I had always heard about Singapore being spoken of as a “shoppers’ paradise” and as I visited the city to attend the World Gourmet Summit, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was a much bigger “foodie paradise”.
Yes, meeting chefs from around the world, attending workshops and learning about the latest global food trends was exciting enough but what was much more gratifying was the immense love for food Singaporeans nurse.
My first introduction to the foods of Singapore came about through Chef Manjunath Mural of The Song of India restaurant who were hosting my friend for the Summit. Chef Manju took us around the city on our very first evening there and just as we were thinking of sampling some soups, kebabs and the famous Singapore Chilli Crab, he put a few pieces of Mantou bread in our hands and said “try this… Singapore has the best bread bakers in the world.” I had eaten frozen and microwaved mantou several times in London, but never had it been so soft, spongy and fresh. These steamed and fried bread rolls became the first of numerous culinary surprises I encountered in Singapore. As we walked through the food court, Chef Manju also explained how big street food culture was in Singapore. He told us to visit some hawker centres and as we did, we got hooked.
Though we visited a different hawker centre every evening, my favourite was Lau Pa Sat. Built in 1894 as a “wet market”, this huge food court still carries traces of the British rule with it’s Victorian filigree cast-iron brackets. It was nice to stroll around watching stall owners making stir-fries, carving fish, cutting fruits. It was fascinating to see a man shaving noodles from a block of dough into a large pot of simmering broth. As we sat down to a meal of Bak Kut Teh (a pork soup), Hokkein Mee (a kind of stew made of fried prawns, noodles, eggs, etc.), Singapore Chicken Rice (fragrant fluffy rice cooked with served with poached chicken), Baozi (stuffed steamed dumplings), sweet & salty braised duck and stir-fried greens it suddenly dawned on me that Singapore had a “Hawker Centre Culture” as well. There were some interesting unwritten unspoken rules being followed…
- Hawkers were offering their wares to diners but not aggressively (I was later told that anyone caught touting would face arrest!)
- One had to find a seating area before an order was placed. The hawker would ask you your table number so that he could send your food over.
- Every stall had a sign reading either A, B, C or D. The A stalls were the most frequented. However, these were not necessarily serving the best food. The “A” meant that they were hygienically the safest.
- If one found an empty table with a packet of tissues lying on it, it meant that someone had reserved it. That tissue packet was left untouched – leave alone stolen!
Another notable feature of Singaporean street food culture was the fondness for fresh fruits and fruit juices. Every food court held numerous stalls selling freshly cut fruit. As we saw sugarcane juice, the Mumbaikars in us awoke and we hurriedly decided to quench our thirst. However, the thick sugarcane is not as sweet as our Indian ones and we walked away a tad disappointed. However, the floral bubble teas (iced tea – milky or without milk – with tapioca pearls) proved to be good enough.
Another one of my favourite hawker centres was Newton market. Several of the stalls here were pretty famous and I liked it best because I finally got a chance to eat the famous Singaporean Chilli Crab. Judging by the generous helpings of sambal we were given everywhere, I had expected chilli crab to be a burst of chilli but that wasn’t the case. It was more garlic and soya sauce. Though the chilli flavour was not upto it’s mark, I found the crab itself delicious. All the seafood for that matter was fresher than any I have seen anywhere in the world. The crabs were huge and as I tucked into them I forgot everything – even my friends who sat across the table staring at me, trying to get my attention. Only when I had managed to do justice to the crab did I notice them silently scowling at me.
All I could do was appease their anger by treating them to more food like Popiah (fresh spring rolls made of crepes), Nonya (laksa – introduced by the many Malaysians residing here), Fried Squid, Rojak (a sweet salt spicy crunchy salad of vegetables and fruits) and the famous Carrot Cake – which is devoid of carrots – it’s actually made of preserved radish, glutinous rice, garlic and scallions. We washed these down with Chinese herbal tea infused with rosebuds and lavender.
On leaving the hawker centre we went to the Kinokuniya bookstore – easily the largest and best in the world with literally lakhs of books on sale. Their cookbook section alone featured more than 20,000 books further proving Singapore’s love for food.
As we returned to the beautiful black and white heritage bungalow which was The Song of India, to dine on the comforting Indian food made by Chef Manju and his team, a lot more of Singapore was still waiting to be explored….