I’ve never had great luck with layovers. Most of mine have consisted of the standard three to five hour layover in Mexico City, or the one to two hour layover in Dallas-Fort Worth. A typical layover is usually too little time for me to leave the airport and re-enter on time for the connecting flight, but somehow still enough time to delay and bore me.
Back in 2012, I finally lucked out, having a twenty hour layover in Singapore, which would provide me enough time to leave the airport and cram three solid meals into my gullet before rolling myself back onto to the plane. However, my “luck” came with a catch. This twenty hour layover was sandwiched within a grueling twenty-three hour flight from LAX to Colombo, Sri Lanka.
With a total travel time of forty-three hours, I knew that I’d have to dig deep to have enough energy to even get out of Changi airport to try all of the amazing foods available in Singapore. As you can tell from this blog, I love to travel. However, I’ve never been a fan of flying. As someone who stands above six feet, airplane travel, even on one of the better carriers, such as Singapore Airlines, is extremely uncomfortable.
International travel compounds my airplane discomfort even more, as I’m stuck on a plane for close to twenty-four hours. By the end of the journey, my feet become so swollen that my toes look like sausages, due to the obvious lack of circulation. Additionally, as a light sleeper, I’m unable to sleep on planes, which certainly doesn’t help my cause any further.
After nineteen hours of flying, and a fairly brief one and a half hour wait at Tokyo’s Narita Airport (which is spotless, I might add), I arrived to Singapore exhausted. I had to make an important decision: try to get some sleep, or leave the airport to go on an eating binge. I came to a slight compromise and decided to try to sleep on one of the airport benches for two hours. Singapore’s Changi airport is so clean and safe that this is definitely one of the better airports in the world to do so.
After a two or three hour refresher, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to comfortably sleep any more than that, and promptly headed to the MRT. MRT stands for Mass Rapid Transit. The subway system in Singapore is excellent. In fact, I’d say that it’s the best subway system that I’ve ever been on. It’s efficient, clean , and always on time. Everyone using it follows the rules, such as gathering at the sides of the train doors, rather than directly in front of them, so that passengers can get off the train first (unlike in New York).
Bak Kut Teh (Pork Rib Soup) at Ng Ah Sio
My first stop was Ng Ah Sio Bak Kut Teh on Rangoon Road. Ng Ah Sio specializes in pork rib soup, or bak kut teh, which translates literally to “meat bone tea” in the Hokkien dialect. Founder Ng Siak Hai began making this soup from a street cart in 1955, eventually moving to the restaurant’s current location on Rangoon Road in 1988. His son now operates the world famous franchise, which has expanded operations to three other locations within Singapore, and one in Taiwan.
Bak kut teh is traditionally made with pork ribs, garlic, two kinds of soy sauce, cloves, anise, cinnamon, sugar, black pepper, and Chinese medicinal herbs. Of course, the recipe varies from chef to chef, and in my opinion, Ng Ah Sio has the best one.
Ng Ah Sio prepares their pork rib soup in the Teochew style, meaning the broth is generally lighter in color than the darker Hokkien style, but much heavier on the garlic and black pepper. The ribs come straight off the bone, and the broth has a nice peppery, garlic taste that goes down quite smoothly.
Teochew style bak kut teh is traditionally eaten with rice and fried you tiao (those savory Chinese donuts/dough fritters that I love so much). You’re given freshly chopped finger-length chilies on the side and soy sauce. Since bak kut teh is eaten for breakfast, you’re also served tea with your meal. After eating a filling breakfast of pork rib soup, with plenty of rice and fried dough, I decided to walk the mile and a half to my next destination, in a feeble attempt to create more space in my stomach.
Mutton Murtabak at Zam Zam Restaurant
Zam Zam Restaurant is an Indian Muslim restaurant specializing in Murtabaks. It’s located on North Bridge Road, near the corner of Arab Street, in Kampong Glam, Singapore’s historic Muslim Quarter. In Kampong Glam, you’ll find a plethora of Indian, Malay, and Middle Eastern restaurants, in addition to fabric, carpet, and craft stores, as well as coffee shops, art galleries, and more. This is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Singapore, and has beautiful architecture.
So what exactly is a murtabak? A murtabak is roti paratha (Indian unleavened flatbread that is somewhat like a mix between a crepe, a pancake, and a freshly made wheat tortilla), with meat, spices, and other ingredients stuffed into it, and then folded. Murtabaks in Singapore are usually served with a spicy curry gravy. I love any kind of flatbread or dough stuffed with meat and spices, so this meal had my name written all over it.
Zam Zam, which has been around since 1908, makes what is widely known as the best mutabak in Singapore. I ordered the mutton (lamb) murtabak, which in my opinion, is the best variety that they serve. The parathaman (or prataman, as they spell it in Singapore) stretches the dough until it’s paper thin. Egg, onions, meat, and spices are added, then the dough is folded over, flipped and cooked on a flat iron griddle, searing it nicely on the outside.
The end result is a crispy, flaky dough on the outside, giving way to a softer dough soaked with the flavor of the meat and spices, and then ultimately giving way to the meat, egg, and spice filled center. Unlike a typical plain paratha, this is not an accompaniment or a starter. It’s a meal on its own. Dipping the pieces of the murtabak into the mutton curry gravy is pure ecstasy.
Though the murtabak is Zam Zam’s signature dish, they have some amazing non-murtabak dishes as well. They have excellent curries (the same ones from which they provide the curry gravy for your murtabak), biryanis, goreng (stir fried, Singapore style noodles, with an Indian influence), and more. I highly recommend Zam Zam. In fact, should I return to Singapore again, a Zam Zam murtabak might be the first thing that I’d get after getting off the plane.
At this point, I was beyond stuffed, and the short, half mile walk to my next destination didn’t provide me with enough time or exercise to burn off all those calories to create space. To create enough space for my next meal, I had to do some sightseeing and window shopping along the way. Even after a decent amount of wandering around, I still arrived to my next destination half full. However, there could be worse things, and I was in Singapore, so I decided to go all in and eat regardless.
Sup Tulang at Haji Kadir Food Chains
Haji Kadir Food Chains, a world famous food hawker stand located in the Golden Mile Food Centre, is best known for their sup tulang, which is Malay for “bone soup.” Sup tulang, which also goes by “sup tulang merah” (“red bone soup” in Malay), was invented at Haji Kadir Food Chains by founder Abdul Kadir back in the 1950s. The stand is now run by his son.
Sup tulang is made by slow cooking mutton (lamb) bones in a sauce of ginger, galanga, onion, garlic, tomato puree, and a handful of other herbs and spices. After cooking for hours, the meat and its connective tissue are falling off of the bones. The eerie, bright red color is the product of the chilies, tomato, and a small amount of food coloring (though this varies by food hawker stall). Sup tulang arrives to you on a plate, topped with shredded cabbage. Make no mistake, though the Malay name implies that the dish is Malay in origin, and a soup, it’s neither of those things. It was invented by a Muslim Indian, and is definitely of a thick, curry-like consistency.
The highlight of sup tulang is not the delicious meat, or the tasty connective tissue, rather the exquisite bone marrow inside of the bones, and the bright red gravy bathing the bones. Some of the bone marrow melts into the curry gravy, giving it its distinctive deep, nourishing flavor. The best way to enjoy this gravy is by ordering a french loaf. The bread arrives fairly dry (on purpose), and on its own wouldn’t do much for you, but dipped into the bright red gravy, it becomes a magical sponge of flavor.
Though the taste is different, and no where near as spicy, eating sup tulang somewhat reminds me of eating a torta ahogada, the famous “drowned sandwich” from the Mexican state of Jalisco. Much like eating a torta ahogada, sup tulang has to be eaten with your hands, no matter how messy. It will also leave your hands stained bright red for a few hours, even after you wash them.
My advice before ordering this dish is to bring napkins or wipes with you in anticipation. Unlike in Mexico, where you often can find a bountiful supply of napkins (wasteful as that sounds), in Singapore, you’ll be lucky to get one. In spite of Singapore’s wealth and extremely high standard of living, Singaporean restaurants are generally quite frugal when it comes to napkins (East Asia in general, to be fair), so it pays to adapt accordingly.
Since the dish arrives piping hot, I recommend eating it this way: First, use the bread to soak up the gravy below the bones for a bit. Once the bones cool down enough, grab them with your hands, and eat the bits of meat and tendons on them. Once you’ve picked them clean, move on to the marrow. You have three options for getting the marrow out of the bones: use a straw to suck out the marrow, use the back end of the plastic spoon to fish the marrow out of the bone, or hold the bone above your plate and smack the top end of it repeatedly, like a ketchup bottle.
All three methods are effective, however, I have an irrational hatred of ketchup and the smacking method is the most likely of the three to create a bigger mess, so I opt for both the straw method and the back of the spoon method. Once I’ve extracted all of the delicious marrow out of the bones, I soak up the remainder of it and the gravy with the bread. The bread also absorbs some of the clothing staining gravy from my hands, making it much easier to clean them in the sink afterward.
Mutton marrow is fairly nutritious and healthy, to the point that some locals purport sup tulang as a way to nourish the male and female reproductive systems. While there’s no empirical evidence to substantiate that specious claim, there is plenty of evidence to prove that this dish is very tasty, and should be a national dish, up there with (in my opinion, above) chili crab and Hainanese chicken rice. If you like lamb, marrow, curry, or all three, you’ll love sup tulang. Just remember to wash your hands beforehand, not wear white, and bring plenty of napkins.
After that third meal at Haji Kadir, I didn’t have any available space left in my stomach for a fourth meal, and I had to be back at the airport within two hours, so I set out for the MRT. However, on the way to the MRT station, I passed through a small, outdoor fruit market and notice that they had mangosteen (in my opinion, the best tasting fruit on Earth) for sale, so I impulsively bought some and devoured it in the airport lobby, before passing through security. Just like that, my twenty hours in Singapore had come to an end.
Ng Ah Sio Bak Kut Teh is open from 10:30 AM to 9:00 PM, every day.
Ng Ah Sio Bak Kut Teh
208 Rangoon Road
Singapore +65 6291 4537
Zam Zam Restaurant is open from 7:00 AM to 11:00 PM, every day.
Zam Zam Restaurant
697-699 N Bridge Road
Singapore +65 6298 6320
Haji Kadir Food Chains is open from 10:00 AM to 11:30 PM, every day.
Haji Kadir Food Chains (Golden Mile Food Centre)
505 Beach Road, (#B1-13/15)
+65 6294 0750