A couple of months ago, I was cycling from eatery to eatery in Singapore.
Now Singapore is full of fancy imported restaurants, but there nevertheless really is something called original traditional Singaporean food - cuisine that originated here and continues to be eaten here. This is where the Chinese clashed (sometimes literally) with Malays, Tamilians, Indonesians (to say nothing of the odd Englishman) and formed all kinds of subcultures. Every block has a subgenre, a slightly different mix of the basic cultural ingredients expressed (mostly) in the food. Smothered it may be by malls, manicured it may be to the point of oblivion, but Singapore has managed to keep its home and street food alive and flourishing.
And the secret is in the hawker centres.
Singapore has many types of hawker centres – fancy ones inside fancy malls, remote residential areas like Boon Lay or Ang Mo Kio, tourist traps such as Lau Pat Sat or Newton, ethnic enclaves such as Geylang or Little India or messy convoluted ones such as Maxwell Road or Chinatown. In short, no dearth of variety, but one thing is common – the small and big food stalls are owned and managed by individuals, some of whom have been doing it for decades (many date back to before the formation of of Singapore). Hawker Centre tourism is a must for any serious foodie in Singapore – wildly varied and usually just that little rough around the edges – messy tables, no air-con, overflowing trash cans, the occasional sticky thing on the floor - a small relief from the usually obsessive manicuring of Singapore.
Lets focus back on the focus - the food. Each hawker centre has a lot of stalls, many stalls sell the same foods and of course, some stalls are better than others – things can get quite hairy when trying to choose between five different stalls of chicken rice or nasi padang. Someone had whispered me the secret a while ago – go for the longest line. Survival of the busiest, they say. Unfortunately, the standard hawker centre will have at least a few long lines; this technique therefore calls for repeated patience and forbearance.
At Maxwell Road, the longest queue was at 75 Peanuts Soup 57 (not sure what the numbering convention means but 57 seems to be the stall number). Its the proud bearer of various awards and doles out red bean or peanut soup, with or without rice balls. A soup (I figure) is always a good way to start so I stood in line, ordered the headlined item with rice ball (a dollar extra) and promptly discovered the pitfalls of falling in line. Peanut Soup, you see, turned out to be one of those odd sweet thingies that no one without a Singapore PR. It was, quite literally, boiled peanuts with some sugar and chunks of fried dough (called chinese doughnuts or You Tiao) added to give it a bit of chew. The rice balls that cost me an extra dollar were balls of sticky rice paste - one filled with coconut, the other with sesame paste – possibly the tastiest part of the otherwise underwhelming dish. This is what people have been queuing to lap up for seventy years?
Slightly shaken but not yet stirred I stood in the next long line I saw – Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice. Now you can’t go too wrong with Chicken Rice in Singapore – the stuff is pretty much everywhere and everyone has it for lunch. This looked a little different, but I figured, as usual - if the lines are long you cant go wrong – and after a 10-15min wait ended up with a plate of what looked (and tasted) like plain steamed chicken with a bowl of soup and some plain rice. I’d also ordered chicken claws (which the man at the counter snipped off the bone into shreds using a wicked pair of scissors.
Ok I’m being wicked. The food was simple (chicken, rice, a soup and a chilli sauce dip), but much tastier than it looks. Somehow, the process concentrates flavours beautifully, making the chicken more chicken than seems possible. The rice (cooked in the stock) is addictively tasty. Later research on google revealed this place to be famous (Makansutra calls it “die die must try”, though I suspect if I was die die this would not be choice number one for must try). Hainanese Chicken Rice vendors are everywhere, and this apparently is the biggest cheese of them all.
My other favourite hawker centre is the Hong Lim Complex Hawker Centre in the heart of Chinatown. This one has possibly the least ambience of all – convoluted rows of stalls, messy tables, messy floors, but it’s the one hawker centre where you’re least likely to go wrong. On the ground floor a fragrant turtle soup from Hokkein Street Bak Koot Teh,Turtle Soup greeted me (something I could indeed die die for). Upstairs, Ah Kow Mushroom Minced Pork Mee fed me a highly recommended Teochew Dumpling Soup. Outram Park Fried Kway Teow Mee fried up the same mee (, added sprouts, ground peanut, cockles and some brown sauce and served up a tasty Kway Teow (for a change a dish often found in restaurants, but not a patch on the street version). The hawkers of Boon Lay yielded Nasi Padang (the Indonesian version of a rice plate) a heap of rice plus as many optionals as you want, such as rendang, fried chicken or chicken liver. I didn’t venture close to any desserts, but there was some sugarcane juice to be had.
Mee, in case you’re wondering, is not another odd Singaporean twist on the English language – its the Chinese name for noodle (along with bee, mein, mi and other assorted spellings). Hey, they invented it, surely they can call it what they want.
Then, there were the mall food courts – Funan Mall’s Ya Kun outlet fed me some excellent Kaya Toast (thin toast with a peculiar but addictive sweet jam-like spread called Kaya). A temporary hawker centre at Suntec City had chicken samosa and two kinds of sausage (the brown one was particularly tasty, coupled with a spicy-sweet dip). Tangs has a hawker centre hidden in its basement offering some great Otak Otak and outstanding Nyonya Glutinous Rice Cake. Across the road, Ngee Ann City fed me Rojak (the closest thing to chaat ever – fruits, vegetables, exotic stuff like ginger flower all coated in an ultra-spicy sweet-sour sauce and given the crunch with crushed peanuts).
Street food is real democracy – a popularity contest these vendors have been winning consistently, sometimes for over half a century. Many pre-date the country itself, some are older even than the formation of Singapore as a British colony. Luckily the history lesson is optional - follow the queues and participate in a bit of adventure; sometimes fabulous, sometimes peanuts soup. I’ve covered only a tiny slice of all the dishes available, and of course there are many more hawker centres than I can possibly cycle to. For the googler in you, Singapore’s blogosphere is full of discussions of hawker food.
At least you’re unlikely to get bored; there are, literally, thousands of hawkers to have an opinion on – enjoy lah.