Hey. I’m struggling to believe I moved to Singapore 17 years ago, and that realisation sent me on a little meander down a culinary memory lane recently.
When I first rocked up I could not believe the food, mainly because it was so cheap and delicious. There I was eating hawker meals every day, because it was cheaper than attempting to cook the same thing at home myself (there should be a warning sign in that), and after a couple of months I weighed myself and discovered I’d stacked on nearly 10kg! How did that happen?
Well, obviously when you’re cutting costs, as hawkers are forced to do – Singaporeans may pay through the nose for fancy foreign food, but they complain bitterly when their favourite local dish goes up in price – then something’s got to give, and the first thing will be the quality of the ingredients.
You’re eating palm oil, sunshine.
It doesn’t help that I gravitate to the most calorific meals in existence. A rich, coconut-creamy laksa? My mouth is watering just contemplating it, but it’s probably in the region of 800 calories, and with precious little nutritional value either.
Even when I tried to eat healthy, my complete ignorance of how things were cooked led me astray. How could I put on weight eating Hainanese chicken rice? It’s just chicken and rice after all. Except the rice is cooked using the chicken fat. No wonder it’s so delicious.
Anyway, with a plan to go to the gym every day, I figured I could revisit some favourites.
The first was a chicken rice in a downtown shopping mall. The ambiance was crap, but the price was reflective of that. I went the whole hog and spent $6 on a set, which meant I got some vegetable and a soup as well. The soup was basically a shallot and chicken broth, so nothing special. I’ve had a peanut soup before, which sounds odd, but tastes better than you think.
The chicken was chopped with the bones in – not my favourite – but the garlicy chilli sauce was just perfect, and the rice rich and obviously fatty. Not the best chicken rice ever, but for $6 I’m not complaining. It would have cost me $4 all those years ago.
The next day I was in the ‘burbs near Upper Thompson Road (sight of the Singapore Grand Prix back in the day – I wish I was around to see that before it was canned in the 1970s), and stopped for a wanton mee (pictured above). I got upsold and ordered some soup with bigger dumplings in it too. The main dish was a bit light-on for the roasted pork, but the noodles seemed fresh enough. Plus there’s that lovely sambal belachan – chilli cooked with shrimp paste – to add some salty/fishy spice. Hmmmm.
Moving yet further into the wilds seldom seen by tourists, the next day I stopped at an eating house in Sembawang for some Malay food. I love this place, actually. It’s run by a bunch of nice older ladies who seem to actually enjoy what they do, and it shows in their food. A plate of rice with sambal chicken, fried bean sprouts, a fried egg and some peanuts with ikan bilis (teensy little dried fish) on the side. Delicious, and again, somewhere around $6.
Another day saw me in an outer suburban shopping mall, braving the early lunch hour (everybody eats at 12:30!). I had a char kway teow, which is a flat rice noodle dish with prawns, fat, cockles, fat, bean sprouts, fat, dark soy sauce, fat, egg, and some other secret ingredients, possibly including fat.
Bizarrely, some locals arrived and ordered the dish at the same time, and had theirs cooked first because – get this – they didn’t want spice! Weird. It was delicious, but I suspect it may have been fattening. I don’t know what makes me say that. And I reckon $4 doesn’t buy you any ingredients with nutritional value, either. Certainly green vegetables were conspicuous in their absence. Good for a hangover though.
Finally I went to Poison Ivy, which is on an organic farm – one of about one in Singapore – and had a curry. Okay, it’s more expensive than hawker food, but I did get vegetables, which is rare, and they were grown locally too, or so they claim. All for $20 with lime juice and coffee.
Now, I didn’t manage to hit some of my other favourites – Indian served on banana leaf at Samy’s for instance, or sambal sting ray, or chilli crab, or laksa, or bak kuh teh, or nasi lemak. But I need to spend at least a year on an exercise bike first.
Maybe that’s the list for 2015. That and a heart transplant.