts. I find getting the right stall really does matter! did you make it to the dessert stall at temple street in chinatown that i mentioned with the warm dessert pastes and soups made from ground walnuts and black sesame? they have awesome towering cones of shaved ice that are shaved so fine they taste almost liek ice cream, they have a brilliant green tea version with sweetened red beans, and a chendol version with coconut milk that was richer and actually tasted pretty much like coconut ice cream toped with gula melaka and the other chendol toppings!

  3. shu han, it's not your fault that we didn't like the desserts. i figured that finding the right stall matters but i suspect it's also somewhat of an acquired taste. i took to kuih so much more and of course the cantonese classics. i've neve been a fan of tapioca and chewy jelly things so i doubt that chendol and ice kachang will ever appeal. i went looking for the stall on temple street twice and had no luck so gave up. i do love black sesame though so it's quite a pity!