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Travel

Streets of the scrumptious

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CHEAP AND TASTY: The best food in Singapore is available at the purpose-built hawker food centres

Sampling the wallet-friendly delights of hawker cuisine on Singapore’s streets makes for a special experience.

The next time you're in Singapore try and take some time to prowl around the city-state's streets and sample the hawker food on offer. Unlike Thailand, where food is peddled on the street, Singapore has 'hawker centres' at malls and small hawker joints line most popular streets. The government is promoting this food in a big way too. In April last year, minimum rental fees were abolished in an effort to keep the prices of hawker food affordable, and there's talk of establishing training colleges to teach "official" recipes.

This stems from the food's popularity, which has much to do with the range of dishes offered. Consider a few notable ones, like the Penang version of Hokkien hae mee, hae mee which is very popular with the locals. The dish consists of egg noodles and rice noodles stir fried in lard and served dry, with shrimps and small pieces of sliced pork. It is usually served with lime and sambal chilli. Traditionally, for take-out, it should be wrapped in the Opeh leaf or betel leaf. In fact, it is not the betel nut leaf that is used for wrapping the food, but the main stalk of the leaf that is attached to the slender trunk of the palm. According to the author of 'The End of Char KwayTeow and Other Hawker Mysteries', Leslie Tay, the best place to get the wet and gooey variety of hae mee is Geylang Lor 29 along the East Coast Road. "This place still uses a charcoal stove to fry their hae mee, which is quite rare nowadays, " he writes.

For cautious non-vegetarians, chicken rice is the safest bet. Even though available in nearby Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia, enthusiasts claim that Singapore has the highest density of chicken rice stalls in the world. The dish is usually served with several dips, including a chilli and pounded ginger vinaigrette, and dark soy sauce.

And though both India and Singapore share a similar colonial past, it is coffee and not tea that is Singapore's national drink. 'Kopi' here is typically made with high-caffeine robusta beans, not the arabica beans that dominate the international market. But it is the roasting process that turns coffee into Kopi. Roasting the beans in butter or lard gives them the dark colour which makes the Kopi especially robust.

Tay traces the origin of the Kopi to the kitchens of the British, which were manned by Hainanese cooks. "This was where they learnt to make coffee and toast. When they left the Britishers' service, some of them came out to introduce this "Western" food to other locals. Since they couldn't afford the more aromatic and expensive arabica beans, they got hold of the full-bodied robusta and roasted it with butter, sugar and corn. Thus was born our very own Kopi which is usually served with condensed milk. "

While strolling around Boat Quay, you can't miss the crabs that crowd the bottom of aerated tanks in front of restaurants. They come in all sizes and are cooked in ten different styles. The giant Sri Lankan crab is the preferred choice, but you can take your pick from among Dungeness crab, the Blue Swimmer, the Tasmanian King crab and the Alaskan King crab. The Singapore chilli crab comes to you on a big plate, chopped and glistening in a thick, spicy reddish sauce. It is best enjoyed by four people - not only because you would want to divide the bill, but because the crabs weigh at least 1. 25 kg and are impossible to polish off alone. The Old Airport Road is where you'll find some of the best chili crab in Singapore - and for less than half the price they're offered at big-name sea-food restaurants.

Fish Head Curry is an Indian contribution. It was apparently made popular by a Malayalee named Gomez who once operated a bustling little stall opposite the old Rex Cinema area off Serangoon Road. The dish is prepared by stewing the head of an ikanmerah (red snapper fish) in a spicy-hot curry with vegetables, with the sour-tasting tamarind flavour an unmistakable signature of this dish.

The Fish Head Curry made in Chinese style is also worth trying out. For this, Tay suggests that you head to the oldest surviving Fish Head Curry restaurant in the world, Soon Heng. A few years after Gomez kicked-off the craze, Hoong Ah Kong took a leaf out of Gomez's book and made the dish milder and sweeter to better suit Chinese palates.

Of course, besides the variety, the best thing about hawker food is that all you need to do to reserve a seat is place a pack of tissues on one. Besides, it's cheap - most dishes will cost you only about S$4. But be prepared to pay a little more if you want to try out the sea-food. Throw in a dollar or two for some fresh fruit juice, and there you have it - a cheap, delicious and authentic local meal in pretty Singapore.

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