Food & Travel

Singapore: A Gastronomic Jewel

Forget the French! Singaporeans are the quintessential foodies. And if you're looking for a serious food culture, Singapore offers the world. Meals are the focal point of the day.  Conversations commence and culminate in food talk.  Newspapers and periodicals spare no ink in supplying hungry readers with spicy tidbits on the constantly evolving culinary scene. From the kopi tiam, the neighborhood coffee shop and local gossip exchange, to the hawker food centers, the Singaporean version of street food, to the high-end restaurants and international hotels serving multi-ethnic delicacies and pampering the increasing international business community, Singapore is a delectable culinary symphony. This tiny country's historical position as the hub of the colonial trade routes has made it a gastronomic jewel.

Felicitously positioned at the junction of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, bisecting the sea route between China and India, Singapore was originally inhabited by Malay fishermen and farmers. In the early 19th century, Thomas Stamford Raffles claimed the island for the British East India Company, establishing it as a tax-free enterprising port. The "gold rush" of this bustling city attracted merchants and settlers from across Asia who came to make their fortunes. Southern Chinese traders from Canton, Guangdong, Hokkien, Fujian, and Hainan peacefully coexisted alongside South Indian Tamil and Indonesian laborers, transforming this humble fishing center into a thriving international community. Concerned about maintaining economic control over the colony, the British Empire mandated the division of separate ethnic districts. Because of this division, the unique heritages, cultures, and culinary traditions of each group were preserved. But the British Empire couldn't ethnically separate the populace completely. Therefore, some mixing between the various communities and the indigenous Malay people was inevitable.

One outcome of such ethnic layering is the cuisine called Nonya, which resulted from the marriage of immigrant Chinese men (baba) to local Malay women (nonya), a union referred to as Peranikan.  The Malay cooks contributed their heavily spiced and deeply aromatic flavors introducing ingredients seldom used by the Chinese. Pungent shrimp paste, fragrant lemongrass, herbal galanga, earthy candlenut, and sweet-and-sour tamarind, were combined with highly complex, ground and toasted spice mixtures composed of peppercorns, coriander seeds, turmeric, cumin, cardamom and chilies. These robust flavors were mellowed with rich coconut milk, and cooked slowly into curries. On the other hand, the Chinese contribution to the Nonya pantry included soy sauce, fermented black beans, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, ginger, noodles and bean curd, and the flash cooking techniques of stir-frying and steaming. The resulting hybrid cuisine is unique to Singapore and the Straits.

There is no place on earth as flavor-packed as Singapore; a cultural stew if you will. This small island supports not only the native Nonya cuisine, but also the native cuisines of Southern China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Southern India, and the hybrid cooking of the Pan-Asian kitchen. A thriving Eurasian influence is appearing as classically French-trained chefs are incorporating Southeast Asian ingredients into their repertoires. Singapore has usurped the role of Hong Kong as Asia's financial capital, resulting in an influx of upscale restaurants catering to the expanding community of expatriates, capitalists and travelers. Even Jeremiah Towers' Stars Restaurant has found its niche on this densely populated island.

My favorite way to explore the vast array of food possibilities is by frequenting the hawker food centers which stud the city. A hawker center is similar to a North American "food court", only indescribably better. Each market stall is equipped with a pint-sized "hot kitchen" which specializes in one or two items. The centers are ruthlessly competitive, and so, in a beautiful example of capitalism in action, every hawker is extremely good at producing his or her own specialty.

The proliferation of street food vendors is typical of most equatorial populations in which cooking and eating outdoors is preferred over the often cramped and steamy indoor kitchens. In days past, food hawkers would set up their makeshift pushcart kitchens along main thoroughfares, providing roadside nourishment in pale pink and blue plastic dishes. Today, with the local government's concern for order and hygiene, hawkers have been re-located inside permanent food centers where they are under strict regulatory controls. Though this action may seem like it would diminish the authenticity of the food, quite the contrary has occurred: the food is just as authentic, but of higher quality and much safer.

Hawker centers cater to every taste, and indeed every budget. Each neighborhood market is likely to have a hawker center specializing in the dominant cuisine of its residents: Chinese, Malay, Indian, Nonya, and.....tourist! Centers can be found in most large office buildings, shopping centers, hospitals, airports and most recently, even in multiplex theaters.  There are large, new air-conditioned centers with as many as 150 stalls representing a multitude of national tastes and frequented by Singapore's modern lunch-hour crowd. Other older, smaller, rustic centers with thatched roofs continue to specialize in a singular cuisine. Anywhere you go during your excursion to Singapore you are likely to stumble onto one of these courts. The best advice to follow is to simply taste as many things as possible. Cab drivers and municipal employees, unlike Concierge clerks at stuffy hotels, provide a reliable source of information when it comes to the best of the ever-changing centers.

I found my favorite Nonya dish at dawn at the Marine South Food Center: it was an unexpectedly delicious treat, discovered in my jet lag-inspired wanderings. Laksa lemak, a classic Nonya dish, is prepared by frying a paste of ground candlenut, shallots, garlic, lemongrass, shrimp paste and chili. The paste is thinned into a gravy with coconut milk, and freshly cut rice noodles are added to the mixture, producing one of the best impromptu breakfasts I've had the pleasure of eating.

But hawker centers are hardly limited to Nonya cooking: ethnic cuisines of a thousand shades and varieties thrive here. For example, at the Newton Circus hawker center, the family sitting next to me urged that I try hainanese chicken (Southern Chinese), a hawker market staple. They insisted that this seemingly simple dish is a yardstick of fine Chinese cooking. The perfection of the chicken broth, which they infuse with ginger and garlic, is critical. A whole chicken is cooked in this broth, chilled, hacked, and served over aromatic chicken-flavored rice. It is then garnished with fresh coriander and cucumber, and served alongside a chili-ginger sambal. In another market, tucked away in the basement of an office building, I discovered a study in Rojak. This Chinese delicacy consists of deep-fried tofu on a bed of shredded mango, pineapple and bean sprouts dressed with a sweet mixture of sugar, sweet soy and roasted peanuts. Divine!

Seafood lovers flock to Newton Circus or the UDMC Seafood Center on East Coast Parkway, where they feast on chile crab, the national dish of Singapore. Sri Lanken crab is stir-fried in a wok with garlic, red chili paste, tomato sauce, sugar, eggs, and fermented fish sauce, then garnished with fresh scallions. In another dish, crab is rubbed with melted butter and a generous layer of freshly ground black pepper, before being stir-fried to perfection. The sweetness of the butter and crab contrasts with the black pepper crust, creating a truly sensual taste experience. Prawns, the size of baby lobsters are grilled to order and served with a dipping sauce of soy, sugar, ginger, sesame oil, and scallions. 

While visiting a hawker center within the produce market in Little India, we were enchanted by the smell of Indian dosas. The size of flying saucers, these airy, tangy flatbreads made from fermented lentil flour are wrapped around a filling of sauteed potatoes, onions, green chili peppers and mutton, and are served with coconut chutney. Another Indian delicacy, fish head curry, is a real eye-opener. Just as you'd imagine, a fish head is cooked in a curry with tomatoes, potatoes and green beans, and then served on a banana leaf with basmati rice. The savvy diner then picks the meat from the bones using the right hand, saving the coveted, gelatinous fish eye for last.

The Indonesian quarter yields wonderful dishes such as mee goreng, a sauteed noodle dish with tomatoes, shrimp, cabbage, carrots, egg, garlic, bean sprouts and red chili paste, is garnished with fresh red chili peppers, lemon wedges, and coriander. Another Indonesian favorite, nasi lemok, consists of long grain rice simmered in coconut milk, and served with an anchovy, shallot, galanga, lemongrass and garlic sambal. Hard-boiled eggs, cucumbers, and deep fried peanuts provide the finishing touches.

La Pasat, the most modern hawker center noted for its cast iron gables, is also celebrated for kway chap, the most intriguing dish I encountered in Singapore. This slow-cooked casserole of pork butt, trotters and innards simmered in a deep rich stew of dark soy, star anise, cinnamon, black pepper and cloves is an intense caramel-colored treasure.

The enjoyment of hawker foods in Singapore is only enhanced by the considerable thrill of the hunt. My most memorable experience commenced when I spotted a sign for a food court near a flower market. I followed the signs up stairs, down stairs, and in and out of elevators, like a mouse trapped in a maze looking for cheese. I finally reached the designated area for the "food court", only to find that it had moved. But a slight detour later and a dash across the parking lot brought me to the most delapidated and fascinating food haven. Here, an old Chinese woman was preparing soto ayam, a soup of chicken broth, noodles, bean sprouts, shrimp and crispy fried shallots. I chose my noodle width from a chart; my chef sliced the fresh noodles, placed them in a bowl, poured the soup over them, cracked an egg into the aromatic mix, and cooked this gorgeous concoction in the serving bowl. The egg yolk, when cut, gave a gentle, silken texture to the broth. The noodles were unlike any other I have ever tasted

The most popular hawker dessert is a wild curiosity called ice kachung. This strange, monstrously sweet creation, also known as kaching sink, or ABC, must have been inspired by the opium for which the Golden Triangle was once known. The hallucinogenic ice kachung is made with shaved ice and evaporated milk. But it also involves mounds of sweet yellow kernels of canned corn; Chinese red beans; translucent pearls of tapioca; purple, green and black cubes of Jell-O; and canned pineapple chunks-not to mention cubed taro, agar-agar, and sweet black beans. The entire thing is bathed in a psychedelic rainbow of sickly sweet syrups. Clearly, this is not a dessert for the faint of heart! Luckily, it is not the only option.The markets are full of beautiful fruits of the region, and a plethora of freshly made tropical fruit drinks, notably mango, jackfruit, rambutan, lychee, snakefruit and mangosteen, are a palate-cleansing alternative to the local dessert favorite. And if you still have an appetite left, you should definitely indulge in some of the dazzling varieties of bananas which are fried, layered with sweetened coconut and jasmine rice, and wrapped in banana leaves.

As I made my way back to my hotel one afternoon, happily sated by a hawker meal replete with lemongrass, galangal, coconut milk and peanuts, I stopped to reflect on the culinary wonders of Singapore. New York can claim to be the world's melting pot, but Singapore is surely the world's kitchen. It would be difficult to find another city that so passionately combines and connects so many cultures through its cuisine.

After many unforgettable meals the diverse Singaporean flavors began to weave permanent impressions in my brain. I vowed to return to the States armed with a working knowledge so that I may be able to reproduce some of those culinary gems in my own kitchen. Of course, ambitious motivation always gets the best of a traveler, and even the best intentions often fall prey to neglect. That is why upon my return I enlisted the help of renowned Singaporean chef, Chris Yeo, owner of Straits Cafés in San Francisco and Palo Alto. His versions of seared foie gras with spicy pineapple and grilled duck breast kapitan have knocked my socks off and those of my guests) on many occasions, and have helped me to ignite some of those lingering memories.I thought it best to share the secret… See the Recipe Supplement.

Grilled Duck Breast Kapitan      Serves 8

½ lb. sliced red jalapeño peppers
1 tsp. turmeric
1 oz. ginger, peeled and sliced
10 oz. onion, chopped
2 oz. lemongrass, finely sliced
1 ½ tbsp. salt
½ tbsp. sugar
2 cans coconut milk

For the Sauce:

2 tbsp. vegetable oil
2 stalks of lemongrass, finely sliced
5 lime leaves, julienned
1 cup duck stock (preferable but you substitute chicken stock if necessary)
8 boneless duck breasts, 10-12 oz. portions each
Oil for brushing the grill
salt and pepper to season

Make a marinade by blending all the marinade ingredients in a food processor until smooth. Reserve half for the sauce later, and use the rest as a marinade for the duck breasts. Marinade overnight in the refrigerator.

Heat the oil in a large skillet. Sautee the lemongrass and lime leaves until fragrant and softer. Add the reserved marinade. Simmer until the oil comes to the top. Add the duck stock a little at a time, resulting in a smooth sauce. Set aside and keep warm.

Season the duck breasts with salt and pepper. Brush with oil and grill until medium rare. Slice the breasts diagonally.

To serve, arrange each sliced breast on a bed of the sauce. Enjoy!

Foie Gras with Spicy Pineapple      Serves 8

1 whole foie gras (2 lobes) approximately 1 ½ lbs. total
salt and pepper to season

For the Rempah (spice mix)

4 candlenuts (substitute macadamia nuts) soaked in water
2 stalks of lemongrass, finely sliced
5 cloves of garlic
1 onion, coarsely chopped

For the Sauce:

2 tbsp. Vegetable or peanut oil
2 tbsp. chili paste
2 sticks of cinnamon
5 cloves
½ tbsp. sugar
½ cup white vinegar
1 whole pineapple, peeled and sliced into ¼ inch rounds

To prepare the foie gras, devain both lobes with a paring knife. Slice into 1 ¾ oz. slabs. Season both sides liberally with salt and pepper. Set aside and keep refrigerated.

Make the rempah by blending all the rempah ingredients in a food processor into a smooth paste. Next, heat the oil in a large pan and add the chili paste, cinnamon sticks, and cloves. Heat until fragrant (about 5 minutes). Add the rempah and cook while stirring until the oil comes to the top. Add the sugar and vinegar and incorporate well into the mix.

Add the pineapple slices. Simmer until the pineapple softens a little and becomes opaque. Set aside and keep warm.

Just before serving, sear the foie gras on both sides in a heated, dry skillet; a few slices at a time. Cook the foie gras to a medium rare, (about 1 minute on each side) so that it is tender in the center. Discard any excess fat.

To serve, place each portion of foie gras on a few pineapple slices and glaze with a little of the sauce. Enjoy!

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