Chowing down on the city’s eclectic street food
Taking on a crocodile is never going to be anyone’s idea of fun. But if you must do so, your best option is probably a braised one. Still pretty scary. But the bowl of tasty broth helps.
My mano-a-mano showdown with a bowl of claws, bone and pebbled skin is taking place in Singapore, at a hawker’s market on the edge of Little India. It’s a confrontation that could easily have been avoided. Singapore offers high-end cuisine the equal of any city in the world – there’s even an outpost of renowned French chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud’s db Bistro here, at the swanky Marina Bay Sands Hotel.
But to find the true spirit of Singapore you have to look elsewhere. Down at ground level, the city is a meeting place of culinary cultures: Malay, Indian, Chinese, the Malay-Chinese hybrid known as Peranakan, Indonesian influences such as Padang and even Japanese. These are best sampled in the places where locals dine, such as the popular food courts known as hawker’s markets. Singapore street food is inexpensive, tasty and often surprising. Even without the toothy reptiles.
Once upon a time, the world was full of city states. Of the few that remain, Singapore surely ranks first in power and prestige. Established as a British port in 1819 by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, it was briefly part of Malaysia before separating in 1965. The new state, isolated on a 700-square-kilometre island and lacking resources, wasn’t exactly considered Most Likely to Succeed. But it surprised the world by transforming itself into a manufacturing powerhouse and, by some measures, the world’s busiest port. Today, thanks to the country’s long history of Chinese and Indian settlement and its location in the very heart of Southeast Asia, Singapore has a vibrant culinary identity.
One of the surprises is just where good food is found. The Geylang area, four or five stops east of downtown on the East West train line, is popular with foodies. It’s also Singapore’s red light district, where little side streets called “lorongs” are lined with government-licensed brothels. (With its strict rules on gum chewing and litter, many visitors make the mistake of thinking Singapore is a moralistic nanny state. In fact, the government is obsessed with order. Gum chewing can be stopped, so they stop it. Prostitution cannot, they reason, so they license it.)
Geylang eateries are usually bright and open to the street, with the sort of modest decor one associates with 10-minute oil-and-lube jobs. Many offer cafeteria-style displays of ready-made food, but I prefer the spots that cook to order. On Geylang Lorong 9, I find one, with large, round tables spread out to the neon-lit sidewalk. Groups of friends, working girls on break and communally seated strangers fill the plastic chairs.
Unable to read the Chinese name on the sign, I order something at random before my tablemate intercedes. He introduces himself as Wei, a local importer/exporter. The restaurant’s name, which he translates for me, is “King of Char Kway Teow,” referring to the house specialty, a popular dish of broad noodles fried with sliced beef. So I order that. It’s savoury, it turns out, but not spicy – a sort of Asian beef stroganoff. And at 9 Singapore dollars (about $7 Cdn.), cheap. Not Asia cheap – in Bangkok you could eat for three days on that – but pretty good for a town that can be Southeast Asia’s most expensive destination.
The next evening I stumble across a happening spot just a few Geylang lorongs away. According to the menu, No Signboard Seafood acquired its name when the owners, Mr. and Mrs. Choo, started selling crab in a hawker’s stall that had no sign. Today there are six Singapore locations, including a Geylang branch. Still busy at 10 p.m., it’s a bright, lively outdoor plaza, featuring a central covered area with outdoor carpeting, ceiling fans, metal chairs and actual waiters. It’s so popular that the staff is busy rolling out extra tables, and I’m seated off to the side on a plastic chair, open to the elements, near the entrance to a parking garage. But the Singapore elements are kind, and it’s still a step up from the King of Char Kway Teow esthetic. Step up in price, too – pepper crab, a signature Singapore dish, costs 50 Singapore dollars a kilo; crayfish 80. I decide to branch out, ordering deer meat with ginger and spring onions (around $12 Cdn). Also kang kong. This local specialty is made by plucking a giant gorilla off a skyscraper and slicing it into a pan with garlic and ginger . . . or not. Kang kong is actually a leafy green, and the name translates to “water spinach.” It’s typically stir-fried with sambal, a chili, garlic, ginger and shrimp paste. And as prepared at No Signboard Seafood it’s a real discovery – tender and just nicely spicy. The venison, stir-fried in a thick brown gravy with green onions, is just as good.
Hawker’s markets, popular in Malaysian destinations such as Penang and Kuala Lumpur, are essentially open-air food courts, streets or plazas full of independent stalls, each offering a different specialty and clustered around a common seating area. While Malaysian hawker markets are usually located on streets or in large, open-air lots, the Singapore variety is typically a self-contained shopping plaza dedicated entirely to food vendors. And unlike a typical food court, a hawker’s market can draw customers who are serious about their cuisine.
Tekka Centre is a big one in Little India. I arrive in the morning to find that crowd has already converged on the centre’s wet market, which specializes in crab and other seafood. The hawker’s court, where rows of kiosks offer the likes of tandoori chicken and Indian vegetarian dishes, is right beside it. Garbage receptacles overflow with empty coconut shells that once held cold, sweet coconut milk drinks. I prefer to order a hot beverage: teh halia, or ginger milk tea, something I’ve never been able to find in Indian restaurants back home. Made from water boiled with ginger, the tea is sweetened with condensed milk. The result is creamy, with a solid kick of ginger that leaves a warm after-burn.
Time for lunch. Not too far across town from Little India is the beautiful Sultan Mosque, heart of the area called Arab Street or Kampong Glam, just east of Raffles Hospital. In a way, Kampong Glam, sometimes called the Muslim Quarter, sums up the city. It’s pretty, displays its heritage proudly and yet seems so tidy and orderly that you might think you’ve wandered into some sort of Singapore Disneyland. The narrow streets are lined with restored old shop houses containing carpet and souvenir stores and offices. Restaurants, too.
Kampong Glam is the place to go for nasi padang, an Indonesian Muslim culinary tradition that combines Asian and Middle Eastern influences and makes heavy use of coconut milk and spices. It’s represented in the Arab Street area by restaurants such as the legendary Warong Nasi Pariaman. This afternoon it’s my bad fortune to arrive as they are washing up, five minutes after closing early for a holiday. Disappointing, but there are other options. Encouraged by the crowd across the street at a deli-style restaurant called Sabar Menanti II, I head in. At the back, a glass case displays rows of dishes, most swimming in savoury curry sauces. Soon I am engaged in one of those acts of faith and surrender that are an unavoidable part of overseas dining. I don’t recognize any of the dishes on display and no one can really explain them to me. So I turn myself over to the man in charge. “Spicy OK?” he asks. I nod, trying to look confident, and he serves up my plate.
I recognize one dish as rendang beef curry, often featured on Malaysian menus in North America. (This illustrates the polyglot nature of North American Asian restaurants, where different regions and traditions are often rolled together under one banner.) My plate also holds chicken and vegetable curries, plus a side that includes banana peppers. Taking a seat beside a family (communal seating is one of the pleasures of solo dining in Singapore), I dig in. And in fact the spice hit is rather mild. In Malaysia and Singapore they don’t go in for butt-kicking Thai chilies – the sambal chili paste favoured here tends to be a little milder and sweeter, making Malaysian cuisine seem a little kinder and gentler overall.
My tablemates include Yusef, a young local man eating with his parents and wife. Is this his favourite spot, I ask? Yusef shakes his head. “My favourite restaurant is home,” he says. “Nothing beats Mom’s cooking.” On my way out, I remember that Kampong Glam the neighbourhood also features Kampong Glam the restaurant, at the corner of Baghdad and Bussorah streets. Which means I must return to the area tomorrow – I know and love this spot from past visits.
I line up with a crowd the next day as planned, to order a couple of Malay favourites, lontong and gado-gado. Gado-gado is a local classic, typically vegetables and boiled egg covered in a warm peanut sauce. As for lontong, the name can refer to what I have before me – a dish containing cabbage, bean curd, sliced egg and green beans, topped with a dollop of chili paste and swimming in coconut milk curry. But more specifically, lontong refers to the main ingredient, a sort of rice cake that’s been cooked for five or six hours, then cut into cubes or slices. Seated at a table beside locals, I’m told that lontong has a special role in Malay Muslim culture. “Traditionally, this is a New Year’s dish,” explains my dining companion, a trim, 50-ish Malay man in a blue short-sleeved shirt. “But these days, people eat lontong all the time.” Lontong dishes have also become an integral part of Chinese New Year festivities, the kind of cultural crossover that makes Singapore what it is.
Singapore’s most famous cultural hybrid is the Malay-Chinese blend known as Peranaken. In the local legends, it’s a little unclear whether Peranaken culture resulted from Chinese immigrants absorbing Malay influence, or whether it represents a more literal crossbreeding. But it’s now a distinct local tradition that finds its fullest expression in food.
One example is laksa, a coconut milk curry with short rice noodles. A number of laksa shops in Joo Chiat, on the east side of the city, claim to have been the first to serve this dish. But 328 Katong Laksa (yet another small, basic, open-front diner) seems to be winning the current retail war. Walking down Still Road from the Eunos MRT station on my second-to-last day in the city, I realize to my dismay that I’m down to only 6 Singapore dollars. But it’s enough. A bowl of savoury, slightly sweet, slightly spicy laksa sets me back 4. I’m forced to skip the side of fish paste everybody else is ordering – I need train fare back to my hotel.
Singapore is a great place to find Japanese snacks, as long as you’re not a purist. Stopping by Wow Tako! in the basement of the four-storey Bugis Junction shopping centre (near City Hall downtown) could be a shock for a Tokyo tourist. The little stand sells tako-yaki, the Japanese national snack, which is typically a chunk of octopus in a ball of fried batter (yaki means fried and tako is octopus). It certainly doesn’t mean pineapple and cheese, or mushroom and cheese, or beef and cheese, or scallop – which are all proudly served here. Japanese desserts such as daifuku and tai-yaki (respectively, rice-paste dumplings filled with sweet red beans and waffle cookies shaped like cutesy fish) are also on the menu – some with durian filling.
Durian is a fact of culinary life around here. The spiky fruit is a Chinese staple that has never caught on in the West, and frankly is unlikely ever to do so. The reason can be deduced from local hotel elevators. Frequently there’s a little sign beside the door picturing a durian overlaid with a red circle and a slash. In terms of etiquette, cracking open a fresh durian in an elevator is the equivalent of lighting up a Cuban cigar. The stuff stinks. There are a few different varieties ranging from sweet to bitter, but they’re all an acquired taste. My attempt to acquire it in Singapore’s Chinatown a few days ago – with a durian crêpe – proved a miserable failure. The musky, acrid taste stayed with me for blocks.
Nor do I have much success with my final big Singapore meal. I first spot the sign while wandering through the Burseh Food Centre on the edge of Little India – a big pictorial menu offering both stewed turtle and braised crocodile. I have nothing against turtles. But my youthful attempts to keep them as pets mean I have enough turtle blood on my hands. Crocodile it is.
Braised crocodile doesn’t look any more appetizing than you’d expect. It’s served to me in a hot stone bowl, with a tangy broth to distract from the pale pebbled skin and single white claw emerging from the mix. Once I’m past the bone and gristle, the old cliché proves itself again – the meat does indeed taste like that mild-mannered bird that made a fortune for Colonel Sanders. Overall it’s not bad. But at 18 Singapore dollars (45 for a whole paw) it’s the most expensive hawker meal I’ve ever had, and certainly not the tastiest.
The next day I get the rest of the bill. Crocodiles, I discover, can also attack from within. Next time I’ll try to remember my place on the food chain.