SINGAPORE - Singapore needs another mall like I need a hole in the head. And yet, there is Jewel Changi Airport - sprawling, gleaming, complete with that stunning Rain Vortex, which must surely be Singapore's most photographed landmark this year.
Instead of hating on it, I decide to make it work for me. What are 10 things worth buying to eat on board the plane or to give as gifts?
This is harder than you might expect because of the sheer number of choices. Many stores are travel-retail savvy, creating products and packaging that travel well. Some retailers are generous with the samples so you can try before you buy.
After three visits, I whittle down the list. Sanity and practical considerations must prevail.
I want desperately to include Putien's (02-249) dried Heng Hwa Bee Hoon and a bag of hot curry puffs from Old Chang Kee (B2-247). Or, from Maison de PB (02-200), a muffin the size of a baby's head or one of its hearty sandwiches. A stack of otah from O'Tah (B2-241) would be great with a mini loaf of bread from BreadTalk (B2-233), too. There is nothing to stop you from doing that.
But mostly, I have chosen items you can stash in your carry-on luggage without angst or fear of spilling. A couple of things you will need to stuff in your suitcase and check in. But some homesick Singaporean somewhere will thank you for doing that.
KAYA SWISS ROLL
When I talk about stores being travel-retail savvy, this is what I mean. At Jewel, you can buy mini versions of Rich & Good Cake Shop's popular Swiss rolls. They are about half the size of the regular-sized ones, priced at $5 or $5.50 and available only at the airport. They come wrapped in a plastic sheet, nestled inside a sturdy box.
Long queues form for them and when that happens, customers are limited to one roll each, large or small. I was there early, there was no queue and I managed to score two mini ones.
Rich & Good Cake Shop
open: 9am to 10pm daily
The Kaya roll ($5.50) runs out the fastest, no coincidence that it also tastes the best. Although the egg and coconut milk jam cannot possibly be made in-house, it has a homemade taste to it that is perfect with the tender, not-too-sweet cake.
I cannot resist anything coffee and the Coffee roll ($5) is satisfying. I know the coffee flavour comes from essence but it is strong, with a scrumptious caramel vibe. It will surely beat a cup of drain-water coffee on board the plane.
Cut them into slices for dessert on board, if you want to be dainty. Or eat the entire roll like you would a burrito.
"Why would you buy muruku from a bakery?" my colleague asks with a puzzled look on her face.
"For the movie marathon on board," I said, incredulous that she would ask.
"Your neighbours are going to be so annoyed with the crunching," another colleague chimes in.
I don't care. When I clap eyes on the muruku selection at Bakery Cuisine Premium, I know I'll have to stop by Jewel before my next flight to load up. A big tub ($13.80) for long-haul flights and a small one ($6.80) for quick getaways.
Bakery Cuisine Premium
open: 10.30am to 10pm daily
The selection is comprehensive and the fried snacks taste fresh. The coiled ones are fragrant with fennel, the churro-shaped ones have a little kick of chilli that tickles the palate.
I apologise to my airplane seat neighbours in advance for the sound effects. Please help yourselves to my muruku and we can crunch together in solidarity, noise-cancelling headphones firmly welded on.
My only complaint is the packaging is not eco-friendly and the small tubs are fiddly to open and close. So I guess I'll be buying the large tubs for long and short flights and re-using the containers.
FOSSA CHOCOLATE and KWONG WOH HING SAUCES
The range of Singapore products at Naiise is well-curated, perfect for people looking for gifts that are unusual and artisanal.
The store carries a decent range of Fossa chocolate, made in Singapore and delicious. My favourite one is the brand's Honey Orchid Dancong Oolong ($10), perfumed with tea from Guangdong Province. Alas, Naiise did not have it on my visits, although In Good Company (01-214) did.
open: 10am to 10pm daily
Still, I love how the coconut milk, pandan and crisp breadcrumbs come through in the dark milk chocolate bar called Nanyang Kaya ($10). Umami from dried sakura shrimp and bonito infuse the Shrimp & Bonito ($10) bar, making it equal parts sweet and savoury.
I would get a couple of bars to give away and a couple of bars for the trip. They are small enough to stick in a bag or back pocket.
Another range of products that catches my eye comes from soya sauce maker Kwong Woh Hing, founded some 60 years ago by Mr Woo Hoh. Well, Grandpa Woo, as he is called, ranged far and wide in search of good food. The company has a slew of very site-specific sauces - Hougang Char Siew Sauce, Ang Mo Kio Golden Treasure Sauce, Gu Chia Zui Black Pepper Crab Sauce, Guillemard Bittergourd Black Bean Beef Sauce and Holland Village Black Pepper Steak Sauce.
Whether this is a cool story to spin or the sauces are made from actual secret recipes, who knows. But the price - $4.90 a pouch - is right and the instructions are easy to follow. Stuff these into the suitcase for homesick friends.
Nobody can beat cooking doyenne Violet Oon when it comes to creating pretty. Her range of cookies, pineapple tarts and jams are made for gifting, and it can be difficult trying to decide just what to get.
Violet Oon Singapore
open: 10am to 10pm (retail section),
My choice is Sugee ($16 for a small box), soft, crumbly semolina and ground almond cookies that are made to go with tea.
The box design is from one of the pretty Peranakan tiles that adorn her restaurants and it makes a tasty and tasteful gift.
For yourself and your travel companions, may I suggest Rum Balls ($10 for three), to enjoy after take-off. I am bummed that her delicious coconut candy is not available in Jewel. They would be perfect for snacking on board.
PRIMA TASTE PASTES
All over the world every day, a Singaporean or former Singaporean cracks open a box or pouch of Prima Taste paste, to get a taste of home without breaking a sweat. One Singaporean chef working in Washington D.C. tells me he likes how convenient and authentic they are. His American wife whips up chicken rice and curry regularly using them.
open: 9am to 11pm,
Ordinarily, I would buy these in a supermarket and pack them in check-in luggage. But I am often seized by anxiety pre-trip: Did I forget to buy a gift for someone?
The FairPrice Finest at Jewel is handy for these sorts of emergencies. There is an elaborate display of Singapore products at the entrance, cookies in pretty boxes, pouches of salted egg this and that. I head to the rather more prosaic shelf of sauces and pick from there. Prima's compact paste pouches make more sense to me than the boxed meal kits that come with extras such as sambal belacan and powdered coconut milk. I figure it cannot be that difficult to get canned coconut milk anywhere. And there is never enough belacan, so a proper jar of it, also available at the supermarket, is more appropriate.
BBQ BACON BAK KWA
Let's just cut to the chase: bypass the regular bak kwa and home in on the pork belly kind. It really is the only cut worth eating.
Lim Chee Guan
open: 10am to 10pm daily
Lim Chee Guan's version is luxurious and not too sweet. The keep-fresh, resealable bag is right on the money, so you don't have to wrestle with boxes in suitcases and worry that they might get crushed. Prices start at $25.50 for 300g of the BBQ Bacon bak kwa.
This is one of my favourite gifts to take abroad, after, of course, checking that pork is allowed into the countries I am visiting. Remember that some countries in the region might not, because of swine fever.
Recently, I gave a pack to a friend, who had the bak kwa on toasted and buttered crumpets, topped with poached eggs. What an excellent breakfast and a new way to enjoy bak kwa.
SINGAPORE CHICKEN RICE and SHRIMP LAKSA COOKIES
"No sweet cookies for you?" the friendly woman at The Cookie Museum asks, after I've made my selection.
Well no, not when the savoury flavours are so much more compelling.
The Cookie Museum Singapore
open: 9am to 11pm daily
This brand was one of the first to take the flavours of beloved Singapore dishes and infuse them into what are essentially rich, shortbread cookies. The packaging has always been pretty, now, it is on the next level of Rococo.
Buy these as gifts. The Shrimp Laksa ($48 a box) really hits all the right notes - the sharp, pungent flavour of laksa leaves, the dried shrimp, the chilli, all punchy and true. They make for compelling eating.
More subtle is the Singapore Chicken Rice ($48 a box), with hints of ginger and bits of rice crisps worked into the dough.
This bakery chain is ubiquitous in Malaysia and I always pay a visit when I'm in Johor Baru. If looking for gifts, consider a jar of Traditional Kaya ($4), sweetened with gula melaka and made, so the label says, with fresh coconut milk. The palm sugar gives the spread a deep, molasses flavour that white sugar can never manage, and the coconut milk does not taste like the canned variety. Remember to stash it in the suitcase.
open: 10am to 10pm daily
If feeling peckish, I love the little nuggets of Mandarin Pound Cake ($2.30 for six), good for soothing children - and adults - frazzled by the prospect of navigating customs and immigration.
Instead of the hard rolls from the food trolley on the plane, get a Bamboo Charcoal Mochi bun ($2.30) and slather it with airplane butter. If you are lucky and get some cheese, that would go perfectly with the bun too. With the butter, of course.
POD LABS KOPI-O and TEH-O
If there was ever a store that screamed "tourist trap", it would be Taste Singapore, decorated with kitsch murals and the most puzzling display of satay I have ever seen. Have a look and tell me the skewers don't look like lumps of poodle poo strung together.
open: 9am to 11pm
Grit your teeth, head right to the shelves at the back of the store and grab a couple boxes of coffee or tea from Pod Labs SG. The homegrown company offers Nespresso-compatible pods of Kopi-O ($14.90 for 10) and Teh-O ($14.90 for 10). These make a good gift for someone homesick for local kopi and teh, or to use in the hotel room or Airbnb rental.
I have issues with the instructions, however. The first step for the Teh-O is "Flush the system and insert capsule". Always a good idea, so you don't inadvertently make a yuan yang. But can they put it more elegantly? Also, why are milk and sugar described as "condiments"?
Still, the proof is in the tasting, not in the text. The tea is excellent, super strong, thick and aromatic. You would need to pull two pods, however, to get enough volume to make it through jetlag fog.
Pulled as an espresso shot, the coffee is "gao" or thick enough. I can imagine wanting a blob of condensed milk stirred into it. A local macchiato, sort of.
HOKKAIDO CREAM CHEESECAKE
"Please try our mascarpone cheesecake," the perky staffer at Cafe Morozoff says, holding out a toothpick.
I do and it is soft and smooth, if a little, well, lacking in character.
"Now try the original one."
open: 10am to 10pm daily
tel: 6243 0379
Love at first bite. The lemony tang of the Hokkaido Cream Cheesecake ($24.30) and the caramelised top are what make this cheese tart from the chain, started in Kobe by a Russian emigre, special. A rich cream cheese filling, which manages to be both dense and fluffy (only in Japan can such magic happen), is held in place on the sides and bottom by an ever-so-thin cookie crust that crumbles just so when you bite into it.
The cake comes in a travel-friendly box and the little ice pack in it will keep the tart fresh for two hours.
Not that you should wait to eat this. Once on board, ask for a knife and cut into it as soon as possible. One tart will serve four people.
Of course, I have an ulterior motive for including this.
If I'm sitting nearby, I'd love a slice. Thank you.