Hemingway was right. “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
I lived several years in Paris, and though I was not a young man (or woman), I understand with a pang of deepest attachment what Hemingway felt. Because no matter where I have gone in the rest of my life, Paris has indeed stayed with me. Like your skin stays with you. Or your heartbeat.
Taking Hemingway’s words out of context, someone might misunderstand that the “feast” he was referring to has nothing to do, really, with dégustation. He was not talking about Paris being Paris because of her crème brulées with their perfectly crisp caramelized crusts, or her most delicately filled profiteroles, or her buttery croissants, or even her hors d’oeuvres hors déscription. He was talking about something much broader and deeper than food. He was talking about the aesthetic richness and the elevated intellectual climate of a city that fed (artistically more than physically) the likes of Joyce, Pound, Stein and the Fitzgeralds. Paris, Hemingway meant, offers food for the soul as much or more than food for the body, and is, like any of the original moveable feasts of the Christian calendar, a landmark from which to measure all one’s remaining days.
But I’m supposed to be writing about Singapore, aren’t I? So why begin this post with Paris? Because there is an unlikely likeness between Singapore and Paris.
That likeness is both cities’ juicy, steamy, spicy love affair with food.
“Singaporeans spend a lot of time eating and thinking about food,” Singapore’s former Foreign Minister George Yeo has said. “Even while we are eating, we are already thinking of the next meal. It is an inseparable part of our culture.” I have witnessed this and can tell you that it is true. Food — its ingredients, its origins, its preparation, its presentation, its authenticity, its variety, its accessibility, its artistry, its pure fun — is a gravitational center in Singapore, as much recreation as creation, as much a quasi-religion here as it is Paris.
One of the reasons Singapore is a foodie’s mecca is #1 on my list of What I Will Really Miss About Singapore: Diversity. With so many wildly different cultures converging in one place, you get a flavorful cross-pollination of cuisines. While there aren’t multiple Michelin star restaurants (I’ve heard there are just two, opened up recently in the Marina Bay Sands, but I’m not frequenting them, just to say), the stuff that draws the non-stop stream of food tours here is what you can buy off the street. Literally.
This big palette of mixed ethnic cuisines is so accessible—more accessible, I’d say, than in Paris— thanks to something called hawker centers. Hawkers, I have been told, began as individual roving restaurants, moveable feasts. By carrying their simple woks and steam pans around the streets, the hawkers could set up makeshift kitchens where workers were gathered in the laundry ghetto, the coastal fronts, the quarries and construction sites spotting this island. They are the original hot dog or Philly cheese steak street vendors, you might say. Evolved from those beginnings are today’s many hawker centers, where owners have their own stalls from which they serve their specialty foods. Hawker centers are lively, authentic (code for: the FDA might have some issues, okay, but a thin layer of grime adds flavor), and inexpensive. That is unless the hawker center is situated in an expatriate enclave like Newton Circus, where the dishes tend to pricier. But overall, the hawker experience is gastronomical and economical. And you get this table-side entertainment:
Ask any taxi driver, and he’ll be able to tell you of his favorite hawker center. Or he can direct you to any of Singapore’s countless holes-in-walls where you can sample the best crispy jelly fish (is that even legal?), roasted Peking duck, (I’ve heard it goes by Beijing these days), chicken rice and fish head curry, (Singaporean specialties), cuttle fish and cockles, fried carrot cake, oyster omelets, and, if you are up for it, a piping hot vat of pig organ soup.
(Since you were wondering).
What? No yum yet?
You have to trust me and just wander a bit, find your favorite markets, weave in around the baskets, and simply sample things. And a tip: don’t trust the labeling. Sometimes it’s better not to know.
There are some especially inventive combinations, recipes the world’s top chefs are yet perfecting:
When not wandering and wondering about deep fried ice cream hot dogs, I like to stop in at a place called the Murugan Idli Shop in Syed Alwi Road in Little India. The simple and fresh vegetarian Indian fare is perfect for brunch before making your way through the labyrinth that is Mustafa’s shopping center right across the street. I also like Banana Leaf Apollo in Race Course Road where the curries are slopped on the big waxy green banana leaf in front of you and you are welcome to eat with your fingers, like everyone else. There are also all the small and charming restaurants in Ann Siang Road in China Town. And the chili crab at East Coast Park. And the Thai place. And the Cambodian place. And the vegan Vietnamese place.
And, wouldn’t you know it? The Bonheur Patisserie.
When I move from here (and the truck comes in only nine days), I know I will miss Singapore’s eclectic mix of multi-ethnic food. Wouldn’t you? Singapore, albeit a little equatorial speck on the map, might compete with Paris, our planet’s Grande Dame of an epicurean epicenter. At least that is my experience. But please, if you know of another city that does food as well as Singapore, I’d love to hear from you.
Until then, stroll through this. It is your guide to some of Singapore’s best hawker centers. Singapore best hawkers-1
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.