|A serious but delicious search for the true taste of Singapore.|
ON THE FOOD TRAIL: Interiors of the Lau Pa Sat Food Court
I'M in heaven. This is bliss. I have just bitten into a bright green sweet, with coconut shavings scattered atop it. The sweet has released a spurt of cane sugar. Garry, sitting across from me, smiles knowingly. He knows all about the culinary stairway to heaven. In fact, bless their taste buds, every Singaporean knows.
This is my fourth visit to the Lion City and over the years, I seem to have done it all: had a Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel, met Inuka the polar bear at the Zoo, been up in an air balloon, taken in a show, cruised the Singapore river.
I've gourmandised at the city's best gourmet spots, the 70th floor Equinox restaurant, eateries at Holland village, Clarke and Boat Quays, the Esplanade, and the charming CHIJMES. I've even eaten at Komala Vilas at Serangoon.
This time, I'm on a makan (food) trail. Singaporean food has its origins in Malaysia, Indonesia, China and India, and the result is a culinary carnival. The food courts and hawker centres with shed roofs, ceiling fans whirring atop, rows of stalls on both sides, are almost always chockfull of enthusiastic eaters, the air rent by the rhythmical sound of chopsticks hitting ceramic bowls.
So, my companion in this culinary quest, Garry, and I draw up a plan with all the precision of generals preparing for a campaign.
We kick off with breakfast at a little place in the Far East Square. We have Kaya toast (an egg custard with coconut jam) and buns, as well as two half-boiled eggs floating in a sauce of soya and pepper, which you tilt up and drink!
The beverage of choice is plain Kopi (coffee with condensed milk) for me, and Kopi C (with evaporated milk) for Garry. Other breakfast delights of the city include Banana Prata (yes, paper thin rotis) with maple syrup, the popular Roti Prata and Roti John (egg in paav bread).
Lunch is at Joo Chiat Street where we have Laksa, flat noodles in a delicious coconut milk broth with all the fruits of the sea in it. Laksa can be had in its vegetarian version, too.
Garry insists we move up the road to Kim Chou's kitchen for delicious Peranakan dumplings, the Nonya Chang (glutinous rice boiled in coconut leaves with a filling of mince sweetened with melon). Dessert is Ondieh Ondieh, the green tapioca sweet I talked about earlier, a selection of nougat-y pineapple pastries, and a rice and palm sugar sweetmeat called Kueh Koshi.
Elsewhere, I taste other Peranakan delicacies like the ubiquitous Satay,Sambal Petari (a dry dish of tomatoes, chilli, spices and onion), Nonya Otal(fish grilled in coconut leaf) and Assam mani curry.
Strong-smelling durian fruit.
Long, luscious lunches during the week — at Chinatown's Maxwell Food Centre, Lau Pa Sat (the oldest 24-hour food court) and Katong — see us tucking into varied soups, Popiah (spring rolls), Char Kway Teow (rice noodles fried with chilli, garlic, bean sprouts and fish cakes in a dark sweet sauce), Fried Carrot Cake which is actually radish with garlic bits and chilli,Rojak, a salad of fruit and vegetable in black shrimp sauce with peanuts as garnish, Hainanese Chinese rice, stuffed Tofu, and all kinds of mee(noodles).
All meals are accompanied by a tangy ginger-garlic dip and washed down at regular intervals with green tea, both of which one could easily get addicted to.
Dinner at the East Coast Food Centre is a seafood dream, consisting of Sea Bass grilled to perfection in butter, Drunken Prawns (drunk on whisky, if you must know!), Chilli Crab and a tasty vegetable sambal called Kang Kong! Dessert is a selection from red bean pancakes, a dish of Soya Curd with rock sugar and peanuts, and a cold Soya Milk drink. Chendol and ice kachang, shaved ice flavoured with syrups, corn and red beans, are other interesting options, as is the durian, Singapore's national fruit... if you can get past its strong odour.
Dinners at other hawker centres like the Newton Food Centre and Geylang (where the night sights vie for attention with the food!) have us dipping into a dim sum collation of pork ribs, chicken feet, frog's legs, (hey, you only live once!), gelatinous rice with peanuts, shiitake mushrooms in black sauce, prawn and shark fin dumplings, porridge made from century egg, stuffed soya bean puffs.
Most of the food courts in the basements of Orchard Road's huge malls serve great local food; you just need to join the longest queue! While the local fare does tilt in favour of the non-vegetarian, the vegetarian will by no means go hungry.
It helps if you have a guide like Garry, but do take along a strong sense of adventure. These hawker centre banquets don't cost a fraction of what you pay at a fine dining place, are safe and delicious; what more can you want?
Indians have always flocked to the Lion City for an orgy of shopping, with a little sightseeing thrown in. I recommend you go over to Singapore for a taste of the local food. You'll thank me for it.