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