Cendol takes many forms across Southeast Asia. In Singapore, it's most frequently a bowl of shaved ice over noodles flavored and died by pandan, drizzled with dark, smoky gula melaka (raw palm sugar syrup), and set adrift in a broth of coconut and/or sweetened condensed milk. There's no polite way to eat cendol; you slurp it up, chew it down, drink the broth, and lick your bowl clean. Some aren't partial to the delicate green noodles, but if you're willing to be brave, you'll be rewarded with one of the most satisfying sweets the country has to offer. A light, bright, creamy broth is important to successful cendol, but the gula melaka is what it's really all about. The syrup should be thick, rich, and so full of smoky, butterscotchy flavor that caramel tastes plain by comparison.
The best cendol I encountered came from Jin Jin Hot Cold Dessert in the ABC Brickworks hawker center. The secret is the gula: so thick it pours like hot fudge, it remains rich and syrupy even when diluted by the shaved ice. The boys at Jin Jin steep their gula syrup with a mix of herbs and spices to lend it extra complexity.
If I ever embark on a rap career, my stage name will be Gula Melaka.
You'll find battered and fried fruit in hawker centers all over the country. Whether they're your midday snack or your after-dinner treat is based partially on your tastes, but primarily on your hawker's frying schedule. Sure, these are good any time of day, but a fresh-from-the-fryer truly ripe banana fritter is one of those brain-melting sweets that just change the way you look at fruit and fried food forever.
Fresh Bean Curd
On my last night in Singapore, my guide Garry said to me point blank: "You need to try this bean curd before you leave." Always genial, Garry isn't the kind of guy to command you to do anything, so I figured such a forceful comment was worth following up on. And so we made the trip to Airport Road hawker center and joined the queue for Lao Ban bean curd, which, despite the lateness of the hour, had a queue 20-something deep. It was slow moving that night, and a peek at someone's takeaway bag revealed why—one person bought 30 containers of the stuff!
Now I've had fresh tofu before, and I really enjoy the good stuff, but this just didn't make sense. I mean, it's tofu. It's not ice cream or obscene French pastry or smoky, lard-y char kway teow; just how good can this stuff be? And then, after we finally got the last 12 containers of the evening (Garry was bringing some home for his family of...not 12), I took a bite, and shut up, and the world ceased to exist for a moment as the quivering soy gel matrix just fell away from the slightest pressure of my tongue. There's delicate like an angel food cake and delicate like a wobbly custard, but this was NASA space shuttle equipment delicate, barely a thing of substance at all before it collapsed into sweet, nutty nothingness. It's the kind of perfect ephemeral taste that you encounter perhaps a few dozen times in your life, if you're lucky.
So yeah, Singapore has ruined me for tofu forever, both the sweet silken kind and really any other. It's sold the day it's made from hawkers and stand-alone shops all over, but only Lao Ban's transported me to that realm of truly perfect bites. Ignore it at the risk of your own dessert deliverance.
Singaporeans treat durian like a food group: you'll find it plain, in puddings and ice cream, as a flavor in candy, and as a shaved ice topping. The flesh is so custardy you can just scoop it and plop it on whatever you feel like. Personally, adding sweetness to durian just makes it taste all the more rotten to me, but this is definitely a class of Singasweets worth getting acquainted with.
Grass jelly is a mildly bittersweet, herbal medicine-ish gel made from boiling a Chinese member of the mint family with water, some starch, and a setting agent. It's opaque black, wobbly, and nearly tasteless on its own, which is why you'll find it cubed and tossed into drinks, plopped over shaved ice with sugar syrup and calamansi lime, or just plain in a bowl with some ice and sweetened water. The gel is less creamy than gelatin, less brittle than agar, and more refreshing than both—the perfect chilled dessert for unrelentingly hot nights and full stomachs in need of a mild salve.
Can be roughly translated to "cannonball," though "explosive bomb" might be a more accurate term. These chewy, slightly sweet steamed rice flour sweets are rolled in coconut and stuffed with hot raw sugar syrup. Eat them in one bite, or risk dribbling smoky gula down your chin—or squirting your dining companion in the eye. Good ondeh ondeh will dissolve on your tongue as you suck out the sugar syrup. An inventive treat, and a devious one.
A particular member of the shaved ice family worth singling out, also called ABC (short for "Air Batu Campur," literally "mixed ice"). The mountain of finely shaved ice is topped with red beans, gula melaka, peanuts, all manner of candied fruits (including coconut and canned corn), various syrups, and often a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk. This dessert is proof that something can be refreshing and deliciously bad for you all at once.
Mangosteen, longan, lychee, rambutan, durian and more. Not a dessert per se, but they're treated like one. You'll find fruit stands here and there, full of customers sitting down at tables and tucking into fruit right on the spot.
Look for a busy fruit stall where the vendor will let you sample your durian before you buy it. Try finding that kind of customer service in the produce section of your grocery store.
Moon Cakes and Friends
The Chinese bakery case of dense cakes is certainly present in Singapore. The flaky, mildly sweet dough wrappers are stuffed with sweetened red bean and lotus seed pastes.
Chinese Sponge Cakes
You'll find Chinese sponge cakes near the dense moon cakes in Chinese bakeries. They're light, fluffly, and mildly sweet—the perfect accompaniment to a cup of hot kopi.
A rolled rice flour cake flavored with pandan and mixed with crushed peanut and/or coconut. It's called "stubborn" because it's so chewy you'll need your full incisors to tear through it. But once you get some molar chews behind you the delicate, sweet flavor of rice comes through, along with the chewy, nutty crunch of peanut and coconut. Best eat this fresh; it gets way too chewy over time.
A delicate pastry made by steaming rice flour and powdered sugar in special molds. The cakes are filled with sweetened peanut or coconut, and wouldn't be out of place next to some milk tea. Just handle them with care! They're fragile and will fall apart if you mishandle them.
You can find these "cakes" of steamed rice flour batter, often flavored with pandan and coconut milk, in Peranakan restaurants and elsewhere. I love the wobbly, chewy things, but I know some others who just don't care for the texture. My advice? Treat it like a dessert oyster: slurp it down with a bare chew. The acquired taste will come.