by Dave DeWitt
Tiong Bahru Food Centre
[Editor's Note: This article was first published in May, 1992. Some things have changed in Singapore since then, but this is the way it was then.]
People laughed in disbelief when we told them we were going to Singapore on business.
"Yeah, right," said one skeptic, "you foodies will use any excuse for a gourmet holiday." But we were telling the truth. In fact, we took along our bathing suits on the trip but were so busy we never got to wear them.
Of course, we did dine out a bit--after all, it was our job. We were in Singapore to plan a culinary tour for the following year. Besides your editor, along for the feast were my wife, Mary Jane Wilan, Ellie Leavitt of Rio Grande Travel, and her daughter, Laura Brancato.
We flew into Singapore from Bangkok aboard Cathay Pacific Airlines--certainly one of the best carriers in the world. The efficient folks from Franco-Asian Travel picked us up at the airport, checked us into The Regent hotel, and wasted no time introducing us to the wonders of Singapore's great food.
"We're off to the Newton Circus hawker centre," announced Jeanne Seah, our culinary guide for the evening. Within minutes, we were sampling barbecued stingray--and other strange but delicious foods.
Wok this way!
The hawker centre--so named because in the past the cooks would "hawk" their food to customers--consisted of perhaps fifty open-air stalls and a hundred tables and was jam-packed with hungry diners. Intense and exotic aromas wafted from the food stalls which sported an intriquing array of signs, such as "Juriah Nasi Padang" and "Rojak Tow Kua Pow Cuttlefish." The hawkers specialized in a bewildering selection of quick and inexpensive foods from many cuisines. Among the delicacies we tasted our first night in Singapore were Chinese thousand-year-old eggs, the famous Singapore chilli crab, Indonesian satays, Indian curried dishes, and the Malayan stingray.
I was intensely curious about how and why so many cuisines were represented in one place. Later, back at the Regent, I found my copy of Singapore: 101 Meals, published by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, which explained the history behind the foods we had just tried.
Flashback: Singapore's Culinary Heritage
Singapore is the melting pot (or maybe the tossed salad) of Southeast Asia, so it's not surprising that many ethnic influences are present. Originally, this tiny island nation--smaller than New York City--was part of what is now Malayasia, which means that its original cuisine was Malay. Fresh spices are the key to Malay cookery, and they include lemon grass, turmeric, kaffir lime, galangal (a type of ginger), and, of course, the ubiquitous chillis--called "chillis" over there.
Since Singapore is so close to Indonesia (Sumatra is just across the Strait of Malacca), the influences from that huge archipelago-nation are great. In fact, since the words for rice (nasi), chicken (ayam), hot sauce (sambal) and many other food terms are identical, it is difficult if not impossible to separate the Malaysian and Indonesian influences on Singaporean food. The famous satays, barbecued meats and seafood, occur in both countries and are very popular in Singapore. Interestingly enough, the satays are thought to have originated with early Arab spice traders who introduced the concept of kebabs to the region.
The famous satays with a sambal dipping sauce.
In 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles colonized Singapore for the British, and soon the small fishing village became the leading port east of the Suez Canal. The British influence accounts for the fact that the principal language of Singapore is English (other official languages are Tamil, Malay, and Cantonese), but the impact of the Brits on food was not so great. Nowadays, about the only surviving British culinary heritages involve drink; the hotels and restaurants serve high tea in the afternoon, excellent Singapore-brewed beers and stouts, and plenty of gin drinks.
The expansion of Singapore as a major trading center led to settlement by other ethnic groups. By 1821, the population was over 5,000 and besides Malays and Europeans, there were numerous Chinese and Indian settlers. Under British control, the settlers were kept in their own ethnic enclaves so they could not easily unite and rebel. These enclaves--such as Chinatown, Arab Street, and Little India--though unofficial now, still exist to this day. Singapore was a British colony until 1959, when it became autonomous within the Commonwealth. In 1963, Singapore joined with Malaya and neighboring straits states to form the Federation of Malaysia, but that union did not last and Singapore became an independent nation in 1965.
The influence of the Chinese, which now comprise about three-quarters of the population, has been vast. The major Chinese immigrants were Hokkiens (from Fujian province), Teochews, Cantonese, and Hainanese. All brought their own regional cultures and food traditions to Singapore and settled in their own enclaves. Many of earliest Chinese settlers were men, and because of the lack of Chinese women in Singapore, they married Malay women. Thus a distinct subculture was born, known in Malay as Peranakan (meaning "to be born here"). The women of that subculture were known as Nonyas, Malay for "ladies." The intermarriage of Chinese and Malay ended once the population of Singapore grew large enough to include Chinese women, and Nonyas soon became part of the mainstream of Singapore culture. But one Nonya tradition--cooking--lives on. Nonya cusisine is an excellent example of a collision of cultures as it combines the subtlety and relative blandness of Chinese cooking with the spiciness of Malay food. It has been said that "in one meal, you get a perfect balance of opposing flavors, textures, and colors." Some notable Nonya dishes include: assam gulai, fish in spicy tamarind sauce; buah paya masak titek, papaya soup with chillis; sayor nanka masak lemak, jackfruit and chicken in spicy coconut gravy; and the notable Nonya kuehs, elegant dessert cakes fashioned from glutinous rice, coconut milk, palm sugar, and fruits.
After boning up--so to speak--on the history of the Singaporean cuisines, I felt ready to eat my way across the city. Of course, there was the usual problem: so much food, so little time.
Off to the Markets
With Anthony as our driver and Vincent as our guide, we continued our tour the following day with a trip to the dry and wet markets of Little India and Chinatown. In Little India, we first visited the "dry" markets selling the various spices which comprise the curries: chillis, cloves, turmeric, star anise, peppercorns, cinnamon, coriander--and more. It was a vivid sensory assault on the eyes and nose. As Mary Jane put it, "I've never been any place that smelled so wonderful and exotic." We watched Indian cooks prepare the chapatti flat bread and tasted a wide variety of "chips" made from various flours.
The "wet" market, so named because there was water on the floor from the cleaning of seafood and meats, was a huge warehouse-like affair with the sides open to the air. It was neatly divided into sections: fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, groceries, and food vendors. Despite the noise and crowded conditions, I was surprised by how clean everything was. All vendors touching meats or seafood wore plastic gloves and everyone was low-key and very friendly--even urging me on occasion to photograph them in action cleaving the heads off of fishes. We found out later what the fish heads were used for.
There was a profusion of food in the wet market. Lamb and mutton were hanging to age, every type of tropical fruit was available for sale except the notorious durian, which was out of season, and there were tiger prawns seven to eight inches long. The fresh chillis for sale looked just like the ones we had seen the week before in Bangkok, and I soon found out why: they were imported from Thailand because Singapore does not have much of an agriculture industry. Typical of chilli nomenclature around the world, the kinds available were "bird chillis," green or red Piquin-like, fiery little devils less than an inch long; "yellow chillis," about three inches long; and "red chillis," which looked like a cross between Cayenne and New Mexican varieties and which were also sold in the green form.
Weird-looking galangal (ginger relative) in the market.
We took a break to sample Indian rose milk and tea, and then pushed on to the Chinatown wet market, where I was surprised by the number of live animals for sale. There were large fish swimming in aquariums--the freshest imaginable--and huge crabs crawling around in cages. I recall one memorable transaction where the vendor removed several frogs from a cage to show a customer how fresh they were. The woman shopper chose the one that jumped the farthest and the vendor quickly killed and skinned it on the spot. I was relieved to note that there were no live pigs for sale in the market.
But there were some black chickens. Described by our guide Vincent as "another race" of fowl, the plucked flesh was naturally black, not dyed, and is used by Chinese cooks for medicinal purposes--like helping people regain their strength after illness. Chicken soup must be a worldwide cure.
The next couple of days were a blur. We took a trip across the causeway to Johore Baru, Malaysia, where we toured the Sultan's palace, now a museum, and then stopped at a very modern supermarket where we found a wealth of Malaysian hot sauces. On the way back, we toured the excellent Singapore zoo, an orchid farm, and finally stopped for a late lunch at a neighborhood Chinese coffee shop. It was unlike any coffee shop in the States, because we feasted on "rib tea," bak kut teh, a pork rib soup with spices. The dining technique called for removing the pork, dipping it in two different chilli sauces, and then drinking the soup later. Since it was about ninety degrees with no air conditioning in the restaurant, I opted for a Tiger Beer instead of coffee.
The following day, it was time to split up. The women in the group wanted to shop along Orchard Road, Singapore's fabulous row of designer shop after shop. I, as the lone male, opted for the Singapore Botanic Gardens and its great collection of tropical plants and trees.
After shopping, Mary Jane, Ellie, and Laura visited the famous Raffles Hotel, where they took Rudyard Kipling's 1888 advice, "feed at Raffles when visiting Singapore." Fortified with Singapore Slings and gin and tonics, they snacked on tiger prawns with a spicy herbal dip and curried mutton samosas (turnovers) with a yogurt-dill dip. Then they discovered that Raffles has a "Provisions" shop, where locally-produced food products can be purchased, so more shopping was in order.
Hungry after wandering for miles through the Botanic Gardens, I ate at an Indonesian restaurant on upper Orchard Road (I confess I forgot to write down the name). It must be a local favorite, because no tourists were were in sight. The mutton soup, flavored with coconut milk and highly spiced with chillis, was fabulous. I spooned it over a side dish of nasi kunyit, yellow festive rice, and had no idea if that technique was proper or not. But since no one yelled at me or even gave me that "funny foreigner" look, I guess I did okay.
The author with Devagi Shanmugam in her demonstration kitchen.
After playing tourist for a day, it was time to get back to the business of planning the culinary tour, so we arranged to interview two of Singapore's noted cooking authorities. Our first visit was to the Thomson Cooking Studio, where Mrs. Devagi Shanmugam was preparing dishes that were being photographed for a brochure for McCormick Spice Company. Mrs. Shanmugam is of Indian heritage but has mastered all of Singapore's numerous cuisines. We tasted her green beans with spicy prawn paste, which were excellent, and some stir-fried sea cucumbers, which are definitely an acquired taste. Sea cucumbers, for the biologists in the crowd, are echinoderms related to starfish and sea urchins, and their flesh is gummy and bland. They were the only food on the entire trip I didn't love--but they are considered to be quite a delicacy in Singapore.
Mrs. Shanmugam showed us her huge recipe collection, and I decided to take a chance.
"Do you happen to have recipes for mutton soup and nasi kunyit?" I asked. She smiled, quickly produced recipes for the very dishes I had tried the day before, and urged me to share them with our readers.
Our next culinary advisor was Violet Oon, the foodie star of Singapore. Violet is one of those people who have so many enterprises going at the same time that she probably has a fax machine in her Mercedes. Along with her assistant Diana Lynn, she operates a cooking school, publishes The Food Paper (one of the most interesting food publications I've ever read), and manufactures her own line of food products, which are sold by the Raffles Hotel.
For our last evening in Singapore, Violet decided that since we had already sampled Chinese, Indonesian, Malay, and Nonya foods, it was time for some Indian treats. She and Diana drove us to Little India, where we dined at the Madras New Woodlands Restaurant and the Banana Leaf Apolo.
We sampled every curry imaginable, using banana leaves for plates, and I was particularly impressed with the fish-roe curry cakes (I ate shad roe for breakfast when I lived in Virginia). And, although it doesn't sound very appetizing, the fish head curry was nothing short of spectacular--if you can get used to the fish staring at you. The curries were a fitting end to a whirlwind week in Singapore.
Planning an overseas tour may be hard work, but when it involves food, it's fun too.
P.S. I gained fifteen pounds.
This famous drink was invented in 1903 by Raffles Hotel bartender Ngiam Tong Boon. There are many variations on this potent potable, but this one seems to be the most authentic.
1 jigger sloe gin
1/2 jigger dry gin
1/2 jigger apricot brandy
1/2 jigger cherry brandy
1 teaspoon sugar
Juice of 1/2 lime1 cherry (garnish)
1 slice pineapple (garnish)
1 slice orange (garnish)
1 cherry (garnish)
1 slice pineapple (garnish)
1 slice orange (garnish)
Combine the first six ingredients in a 12-ounce glass and stir well to dissolve the sugar. Add ice cubes and top off with seltzer water. Stir slightly, add the gar-nishes, and serve.
Yield: 1 serving
Indonesian Mutton Soup
Indonesia grows goats rather than sheep, yet "mutton' was the meat of choice in the wet market of Little India in Singapore, so I can only assume that this delicious, curry-like soup can be made from either lamb or goat meat. The recipe is courtesy of Mrs. Devagi Shanmugam of the Thomson Cooking Studio.
5 small green chillis, stems removed
5 small red chillis, stems removed 2 pounds lamb or goat meat, cubed 3 quarts water
2-inch piece of ginger, peeled 2 teaspoons black peppercorns 2 teaspoons anise seed
2 teaspoons cumin seed
5 cardamoms (or 2 Tablespoons car-damom powder)
3 tablespoons coriander seed 1 stick cinnamon
1 star anise 5 bay leaves
1 cup fresh mint leaves
4 pieces lemon grass, crushed 1 teaspoon ground turmeric 4 curry leaves (optional)
1 cup water
4 tomatoes, diced 2 sticks cinnamon 3 cardamoms
5 tablespoons vegetable oil Spring (green) onions for garnish 3 teaspoons rice flour for thickening (optional)
Put the mutton in the water in a pot. In a food processor, coarsely grind together the next 16 ingredients along with the cup of water. Using a strainer, strain this mixture into the pot with the mutton. Save the residue, tie it up securely in a muslin or cotton cloth, and add it to the pot.
Fry the tomatoes, cinnamon, cardamoms, and cloves in the oil until the tomatoes are soft, and add the mixture to the pot.
Boil the soup until the mutton is tender and nearly falls apart. Remove the spice bundle, thicken the soup with rice flour if necessary, and garnish with the spring onions. Serve the soup with Nasi Kunyit ( recipe).
Serves: 6 to 8
Heat Scale: Medium
Nasi Kunyit (Yellow Festive Rice) with Prawns (See Next Recipe)
Photo: Chel Beeson
Also from Devagi Shanmugam, this rice recipe makes a very colorful, fragrant dish that goes well with the mutton soup. Remember to use coconut milk, not canned coconut cream, which is too sweet.
4 teaspoons ground coriander 2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
5-inch piece ginger, peeled and chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled
20 shallots, peeled
1 cup water
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 cups coconut milk
3 cups rice, washed and drained 4 pieces lemon grass
Salt to taste
Fried spring (green) onion rings for garnish
Puree the first 7 ingredients in a blender. In a pan, fry the pureed ingredients in the oil until fragrant. Add the coconut milk and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, add the rice and lemon grass, cover, and cook until the rice is done, about 40 minutes. Add salt to
taste and garnish with green onion rings.
Yield: 6 servings
Udang Goreng Chilli Prawns in Chill-Garlic Sauce
Another Nonya favorite from the kitchen of Violet Oon, this simple dish is for people who like their seafood spicy. 10 fresh red chillis such as Serranos 1/2 pound large prawns or substitute Gulf shrimp, peeled and deveined
10 cloves garlic
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce (Kikkoman preferred)
Trim the heads of the prawns by removing the feelers but leave the heads on. Wash the prawns and pat dry.
In a food processor, puree the chillis and garlic together to make a rough paste.
Heat the oil in a wok, and when it smokes, add the chilli-garlic paste and stir fry until fragrant. Add the prawns and stir fry until the shells turn red, about 5 minutes. Add the soy sauce and stir fry until well-mixed, about 1 minute. Serve with hot steamed rice.
Yield: 2 servings
Heat Scale: Hot
Rebong Masak Lemak (Bamboo Shoots in Spicy Coconut Gravy
A Singapore Nonya favorite, this dish from Violet Oon is cooked in a wok and can also be served with the Nasi Kunyit.
10 dried red chillis, such as Piquins, stems and seeds removed, soaked in hot water for 30 minutes, then coarsely chopped
2 cups grated coconut (fresh preferred)
5 cups water
5 almonds or cashews
l large piece ginger, peeled
3 stalks lemon grass
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
5 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon shrimp paste
10 shallots, peeled
1 tablespoon white pepper
1 tablespoon coriander
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 pounds chicken, cut up
10 ounces cooked bamboo shoots, sliced lengthwise
2 tablespoons soy sauce 3 teaspoons sugar
Salt to taste
Add 1 cup of water to the grated coconut and squeeze through cloth to make thick coconut milk. Reserve this milk. Add the rest of the water to the grated coconut and squeeze through cloth to make thin coconut milk. Reserve.
In a food processor, puree the next 7 ingredients to make a spice paste. Mix the pepper and coriander with this paste.
Heat the oil in a wok and fry the paste for about five minutes until it is fragrant. Add the chicken, bamboo shoots, and the thin coconut milk. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat slightly and cook until the chicken is tender, about 20 minutes. Add the thick coconut milk, soy sauce, sugar, and salt and cook for another 10 minutes.
Yield: 6 servings
Heat Scale: Hot
Chicken and Beef Satay with Spicy Peanut Sauce
This recipe, by Chef Abdul Wahab of the Equatorial Penang Hotel in Penang, Malaysia, is a classic Malay dish that combines the heat of chillis with the nutty taste of peanuts and the exotic fragrances of the Spice Islands. Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.
4 large pieces of ginger, peeled
5 cloves garlic, peeled
3 shallots, peeled
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1 teaspoon anise seed
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
3 pieces lemon grass
2 teaspoons sugar
1 pound boneless chicken, cut into strips
Combine the first 8 ingredients in a food processor and puree, adding a little water if necessary. Marinate the chicken and beef strips in this mixture for 12 hours.
The Peanut Sauce:
1/2 cup red chilli paste (or red chillis pureed with water)
1/4 cup peanut oil
5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced 3 shallots, peeled and minced
3 pieces lemon grass, minced
3 large pieces ginger, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons poppy seeds
4 tablespoons minced cashews 1/4 cup minced peanuts
1 teaspoon tamarind paste (optional)
2 teaspoons sugar
Diced cucumbers and onions for garnish
Heat the peanut oil in a pan and add the chilli paste and the next 6 ingredients. Simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the remaining ingredients and simmer for an additional 5 minutes.
Thread the chicken and beef strips on separate satay sticks which have been soaked in water. Grill the satay sticks over coals until the meats are done, about 10 minutes, tuuming often.
Serve the satays with the sauce on the side and garnished with diced cucumbers and onions.
Yield: 8 servings
Heat Scale: Hot