Singapore’s rich cultural mix is shown in the seemingly endless variety of cuisine found throughout the city. Starting with my first breakfast on the first day of this trip, every meal has been an adventurous, though not always pleasant, trip into a relatively new or unknown culture. As a young kid, I was known to be quite picky with my food selection, but I figured this trip was as best a time as ever to give my taste buds a fresh start and try everything I could get my fork, chopsticks, or fingers on. This week in particular has provided me with quite a few interesting dining experiences that are worth sharing. (My fellow classmates will be able to relate to these experiences as well, as we are all pretty much in the same boat of trying completely new things).
NUS Food Stands
Everyday when we get out of class, the majority of the class participants eagerly head to The Deck, a collection of Food Stands on NUS campus, for lunch. The first time I went there, I felt quite lost, not knowing where to start in a sea of Muslim, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Vegetarian, Fruit, Dessert, and Drink stalls. Upon sampling almost all of them, I am beginning to learn about these very different types of cuisines. For a cheap meal of spicy/sweet noodles, I usually head to the Muslim stand for a plate of Mee Goreng or Mee Siam, which both have a unique flavor characteristic of their peanut-based sauces. It is interesting to note that at this food center, as well as all the others in Singapore, Muslim dining ware and utensils are always kept separate from the Non-Muslim ones. This helps facilitate the Muslim practice of only consuming food that is Halal, or permissible according to Islamic law. Using separate utensils ensures that any practicing Muslim can eat at such a diverse place and still adhere to their religious beliefs. It is very telling of Singapore’s cultural mixing that such a specific religious belief can be addressed on such a large scale by society.
Other culinary favorites of the group have included Kung Pao chicken at one of the Chinese food stalls, and chicken or mutton murtabak and/or prata at the Indian Stall. At the fruit stall, many of us frequently order fresh mango, guava, or papaya smoothies. By the slice, pieces of dragon fruit, sour sop, sweet pineapple, and honeydew melon go for about 40 or 50 Singaporean cents (around 30 US cents). Dr. Qwek, our professor on the culture/history of Singapore, explained to some of us after class that although those who own these stalls appear to be simple street vendors, many of them do so well that they are considered upper class citizens who can afford to indulge in expensive jewelry, clothes, and cars such as Lexus and Mercedes!
Fine Dining: Hot Pot Restaurant
In addition to the wonderful options in Singapore for informal dining at Hawker Centers, we have been lucky enough to take part in some very nice group sit down meals as well. This Tuesday, the group took part in an energetic, loud, and delicious meal at a Chinese “Hot Pot” restaurant. In the pictures to the right of this entry, one can see the fondue-ish layout of each table, with a pot of two different cooking sauces set in the middle, and a wide array of small plates dressed with meat, vegetables, fish, and everything in between. My table chose the method of throwing most everything into the pots and then sorting it out individually after it had cooked. Things got interesting when the waiter brought a second wave of plates to the table that included delicacies such as zhu she (pig tongue) and zhu du (pig stomach). While the tongue was rather tough and hard to chew, the stomach was very tender and flavorful, and I would definitely eat it again. Coming in a close second to the pig stomach were quail eggs, which were much smaller than chicken eggs but tasted fantastic when cooked in the Hot Pot. The fun atmosphere of this dinner was matched only by the uniqueness of the food selection, and it proved to be a great night.
Homestays: More Food
This week ended with a bang as every group member had their homestays. Broken up into groups of two or three, we got to spend a day, a night, or for some even two days and a night with NUS students and/or alumni. It will be interesting to hear everyone’s stories Monday morning, but for now I will share part of mine.
Dr. Qwek told us in our class that Singaporeans do not eat to live, they “live to eat.” After two weeks of being surrounded by the exciting Singaporean cuisine, I thought I had a pretty good handle on things. This Saturday, however, I learned that you don’t know anything about food until you spend a day with Singaporeans, the true pros. Ash Barnes and I were hosted by two NUS history students named Mike and Rachel. Rachel happens to be a very good cook, and as soon as we met her it became her mission to stuff our faces with as many delicious and new foods as possible.
Pictured to the right is the table spread for a meal picked out by Rachel in the very popular Maxwell Food Center in Chinatown. (Keep in mind that this lunch is for only four people, but as Rachel put it, “it is not a true Singaporean eating experience unless you can barely move after your meal”) This particular meal consisted of rojak (Chinese salad), popiah (spicy spring roles,) yusheng (sweet/spicy raw fish), pi dan zhou (century egg porridge made with seasoned duck eggs and fish), Hokkien mee (fried noodles with shrimp), Char kwey teow (another type of fried noodles), and chicken rice. For drinks, we ordered sugarcane juices and a soybean milk drink filled with slivers of grass jelly that was…interesting. After the meal, we tried a total of three desserts: almond paste, beancurd skin with ginkgo nut soup, and yam cakes. Abiding by Rachel’s rule, I truly could not move after all of this. The day was finished off by a sampling of many different teas, dinner at an Indian restaurant, and dessert at a popular beancurd stand . When we finally reached Rachel’s HDB flat around 9:30 pm, Ash and I didn’t have to wait long until Rachel’s mother was filling old shopping bags with even more Chinese pastries, desserts, and treats to take back to our dorm rooms. Saturday’s food-filled adventures left me with no doubt of Dr. Qwek’s workds that Singaporeans truly do “live to eat.”
Enthusiastically pursuing the food in Singapore provides so many opportunities to observe, learn, and be adventurous. It is even more exciting to realize that food is just one small facet of this interesting city; the possibilities here are endless. With only a few weeks left, I am eager to continuing learning about this place and experiencing new things. As for now, however, all of this writing about food has made me hungry, and I think it is about time to head to West Coast Hawker Center to grab some dinner. The question now is should I go with Indian or Chinese?…or Malaysian?…Thai?