This trip was sponsored by the Singapore Tourism Board
I absolutely loved the food courts in South Eastern Asia. Am always wowed by the range of food, the richness of flavours, the warmth of the people, the non-budget busting prices. My first experience of these food courts was in Singapore and Singapore has continued to wow and woo me since in each visit with its food courts.
Maxwell Hawker Centre
This time Anita, my guide from STB, took me to the legendary Maxwell Hawker Centre at Chinatown on the first day of my trip for my lunch. I had gone to the legendary Maxwell Hawker Centre on my last trip to Singapore too (you can read about it here). That time I was too full as I had eaten at another local market and could only sip on a sugarcane juice. This time I made up for it.
Anita first gave me some cash on behalf of the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and told me to go and order myself and see how it is for an outsider. She pointed me to a carrot cake stall. A dish that’s a local favourite.
Well the Singaporean ‘carrot cake’ has no carrot in it. It gets it name from the white radish which goes into making the dough. Apparently the Chinese names for white radish and carrot are similar. You get the dish in black (soya based and my order) and white options. It consists of a chopped radish and rice dough with soy and a beaten egg. As I mentioned in my breakfast post, this soft local dough strain of dishes didn’t work for me texture-wise. I liked the strings of egg in it though. It comes in 3 price ranges and I ordered the cheapest one at 3 SGD.
Next Anita pointed me to the Tian Tian chicken rice centre. By then I had told her that Anthony Bourdain is my idol. Well Tian Tian is a stall where Bourdain has eaten and approved of. For me going there was like a pilgrimage. It’s also the most popular chicken rice stall at Maxwell’s and you have to queue up with locals and tourists to get a bite. Anita had a great time photographing me as a I progressed up the queue.
Well this is is one dish that lived up to its hype. The rice was indeed as flavoursome and fragrant as Bourdain said and like he said it could be eaten by itself. The rice is cooked in chicken stock. What amazed me was the chicken which despite being a breast piece was amazingly tender. Slow cooking at its best. Delicate cooking at its best. The Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore brought back happy memories of KL’s Ipoh Chicken Rice.
The chicken rice at Tian Tian won me over to such an extent that I came back on my last evening to have another serving before I headed for dinner. The chicken rice costs 3.5 SGD.
I also had a bean sprout with cuttle fish at Anita’s recommendation and loved the spring-like texture and the fresh taste of the sprouts and the scary looking but not very fiery bites of red chilli. The sticky cuttle fish didn’t do much for me though.
Would I order this dish again? Yes I would. Combined wonderfully with the chicken rice.
While eating my rice I looked up and saw an elderly gentleman rolling fresh cha shu buns. I went up and ordered one (0.9 SGD). It was the best pork bun I have ever had. Soft dough covering the most flavoursome, not overly sweet, cha shu pork filling. This was artisanal stuff.
The way it works in these Hawker Centres is that you place your order, take your food and then go to one of the many tables around and sit down. At the end you leave your tray and plates and an attendant picks them up when you are done. In true Indian style you can reserve a seat by placing a tissue before you go to place your order. Tables are shared among strangers.
Chinatown Food Street
Now slumming it in a local Hawker Centre would not be everyone’s cup of tea. Keeping this in mind the folks at Singapore have recreated a Hawker Market for tourists in China Town. They have converted a street into a row of food courts where stalls/ coffee shops from all over Singapore are represented through sanitised carts which have got A ratings for cleanliness from the authorities. The street can get a bit hot during the day though it has a canopy and gets more full during the night. They even have free wifi here in case you want to instagram as you eat.
We didn’t eat here but STB had organised two Masterchef like challenges for me. First was at the popiah (a local spring roll) stall where I had to follow the stall chef and make a popiah in two minutes. My first attempt evoked a lot of laughter but the second attempt was better.
The second was at a dessert stall where I had to make an iced kachang ( a local shaven ice dessert with sweet beans, syrup, condensed milk and corn dessert) in three minutes. This was relatively easier. The person at the stall made it in 40 seconds.
Taste-wise I preferred the popiah with its mix of textures and sweet and spicy tastes to the ice kachang.
Sungei Road at Kelantan Street
One afternoon I told Anita that I had to have laksa before leaving. She said that the Katong laksa was the most famous one apparently but she wasn’t a big fan of it. We spoke to a cabbie who said that same too. Seemed like this Katong Road Laksa was like Hyderabad’s Paradise Biryani. More popular with tourists than with locals. Of course all I have is a sample size of 2 to vouch for it.
Anita googled options and we headed to Kelantan Lane near Little India in search of Sungei Road laksa which has moved base from Sungei Road to the food court here.
As we landed there a cute granny (you can refer to elders as uncle and aunty here) waved at us to her stall. Turned out that Sungei Road Laksa was Bourdain blessed too. “Anthony had come here in 2007” said the grandma goose.
You can get your laksa with prawns (4.5 SGD) or cockles (3.5 SGD). Our chauffeur Mr Chaw went for the one with the cockles. I chose the prawn laksa and added some chilli paste and dried coriander leaves. I just loved the heady mix of sweet and spicy notes in the laksa brought about by the marriage of coconut milk and chilli with the textural break of the bouncy and lively prawns and the spring of the bean sprouts. I also realised that Sing Kong back home makes quite a decent laksa. The laksa in Sungei Road gave me unbridled pleasure.
One afternoon we went to the Peranakan settlement of East Coast. Peranakans or Nonyas originate from Malacca in Malaysia and are a race created by the marriage of Chinese traders with local Malays, Arabs and Indians. They have evolved their own form of cooking. Anita told me that as a race they are quite flamboyant and this apparently showed in the decor of their houses and the bold needlework of their outfits.
We went to a new restaurant called Peramakan (makan in Malay means ‘to eat’) in the Santa Grand Hotel in the East Coast. Over there we were hosted by a Malay stewardess who is quite conversant in English plus the menu describes everything too. I left the ordering largely in the hands of Anita and our stewardess. The dishes were accompanied by steamed rice.
I started with Bakwan Kepiting. A delicately flavoured pork ball soup which had crab meat too. Very pleasing on the palate.
Next on was ayam (chicken) bukan keluak (16 SGD) which is chicken cooked in a black gravy and with two nuts stuffed with tangy spices which you take our with a plastic stick. This curry had some very strong tangy flavours and combined well with the rice.
Then there was an incredibly fresh vegetarian dish of kay lan (kale) fried with garlic and oyster dishes. The crunch of the greens with bites of fried garlic made this one of my favourite dishes. This provided Anita much amusement as she would keep calling me Kay-lan instead of Kalyan.
Another inspired dish was the petai with sambal udang (16 SGD) which consisted of juicy prawns cooked in an orange sauce and tempered with fried petai beans. The contrast of the red hues of the sambal curry with the bright grasshopper green of the beans made the dish very visually appealing. The beans had a slightly bitter taste which was offset by the inherent sweetness of the prawns.
The dish that took the longest time to cook was the satay baby goreng (16 SGD). Chunks of pork belly fried into fatty submission in a spicy kaffir lime infused coconut gravy. This dish almost felt like a Malvani dish thanks to the spicy tangy coconut paste.
I didn’t care much for the coconut pancakes served with banana custard as dessert as coconut flavours in desserts put me off. My favourites were the kay lan and the prawn with petai beans.
Anita said that this was one of the best Peranakan meals that she has had and I would strongly recommend it too.
After Peramakan we headed to Kim Choo. Kim Choo is a two storeyed Peranakan food cum handicraft store which once housed a restaurant too. It’s named after its founder Kim Choo and is now run by her grandsons.
After the heavy meal we sat down to a Peramakan tea of mind blowing pork and sticky rice dumplings (Chang) which can be bought at the shop and taste awesome, a flavourful otak otak (the fish steamed in leaves dish) and kueh lapis. Kueh lapis is also called the ‘longevity cake’ and is sticky and layered like the Goan bebenca and is more colourful. You eat it layer by layer as each layer represents stages of your life. Unfortunately the taste didn’t work for me and I took the risk of not finishing it. That pork chang though is worth travelling a million miles for.
Then the grandson of Kim Choo guided me through my rather ham handed attempts to make the dumplings which was one of the activities planned by STB for me.
In fact the two brothers recreate the experience I had for groups of 10 or so where you have a tasting, a talk on Peranakan food and culture, a chance at making the dumplings and then a walk around the house to see and buy Peranakan handicrafts.
Back home in Mumbai, I think of my trip and try to figure what I miss the most from Singapore.
Not the weather. Mumbai can be as muggy and the weather in Singapore was no respite.
The clean manicured roads of Singapore, gleaming modern buildings with stories of the past peeping through, honking free traffic. Yes, possibly a bit.
But heck what I miss the most is the amazing food in the food courts of Singapore.