Most of what I know about Singapore I learned from the Season 3 episode of No Reservations and from an offhand comment by my former boss, who compared it to Dallas. While I avoid Dallas whenever possible, the thought of holidaying in an English-speaking, very first world locale held some comfort. Just think of the clean toilets and bathroom soaps! The hassle-free shopping and transportation! Absence has done its whole “fonder” thing when it comes to these things…
Before leaving, I asked a friend from college and Expat Edna for advice on what to see, eat, and do in the city-state, and boy did they deliver. I sketched out a checklist of their suggestions that I carried around with me the whole time, trying to fit in as many meals as possible into a short three-day holiday.
Rather than try to fit these meals into an enjoyable narrative, I’m just going to post pictures of them in the order that they were consumed, because honestly? That’s how I remember the trip in my head.
If you’ve been following the extent of this trip, you’ll know we ran into many, many mishaps along the way. Well, that was not to change in Singapore. The only difference was that I actually captured the moment that triggered this leg of our trip’s demise: Andy ordering some evil, poisoned Japanese food from the Lau Pa Sat Hawker Centre our first night out.
That’s the poisoned meal in the back, there. I ordered the Indonesian yellow curry that came with rice and delicious veggie dipping chips.
This is a good time to tell you all about Hawker Centers (Centres, whatever). Back in the day, Singapore, like every other city in Southeast Asia, was home to lots of individual culinary entrepreneurs selling all sorts of delicious, specialized, well-honed cuisine from mobile food carts. However, Singapore is unlike most of the other cities (countries) in the area, in that it likes things spic-and-span. Sidewalks clear. People here. Cars there. Food? Well, it can’t be on the streets…
So the Hawker Center was born. These magical places dotting the island are full of all of the best street food and hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurant offerings in the world in one central location, with organized trash pick-up and sinks for washing your hands before chowing down. As I understand it, vendors rent the space (from the city?) in the center, and anyone can open a stand.
Hawker centers provide a great, viable alternative to the fast food culture so prevalent in most of the developed world. Think about how cool it would be if on your lunch break or between errands you could find all of your favorite food cart and taco stand offerings in one place. I would love to see this model implemented in the US.
Edna gave me some great advice for tackling these places with all of their overwhelming options: order your food from the stand with the longest line. It definitely worked for me. Unfortunately, Andy was not so lucky…
On the dawn of our second day, it was clear that Andy was going to be spending his time in the hotel room, close to the bathroom. Since I am a terrible person, I left him there in his misery to go eat more. First on the agenda? The Malaysian/Singaporean breakfast feat of kaya toast, soft-boiled eggs and kopi.
Kaya toast, pictured above, was the Malaysian reaction to the Brits’ toast with jam. Thin slices of toast sandwich a sweet, eggy, coconut spread that is sometimes served with butter for extra richness. I liked eating the center of the toast and dipping the crusts in the soft-boiled eggs topped with soy sauce.
This here is kopi, a sweet, rich, thick coffee drink. I’m still unclear on how it’s made. From my observations, the maker (barista?) pours a thick syrup that looks like coffee from a tin pot into a cup and then tops it with a lighter liquid that looks like brewed coffee. While I normally take my coffee black or with milk only, I really liked kopi — it had a great mouthfeel and felt perfect to drink in the cold air-conditioning on a humid day. I had five cups in my three days in Singapore.
For lunch, I sauntered over to the Newton Hawker Center to try yet another Singaporean specialty, Char Kway Teow. I went here on the recommendation of a from a college buddy who has been dividing his time between Jakarta and Singapore in his professional life. Basically, this dish is rice noodles sautéed with soy sauce, bean sprouts, garlic chives, chiles, shrimp paste, and various seafood bits. It was like a seafood-drenched Pad See Ew (ผัดซีอิ๊ว) without the added sugar that most Thai cooks can’t resist throwing in last minute. I identified shrimp and mussels as part of the seafood combo in this dish, but my favorite bit was completely foreign. I have no idea what the toothsome, salty chunks in this pile of food were that I loved so much.
I didn’t get a picture of the chili crab, one of Singapore’s famous specialties, before I devoured a full two servings by myself in the Old Airport Road Hawker Center. While everyone I talked to about Singapore told me to go to either Jumbo’s or Long Beach for an authentic crab experience, I couldn’t bring myself to eat a $60 crab by myself while Andy lay sick in bed. Edna’s list yet again came to my rescue, and I sought out her recommendation for a budget crab.
Mattar BBQ sold me this giant plate of crab covered in a sweet, spicy chili sauce for $26. It came with two plates, two sets of chopsticks, two spoons, and two individually packaged wet ones which I made full use of all by myself. I had no idea how to eat it, and judging by all the stares I got while tackling it, I’m guessing I wasn’t supposed to break chunks open with my hands or use a chopstick like a pick axe. I felt like a ravaged cave woman, tearing into the legs and sucking out bits between the shells. It was excellent, and I don’t know how it could have tasted better.
This is the chicken part of the regionally famous dish for which everyone has a favorite vendor and a tendency to fight about who does it best. This is the one and only Haianese chicken rice, a dish that leads families to feud and friends to tear each other to pieces. Like barbecue in Texas, Haianese chicken rice is sacred in Singapore.
I met up with some Singaporean cousins of one of my very best college buddies for this meal. Not only were these girls super sweet and generous, they picked a restaurant, ordered for me, and told me how to eat it and what I was supposed to be experiencing every step of the way. When all was said and done, they refused to let me pick up the tab (or even pay my share) and guided me around the city for an afternoon. Though I was stuffed on the fabulous chicken rice, stir-fried greens, soup, and lemon tea, they stopped at every relevant foodie place along the way and loaded me down with more treats.
I also drank some beer. Specifically, a $15 Stone Ruination IPA. Yes, that’s super expensive, but I’ve learned something about myself while living abroad, and that is that I love American craft beers. I could let go of bread, cheese, and pizza forever (the things most expats in Chiang Mai seem to crave) without batting an eye, but there is no equivalent, no rival, no match, no substitute for lovingly brewed, flavorful American beer.
Kind of related: the convenience store near our hotel sold Lone Star Light cans, which are hard to find even in Texas. Too bad I don’t like it…
Look. I’m a 25-year-old American. It had to happen sooner or later. In fact, I’m sort of embarrassed it took so long to peruse a Hooter’s menu. Whatever way you look at it, $15 a beer was unsustainable for anything more than one drink, and Hooter’s had pints of Tiger for $8. To be honest, I was expecting a little bit more attention from the waitresses, but given the expensive looking clothing of every other person on the deck, I can’t blame them.
Andy says that the description for ham and cheese sandwiches has not changed since he was a little boy. His father’s family is very enthusiastic about the restaurant as his step-mom worked there for years, and I felt like I needed to go experience it for myself. I think I was expecting something bawdier; Hooter’s, it seems, is actually quite the family-friendly establishment.
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