Food is one of life’s great groupie-makers. If you can share a meal with someone, you’re on the way towards some tolerance and respect.
This is partly what Singapore’s hawker culture is all about. Living with people from very different cultural backgrounds can be challenging especially when you have to stay so close to each other. The majority of people are Chinese, but many are Malay, Indian, or Eurasians and from other countries. Most stay in units called HDBs (for the Housing Development Board), and a hawker center is usually just a few healthy steps away.
What to eat Chicken rice is probably Singapore’s most famous food. It’s a safe-enough starting point for people who may be wary about spicy stuff. You can get some chili sauce if you get the urge to be adventurous.
The chicken itself is very, very tender, with smooth and tasty skin. The sauce adds just the right amount of kick, and there’s the sliced cucumber underneath that serves as a foil to the taste. Do give the chili a try. Lather your chicken with it, then eat it together with the rice. The rice is such an important part of the whole package and is cooked in chicken broth, giving a much richer experience.
You may want to hold off on any drinks, so that you can continue to enjoy the chicken on its own. After that, flush everything down with a glass of water chestnut for a very calming and cooling effect.
Chicken Rice: $3.80
Water Chestnut drink: $1.40
The seafood feast Once in a while, you do get that feeling that there’s something to celebrate and you have to eat something really special. Some think they have to go far for their seafood fix. Fortunately, a good seafood dinner doesn’t have to be too far away with the hawker centers. This one was just, er, ten minutes away from where I live.
Crabs are special just the way they are. Their shape and rich, orange color once cooked give you a hint that this isn’t a run-of-the-mill meal. There is also the ritual of sorts that comes with crab. You have to crack the shells to get to that succulence which is the white meat inside. It’s a good sign of a healthy crab if the shell is hard.
A note for people into the thick, orange and utterly craze-inciting crab fat: Singaporeans aren’t into female crabs where this stuff is found. The locals are into male crabs with their mega-macho pincers. You can order the plain boiled or black pepper crab, but you should try the salted egg crab where the whole animal is coated in the salted egg stuff.You will have a wonderful time licking the shell. This is definitely not the time to be “proper.” Use the fingers.
Another reason for the fingers is the cereal prawn. You can choose to spoon the cereal into your mouth and lick it off the prawn before you peel off the skin. Some people actually eat the skin and with the cereal stuck to it. You can also take the peeled prawn and eat it with the cereal in one spoon.
Since Asians are fond of rice, this is where the fried rice comes in. Sweet, succulent shrimp is usually part of the package, as is scrambled eggs, carrots and pepper. Honestly, you can just live on this stuff and this is a whole meal on its own.
Rounding up this particular meal is the stir-fried baby kailan. With all the rich stuff, it’s good to have something that tastes good but is able to help you flush everything out eventually.
Salted Egg Crab: $40.00
Cereal Prawn: $20.00
Stir-Fried Baby Kailan: $6.00
Fried Rice: $6.00
Other stuff to try Hop on a cab and ask the driver to take you to the hawker center in Bedok Block 85. They know the place. The place is famous for bakchormee. There are three stalls there, and the locals may have a favorite stall. Prepare to wait, though. The stuff is cooked fresh and normal waiting time is around 35 minutes. Use that time to get some oyster omelette and satay. Satay comes in different types, but normally it’s chicken, beef or mutton. It also comes with this rich, tasty peanut sauce that is just asking to be spooned in your mouth.
Oh, 35 minutes up already? The bakchormee comes with flavorful chewy noodles, not the instant noodle kind. They slide smoothly in your mouth as you slurp. The meat balls are just the right texture and have the right amount of seasoning and flavor.
What to remember Many Singaporeans don’t cook, so whole families make their way to these places to eat. But it isn’t always families. There are couples and best buds. Some places will have the Barclays Premier League on, so expect a bit of the noise.
Singaporeans have gotten used to living with one another, and respectful distance and tolerance is part of the experience. Live and let live, observe how the locals do things, and do enjoy your grub — and there really is so much to enjoy here.
Best Seller One of the usual best ways to end a tiring day at work or play is a bowl of bakkutteh. This is pig ribs served in a rich soup fl avored with garlic. Some places will have huge cloves of very soft and smooth garlic that you just have to eat on its own. The one pictured here has another approach – let the garlic dissolve in the soup after hours of simmering. The meat is very tender and will slide off obediently from the bone with a soft bite. Enjoy it with some bread or white rice.
There’s also fried kwayteow. This is made of flat rice noodles with a healthy dose of cockles, prawns, bean sprouts and chives. It can look blah in terms of presentation but the taste definitely is not. The thing is cooked fresh and you can even watch as the thing is done.
The Chili Sauce
The Singapore diet has its little helpers – that’s chili and chili sauce. You can usually ask for chili padi and that means the chili itself sliced into little pieces. Remember: The chili’s heat is found more in the seeds.
The Singtel Comcentre Canteen
The SingTel ComCentre is famous not only for the latest mobile phones and for being the headquarters of Singapore Telecommunications, but also for having one of the best places to eat in this part of town.
The food is really quite good and ranges from Chinese to Indian to Malay cuisine. There’s chicken rice (of course), noodles, even Western food. One of the main reasons people come here, though, is the price. In the Orchard Road or Somerset area, a normal plate of chicken rice is around $5. Here, expect things to be $2.50 or $3. If you’re spending $5 (including drinks), you’re already splurging. SingTel guys get a discount if they show their staff pass.