Strange fruit, stubborn cake, chili crab: Notes on eating your way across a food-obsessed Singapore.
Author JOE KEOHANE
“IF MY GRANDMOTHER found out what I did with her recipe, she’d kill me,” says Willin Low, chef at Wild Rocket, a popular fusion restaurant in Singapore’s Mount Emily neighborhood, as he brings out plates of his own creation, tau yew bak, cannelloni with braised pork belly, soy sauce, garlic, five-spice … and cheese. The meal prior to this was full of clever variations on classic Singaporean street food—a soft-shell black pepper crab, a more delicate version of the country’s spicy, hard-shell classic; a brown rice dish with baby octopus, teriyaki sauce, salmon carpaccio and roe; a bowl of spaghettini with prawn-and-crawfish-infused oil, dried shrimp, scallops and more prawns, the mere notion of which could fell a whole town’s worth of people with shellfish allergies—but the introduction of cheese was unexpected. Some would argue perverse. But what it is is revolutionary. Well, Singapore revolutionary. Soft revolutionary.
A native, Low started out studying law. It’s the sort of thing one is expected to do in Singapore, a place where sober application is something of a state religion. He worked as a lawyer in London for eight years, but found the job disheartening and English food “terrible” (for Singaporeans abroad, missing home and missing food at home are one and the same). So he taught himself to cook, and, in time, he got very good at it. He opened a catering sideline on the weekends, and that worked well enough that he dropped law, and in 2005 opened Wild Rocket, named in part after his favorite salad. “Some people will think of the salad, and some people will think of the spaceship,” he says.
The handle works for the restaurant, but the intermingling of simple food and spacecraft also serves as a good metaphor for modern Singapore, a famously strict, hyperefficient city-state driving relentlessly toward a spotless, prosperous and most of all futuristic future, but at the same time a place whose denizens are uniquely obsessed with eating, or makan, where even taxi drivers are bona fide gourmands with fierce opinions and stratospheric standards. Food is how the Singaporean soul respires, a place where, as one chef puts it, “if you’re not great, you’re done.” Here friends greet each other not by inquiring as to how they are, but as to whether they’ve eaten: “Makan already or not?”
Of course that’s what they say to one another. What they say to Western travelers engaged in eating their way across Singapore is usually something else: “Did you try durian?”
I had come to Singapore for the same reason many people come to Singapore: to eat street food until I fainted. By midmorning on my first full day here, I was already within striking distance of my goal. Spread across a table in the Tiong Bahru Market—a open-air “hawker center” lined with little stands offering street food specialties—were the remains of the following: shui kueh, gelatinous rice cakes covered with spicy, slightly bitter minced vegetables and chili sauce; two plates of “carrot cake,” made with a carrot-shaped Chinese radish and eggs, one with black fish sauce, one without; soft squares of yam with chili paste and sesame seeds; some tubes of rice flour with more chili paste; fritters dipped in strong coffee with condensed milk; and two pieces of mian jian kueh, or “stubborn cake,” pockets of chewy dough with shredded coconut. Between the sweltering heat and the chili, I was sweating visibly by the end of my breakfast binge, but every single thing was delicious, at points verging on revelatory. Not to mention cheap, averaging around $3.50 a dish.
Singapore has long had a world-class street food scene, but in the 1970s the government moved the vendors off the streets and into expansive pavilions, which were erected all over the island to ensure order and cleanliness. Prior to the consolidation, hawkers would do things like wash dishes in a single bucket of water all day long — pause for a moment to consider that — but today’s hawker centers are so impeccably clean and tightly regulated that you can eat your way through them without fear of dire gastrointestinal consequences. The centers are always bustling; people are always eating. “Singaporeans eat five meals a day,” my charming, witty guide Garry Koh told me. And yet, I said, everyone is thin. Garry shrugged. “We sweat a lot.”
Over the coming days, Garry would take us on a knee-buckling journey through the hawker gauntlet. Among many, many other stops, we hit the Tian Tian Hainanese stall at the Maxwell Food Centre for chicken rice, a succulent national dish in which chicken is boiled and rice is cooked in the liquid and served with chili paste; next was Rojak, aka “Singapore salad” with mango cake, turnip, dried bean curd, bean sprouts and pineapple with prawn paste, a rich, sweet dish with a slow-moving heat. At the Tekka Centre in the Little India neighborhood we stopped for an afternoon snack of perfectly fried banana fritters and the Maya Mohan stand’s pulled tea, a spicy, milky ginger tea dramatically poured from a cup the hawker holds aloft above his head. We savored it as Garry told us about durian, the notoriously pungent fruit that has captivated the locals for many years.
In the past, hawker stands were passed from generation to generation, but their continued existence is a bit less assured today. The hours are long, the pay is bad, and there’s no vacation time and little chance at retirement savings, so the younger generation, faced with far more lucrative options in the booming Singapore economy, isn’t particularly interested. “The dream of every hawker is to make enough money so their children won’t have to do this,” says Violet Oon, a prominent local writer, cook and food historian who I meet for a drink at the palatial Shangri-La Hotel. As a result, she says, “people say it’s dying.”
That cuts right to the central culinary paradox of Singapore. People love food here to the point of preoccupation — eating being one of the two things you’re allowed to do in public with abandon (the other being shopping, ideally for luxury goods) — but being a cook is still viewed as somewhat disreputable, something for foreigners to come and do. Historically, if you worked at a restaurant, Oon says, it was “because you were at the bottom of the heap intellectually, because you couldn’t do anything else.” As a result, in Singapore you had local food and you had fine dining cuisine, usually Western, with minimal cross-pollination, and with vernacular food getting little respect in fine-dining circles.
This attitude is changing and the gap is closing, gradually, with the rise of a few celebrated homegrown haute cuisine chefs like Willin Low, Justin Quek of Sky on 57 and Michael Han of the celebrated FiftyThree. Local food lovers hope that the arrival of celebrity chefs like Daniel Boulud, Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck, Guy Savoy and Joël Robuchon — all of whom opened restaurants here last year — will lend some more prestige to the trade and draw a new generation of Singaporeans into the kitchen. Ashton Hall, a brash 31-year-old American chef with an impressive résumé that includes two stints running restaurants for Jean-Georges Vonderichten, is now helming Bistro Soori, a sleek, contemporary Asian fusion restaurant here (try his ingenious take on foie gras, the house special). He told me he’s struggling to recruit and retain local talent, and hoping that the restaurant boom in general and Bistro Soori in particular can help the country develop a backbench of talented young cooks at the fine-dining level. “I don’t think Singaporean families have grasped that being a chef is a great thing,” he says. “That’s what I hope to do.”
THERE ARE FOUR of us standing in Ruqxana Vasanvala’s backyard, choking. We’re making fried kangkon leaves with sambai in her outdoor kitchen, and Vasanvala has instructed us to fry the mortar-pounded spices — red chili, shallots, garlic and more — until we choke. Then we add onions and pounded dried prawns and repeat. “Oh my god, it’s like chemical warfare,” I tell her, gasping after round two. “This is how you win a war,” she jokes. “Or better yet, serve them the food and win them over, right? Make them friends.” Vasanvala is a former engineer who dropped out a decade ago to teach cooking at her bungalow in Bedok. Growing up, all of her neighbors kept their doors unlocked. “I used to run in and out of everyone’s house,” she says. “That’s how I learned: watching other people’s mothers cook.”
Vasanvala teaches us to make turmeric rice, spicy pickles and ikan panggang, grilled sea bass wrapped in banana leaves with a spicy, bitter, slightly citrusy sauce. These are Peranakan dishes, Peranakan being the mix of Malay and Chinese that provides as much of an ethnic baseline as there is in Singapore’s overwhelmingly immigrant culture. It’s here, I would argue, between expensive haute cuisine and cheap hawker food, where Singapore’s sweet spot resides. The Peranakan chili crab at Long Island Seafood, a 65-year-old local institution, was extraordinary, a whole crab steamed and served in a large bowl full of rich chili sauce with a bit of sweetness. Eating it was physical, like breaking down a piece of slippery field artillery, but the effort made the payoff that much more satisfying. And the meal we had at True Blue, a celebrated eight-year-old Peranakan restaurant, was my favorite. Crab and chicken meatball soup, beef randang and ayam buah keluak, chicken stewed in spicy black sauce with Indonesian black nuts cooked in their shells for hours to the consistency of black tar. You scoop the nut paste out with a small spoon and mix it with chunks of chicken, chili paste and rice. In a week’s worth of great dishes, it stands out as my favorite, one of the best I’ve ever tasted.
“MY DAUGHTER LOVES THEM,” says Garry, eyeing the durian. He sniffs. “But I make sure she eats them outside the apartment.” We’re sitting at a picnic table next to the Chin Yong Fruits Trading stand. It’s late at night, but all around are durian lovers picking at the greenish, custardy pods found inside the spiky fruits in varying states of rap ture. Beside us are two dozen garbage bins full of durian husks from the day.
The smell is so pungent it’s practically visible. Durian is banned from hotels and public transit on account of its distinctive odor; you can smell a durian stand before you can see it. That said, it’s also a highly prized delicacy in Singapore, sometimes fetching as much as $60 for a single fruit. “It tastes like heaven,” Garry says, “but it smells like hell.” It’s a nice turn of phrase, but I would argue that it tastes exactly like it smells. After I eat it, everything smells and tastes vaguely of Durian. It’s like a haunting. It takes days to wear off. Then Garry mischievously slips me a durian shake without telling me what it is and it starts all over again. Let’s say no more about the durian.
Okay, one more thing about the durian. At present, Singapore is building the world’s largest indoor tropical gardens and the world’s largest aquarium; they already have the world’s biggest ferris wheel and debatably the world’s biggest fountain, “the fountain of wealth.” Their new supreme courthouse looks like a flying saucer. They own the distinction of having the world’s largest pillarless structure: the convention center at Marina Bay Sands, which is one of the two mind-bogglingly lavish, multibillion-dollar integrated resorts opened last year, sort of Vegas by way of Dubai, with feng shui, where visitors can buy, among other things, gold-plated tea. What’s more, with strong financial and tourism sectors and the world’s busiest port, Singapore’s economy is like a perpetual motion machine. Since its independence in 1965, the nation has devised without question the cleanest, most orderly and efficient society on Earth. And yet its citizens are completely devoted to a weird-looking fruit that smells absolutely appalling. This, I venture, is worthy of note.
Executive Editor JOE KEOHANE can still taste the durian.