Cooling down in Singapore
It’s hot! What are you doing to cool down? Perversely I’m wishing I was in Singapore, where they do delicious icy treats. The whole country is mad for good food so feeling hot is just one more excuse to tuck in. Feeling hot mid-morning? Time for an iced coffee. Coffee in Singapore is strong (they think we drink wussy weak coffee). Served with a splash of condensed milk it’s called kopi, and it’s so much more grown-up than it sounds – not too sweet, not too milky, not too bitter.
If you must, you can have kopi black with sugar (kopi O), or just black (kopi ko sang), or with evaporated instead of condensed milk (kopi C) but don’t even think about fresh milk – there are no cows to provide it in space-challenged Singapore. But given the weather, the best choice is iced – as kopi peng in a long glass of ice. My favourite kopi peng was at Ya Kun. This is now a chain of kopi shops, originally started by a Hainanese refugee, Ah Kun, in the 1940s. There’s always a queue, waiting not just for coffee, but also for French toast and kaya, a ‘jam’ made from egg, coconut and sugar. In fact the shop’s tagline is the wonderfully obtuse ‘The Toast that Binds’.
Kopi peng is addictive, but for a change I tried yuanyang, which is a mix of tea and coffee with condensed milk, served over ice. The name refers to Mandarin ducks, which look like an unlikely pair. The males are strikingly coloured and patterned as if designed and handcrafted by some upmarket homewares designer. The female looks like, well, a duck. They mate for life despite their aesthetic differences so are a symbol of conjugal love in Chinese culture, and of odd marriages, like tea and coffee. Yuanyang is good, but doesn’t nudge kopi peng off my perch.
The icy treat that does beats kopi peng is chendol, cool-down of choice come mid-afternoon, or supper time, or let’s face it, any time at all. Chendol is a sweet treat throughout south-east Asia. The dish starts with shaved ice piled into a dish or glass. This is flavoured with palm syrup and coconut milk, with textural and flavour interest added through sweet red beans, pandan-leaf flavoured noodle bits (which are called chendol), and cubes of jelly. You can find chendol and its variants all over town. My favourite chendol was at Mei Heong Yuen in Chinatown. This little cafe does a roaring trade in traditional desserts, particularly peanut, walnut, almond and black sesame pastes. But they also do snow ice desserts, and the chendol is terrific.
Okay, I can see that those little green chendol worms and lumps of black jelly might not have you reaching for a spoon, but trust me, it’s delicious. Or don’t trust me, and just order the lychee snow ice instead:
We’re visiting Singapore twice this year. Graham Ross is leading a tour in March and I’ll be leading another tour in August, when Singapore hosts its biennial Garden Festival. Icy treats are definitely on the itinerary!
Photos: Robin Powell