A place known for its melting pot of a cuisine, it would take ages to truly delve deep into this food culture. Food is of utmost importance here in Singapore and is a main point of conversation throughout the population. The best dish and where to get it is always up for debate and I’m sure rarely agreed upon. The best way to go about eating a particular dish is a very personal ritual as well. It’s a food culture I wish was shared worldwide putting good eats at the top of every totem pole. A mere day and a half obviously isn’t near enough time here to truly appreciate all the city had to offer in the way of food, but I thought I’d give it my best attempt.
Feeling horrible from alcohol abuse the previous couple nights I didn’t stray too far from the hostel my first evening. Luckily in Singapore, you don’t have to for a good meal and I was staying in Little India. As soon as I stepped outside the wafts of curries flooded my nostrils. I walked until I saw a place that was nearly full and grabbed a seat. Papadums were brought to the table along with a coriander chutney before I ordered and my taste buds were immediately brought back to my time in India. A sensational curry followed with garlic naan. Easily the best Indian food I’ve outside of the country of origin.
A new day and an empty stomach. I set out to see the city, but ultimately my main focus was food and how much of it I could consume. First stop was the Tekka Food Center on the corner of Little India and I was searching for Nasi Lemak. Actually the national dish of Malaysia, it is popular in the surrounding area as well. Generally served for breakfast it can be found at any time of the day due to its many variations. Fragrant rice cooked with coconut milk and pandan leave is the key item on the plate. This surrounded by fried peanuts, fried anchovies, spicy sambal, boiled or fried egg and of course cucumber slices. Can’t forget those! For a more substantial meal often fried chicken or fish isn’t far away to add to the plate. It might sound like an odd combo, but as usual it works. A true breakfast of champions to set you right for the day.
Lunch at Chinatown is a must and even more so the Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice.Made famous by Anthony Bourdain, but known throughout the city by locals for years it is said to be the best in the city and it’s easy to find. Simply look for the longest line in the Maxwell Road Food Center. The dish itself is one of the national dishes of Singapore and seemingly one of simplicity. It’s just chicken and rice, right? Wrong! The chicken is perfectly poached in stock creating a juicy and tender flesh, then dunked in ice water to cool. This creates 3 distinct layers. The flesh, the skin and a succulent jelly-like consistency of fat in between. A masterpiece in itself. The rice cooked in chicken stock gives it fragrance and a slightly oily texture. To add to it and this is where it gets personal, are the condiments. A chili and garlic sauce, dark soy sauce and freshly grated ginger. It’s a must eat on the Singapore food trail. Simply sublime.
I first tried this dish in Penang, Char Kway Teow is also quite popular in Singapore. It’s a bit of a mess when you’re looking at it on the plate (big seller I know), but the contrast in the many flavours and textures take your palate for a roller coaster ride. Wide rice noodles stir fried in pork fat over a high heat charring the noodles mixed with soy and chili. Crispy chunks of pork lard, shrimp, egg, cockles, beansprouts and chives all join the party to make one incredible dish. Maybe not the healthiest, but that’s far from the top of my concerns diving into a plate of this.
Mid-afternoon came and the relentless humidity was starting to wear on me. To somewhat temporarily beat the heat I found a little shop selling Ice Kacang. Literally translating to ice beans, it was initially just shaved ice and red beans. Now the variations are endless. Combinations now include beans, grass jelly, agar agar cubes, sweet corn, ice cream, drizzles of different syrups or coconut milk and the list goes on and becomes more and more untraditional as it does. Nonetheless, however you choose to go about it, it is a great snack to cool you down.
Before too long it was time for another feed. I was back in the stalls of Chinatown as it was getting late and not much remained open. I had a soup recommended to me called Bak Kut Teh, so I had to give this a go. Translating to ‘meat bone tea’, it already had my attention. A broth of spices, garlic and of course long simmered meaty and fatty pork ribs. Despite the name no tea is involved. The pork was tender beyond belief, the fat melting in your mouth with the aromatic broth. Accompanying this were some braised greens, fried peanuts, fresh chili and Youtiao (Chinese donuts).
Dinner didn’t stop there. I wanted some sort of crab. There are two well-known preparations of crab in Singapore. Chili crab and black pepper crab. Asking a stall, they recommended the black pepper version, I’m hoping because it was there specialty. I went for it unable to decide for myself. Before long I was wrist deep savagely pulling apart the body, legs and claws not wanting to leave a piece of shell unturned. Eating crab is always messy business. In fact if you’re tidy about it, you’re probably doing it wrong. Succulent pieces of flesh imparted with a dry black pepper sauce were worth every little bit of effort. It’s always sad when the last leg had been torn apart, but I guess I can always look forward to chili crab on my next visit.
Singapore is a whirlwind of flavours, extracting dishes from its many cultures along with many of its own. Although there is much more to eat in this amazing city, my stomach left happy after its appetizer of what there is on offer. As I head for the airport I can already hear it growling for more and I assure you there will be more. As with most of my culinary journeys through a country, the first trip is just the beginning.