SINGAPORE -- Like Milwaukee, Singapore is a melting pot. Both cities have diverse populations that bring with them a wide array of delicious foods. I thought I'd clue you in on some of the great local food found here and also let you know what a displaced Milwaukeean would be able to dig up to be reminded of home.
"Melting pot" is an overused term, but it is very appropriate for both Milwaukee and Singapore. Milwaukee has its deep-rooted German, Irish, Italian, Polish, Slavic and Hispanic communities, and Singapore has Chinese, Malay, Indian, Peranakan, Eurasian populations, plus tens of thousands of people from all around the world.
Singapore is a tiny 270 square mile island nation with about 5 million people. While it's much bigger than Milwaukee, Singapore is small compared to gigantic Asian cities like Hong Kong, Jakarta, Manila and Shanghai. It's a clean place where you can drink tap water and eat food from virtually any outlet – from five-star snobberies to the very local "Hawker Centres." You can't do that in the aforementioned cities without risking some serious gastro issues (as I can personally attest to). The diverse blend of people has created a great array of foods in both places.
They say there are really only two things to do in Singapore: shop and eat. I'm not much of a shopper so I opt for the latter. I could easily live well (and die young from cardiac arrest) if I only ate at Hawker Centres. Hawker Centres are food courts, but unlike U.S. food courts populated with fast food chains, these Centres are made up of stalls, each owned and operated by local folk, moms and pops or pops and sons and daughters.
Each stall makes and sells one or maybe a few specific dishes. You will not find any McDonald's, KFCs or Taco Bells at these places. What you will find is fried Kway Teow, Roti Prata, carrot cake, Bah Kut The, Hokkien Mee, fish ball soup, chicken rice, duck rice, pig trotter and Ban Mian, to name but a few. You can also get drinks like fresh sugar cane juice, bandung, barley milk teh, haliah and fresh soya milk with syrup. Of course, beer is always available, too, and usually in those nice quart sized bottles.
I'm happy to describe a few of the dishes and will also be pleased to direct you to some great sites if you want to investigate more.
Carrot cake is one of my faves. I'm not talking about the sweet, moist dessert with the cream cheesy frosting and those cute little orange sugary carrot shapes on each slice. I'm talking fried radish cake here. Daikon radish with rice flour, stir fried with eggs, spring onion, a few little chunks of fat, some secret seasonings and some very, very hot Singapore chili sauce (optional). You can have it white or black. For the black they add some thick, sticky dark soy to give it a sweet and spicy flavor. When made in a giant wok and cooked just right the carrot cake is both crispy and moist and has an amazing flavor. Cost for more than I can eat – about $3. Carrot cake, Asian style, comes from Teowchew cuisine from Chaosan, China.
One of the most popular dishes in Singapore is roti prata. This tasty doughy, fried pancake is made like a small pizza pie on a very hot, flat grill. The dough is stretched thin, placed on the grill with lots of ghee (clarified butter), then folded inward to form it. It can have fillings like egg, onion, mutton (mutton in Asia is goat, by the way), cheese and even honey, chocolate or ice cream. It is eaten with a delectable curry sauce. Plain prata go for about $1 so it is easy to pop in several and get a full tummy for a low price. Roti Prata comes from South India via Malaysia. It is also great to wash them down with a teh haliah (pulled ginger tea) or teh tarik (pulled milk tea). On special occasions I like to have mine with a cold, refreshing mango lassi.
Last one for today known as the national dish of Singapore: chicken rice, also known as Hainanese chicken rice. Before moving here when I'd think of chicken rice, I would think of Campbell's soup or some boring dish mom would make when she had no idea what to make. Those bad memories caused me to avoid Singapore chicken rice here for years. I always thought it looked plain and boring. Why order that when there all these cool, exotic things to eat? When I finally broke down I realized how this simple dish can really be spectacular.
The chicken rice stalls can be spotted because of the whole cooked chickens hanging in the front. Order a plate and the guy slices up the boiled chicken (deboned at the better stalls) lays out on a big mound of rice, adds a few slices of cucumber and a bowl of soup. Looks dull. What you don't realize until you dig in is that the chicken is boiled in pork/chicken stock for a long time. The chickens are older, meatier and oilier and come out with a very rich flavor. The rice is also cooked in this stock giving it a savory, oily (in a good way) taste.
The next key to good chicken rice are the three dipping sauces that come with it. The first is a sweet sticky soy sauce, second is a super hot red, wet, chili sauce and the third is a pounded ginger-garlic sauce. Everyone has a method of eating their chicken rice. Some mix the sauces together first and then dip. Some only like one or two of the sauces and others just eat it sans sauce. Me? I usually pour some of the soup on the rice (as if it needs more salt, fat and chicken flavor, then I pour some of each sauce on the chicken and the rice). Result: a savory bite with some sweet, hot and tangy infusions. It really is amazing. A big old plate of chicken rice (expat-sized serving) is about $4 at most stalls. Freshly crushed sugar cane juice, with a squeeze of lemon is a great accompaniment to this special dish.
Next blog, I'll talk about what a Milwaukeean would do to get that feeling of home here when it comes to food ...