HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Singaporean Food

Note: 1 USD = 1.25 Singapore dollars (S$)

Disclaimer: You probably shouldn't read this on an empty stomach.

Arguably the biggest pillar of modern Singaporean culture is eating. Locals are obsessed with shoveling food into their faces, and many tourists visit the country solely to experience the broad array of food available on the island. I did a lot of eating on this trip, and here is what it looked like.

The ethnic diversity of Singapore, which I discussed in my last post, has led to the creation of an amazing food scene within the country. Chinese, Indian, Malay, Indonesian, and other Asian cuisines are easy to find, as are many fusions of all of the above. There isn't street food in the same sense as there is in Vietnam or Thailand, because the government has forced vendors off the street and into "hawker centres". These are basically huge food courts full of stalls offering a sumptuous array of dishes from around the continent. Prices are higher than in the rest of Southeast Asia, but they are still much more affordable than most meals in the U.S. I should also explain that many of the names of these dishes can be spelled multiple ways and come in multiple variations; it all depends on which area of the country the dish originated in the chefs are from. For example, thossai and a dosa are the same thing, so if you see something that looks similar to a dish you've had before, there's a good chance it's the same kind of food.

Meal 1: Took place at Mufiz Prata Corner, a Muslim Indian restaurant on Geylang St., near our hotel. Amy and I split three dishes. First, Kway Teow Goreng, a noodle dish that is popular throughout Southeast Asia, although prepared in different ways depending on the country. In Singapore a spicy, bright red sauce is slathered over the noodles, and more vegetables are used in comparison to other places. There was some chicken thrown in, and a fried egg was placed on top to complete the dish. Despite the extreme redness of the dish, the level of spiciness was totally manageable. The egg yolk, once mixed in with the sauce, added a nice, less hot flavor. Overall, a very delicious dish.
We also ordered Masala Thossai, which is flatbread with vegetables cooked inside of it served with different dipping sauces. The sauces always come in a nice variety of of spice, ranging from mild to quite hot, as well as several distinct flavors. I've had this in Malaysia and it's a personal favorite, and this one did not dissapoint.
Finally, there was the Chicken Mufiz Murtabak. I had murtabak last time I was in Singapore, and was more than happy to have it once more. This dish originated in India, and is now popular throughout Southeast Asia and the Arabian peninsula. It comes in many varieties, but it is basically a flatbread pancake with meat, vegetables, or sometimes even chocolate, stuffed inside of it. Ours had chicken, onions, and egg filling, and it was amazing. Perhaps the most amazing part was the cost of that meal: the three dishes and two drinks cost S$12.
Meal 2: Dinner at Lau Pa Sat, a hawker centre located smack in the middle of Singapore's downtown. It was at this point that I began to realize just how unique Singapore is: we were eating authentic, affordable Indian food in an airy, colonial-era building, nestled in between the towering skyscrapers of the uber-modern Financial District. You can't find a combination like that anywhere else. I had Chicken biryani rice, a dish that has migrated all the way from Iran. This version was basically rice with fried chicken, along with a piece of flat bread and a great sauce. That cost just S$4.
Meal 3: Lunch the next day was dedicated to Chinese food in Chinatown, specifically at the Maxwell Food Centre, another hawker centre. The first dish was Hainanese Chicken Rice, which is sometimes considered the national dish of Singapore thanks to its massive popularity on the island. It is based on a dish called Wenchang chicken, which comes from the Chinese island of Hainan, which sits west of northern Vietnam. The key to this dish is the preparation: whole chickens are boiled in a pork and chicken bone stock, creating a broth that is used many times. The rice is boiled in a separate chicken stock. Although the dish looks rather basic, perhaps even bland, it tastes great, especially when you add that inky-black sauce to it.
Next up was rice congee, a classic Asian dish. This one had chicken mixed into the porridge. This is a mainstay dish of the Chinese working class, and it is also believed to heal the sick. The bowl took ages to cool down, but once my tongue got used to being scorched it was delicious.
Meal 4: I didn't have my camera for this dinner, but I had Corn & Crab meat soup along with Sweet and Sour Chicken at a very good, but overpriced, restaurant at Boat Quay, located right on the Singapore River. I wanted to get some fresh seafood at the place, but one (admittedly large) crab cost over S$60!

Meal 5: For dessert that night I returned to Mufiz Prata for a S$2 Tissue Pratha, which was basically a huge crepe, stood up on one end, and drenched in chocolate sauce. The waiter informed me that I was only allowed to use my hands to eat it, since using a fork would cause its destruction. Therefore, I looked like a pelican that had a run-in with BP after finishing it, but boy was it delicious.
A one-way ticket to Messy Town.
Meal 6: An Egg Dosai from Alankar Restaurant, in Little India. This was an arm-length pancake from Southern India baked out of rice batter and black lentils. Dosais come in all sorts of varieties, and this one obviously came with fried egg slathered inside of it. The requisite delicious sauces were served alongside, as usual.
Meal 7: Two dishes from Geylang Serai Market, which was on the way back to the airport. I had a bowl of Seafood Laksa, a noodle dish from the Peranakan culture, which is a mix of Chinese and Malaysia influences. Thick, yellow noodles were combined with fish balls, crab meat, beansprouts, and prawn paste, as well as other vegetables, in a delicious broth.
After that I somehow managed to stuff a Kebab Tornado into my stomach. I'm not really sure what the "tornado" part indicates, but the dressing they used was simply fantastic. Definitely one of the best kebabs I've had in the region.
So, there is a sampling of the mouth-watering options available to the hungry traveler in Singapore. One could easly spend at least a week working their way through the wide array of dishes on offer. I didn't even have a chance to try food from Korea, Japan, or other, more distant locals; I was too caught up in trying as much as I possibly could from South and Southeast Asia. (Speaking of Japan, I would be remiss to go this far without mentioning the aftermath of the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami. I've seen incredible flood damage in New Orleans, but nothing like some of the videos that were taken from the impacted areas. My thoughts go out to all Japanese as they begin the long road to recovery.)

As a dining destination, then, Singapore comes through in spades. You can easily sample cuisine from all over this vast continent, and often at a fraction of the price of what you would pay in the U.S. or Europe. If you're feeling hungry after reading this, I completely understand. Next up, I'll have one last post about Singapore.

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