The first thing I asked the cab driver as we were going from Changi Airport to our hotel on Bencoolen street, the business district of Singapore, was, ‘What is the best Singaporean food according to you?’
He said, ‘We eat our problems with breakfast.’ And then maintained a silence but then after a while he smiled and said, ‘You must not miss Kaya Toast and our kopi or coffee for you. The best breakfast in the whole world.’
Well, morning was still a night and half a day away, so after freshening up, the two of us (Specky, that is my wife and I) decided to move out and do some preliminary exploration. The first fact as we stepped out on the streets was that there were no kiosks, stall, and thelas selling street food. So I asked a passer-by, ‘We’re looking for some nice place to eat but we wanted to explore the street food first. Does this place have only restaurants and cafes?’
‘No, no, not at all. We all go to the Hawker Centre when we want a medley of street food,’ this man said, and then added, ‘We are a disciplined country and so all street sellers have their outlet in one of the many Hawker Centres that you will find everywhere. There is one less than hundred yards from here. And, by the way, we Singaporeans love to have six meals a day!’ And so we went to this Hawker Centre that wasn’t far and yes, the place had all the aromas of great Singaporean delights coming from every direction. In fact, the stalls there had just as many colours in the food pictures as the food was. There were tables laid in a central aisle and the centre had aisle after aisle full of stalls with fascinating stuff to taste… yes, floor over floor. ‘And this is just one,’ murmured Specky, visibly impressed. I reminded her of what Jose Andres Puerta had written in a review: ‘I was very impressed with the street food of Singapore. I was very impressed with the dishes that they did.’ On our first afternoon in Singapore we managed to taste a few really exotic looking rice and noodle dishes with chicken and lamb pieces thrown in liberally. Tiger beer seemed to be more popular than even water or any other beverage at this time. By the way, I asked a man having his fifth pint and he looked at me and in a clear voice without a slur, replied, ‘A tiger will not lower itself to merely catch a small lizard. I love this beer.’ He later told me that what he had quoted was a Malay proverb. He also informed me that Singapore had a population that had Tamils, Malays, Chinese and over the years they have also tended to marry into each other’s community and so for them, Singapore has adopted a Malay term ‘peranakan’ which means ‘locally born’ also refers to other communities that developed in Southeast Asia like the Chitty Melaka and Jawi Peranakans.
But we are on food in Singapore and so here I must relate what the Singaporean Minister for MCYS Dr Vivian Balakrishnan was asked by MP Dr Lily Neo in April 2007: ‘Is it too much to ask for just 3 meals a day as an entitlement for the PA recipients?’ His answer was what I think, a real classic response, ‘How much do you want? Do you want 3 meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?’ The Singaporean loves his food and it isn’t a matter of quantity always, there is a real eclectic taste in everything that is available everywhere. Yes, it is the hawker centres, the food courts in malls, and the restaurants that may have different ambience and may serve you in varying ways, but the taste is not something that any of them snatches from each other. All these places have a charm of their own… and at different times and in different moods, you love them all. We loved our interaction with Singaporean delights in the Hawker Centres. We also loved them at the Cze Chas and the other formal places of eating. It was an experience to eat Hokkien Mee that transforms egg and rice noodles with its liberal garnish of pork, chicken, prawns, fish cake, leafy greens, deep fried shallots, spring onions etc into a gastronomical surprise! The Roti prata with its literally zero thickness layers in the open air eateries comes as a redemption any day. The Chai Tow Kway or carrot cake is unbeatable and we even had it packed for our midnight snack at the hotel!
One of the five days that we spent in Singapore, I remember we just ambled into a not-so-big but stylish looking place called New York Fusion Tapas & Bar and probably had the best Tuna Avocado, a dish made with yellow fin tuna with lemon avocado. Before I forget, let me also add that you get the best wines here and the beer has a lasting effect on the palate. As Anthony Bourdain has remarked, ‘Nobody in Singapore drinks Singapore Slings. It’s one of the first things you find out there. What you do in Singapore is eat. It’s a really food-crazy culture, where all of this great food is available in a kind of hawker-stand environment.’ So there you are… but let me also tell you that we did try the Singaporean Sling but learned later that we tried it at the wrong place… and obviously, we weren’t impressed.
Food and Singapore go together. The waiter at one restaurant pithily remarked, ‘Anything that walks, swims, crawls, or flies with its back to heaven is edible.’ And believe me, people here are fascinated by food and would quote some or the other Cantonese or Teochew or Malay or even Tamil proverb to prove their point.
Well, before my readers remind me to talk about my Singaporean breakfast, let add here that the Kopi and the Kaya Toast were fabulous. The coffee is really strong and helps you leave the café with your eyes wide open even if you’ve had a late night. As any Singaporean would have reminded us with this Malay proverb that their Kopi is what keeps them going, ‘If you plant grass, you won’t get rice.’
Before I talk of any other food experience, let me hurriedly talk about one evening as we sat in a waterside restaurant near the Merlion, we ordered for Lobster Porridge, Charcoal grilled Chicken and Egg Rice bowl, and rice in Bonito soup and were struggling with chopsticks. The old kind-hearted waiter looked at us with a twinkle in his eyes and helped us with the basics. He later jokingly reminded us of some Hokkien proverb that went: ‘If you cannot swim, don’t say that your balls are heavy,’ and then added, ‘but if you learn and persist, you will swim across oceans.’
I’m sure many of you are aware that Singapore has its own brand of China Town as well as ‘Little India’. It was in Little India that I read this Tamil proverb in a restaurant selling all that we had already tasted in India: ‘Money in the hand is dosa in the mouth.’ So you see, the Singaporean psyche is fond of getting back to a gastronomic world in whatever they do or say.
We experienced a lot of food and even came back with Bee Cheng Hiang Prawn Rolls to let the ambience roll on for a few more days. As the Teochew proverb goes: ‘The big fish sees the mountain top, the small fish sees the big fish.’
25 March 2015