Eating Singapore Again
I hope that I have given your stomach something to rumble about in my first instalment. In this take, more good food will be placed on the table for your culinary enjoyment.
Most of these foods are popular enough to be found in hawker centres (an open-air congregation of food stalls), food courts (hawker centres brought indoors and set in the comfort of air-conditioning) and coffee shops (eateries occupied by numerous stalls serving breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Locals call them "ko-pi-tiam?" (pronounced co-pee-tee-alm).
Whether you are an armchair food lover, an expatriate looking forward to a stint here or a curious visitor, this article will give you more reasons to put aside your diet plans for the moment and just eat.
What is what
I cannot believe it if you opt for meat and potatoes everyday in your visit here. But I will understand if you feel slightly overwhelmed by the options put in front of you with seemingly tongue-twisting names. Well, to help you pick what you put into your mouth, here is a short guide to the different kinds of carbohydrates you can choose.
You are in Asia and Asians eat rice. Lots of it. Whether Chinese, Malay or Indian, you can find rice as a staple. Malays call rice "nasi", so "nasi goreng" is a kind of fried rice served usually with lots of deep fried herring also known as "ikan bilis". Chinese fried rice, on the other hand, can come fried with prawns, pieces of Chinese sausage, ham, carrot cubes and countless different varieties.
These are usually used by Chinese, and come in very fine strips known as "bee hoon" or flat strips named "kway tiao". Both varieties are white in colour, and are generally tasteless on their own. However, they sort of come alive after some fiery frying or when immersed in tasty soup.
These are mostly yellow options as a result of eggs added in them and they come in various shapes too. Noodles are called "mee" here. "Mee pok" is flat, and arguably the favourite among locals. "Mee gia" literally translates to "little noodles", and points to the thin, spaghetti look-alike types. Green noodles are prepared with cabbage/lettuce and has a stronger veggie after-taste to it.
It is okay if you cannot remember the names; the hawker will understand sign language if you point. Just tell him if you want it dry or served in soup, and if chilli is right for you.
And now for the dishes...
Name: Economy rice
What it is:
Although this dish sounds cheap, there is certainly no compromise on flavour or portions. This is a great option if you are starving, but is still on the search for variety. Economy rice is basically rice topped with several options of meats and vegetables. I recommend steamed egg, chicken fried in prawn sauce (also known as "har-jiong" chicken), squid cooked in sambal chilli, and lots of vegetables.
Spot stalls selling economy rice when you see trays and trays of meat and vegetables stacked on top of each other in a bid for your attention. The explosion of colour and aroma and the generally messy look is genuinely attractive.
Name: Laksa (pronounced "luck-sa")
What it is:
This is definitely one of the most formidable local dishes. Thick rice noodles are drowned in a powerful and thick soup of spices, laksa leaves, coconut milk and of course, chilli. Although the gravy resembles curry, I guarantee this will be something totally different from what you have tasted. The spices complement the aroma of coconut milk. And assortments like clams, "tou-pok" (a relation of tofu actually) and pieces of fish complete the exotic taste.
A variant called "Penang Laksa" (because it is from Penang, Malaysia) tastes quite different. In this cousin, the "Assam" taste so frequently found in Thai food is played up, giving birth to a taste that is much more sour and sweeter.
Name: Hainanese Chicken Rice
What it is:
This is arguably one of the signature dishes of my country. Whole chickens are boiled in a stock solution of oil, garlic and other secret formulas. They are then cut, placed on top of a plate of steaming chicken rice (rice cooked with garlic, oil, and the stock from boiling chickens), and sprinkled with drops of sesame oil. The meal is completed with a special chilli sauce meant for bringing out the chickens' flavour.
If you are particular, you can specify which parts, e.g. breast meat, thigh or wings, you desire. Get some vegetables to balance the meal; they are usually boiled greens topped with fragrant oyster sauce.
What it is:
Here, porridge is prepared by boiling rice in water to create a thick white broth. Sounds easy. But among the Chinese in Singapore, porridge preparation is a skill that demands perfect timing. If the chef makes a mistake and overcooks the concoction, he gets rice instead of porridge! Boiling ingredients like fish, squid and pig's liver for too long makes them rubbery and impossible to chew too.
There is a great variety of porridge to choose from. The mixture of century egg and lean pork is my favourite. You can always aim for fish, cuttlefish, beef, egg, pig's organs (including liver, kidney and blood cubes. I apologise if you feel nauseous, but believe me, they taste good).
Due to our hot weather, I advise you not to eat this in the heat of the afternoon. Instead, go for this as a light brunch or dinner, or something to warm your guts in a chilly rainy day. Of course, if you are suitably cooled in an air-conditioned premise, you can eat this whenever you fancy.
Name: Tau Hu Goreng
What it is:
If you are a fan of tofu, you must have a bite of how the Malays give a fantastic flavour to this bland material! "Tau Hu" is a localised pronunciation of tofu, and "goreng" means "fried" in Malay, which pretty much describes the method of preparation of this delicious dish. Cubes of fried tofu retain a soft and white interior while the golden brown outer layer holds them together. Specially made gravy consisting ground peanuts and sugar is poured generously over the tofu. Fresh bean sprouts balance the relatively oily flavour.
Name: Nasi Lemak (pronounced "nah-see le-mark")
What it is:
Quite simply, this is rice cooked in coconut milk and then served wrapped in banana leave for additional fragrance. Nasi lemak is found in both Malay (the originators of this dish) and Chinese stalls. The side items vary greatly according to price and location of the stall.
If you are taking nasi lemak in a comfortable air-conditioned food-court, expect to pay more (even twice of) than the tag for a meal in an ordinary coffee shop. Usually, you will get a healthy serving of herring known as ikan bilis, which are fried in chilli and sugar, and accompanied by peanuts for extra "oomph". You can also expect eggs, fried chicken wings, "otah" (pieces of spicy, barbequed fish wrapped in banana leaves), cucumbers and anything the stallholder is game for additions.