A week of food crazy

Live sea urchin.
Live sea urchin. Photo: Marco Del Grande

"What are we doing?! 'We can still turn around and get them." We're overcome with guilt at travelling without the kids for the first time.

It's the last chance as we prepare for the full body scan, but as we walk across the aerobridge on to the A380 B-double people mover, a family is in full pre-flight mode behind us, the already-weary parents answering endless questions: Yes, I think they'll feed us. No, you can't sit up top; that's for important people. Can you just stop doing that to your sister!

No more regrets after that; we're good to go and guilt-free, bound for Singapore on a big plane that has a camera on the tail from which you can watch take-off, which is pretty cool.

Our task is to eat, and we've chosen the right time for that, the run up to the Chinese New Year when a food-crazy culture gets even more into it. Strap yourself in.

We have a list of places that have been flagged by friends, family and tweeps and basically we hit the ground with our first dinner at a place called Lolla.

Lolla started life as a pop-up restaurant and now is permanent non-pop-up near Chinatown. This is a pretty special little place, seating just 13 people on a bar around the kitchen where you get to see the cooking up close. It's all small plates and has international fusion feel rather than being particularly Asian.

The squid-ink custard with sea-urchin roe is a highlight, and a lesson in texture. Lolla is also known for its scrambled eggs with salted mullet roe, the intense salt and umami flavours of the bottarga needing little else than the fresh farm eggs, a product that is rare here.

Baby squid with sweet and hot peppers is tiny little squid parts in a rich, reduced capsicum gravy spiked with fresh sweet and hot chilli. Each dish is just three or four flavours, so they're simple, but concentrated and all about texture.

Great wine list, too - the name Lolla comes from Lollapalooza, a wine importer and part owner. With the current exchange rate, you can eat a places like this nightly. It's on Ann Siang Road just off Chinatown.


Chinatown doesn't seem to have changed much since we came here almost 20 years ago, stayed nearby and followed a recommendation to go to the Chinatown food complex, find stall No.13 and order duck porridge. It's all still here, although it's been tidied up.

Breakfast is probably the most important meal of the day here and after we tested the hotel's rather ordinary version, we decided to cab it to Chinatown each day. Things to order for brekky at the Chinatown complex or nearby Maxwell Road hawker markets are: youtiao, a sweet pastry not unlike a churro; rice porridge with chicken, or duck, or pretty much anything else; soy bean juice, a sweetened liquid that comes off the first press; or even carrot cake. The interesting thing about this hawker's dish is there's no carrot in it. It's a steamed rice-flour porridge and radish cake cooked with eggs, chilli and herbs. Pretty good start to the day.

It's crazy the amount of food here every hour of the day. I want our first lunch to be memorable but live-bullfrog porridge it isn't going to be. This is a common dish and I'm pretty adventurous, but bullfrogs are thing to marvel at behind glass in a zoo not floating in shortgrain rice.

So we end up at a place called Lee Kui Teochew restaurant on Mosque Street. It takes a bit of negotiation to get in, the owner adamant that we are in the wrong place since they only serve ''real Chinese food''.

Teochew is another of the ethnic Chinese strands that make up the rich mix that is Singapore, and the food involves lots of rustic braised dishes and a penchant for seafood. Thus we have braised duck - everything from beak to toes - and sea cucumber stuffed with pork and drizzled in a sesame sauce.

Funny owner here. He gave us a white paper of Australian-Asian relations. ''We like Mr Rudd, he understands us, speaks our language well.'' Go on. ''We don't know Gillard, she fall over all the time and mean crazy.'' Say what? ''Her name, it's mean crazy in Malay.'' OK, funny how names translate, but I resist throwing one back at him from his own culture.

Back home, I've got that sea urchin dish in the back of my mind. Lolla uses sea urchin from Japan. It comes on a bamboo platter that keeps the roe cold with a block of ice just under and a glass cover, wrapped in layers of cloth. It would cost a fortune, but the roe is so plump and delicious-looking, unlike how we generally see sea urchins - floating in a watery plastic tub.

So I'd say unless you have had them fresh from the ocean and expertly extracted from the shell, you haven't really tasted good sea urchin roe and will no doubt be slightly turned off by it. They're not strong at all, nor fishy, but salty and sweet. A Batemans Bay business called Sea Urchin Harvest supplies Japan during the season, which is now. So who knows, the urchin roe we had in Singapore could have come from close to home.

The roe works extremely well with eggs and rice. Here's a nice way of having them, and if you had a bit of truffle to shave over the top it ends up being a simple resplendent meal.

Bryan Martin travelled to Singapore at his own expense.

Sea urchin roe with soft egg

For each person

sushi rice

1 egg

2 fat sea urchin roe

½⁄ tsp chopped chives

cracked pepper

Steam the rice as directed on the pack (rinse until water is clear and cook one cup of rice with 1.1 cups of cold water in a rice cooker).

Poach the egg at 63C for 45 minutes, chill and warm through to use. Place two tablespoons of cooked rice in a ramekin or similar. Crack the egg into a cup, and spoon out just the yolk and any clinging white. Place on top of the rice. Arrange the raw, chilled roe on top of the egg. Garnish with chives and cracked pepper.