Thursday, January 19, 2012

Back in Singapore, a rich country, and now food is not just something you have to do

I had no idea! So Singapore is multicultural, sure, and you've got Indians, Chinese, Malays, Japanese, Indonesians, Arabs, Westerners, and all sorts of smaller groups mixing it up. And they all bring their best food.

A popular place to eat in Singapore is a "hawker center", which is like a food court of dozens of very specialized stands. Often the center as a whole will have a theme (like "Indian food" or "seafood"), but you might go to one stand for biryani, a different one for North Indian curry, and still another for the Singapore-created murtabak. Of course, drinks and desserts demand a stall each. This is the ideal method of food production: everyone does a couple things very very well. And it is usually quite cheap.

Here are some things that I ate:
- the aforementioned murtabak, a heavy omelet-bready thing from India. Take paratha to the extreme. Hope you're hungry.
- char kway teow, wide noodles.
- mee soto, spicy spaghetti-like noodles.
- hokkien mee, more savory noodles with shrimp.
- black carrot cake. Not a dessert, more like a sweet omelet.
- white carrot cake, more savory and less sweet than the black.
- satay, marinated grilled meat on sticks with peanut sauce.
- kaya toast, toast with sweet coconutty jelly.
- chicken rice. Chicken with rice.
- laksa, a coconut curry with noodles.
- popiah, unfried spring rolly things with some kind of pickled cabbage.
- chili crab, the "national dish". A lot of the meat falls into the sauce, which you eat with delicious buns. Not actually spicy; actually delicious.
- cereal prawns, big shrimp with crunchy cereal flakes. Why not, I suppose.
- stingray! Now here is a winner. It is like the most tender richest beef, with a wonderful thick spicy-sweet sauce.
- frogs. Like really tender chicken in a thick soy/scallion sauce, served with porridge.
- durian ais kacang, a big snow cone with some sort of creamy durian topping.
- cendol, sort of like a coconut snow cone, with some pickled green thing and sweet beans. Sweet beans.
- bubur cha cha, warm coconut soup with various things.
- peanut/sesame pudding.
- matcha shirataki crepe. A bit of Japanese there too.
- barley water, which is a little sweet and a lot tastier than it sounds.
- coffee. Thick and so black that the copious condensed milk doesn't change its color.
- grass jelly drink, which is maybe the least sweet thing I had, and thank god.
- teh tarik, like a Thai iced tea.
and let's not forget:
- fresh durian. The king of fruits! It's been a couple years since I had it fresh, and even then, I didn't crack it open myself. Wonderfully pungent, creamy, and sweet. Dangerously spiky, hard to carry through a crowd, and don't eat it with alcohol or you might have a stroke.

My friend Nick gave me a checklist, telling me I couldn't leave without trying chicken rice, char kway teow, murtabak, popiah, and laksa. This was quite helpful in narrowing down my choices, so let me make a list of my own, in case you're headed there anytime soon: stingray, laksa, hokkien mee, cendol, and by god a fresh durian. But you can't go wrong.

Nothing seemed particularly healthy; it's all meat, noodles, and sugar. And I can't see myself cooking this stuff a lot. But where it falls short health-wise, it makes up with taste in spades. Singapore will make you wish there were twice as many meals in a day.

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