Jill Dupleix and Terry Durack learn to cook a real Singaporean curry

JILL:  I've cooked a lot of Singaporean curries in my life, and I can now honestly say that I have been doing them all wrong. When you are taken step-by-step through the painstaking process of building up layers of flavour through rempahs, or spice pastes – and when you taste the end result – you know you can't just get away with opening a jar or just smashing together some onions and spices any more.

On the second Saturday of each month, hotel guests gather in the East Garden of The Fullerton Hotel or at the historic Clifford Pier at The Fullerton Bay Hotel, to be taught one of Singapore's most famous heritage dishes. Terry and I score the art deco Clifford Pier, its arched truss soaring above us like the ribcage of an angelically white whale. We don aprons and gaze in awe at the ingredients laid out at our individual cooking stations.

Shallots, garlic, ginger, red chilli, turmeric. Cinnamon sticks, star anise, lemongrass. Long, fragrant green pandan leaves tied in a knot. Nothing in a jar, nothing pre-made. We're doing this from scratch, starting with making the curry paste for a ridgy-didge Peranakan-style chicken curry (see recipe below).

Luckily, the executive sous chef of The Fullerton, Zacharie Ong, is a natural teacher. If we do what he does, we can't go wrong (doubly important when you have to sit down and eat what you have cooked yourself).

We doggedly follow chef Ong's every move, blending the shallots, garlic, ginger chilli and oil into a paste. Then we blend more curry powder with turmeric powder and water. Next, we heat up a Chinese bowl of cooking oil in a pan, adding cinnamon, star anise, what seems like masses of pandan leaves ("it has a very sweet, pleasing flavour" says Ong), and some smashed lemongrass in a very strict order of importance, until the fragrance envelops us.

Then in go our two spice pastes and we stir like mad over a low heat, until the paste caramelises and the oil separates into a dark pool. "You can smell the onions are still raw" says Ong. "Just keep cooking. Don't stop now."

Now for the chicken. In another pan, we cook up shallots and some good chunky chicken pieces, then add our spice paste, chicken stock, coconut milk and chunks of cooked potato. It's hands-on aromatherapy, especially when we fry a mass of shallots in oil as the last addition, to intensify the aroma and natural sweetness. I cannot believe how many onions and shallots, and how much ginger, garlic and spice had to die to make this sauce. How mean and miserly I have been with such things in the past. From now on, I'm tripling all spices and aromatics, if not quadrupling, or it just won't taste Singaporean.

As the sun sets over Marina Bay, the restaurant's assistant manager, Princess May ( her name, rather than her title), proudly brings our finished dishes, , accompanied by rice, pappadums, and – another local touch – sliced baguette,  out onto the terrace. No curry of mine has ever had this depth of flavour, balance or aroma. It is at once homey and intoxicating, and we both smell like two walking, talking chicken curries. Still in our aprons, we drink a toast to Singapore, and to a future of amazingly good chicken curries.

TERRY: There are other, perhaps easier, ways to dig deep into Singapore's colourful heritage than cooking your own chicken curry from scratch. Such as eating chicken curry made from scratch in the magnificent Clifford Pier, home to a spacious, elegant restaurant, where much of the menu is dedicated to Singapore's heritage dishes.

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Tender bak kut teh pork ribs, nasi goreng and Hainanese chicken rice are the kinds of dishes you'll want to keep eating long after you leave Singapore. I've eaten them many times before in hawker centres, perched on a stool, steamy and sweaty, but it's a special thrill to be eating them in an (airconditioned) landmark built in 1933 on Singapore's waterfront, the gateway for Singapore's early settlers and builders.

I can almost hear the cries of the hawkers who used to sell food to the new arrivals  from their sampans on the water – or I could, were I not drowning out any extraneous noises by crunching through an entire bowl of the completely irresistible rempeyek – crunchy, salty, savoury, nutty snacks –  served with a deep and fruity, dense sambal for dipping. Oh, and sipping a deliciously large gin and tonic from the al fresco Gin Palace cocktail bar next to the Clifford Pier (56 gins! six tonics! 12 house-made garnishes! Plus a miniature gin-and-tonic jelly thrown in!).

You'll be needing to work off that extra helping of mutton soup kam bing, lobster curry laksa, or bak chor mee noodles with pork and shrimp, wontons, pork liver and mushrooms. Luckily, the hotel also offers guests and non-guests alike two specially curated, complimentary, hour-long walking tours.

The hour-long Maritime Journey Tour takes you through Singapore's historic waterfront, each of your steps echoing those of Singapore's early settlers and builders. The Fullerton Monument Tour lets you get under the skin of the building's rich history, opening doors to usually hidden, beautifully preserved corners of the historic site. The 1928 neo-classical building is an official national monument itself, having once been home to the Singapore General Post Office, the Exchange Library, the Chamber of Commerce and The Singapore Club. 

"In a modern city like Singapore we continue to look to the past for inspiration, with a lens to the future for aspiration," says Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale, general manager of The Fullerton Heritage, recently in Australia to announce a similar heritage program for The Fullerton Sydney, which is due to open in the GPO precinct later this year.

It's a far cry from the usual international hotel, normally so hell-bent on being contemporary and up-to-date that you could be anywhere from Dubai to Dallas, but it resonates deeply ... because the best thing about being in Singapore, is being in Singapore.

PERANAKAN-STYLE CHICKEN CURRY

Serves 4

Peranakan cooking (often known as Nyonya) brings together the best of Malaysian, Indonesian and Chinese cuisines. The secret of this fragrant golden curry from the chefs of The Fullerton Hotel is the rich, aromatic rempah (spice paste) that gives the curry its Peranakan heart and soul.

Ingredients

1 free-range chicken, cut into about 20 pieces

4 cinnamon sticks

4 star anise

3 lemongrass stalks, bruised

100g curry leaves

10 fresh pandan leaves, knotted

1 litre chicken stock

500mL coconut milk

3 large potatoes, peeled, quartered and cooked

Salt to taste

sugar to taste

For the curry paste

15 shallots, peeled and chopped

10 cloves garlic, chopped

1 knob fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

2 red chillis, sliced

1 bird's eye chilli (optional)

100mL oil for frying

For the dry spice paste

100g Baba meat curry powder

1 dessertspoon turmeric powder

For the shallot oil

20 shallots, peeled and finely sliced

400mL oil for frying

Method

To make the curry paste, blend or pound the shallots, garlic, ginger, chillies and bird's eye chilli together until you have a fine paste. Take ⅓ of the curry paste and rub it over the chicken pieces until well-coated. Set aside for 1 hour or refrigerate overnight.

To make the dry spice paste, mix the curry powder and turmeric with enough water to form a smooth paste and set aside.

To make the shallot oil, cook the shallots in the oil, moving constantly, until the shallots are brown and crisp. Strain, reserving the oil and the fried shallots.

Heat 300mL of the shallot oil in a large pot. Add the cinnamon and star anise, and fry over high heat until fragrant. Add the lemongrass and curry leaves and cook for 30 seconds, then add the remaining blended curry paste. Simmer gently, stirring constantly, until slightly caramelised. Add a pinch of salt, and the dry spice paste mixture and continue to simmer, stirring constantly, until the oil separates from the mixture.

To cook the marinated chicken, heat remaining shallot oil in a large pan. Add the chicken in small batches and sear over medium heat until golden. Add the curry paste from step 4, and toss well for 5 minutes, until the chicken is well-coated.

Add the pandan leaves and enough chicken stock to just cover the chicken. Simmer for 15 minutes then add the coconut milk and the cooked and cubed potato, and simmer gently for 10 to 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning, and add salt and sugar to taste.

Just before serving, add a spoonful or two of fried shallots to intensify the aroma. Serve with steamed jasmine rice, French bread, and crisp pappadums.

Adapted from a recipe courtesy of The Fullerton Hotel, Singapore.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

Traveller.com.au/singapore

STAY

Courtyard rooms at The Fullerton Hotel Singapore start from $S468 ($505). Deluxe rooms at The Fullerton Bay Hotel Singapore start from $S680. Both rates include Wi-Fi and breakfast. See fullertonhotels.com

TOUR

Download the free Fullerton Heritage Trail from fullertonheritage.com and do your own self-guided walk through Singapore's rich heritage buildings. The hotel also runs complimentary heritage guided tours open to the public three days a week. Book through the concierge. 

COOK

The Fullerton Culinary Experience is $S150 a person or $S250 for two; for hotel guests only. Each class showcases a uniquely Singaporean heritage dish such charcoal-grilled satay, popiah, curry laksa or the famous Hainan chicken rice. Recipes and a sustaining cocktail are included.

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