Because in Singapore there's no excuse for having a bad meal.

Not always pretty, but always interesting....

Black Is Beautiful - the secret behind Singapore's great kaya toast

There's something about the toast in Singapore. With every steaming sweet kopi one can get thin-sliced bread toasted over open heat to a brittle crispness on the outside and a warm tenderness in the middle. A smear of kaya and butter and it's a thing of breakfast beauty. But what makes it so good? I mean, it's just baked bread, right?

Wrong -- if it's from Sing Hon Loong.

At Sing Hon Loong Bakery in Singapore's colorful Balestier neighborhood they still bake bread the old school way. Large ovens line the rear of the store behind long tables laden with lumps of hand made dough. At the other end of the table, hot loaves are delivered with tops charred black as if having been forgotten in the oven during a phone call from a long lost lover.

But upon closer examination the loaf tops are charred uniformly and a certain, sumptuous smokiness fills the air as they cool. It’s Blackhead bread, an old Singaporean tradition that they’ve been baking for decades.

The charred cap gives it extra flavor," said the baker. "Try it." He cut a freshly-trimmed slice from a warm loaf and pushed it across the enormous, antique baking counter toward me. He was right, it did have the slightest hint of smoky, almost-caramelized essence, distinct without coming on too strong. That mere suggestion of intense heat on top transformed a common loaf into something exotic, alluring and evocative of an earlier, simpler time.

Though they use some modern equipment today, y'know, like baking ovens that have regulated gas flame instead of a charcoal fire and even a 1960's electric bread slicer to cut the countless finished loaves, the primary equipment used for baking bread here is more organic: human hands. Strong hands that crank out thousands of loaves weekly, and not all the same kind; sweet loaves, raisin, wholemeal, white, and so much more are created here.

But Blackhead loaves are reserved just for kopi, being picked up daily by some of Singapore's most respected kopi institutions across the island including Ya Kun at their famous flagship kopitiam in Chinatown's Far East Plaza

At any given time the one-roomed bakery and store is filled with ancient rolling carts holding trays of cooling or already-cut loaves, or soon to be baked dough. It's rolled, pounded, kneaded and slapped into delectable creations that are as intoxicating to the eye as they are to the tongue.

And the nose. The warm, fresh-baked smells from this fifty year old bakery reach you on the busy street before you even get there. Like a cartoon image, you almost float along the curling trail of delicious, doughy aroma: freshly milled flour, the sweet pinch of live yeast on your nose, the smoky, charred tops. If you like bread then this place will draw you in and keep you coming back.

After the bread has cooled the guy in the back stands barefoot with a long, razor sharp knife and slices the tops off in clean, smooth motions. The black crusts drop to the floor, leaving the line of trimmed loaves resembling new army recruits after getting their high-and-tights. Sliced and toasted, you'd never know the tops were scorched like a forest after a fire -- until you take a bite and get that whisper of smoke that makes you feel warm and safe in the memory of your childhood.

I smiled and nodded slowly while chewing the bread the baker gave me, savoring the deep, earthy flavor and pillowy texture. Then he pushed the entire loaf in my direction. "For your kids," he smiled. See, that's just what chefs and bakers are like throughout this island nation of foodies; if you share a passion for the food they make -- which is the food that their parents made, and the food their parents' parents made -- then you're an instant friend. The international language of food is spoken well in Singapore.

And if you're really friendly you might even get a scoop of sweet butter or kaya from the vat on the counter to spread on a fresh, still-hot slice. By the time you're done you won't be able to leave without at least a couple of baguettes or loaves under your arm.

Sing Hon Loon Bakery
4 Wampoa Drive
Balestier, Singapore

Ice Cream at Opposite Ends of the Earth

Two different people, two different places, one idea so stunningly similar it’s hard to imagine they are not one and the same. 
Who knew ice cream could be so exciting?

The story is remarkable: two men whom to this day have never met; never even heard of each other. Both about the same age, with careers, kids and obligations to keep them busy. One on this side of the earth, the other 9,000 miles away. And each with a dream for making people happy – with ice cream. 

No big deal, right? 

But close your eyes and visualize, like a split screen, with each man in his own side. One is Caucasian, the other, Asian. One is from America; the other, Singapore. Each wants to leave their career, take some risks and make ice cream; but not just any ice cream – the best ice cream, using only locally-sourced products, made in small batches by caring artisan hands. Each wants their place to be relaxed, cool, fun. Each wants their ice cream to reflect the local ambiance and culture of where they are – in America, the bounty of high quality, low-yield farmers who painstakingly grow the best fruit found anywhere; in Singapore, flavors embracing local iconic food and culture. And here’s the kicker: neither of these men have ever made ice cream before or know anything about it. So they each go to ice cream school –  the same ice cream school. They each return home. They each open a store. And, they each give it a name; the same name: Island Creamery. And how does the story end? With ice cream on opposite ends of the earth that blows your socks off.

In Chincoteague…
Kelly Conklin
“It’s all about making the best product possible and giving each guest a flavor experience that they'll still talk about after they leave,” explains Kelly Conklin, owner of Island Creamery in Chincoteague Island, Virginia on the Eastern Shore of the United States. Conklin chased his dream by attending Penn State University’s Ice Cream Short Course, the world’s preeminent educational program dealing with the science and technology of ice cream. He then took those skills back to the small island he and his family call home. 

Now it’s the target of summer evening outings for nearly every local and holiday beachcomber on Chincoteague Island. Each night the queue stretches out the door and across the car park, all to the sound of family laughter and fun. Until a sacred hush descends on each customer at the first taste of their selected scoop.

Island Creamery’s ice cream is made on the spot in just two surprisingly small machines which, it seems, are always running; cranking out batches of remarkably fresh flavors. "The great thing about making every drop of ice cream ourselves is that we create only what we want based upon the best ingredients at any given time," explains Conklin. But a twinkle in his eye reveals more. "And we also get to play with ideas and invent new flavors." Some of the most popular of these creations bear names like Pony Tracks, Bourbon Carmel Crunch, Marsh Mud and Elvis' Chocolate Dream. 

There's little they won't do to make the many ice cream offerings perfect, like caramelizing bananas on the spot to add into Banana Carumba, or mixing up their own batter to blend into Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. One day they're baking homemade gingersnaps and crumbling them into fresh-squeezed lemon juice for Lemon Ginger Snap; the next day they're salting, buttering and roasting Georgia pecans to blend with homemade chocolate into Chocolate Pecan; and the following morning they may be peeling, frying and pureeing local tubers and pralines for Candied Sweet Potato Crunch. The flavors go on and on, most becoming seasonal additions to their constantly-changing menu of frozen goodness.
Fresh-picked peaches straight from the farm.

But perhaps best are the seasonal fruit offerings, when they crush blueberries with a fork and hand slice pineapples, cantaloupes, strawberries or nearly anything that's fresh from the farm and drop it into the tanks that churn the creamy mixtures into magic -- deceptively simple-sounding flavors like Cantaloupe, Blueberry or perennial favorite Peach; like an icy softball of cream and fresh peach blossoming inside your mouth in chunks so large you need to chew with every lick. Crazy.

The flavors are scooped up in big lumps and served in warm made-to-order waffle cones and waffle bowls edged with chocolate, in cups or blended into shakes. Sprinkles and other additions can be added, but the return customers -- which everyone who eats here becomes -- prefer to stick with the basics, because it just can't get better than that.
Devin Alms, IC's "Waffle Cone Queen"
The ice cream deck at Chincoteague's Island Creamery
In Singapore…
Across the globe on the shimmering island of Singapore, Stanley Kwok is working just as hard, creating flavors that can’t be found anywhere else and drawing in throngs of food-obsessed Singaporeans and expats alike. “Since I was a boy I had a secret wish to one day make ice cream. It took decades, but my dream finally came true.” Kwok fantasized of the first truly Singaporean ice cream parlor, serving local Asian flavors in the form of frozen desserts. So he enrolled in – you got it – Penn State University’s esteemed Ice Cream Short Course. 

Today, every batch is made by him, using only premium quality ingredients with nothing artificial. Like his unknown brethren on the other side of the planet Kwok, too, likes to play with his food, creating unique ice creams like Pandan Leaf, Chendol, Kachang, Dragon Fruit, Soursop Pomegranate and Pear Sake – uniquely Singaporean tastes designed to embrace the local palate – alongside spicy mega-hit Teh Tarik and Pulut Hitam faves. “I think it’s good to experiment with new flavors that are unique to Singapore. It keeps young people connected to traditional flavors of their culture.” Kwok says with quiet confidence.

Which is why Stanley has even transformed iconic, savory hits into not-so-sweet frozen treats, such as Kung Pao Cashew (with pieces of spicy chili in it) and Tiger Beer sorbet, with actual bottles of the nation's most popular brew poured right into the pot. He's also sold Guinness ice cream and even toyed with a Chili Crab flavor to celebrate that Singaporean culinary obsession. 

Whatever he makes, Kwok sticks by his All Natural rule, proudly distinguishing Island Creamery from those international franchise wannabe's popping up around the island. That's because he doesn't just dare to be different from them -- he wants to be different. One taste of his signature scoops and you'll understand why, and never stray again. As popular as his local flavors are Kwok still creates more common choices for his Western followers, like his own variations of Cookies & Cream, Apple Crumble and other usual suspects. But not plain vanilla, chocolate or strawberry. “We can do better than that,” Stanley says with a smile. “I want my customers to be spoiled with choices that they will remember and still long for after they leave my store.” 
Sound familiar?

Unbeknown Brothers
Complete strangers Kelly Conklin and Stanley Kwok unknowingly shared the same dream and have simultaneously built their own Island Creamery into successful ice cream magnets on opposite sides of the earth. That dream celebrates the culture of their distinct places through cold scoops of flavor-bursting dessert which cause the same reaction by its utterly different clientele: smiling, quivering lips that twitch ever so slightly at the initial chill of the remarkably good creations, before gobbling down the magic.  

Island Creamery - Chincoteague
Island Creamery - Singapore

On both sides of the planet, that first bite of Island Creamery ice cream is typically accompanied by an expression of satisfaction, or a laugh, or an exclamation of wonderment followed by that international sound of approval: Mmmm. Because this general rule is almost universal: Ice cream is happy food. Which makes Kelly and Stanley unknowing twins in the business of Happy.

6243 Maddox Blvd, Chincoteague, Virginia 23336

Serene Centre (#01-03), Singapore (and other locations)