Thursday, November 03, 2011
You can't go to Singapore and not eat at food halls. This is both because it's a cultural touchpoint and a Quintessential Experience, and because it is practical: Singapore is an expensive-ass place and food hall meals tend to be at least cheapish.
There are a lot of them, and some are renowned for a certain speciality, some are beloved by tourists, and some you stumble across in little back-alley neighborhoods. I am of the opinion that you can get pretty good food in all of them if you've got a nose - Chowhound.com and a cursory Google hunt are all you need to find the good stuff.
Further, as insofar as I can determine Singaporeans don't actually cook, food halls are usually great spots for people watching, as people of every imaginable ethnicity chat, bicker, and pontificate over large portions of....just about everything. You can get anything from Mexican food to Bengali food to New York cheesecake at the largest of these institutions, but it's the street dishes you should be looking out for.
We paid a visit to the Lau Pau Sat Festival Market nearish to Raffles Quay, which is set in a gracious old building and is a big favorite with power-lunchers from nearby high-rises and office buildings who are the mood to slum it. I was looking for a couple specific Singapore dishes and zeroed in on the Char Kway Teow hawker stand roughly in the middle of the hall, which had a couple of classics on tap....
I would like to disabuse the general public of the notion that Singapore carrot cake has anything to do with carrots or cake, or cupcakes, or dessert. This curiously named street food dish par-excellence is in fact sliced radish cake, stir-fried with sweet soy sauce, egg, and onions, in the "black" variant - a soy-sauce free variant exists that is called, shockingly enough, "white." It's a bit odd at first to the Western palate, but I've developed a real liking for the stuff and consider it a first-rate breakfast meal.
This is a Singapore-style oyster omelet with a bit of onion, and it's a nice greasy, salty, slightly funky bite - perhaps best avoided if you're not already the kind of person who goes nuts for oysters (me) and to be sought out if you are (me). Singapore has a way with grease for a place with such an at times noxiously squeaky-clean reputation.
Oysters have a dodgy reputation just about everywhere in Asia - my family had to stare me down from eating one the other day in Cambodia, but I like to live dangerously. However, Singapore is a place with food safety standards, and, even more pleasingly, graded ratings placed in prominent positions behind every food stalls counter, which makes your choices easier.
Then there's Singapore chicken rice, a classic breakfast in these parts, and really quite fiendishly simple: rice cooked in chicken stock served with boneless chicken (boiled or fried, most often boiled), a sweet soy sauce of some type and a hot chili sauce of another, and a bowl of chicken stock soup. It's just about the best thing possible for a weird stomach (and it will happen to you in Southeast Asia) and is available just about everywhere, usually at reasonable prices.
I like to get fresh fruit juices or sliced fruit for snacks on ridiculously hot days in Singapore. Thankfully, food halls are fully aware of how goddamn hot their homeland is, and getting a nice fresh electrolyte-loaded beverage is an easy matter. They'll mix your fruits for you or blend in some ice if you ask nicely. I also have a real thing for sweet fresh lime juice - they call it nimbupani in India, which is a delightful word - and it is easy to obtain here. Sugar cane juice is a bit cloying for my taste, but someone will happily press you some for a buck or two at the stalls: look for the guy with the sugar cane stalks. (I know, I give such useful, specific advice).
Finding out what is good and what is not at food halls is easy: who is being mobbed by hungry Singaporeans, and who is not? Rocket science, it isn't.