Written for Indiblogger ‘Takeaway level: Singapore’
Let me first tell you that I LIVE to EAT.
Yes, I am not ashamed to admit it. If there is a higher purpose to life, I certainly haven’t found it.
When we moved to Singapore, I had absolutely no idea about the gastronomic delights that awaited me in foodie paradise.
I’d heard of Singapore noodles, but other than that my general knowledge was pretty poor.
The first thing that struck me in Singapore, other than the cleanliness, heat and humidity, is that people are forever eating. Believe me, when I say eating, it’s eating at all hours, from humungous bowls and plates heaped with the most delicious piping hot food.
Do you know that everything is expensive in Singapore but food from a takeaway joint is really cheap. In the beginning I used to see people returning from work with plastic bags through which one could see Styrofoam takeaway containers. The enclosed space of the lift just filled up with the most delicious aromas as I often stared and wondered what was inside the bags, my neighbours got home.
Soon I found out that in Singapore, people hardly cook at home. Takeaway food is so cheap [generally a dish costs about 5 Singapore dollars= roughly 250 rupees], so why bother cooking and cleaning at home?
Even my part time maid doesn’t cook; she just buys a takeaway everyday!
Food courts are everywhere. Indoor, outdoor, in malls, anywhere. It’s all these little hawkers’ stalls exhibiting lip-smacking food, with a central space with tables and benches or chairs.
Food courts or hawker centres start filling in at early hours of the morning with office goers and retired folk alike, settling down with the day’s newspaper. Breakfast, here is an elaborate and relaxed affair.
The astounding choice of foods at this early hour leaves one amazed. There is frenzied activity in the on-site kitchen as fresh, hot food is prepared.
Just looking at all that food and their names is confusing. What does one choose?
Hawker stalls have all sorts of noodles on offer with assorted boiled, fried or curried vegetables, tofu, egg, meats and seafood. Yes, this is for breakfast and the curried versions can be quite spicy even for Indian palate. It can be overwhelming and confusing when one reads the exotic names for these dishes. But look out for the colourful pictures alongside the stall, which are a great guide. Also the canteen ‘aunties’ regardless of their limited English can help one can decide. A bit of translation from a friendly diner helps too. On seeing us Indians, many locals assume we are all vegetarian and therefore kindly point us in the right direction of the veggies and the tofu. Sometimes what I do is look at what people at tables are eating. If I stare long enough, smile and then ask them what they are eating, people are very happy to tell you, even going into great details. I remember one elderly auntie telling me the health benefits of broccoli and why she ate it everyday.
The delicious treats are slurped and chomped with a soupspoon in one hand and chopsticks in another. But if you can’t manage with chopsticks, simply do what you like- nobody really cares. Or just take it home and slurp away like nobody’s business-is my special tip.
If one has just come over from India, how does one choose a dish out of so many?
Being Indian myself, I am obviously drawn to Indian-inspired items. The popular Prata leads the way. This Malay-Indian inspired dish is a layered, fluffy and crisp maida roti, coated with a thin layer of beaten egg and fried on a hot surface.
It is a treat to watch the ‘pratawala’ knead and stretch the dough as he molds the pratas into their delicious avatars. These are served with a curry of chicken or fish, which is optional. Pratas may be plain or stuffed with various fillings.
For my Indian friends, I would say, prata is a great introduction to Singaporean cuisine before trying more adventurous foods. Another favourite of mine is Murtabak-found at the prata stall. This is a prata with a thick stuffing of shredded chicken/mutton with a rich, spicy, taste. It is so filling that you need a partner to share your joy.
If you are a vegetarian but are not fussed about non- veg contamination to some degree, I have to recommend my most favourite takeaway dish in Singapore- Yong Tau Foo. Sounds confusing, but isn’t. The stall has all sorts of tofu [bean curd], which is like paneer, made of soymilk, and it also has veggies of all sorts. There are fish balls, egg, pork stuffed chillies etc but one can avoid those easily. One just selects the tofu and veggie pieces into a huge bowl and gives it to the ‘uncle ‘ or ‘auntie’ at the stall who adds noodles and a curry. Always ask for curry because that is the best part. Curry is called Laksa-, which is a spicy red, hot, coconut based, fragrant, and amazing liquid that has to be tried at least one in a lifetime. I do not exaggerate, when I say that is one of the best things I’ve ever had in my life. Yong Tau Foo stalls are everywhere.
For the adventurous palates there are hundreds of options. From spicy, meaty noodles called Char kway teo to delicate dumplings [like our ‘momos’] of all sorts, carrot cake [which does not have carrots] to Hainanese chicken rice [a bit bland for my Indian palate], one is just spoilt for choice.
After coming here, I must say I have no inhibitions when it comes to eating octopus [those Japanese octopus balls which taste just like boiled egg], squid, stingray [yes, those flat, large sea creatures! I’ve eaten them, smeared in a spicy ‘sambal’ paste and cooked in banana leaf] and of course the famous crab.
The crab is not for the lazy eaters. One has to break open the shell with tools and dissect away to the crabmeat, which is delicious. Of the two flavours, I prefer black pepper crab to the chilli crab. Chiili crab is actually sweet with eggy bits- not for me. If you find anything bland, just jazz and spice it up with the many sauces kept at the stall. I call them the spicy ‘chutneys’. You even get fried soyabeans, green chilies in vinegar and so on to garnish.
A drink is a must, to go with the takeaway. Again, the array is mind–boggling, but my favourite ones are flavoured soy drinks with little pearls[ balls of sago, I think] sipped through a wide bore straw. Blissful! Teas of all kinds and coffees [kopi] are confusing but worth trying out one by one.
To really experience Singaporean cuisine, which has so many influences, one has to have an open mind and an empty belly. There is so much to explore and I sometimes think I haven’t even started yet. One has to be a bit adventurous, a little brave and fun loving. I must say it is hard for vegetarians to fully enjoy this cuisine. However, Indian stalls are very much part of food courts and one can get Thosai [dosa], samosas and other popular Indian foods too.
There are so many influences from various countries around Singapore. I’m never sure what the origin of the dish is. Is it Chinese, Malay, Thai, Indian, Indonesian, Japanese or even European? To be honest who cares?
Eating takeaway food is one of the highlights of my living in Singapore. I am trying my best to eat my way through all the foods on offer but even at this rate, it will take me a lifetime! So the next time you come to Singapore, don’t just go sight seeing and shopping. Get yourself a takeaway and chomp away. By the way, I am still looking for Singapore noodles in Singapore!