Somebody Feed Phil

Somebody Feed Phil: Singapore

Dept. of Singaporean Shenanigans


Another five episodes of Somebody Feed Phil dropped on Netflix last Friday (they’re calling it Season 4) and lo and behold, our favourite foodie was finally back in our neck of the woods. Way back in Season 1, Phil kicked off the series by visiting Bangkok and Saigon.

Now, if we had to pick one episode that was not like the others, it would be this Singapore episode. There was something about it that just felt a little off. We investigate why.

Umapagan Ampikaipakan:  I knew it! I knew it was coming. From that throwaway line in the “London” episode from Season 3, when Phil is sitting on a bench with Jay Rayner and having some fish and chips, and Jay mentions that Phil will be going to Singapore and Marrakesh, I had a bad feeling that this is what we were going to get.

Now, let me be clear. This isn’t just two Malaysians ragging on Singapore for the sake of it. But this episode really felt a lot stiffer and more restrained than anything we’ve ever seen from Phil in the past.

Somebody Feed Phil

Bahir Yeusuff: No. This is two Malaysians ragging on the sad state of Singaporean nasi lemak. Because that was a really sorry looking plate of our (unofficial) national dish.


UA: And I quote: “So this is called nasi lemak, translation, “rich rice.” Don’t ask me why, but it’s cooked in coconut with flecks of salt and pandan leaf.” 

First of all, you can translate “lemak” in many ways. It can mean “fat.” It can even be used to refer to something that’s “creamy.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard it called “rich rice” before. I agree that it’s rich in flavour, but the reason it’s called nasi lemak is because it’s cooked in coconut milk. Thus the “lemak.” I think that moment was truly symbolic of how shallow this episode was. 

We’ve said this before, but you don’t really watch Phil for a culinary education or even a travel experience. You watch Phil because you enjoy watching a man in his sixties find joy in the world through eating. But not getting the basics right about nasi lemak is unforgivable. What surprised me most was the fact that Phil was speaking too K.F. Seetoh, who is usually incredibly knowledgeable about such things.

Somebody Feed Phil

BY: The reason that K.F. Seetoh and Phil were sitting in a hawker center was because of Seetoh’s pursuit to get the Singapore hawker recognized as an intangible UNESCO heritage. I appreciated Seetoh’s insistence that no two plates of nasi lemak are the same. That each stall has its own recipe for sambal and make up of the dish. As someone who takes his nasi lemak sambal as seriously as I do, game gotta recognise game.

I was, however, shocked (shocked, I tell ya!) at the condiments that came with the Singaporean version of nasi lemak. There was what appeared to be chicken nuggets. And sausages. And was it just me, or did I also see some fish fingers as well?

Somebody Feed Phil

UA: Just what the hell kind of nasi lemak is this??? It’s wrong by any measure. I agree that the rice and the sambal are the stars. But don’t just throw whatever the hell you want on the side. This isn’t a breakfast buffet at The Hilton. You can’t have your waffles and sashimi here.

BY: That is just the weirdest looking plate of nasi lemak. I mean, a sausage? And is that some deep fried nugget of some kind? Also, where is the ikan bilis? Where is the kacang goreng? I won’t go so far as to say that it’s a travesty (I’m looking at you McDonalds Nasi Lemak Burger), but this is not what I think of when I think nasi lemak. 

UA: This is not what anyone should be thinking of when they think nasi lemak.


BY: So I decided to ask my dad for a quick oral history of the Malaysian nasi lemak, and according to him, the dish has always been a meal for the masses. Especially the hard labourers. The idea being that you get this cheap, quick, spicy, filling meal in the morning before work. And that should give you enough of a calorific boost to keep you going while you’re out tilling the fields. In fact, the idea of the nasi lemak having any more than just the rice, the sambal, and three other ingredients is a fairly recent development.

BY: Unlike you Uma, I’m more sad than angry. Sad that our neighbour’s children are growing up thinking that this is what nasi lemak is. Just wait until this COVID-19 thing blows over and come over and have your socks blown right off with our nasi lemak.

UA: We promise you that you won’t get mugged and murdered in Johor. (Okay, we can’t promise that, but at least you’ll die happy with a full stomach.)

I think that it’s something that speaks to Singapore street food as a whole. It’s not altogether terrible, it’s just so much better across the border. Now don’t get me wrong. When it comes to fine dining, Singapore has some of the best restaurants in the world. Their street food, however, leaves a lot to be desired.

Somebody Feed Phil

BY: And I think even then, it isn’t a competition. I’m not sitting here saying our food is better (it is). But nothing else in the Singapore episode of Somebody Feed Phil bothers me. Not their visit to the vaunted Long Bar in the Raffles Hotel (although having a South American bartender serve Phil was an odd choice). Not the duck rice that Phil had during his first stop at a hawker centre. It’s just that the nasi lemak that was offered to Phil didn’t carry with it the cultural significance that it deserves. And to top it off, now Phil Rosenthal (and every other non-Southeast Asian watching the show) will think that THAT is what a nasi lemak looks like. What about rendang ayam? Or paru goreng? Or ikan masin? Or ayam masak merah? Or just a great piece of fried chicken. These are all the Malaysian staples of a nasi lemak, and to see a Kwik-E-Mart sausage as a choice of side dish makes my Malaysian heart weep.

UA: Actually we need to talk about that trip to The Long Bar.

The unique thing about Somebody Feed Phil is that it is a show that doesn’t try to hide what it is. You can see all the strings. (There’s even a moment in the “San Francisco” episode from this season when one of Phil’s producers points out that you can see a camera in the background, to which he replies: “So what. You don’t care. Do you care if you see a camera? We know we’re making a show.”)

The problem with this episode was that it felt like an advertorial for Singapore Tourism. And none more so than that moment in The Long Bar. Now I’ve been to the Long Bar at The Raffles. I’ve had my fair share of Singapore Slings. And let me tell you that none of them look like what Phil was served in this episode. That drink looked fresh. That drink was a frothy, blushing pink. What you actually get is usually a lot brighter, a lot faker, and tastes like it came out of a bottle of premix.

Watching this show, I’ve never once felt like I was being sold something. Not until now. Then again, maybe that’s just Singapore. Maybe the hard sell is all they have.

Somebody Feed Phil

BY: This episode doesn’t quite have that *magic* we’ve come to expect from an episode of Somebody Feed Phil. There was a certain level of restraint, of control. It felt very much like a by-the-numbers episode, hitting all the boxes without actually being any fun. There isn’t that signature looseness. For me, the first episode in this season, where Phil goes to Rio De Janeiro, is probably my favourite of the entire series. Phil is dancing in the streets. He’s offering his plate of barbecue to a stranger in a speedo. He’s sitting down for too many drinks with his two local fixers. There’s a laid back attitude to that episode, and the entire series, that is strangely missing from the Singapore episode. Phil isn’t interacting with the people of Singapore. He is taken from food spot to food spot by a local guide, but it doesn’t feel like he ever gets to see Singapore or it’s people. And Phil’s visit to the empty Long Bar feels emblematic of that. There was no energy. There was no life.

UA: And why do you suppose that was? Is it because everything in Singapore is manufactured to a certain degree and therefore feels somewhat inauthentic? Is it because there isn’t any grit? And if that’s the case, then maybe the problem lies in the way Singapore sells itself. Maybe they should leave that rustic, streetwise side to the rest of us and focus instead on what they actually are. They are Westworld. They are that vision of the future that we see in movies and read in science fiction novels. They are a dystopia wrapped within a utopia, with perfectly clean streets, no chewing gum, and an orderly society. That’s what makes them unique. Because God knows if you’re looking for Asia, you’d go almost anywhere else.

BY: And from the handful of times I’ve been there, if you’re looking for good (halal) food, you’d go almost anywhere else too.

Somebody Feed Phil

UA: The strongest segment in the episode was when Phil was having lunch at Candlenut, a Michelin starred Peranakan restaurant. (Also completely empty as well.) His guest, writer and chef Annette Tan, was very informative and it felt like Phil too went away having learnt something about the cuisine. 

The most pointless segment was at the Gardens by the Bay with Tan Kheng Hua (of Crazy Rich Asians and Phua Chu Kang fame). That felt like three minutes of unnecessary filler. 

BY: Now that REALLY felt like a Singapore Tourism Board request. Famous Hollywood chap coming to Singapore? Let’s have him speak to a Singaporean actress who was in a Hollywood movie. And have it be about NOTHING. Did she take him to the Singapore Zoo (which is excellent by the way)? No. Did she take him on a drive of the world famous F1 night circuit? No. Even Phil’s visit to the rooftop of the Marina Bay Sands felt lame. It just felt flat.

UA: And that flatness becomes even more apparent in contrast to the other episodes in this season. There is pure unadulterated joy there. Like when Phil meets Aunt Flo in the Mississippi Delta. Or at Tartine, in San Francisco, when he takes a bite out of that chocolate croissant. And I don’t think I will ever forget Uncle Clay in Hawaii. There was a lack of character and personality in Singapore. Phil, unfortunately, had no foil. There was no one for him to bounce his energy off. 

This episode of Somebody Feed Phil might as well have ended with a title card that read: Sponsored by Singapore Tourism Board and The Raffles Hotel. 

Somebody Feed Phil
Netflix, Season 4, 5 episodes
Host: Phil Rosenthal

Somebody Feed Phil, Season 4, is now streaming on Netflix.

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