Reunion dinner at the zoo

Chef Liew presents Steamed Cod Fish
For a unique dining experience to usher in the Year Of The Rabbit, PEGGY LOH suggests you call Singapore Zoo for reservations

I HAVE a confession. I’m a fan of the Singapore Zoo because I enjoy seeing healthy, happy animals living in their natural habitat. But this time, it’s a visit with a difference because I’m dividing my attention between the animals and dining options.

Yes, at the zoo! And it’s just not any ordinary meal. I’m sampling a gourmet Chinese New Year Reunion Dinner menu, to be served at the Night Safari! How much more fun and special can it get! I also get to meet Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group’s executive sous chef Liew Kok Hian, who’s preparing the feast.

But first, Liew, a Hakka from Kuala Lumpur, shares an amusing story with me. He says that whenever he tells people he works at the zoo, they look surprised and ask “You cook for the animals?”. No, he doesn’t but he certainly knows how to please hungry visitors at the zoo. With more than 20 years’ culinary experience under his belt, Liew is putting his skills to good use in the Ulu Ulu Safari Restaurant. He also enjoys sharing his knowledge and offers short baking and cooking courses (such as preparing Hakka Thunder Tea Rice) at another zoo restaurant, simply called Ah Meng Restaurant.

Iconic Ah Meng

Bronze replica of Ah Meng in Singapore Zoo
In case you’re wondering, Ah Meng is not the name of a person. Instead, the restaurant is named after a Sumatran female orang utan which had breakfast with dignitaries and celebrities like Prince Philip and Michael Jackson when they visited the zoo. In 1992, it was the first non-human recipient of a Special Tourism Ambassador award from the Singapore Tourism Promotion Board. This “poster girl” of the Singapore Zoo, featured in travel films and more than 300 articles, died of old age in 2008.

Two of the zoo’s food outlets are named after Ah Meng and it has been immortalised in a life-like bronze image. But before going in search of the Ah Meng Memorial, I pause at Ah Meng Kopi cafe for a refreshing iced lemon tea that comes with a plastic stirrer tipped with a tiny image of an orang utan. A quick scan of the other tables indicates that nyonya laksa is a hot favourite as most visitors are slurping from a bowl of the luscious rice noodles in spicy gravy. I make a mental note to get a taste later.

Happy animals

Now, I’m off on the zoo’s Treetops Trail. Following the signage to the trail, I pass rare tapirs that are native to Malaysia and Indonesian babirusa or pig-deer, a special member of the pig family. Around the corner, I join a crowd admiring the white tigers and I’m glad there’s a wide moat separating visitors from the handsome tigers basking contentedly in the sun.

Just a short walk away is the Primate Kingdom and a rocky outcrop that’s home to a large troop of Hamadryas Baboons. Perched on the rocks above the community of noisy baboons, several sharp-horned Nubian Ibex look down with disdain as the baboons scamper about, snatching food and chasing each other from rock to rock.

Popular Vegetable Briyani at Ah Meng Restaurant
At the edge of a water inlet close to the garden with a view, I find the Ah Meng Memorial, a bronze statue of her, and read the information inscribed on a plaque. This grand dame who had two male offsprings, three female ones and six “grandchildren” died at age 48, the equivalent of 95 in human years.

I can understand why she’s so fondly remembered when I spot a wall in Ah Meng Restaurant decorated with her many photographs taken with celebrities. Makan time I see visitors queuing at the counters to place their orders. I follow my nose and sniff out some popular Asian fare.

Like the other visitors, I’m eager to continue my tour of the zoo, so having a choice of local delights makes it easy to decide what to eat. Vegetarian biryani with raita (cucumber and yoghurt salad), vegetable curry, sambar gravy and crispy papadam, seems very popular. There’s also nasi lemak (pandan and coconut flavoured rice) topped with a piece of Balinese chicken, hard-boiled egg, spicy dried prawn sambal and peanuts, Hainanese chicken rice with a choice of boiled or roast chicken, the ever-popular nyonya laksa and juicy barbecued chicken with fries. It’s almost 3.30pm when I sit back, satisfied with my late lunch.

Varied attractions at Singapore Zoo

That's Ronnie eating out of my hand!
A quick look at the zoo brochure tells me that I’m just in time for the giraffe feeding and I rush off on the shortest route through Wild Africa, passing exhibits of nyala, gnu, white rhino, eland, cheetah, ostrich and zebra to reach the giraffes. Already, visitors are waiting in a queue to feed the giraffes. I’m glad to be farther back as it gives me a chance to watch and pluck up enough courage to do likewise.

As we stand on a wooden ramp the height of the giraffe’s head, Ram the keeper introduces Ronnie the giraffe who’s licking her chops in eager anticipation of a good feed. The giraffe has the longest tongue in the animal kingdom. It can extend to a record 53cm in length and is so flexible that it can function like a hand for grasping food. As the visitors ahead feed Ronnie, I shiver when I see her long, dark tongue grip the sticks of carrots. When it comes to my turn, the mischievous Ram tells me to hold the carrot stick upfront to entice Ronnie to sweep her tongue right across my face to reach it! Ugh!

Ice-cream’s cool

After the exciting close encounter with Ronnie, it is a welcomed change to feed a cuddly little rabbit in the petting zoo. I’m ready to chill out and indulge in yummy scoops of Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream, so I board a boat at the nearby dock to cruise the placid waters of Seletar Reservoir. The boat takes us close to the park entrance. With not overly sweet flavours melting in my mouth and just enough chewy chunks of chocolate in my coffee ice-cream, I know why this experience is often described as heavenly!

Rustic ambience

It’s a three-minute walk from the zoo to the Night Safari and to the Ulu Ulu Safari Restaurant. The charming decor and rustic setting is reminiscent of a village home and I pass stalls serving a range of local cuisine like chilli crabs, grilled fish, satay and ais kacang. As I go looking for Liew, I see tour group members happily helping themselves to an Asian buffet. I find Liew overseeing the serving of the Reunion Dinner spread.

He says the unique setting of the restaurant offers families and friends a most unusual reunion experience on New Year’s Eve or for tossing yue sheng (raw fish salad) during the Lunar New Year celebrations. I start with a delicious spinach soup with braised conpoy (dried scallops) and seafood. It’s a rich broth of blended spinach with chunks of plump shrimp and crabmeat. “The tasty topping on the steamed cod fish is tau soh, crumbs of fragrant crispy bean,” says Liew.

Succulent steamed Herbal Chicken
As I savour the delightful melt-in-my-mouth flavours of cod complemented by its special sauce, he describes how his herbal steamed chicken is first marinated, deep fried and then stuffed with Chinese herbs. It is then seasoned with sauce and steamed for 1½ hours. One bite of this tender, juicy chicken and I’m all smiles.

“In about three minutes, you’ll know why people keep coming back,” Liew says mysteriously, making me pause in mid-chew to let that thought sink in. I am reluctant to stop relishing the wok-fried prawns coated with fresh mango and rolled in crispy oats but my ears catch the distant roll of drums. Before I can pick up yet another prawn, I’m accosted by gyrating are men, wearing ethnic costumes and are bare-chested. One of them takes my hand and leads me to join in their tribal dance! They are the artistes who will be performing the Thumbuakar show with fire-eating stunts later at night.

Animal show

The Creatures Of The Night show is about to start, so I delay my plans for dessert and rush to the crowded amphitheatre to enjoy non-stop action by animals trained to entertain and perform amazing stunts. Then I hop into the tram for a fascinating 40-minute journey into the world of nocturnal animals and to see animals such as hyena, lion, deer and rhino come out for food. The dim lighting casts mysterious shadows but it provides enough light for visitors to peek into the exciting animal kingdom of the night from the moving tram. When I return to the restaurant, Liew is waiting with my dessert — glutinous rice dumplings in ginger pu-er tea. Stuffed with ground peanuts, the dumplings are simply scrumptious.

The concept of a reunion dinner at Ulu Ulu Safari Restaurant is both unique and interesting because after enjoying the meal, the family bonding can continue at the Night Safari by tram or on foot through three walking trails. It’s certainly a new way to leap into the Year Of The Rabbit and will leave enough special memories for everyone to reminisce over, long after the meal’s digested.

Fast facts

THE Singapore Night Safari is the world’s first safari park for nocturnal animals and a nine-time winner of the Singapore Tourism Board’s Best Visitor Attraction Experience award. Bongo Burgers, Ulu Ulu Safari Restaurant and Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shop are located outside the park. Diners pay park admission fees only if they join the Night Safari. The 600-seater Ulu Ulu Safari Restaurant offers al fresco or indoor dining, buffet or a la carte meals.

Its award-winning chef, Liew Kok Hian, has created four set Reunion Dinner menus named Sweet Success (for four persons), Superior Treasure (five to six persons), Joyful Reunion (seven to eight persons) and Delightful Reunion (10 persons) that come with a free pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream. Wildlife Reserves Singapore ( is the parent company of Jurong Bird Park, Night Safari, Singapore Zoo and the upcoming River Safari.

Night Safari food and retail outlets open from 6pm to 11pm while the park opens from 7.30pm to midnight. Admission and tram charges are S$32.00 (adult) and S$21.00 (child 3-12 years). To make reservations for the Reunion Dinner, call +65-6360 8560 or email: The restaurant is pork-free. Visit for more info on Jungle Breakfast with zoo stars like the orang utan, Asian elephants and snakes or Lunch With Lions.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 27 January 2011


This bare-chested dancer was reaching for
my hand to drag me out to dance!

Wild drummers got guests on their feet!

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