Singapore Street Food

Christopher Hirsheimer

The island nation of Singapore has one of the most vital food cultures in the world. If Barcelona taxi drivers are passionate about soccer, Singapore cabbies wax rhapsodic about their favorite curry shops or the best places to buy barbecued stingray. If New York has the Village Voice, Singaporeans read a hip tabloid called the Food Paper—whose editor, Violet Oon, is one of the closest things the country has to a national celebrity. At the hotel where I'm staying, in response to an offhanded question, the concierge telephones several dozen people over the course of a week to try to find for me the new location of a fried-rice restaurant whose old spot was gentrified out of existence. (He is ultimately unsuccessful.) Nobody seems to find this diligence odd.

There are formal restaurants everywhere in Singapore—fancy Chinese establishments that rival the best of Hong Kong or Taipei; convincing replicas of Italian trattorias; swanky "Continental" places. I even once ate at a hotel restaurant here whose menu reproduced, at great expense, the food of Citrus in Los Angeles. But when food people talk about Singapore, what they mostly talk about—sometimes with the mystical awe and longing you might hear in surfers discussing the winter waves on Oahu's north shore—is the city's wealth of street food.

This being Singapore, of course, actual street food was outlawed long ago, its vendors taken off the city's byways and confined to government-regulated "hawker centers" or food courts—garlic-steeped monuments to multiculturalism and terrific Asian food, built into the first floors of apartment complexes and market buildings all over the city. (I've been told that a good hawker center actually increases the value of the apartments in the building above it.) There's at least one practical advantage to this arrangement: While eating street food in Bangkok or Djakarta can be a game of microbial Russian roulette, the hawker center stalls in Singapore operate under stringent health controls, and thus are unlikely to make you sick.

In these centers, Malaysian, Indian, and every brand of Chinese food are blended and reblended, bounced against the haute-cuisine pretensions of high-class Cantonese and European cooking, and filtered through the coarse cheesecloth of American fast food until the food courts seem to resemble something like the pure recombinant DNA of Pacific Rim cuisine.

You can find almost every kind of street food here that you'd find elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but there is somehow more of it, and it is overlaid with a strong preservationist streak. You might encounter, for instance, a fourth-generation hawker family that still makes a certain kind of Victorian-era Chinese noodle, brought over from a small town in Fujian or Hainan, that has probably been extinct on its native soil since the 1930s. You might also find snacks of a sort that, until three weeks earlier, were available only in a small town outside Shanghai.

Even nonfood attractions in Singapore tend to become indelibly identified with food that happens to be offered at hawker centers nearby—the Botanic Garden with the batter-fried, minced-mutton sandwich called roti john sold in the center at its entrance, for instance, or the East Coast beaches with a kind of noodle called laksa, served in a coconut milk-enriched curried soup.

Little India is thick with deity-encrusted Hindu temples, stores full of Madras cottons, and gilded portraits of the elephant god Ganesha surrounded by pulsing disco lights, but to Singaporeans "Little India'' is basically shorthand for the curry houses on Race Course Road. Here, some restaurants still serve food the old-fashioned way, on place mat-size "plates" cut from banana leaves. Diners use their hands to eat things like fish-head curry—big, grinning grouper heads, loaded with secret pockets of gelatinous meat, floating in giant bowls of tart, spicy tamarind broth.

There's something about the food in Singapore hawker centers—the fecund variety and volume and cheapness of the stuff—that turns mild-mannered hungry people into ravenous food sluts, trying to gobble everything in sight. Singaporeans even have a term for this gastronomic promiscuity—makan, a Malay word which literally means "to eat," but which always seems to me to have a strong suggestion of feeding frenzy about it.

The makan syndrome is to Singapore what the Ruskin swoon is to Florence and the Messiah complex to Jerusalem. You can see victims of makan sprees, both locals and tourists, wandering in a haze around the 100 or so stalls at the Chinatown Food Centre, lingering a little too long in the food court at Changi Airport, riding the subways to obscure housing-tract food centers renowned for, say, a dish of Chinese watercress fried with cuttlefish.

I'm as bad as any of them. Fifteen minutes after checking into my hotel, on my most recent visit to Singapore a few months ago, I head for a hawker center—one that is rumored to be particularly good, but that is scheduled to be closed down in the near future. (Hawker centers do tend to come and go in Singapore.) I want to sample its fare before it goes.

I walk along the city's Fifth Avenue-like main drag, Orchard Road, wondering idly whether the McDonald's franchises outnumber the Chanel boutiques, then turn down an alley and climb the stairs of something that resembles a deserted parking structure. I emerge into the Cuppage Food Centre, a vast, low-ceilinged concrete bunker flickering with the glow of a hundred cooking fires and acres of illuminated plastic. Here are satay stalls and noodle stalls and turtle-soup stalls, specialists in fried noodles and fresh-squeezed star-fruit juice. Here is the din of shouted conversation and dropped trays, the reek of fermented shrimp paste, and the heat—the oppressive heat—inevitably generated by 500 or so people jammed into a dark, poorly ventilated room at high noon near the equator.

I buy a glass of frothing green sugarcane juice, then move on to beef noodle soup; a plate of rice with fried Chinese watercress; a small pile of infamously smelly sataw beans fried with chiles; and best of all a plate of wonderful fried Hokkien mee—noodles with prawns, minced cuttlefish, a wallop of garlic, and a dose of the heroically stinky shrimp paste called blacan, all of it seasoned with a squirt from a tiny Malaysian lime. (Alive with the pungencies of both China and Southeast Asia, fried Hokkien mee is often considered the national dish of Singapore.) As I leave the place, I feel more than a small tinge of regret that the Cuppage won't be here the next time I'm in town.

But I'm not done yet. I head sort of randomly towards Chinatown, stopping at the Hill Street Food Centre (fried rice noodles with cockles, the turnip-stuffed crepes called popiah); the new food court behind the South Street Seaport-like Clarke Quay (quite edible bah kut teh, a spiced pork-rib soup); the old hawker center in Maxwell Road (fried Hokkien mee again); the People's Park Market (yong tau foo—several kinds of steamed bean curd stuffed with fish cake).

Finally, I climb two flights of stairs into the Chinatown Food Centre, one of the oldest and largest hawker centers in Singapore. The place is overwhelming, a massive room approximately as welcoming as an underground parking garage, ripe with the odor of blacan, fish skeletons, and sweat, and packed with a crush of bodies. There are what seem to be hundreds of stalls, most of them advertising their wares only as "cooked food." I take a place in the longest line. When I finally reach the front, I realize that I have been waiting at a stall that specializes in pig's intestine in many forms—boiled, fried, braised; intestines in soup; intestines to go. I hand the proprietor a few coins and he offers me a bowl of pig's-intestine noodles. I take only one bite of the stuff, and I'm suddenly fuller than I've ever been in my life. Shrimp paste and garlic are coming out of my pores. It is time to go back to the hotel.

On subsequent days, I travel to the Muslim market at Geylang Serai, where the chicken biryani is good enough to make you yelp with pleasure, and to the hawker center in the Redhill housing estate, where I encounter a superior dish of soft radish fried with egg and garlic—known in Singapore, oddly enough, as "carrot cake." I work my way methodically through the stalls at the Newton Circus Hawker Centre, probably the most famous with tourists visiting Singapore, and sample crisp oyster omelettes and grilled tiger prawns.

I mean to visit the historic reconstructed cast-iron market at Telok Ayer, but I find myself traveling instead to Silverstream, a sleek, glass-enclosed food court, at the Toa Payoh housing estate, that comes highly recommended. Here, I have excellent goat soup, duck thighs with rice, and the definitive Singapore rojak—a kind of salad of sliced pineapple, mango, jicama, and Chinese crullers, dusted with crushed peanuts and blanketed in a luscious, black sauce of sweet soy and just enough blacan to give it an edge.

On my last day in Singapore, I go to the Ellenborough Market, an enormous three-story center with sticky tile floors and Chinese flute music blaring out of long-blown speakers. The first two levels are mostly market stalls; on the third level is the cooked food. Ellenborough is less famous than many other hawker centers, partly because it's in a corner of Chinatown still not very well known by tourists, and partly because, unlike other centers, it is almost wholly given over to the foods of a single Chinese ethnic group: the Chaozhou, or Teochew, Chinese.

I eat Teochew cake (a thin, crisp, but elastic, glutinous rice skin around sweet bean filling), fried bitter gourd, a beautiful spotted fish steamed with sour plums, braised rolls of pig's intestine stuffed with minced pork and veal, and then something called ah balling—Ping-Pong balls of glutinous rice dough filled with ground peanuts or with sweetened yellow beans and served in a light sugar syrup. To conclude, I buy an enormous plate of Teochew braised goose, garnished with rich, shiny chunks of goose liver and warmed with a drizzle of hot soy marinade. I am a little sad when I realize that I am too full to finish the plate of goose in front of me, and I'm sadder still when I think that I'm going to have to fly home without trying the great-looking steamed iron-skin fish at a stall down the row.

Leaving the Ellenborough Market, I take a long walk, and end up on Boon Tat Street, on a block of newly refurbished shop houses. A quartet of elderly musicians, skin mottled with half-century-old tattoos, wail through sad melodies on their Chinese violins. I hail a cab, retrieve my luggage, and head for the airport. If traffic is light, I'll have time for one more hawker center on the way.