The chicken rice (above) is truly a great thing. A seemingly simple dish, the chicken is boiled and the rich stock that results is used to cook the accompanying rice. It’s a dish that Singapore is known for, and the chicken rice we had there was far better than any we’ve had elsewhere. The sauces served with the dish – sweet soy sauce, garlic, and ginger – are not to be missed. When people talk about Singapore, they jump straight to the food. As you can imagine, I took that as an irrefutable sign that it was a place I would love. But what I didn’t know is that in Singapore, the story of its food is sewn so lovingly into its history that the two are irrefutably linked.
The street food, in particular, has an amazing history. And thanks to the exhibit on food at the National Museum of Singapore, we got a crash course. Most interesting of all (according to the museum’s exhibit) is that the popularity of street food got its start in the 1860s when the ration of men to women was 10:1 in Singapore. The hawker business evolved to feed all of those hungry men but even when all of those ladies returned, it was such an important part of the way of life that it just stuck.
In recent years, the government moved all of the once-outdoor stalls into designated hawker centers where they could be regulated for clean cooking conditions and water. (This was particularly appealing to me after the past year in Bangkok where you always have the sense that you’re rolling the dice with your well-being when eating from street vendors.)
Although the hawker centers are a tiny bit less charming than discovering a fantastically original moving food cart on the street, they make up for it with convenience and concentration. On our first day in Singapore, we were caught in a late afternoon downpour and popped into the first mall we passed on the main shopping thoroughfare – Orchard Road. We found ourselves in the mix of hungry Singaporeans facing nearly 100 dining options.
After a lap or two through the busy food center, we both settled on a spot boasting the “best” (it seems that every vendor claims to have the best of something) noodles with minced pork. I ordered mine topped with homemade wontons. The entire dish was tossed in chili paste and soy sauce, giving it a spicy, salty flavor that went perfectly with the fresh egg noodles.
The food of Singapore, it is beyond words. Flavorful and comforting and made by very particular techniques that are an art form in themselves. One of the most complex that we watched being made was this plate of char kway teow. The name means wok-fried noodles, but an order of this dish comes packed with more elements than I could even identify. It is sweet and savory, with a tiny bit of heat. Several types of noodles, egg and sausage are tossed in a sauce that is unbelievably complex for such a ubiquitous dish. As he fixed our plate of char kway teow in the largest wok I’ve ever seen, the vendor tossed and scooped no fewer than 5 types of liquid into the mix at particular times in the cooking process.
I am suspicious that I could eat char kway teow every day and never grow tired of it. My favorite dish of the trip though was one that snuck up on me. The dish is called “carrot cake”. Totally different than the Western dessert, this is a savory dish made up of stir-fried radish, carrot, egg, and a batter made of rice flour. The dish comes in a “white” form and a “black” form that includes a thick soy sauce. We had ours “white”, but it still came out with crisp, spicy bits from a sizable scoop of chili paste. It was rich and satisfying – with a bit of a doughy consistency from the rice flour batter.
Singapore impressed me in so many ways. It was without a doubt one of the more expensive places we have visited since moving to Asia. In prices for food and drink, Singapore makes Bangkok look like a steal.
Don’t even get me started on the $40 gin and tonic F was served at the famous expat hangout (and self-reported originator of the “Singapore Sling”) – Raffles hotel. Yes, that’s right – a $40 cocktail.
Despite the expense, I loved every minute of it. We will be saving our pennies for a return trip. Because on thing I can tell you one thing for sure – there is far more to do than we could squeeze into 72 hours.