I set myself a food challenge since I had a few days back in Singapore. Try tasty food from as wide a spectrum as possible, all of which must come from new stalls, eateries, cafes or restaurants to me. Rather than go chornologically I decided to cluster the individual experiences according to the establishment. Today – hawker food from food centres.
I couldn’t head to Singapore without trying the hawker food, this was the food that fed (and fattened) me growing up.
Food centres arent comfortable they are warm and stuffy, if you go at a busy hour you have to share a table with strangers or have the loomig figure of a hugry diner circling round (just standing too close for comfort really) waiting for you to be done with your food. But Singaporeans still go there, why? Because the food is good.
Each individual store in every food centre is required to put up a cleanliness rating rating awarded to them by the National Environemnt Agency. A passing grade is a C, and standards are high in Singapore. So the food prep standards are high even a C stall is safe to eat at. Although from my experience the average stall is a B and is itself very very clean.
Here’s what I tried.
Hong Kee Beef Noodle, J2 Curry Puff & Coffee Break @ Amoy Street Food Centre
A bowl of thick rice noodles with slices of beef blanched in a clear beef stock and ladled with a thick, viscous beef gravy before serving in a bowl (SGD 5, EUR 3.12, USD 3.5). That’s Hainanese Beef noodles. This southern Chinese dialect group migrated to Southeast Asia from the 19th century and most of them found employment at restaurants and dining establishments. They developed, in the process, many of the local favourites that we know and love today. I had tried beef noodles before and grew up with an extremely popular version prepared by a cool old lady near my house. So I had high expectations for this one.
This stall, located at Amoy Food Centre, in the heart of the city within the business district came not just with news paper articles but with a recommendation from Mr Tires (the Michelin Bib Gourmand).
Amoy Street Food Centre
This stall has been operating for more than 50 years, serving the lunchtime crowd that floods over from the many nearby office blocks. Its queue stretches during peak dining periods, but its otherwise quite brisk. I chose to go in the morning, after the crowd had thinned and before it got heavy again. The stall sits next to a few other highly acclaimed hawkers, next to it a famous Chicken Rice stall and two stalls down a fellow Bib Gourmand awardee, a middle aged couple manned the store coffee in hand perhaps taking a break before the hordes arrived – they were extremely brisk with my order, maybe so that they could get back to their coffee.
Not that I’m complaining.
Whereas cows are sacred in Hindusim, cows in southern Chinese culture are sacred for another reason – their deliciousness. Try to locate a south Indian hawker next to beef noodle stall, even in multicultural Singapore that’s a little bit too much to ask. But the dish here was good.
A good beef noodles has chewy and springy rice vermicelli, with relatively soft beef. A good gravy tends to be slightly savoury – and this stall had it all. It missed out on two things (maybe they were available and I should have asked) that I thought would make the dish even better, a lime or calamansi to drip over the dish so as to ‘cut’ the thickness of it and a fermented prawn paste sauce. Accoutrements aside, this was a solid bowl of beef noodles.
The next thing to arrive in my tummy was a beautifully fried Chinese curry puff. I walked past a brightly lit shop front and was drawn to the bright honey yellow sign like a bee. The stall owners seemed much younger than the couple who sold beef noodles, the male was cooking the curry puffs, the female was filling them. A brisk queue had formed.
Chinese curry puff are filled with a savoury potato and chicken curry paste. What made this puff good was that it did not taste of oil, and had an extremely soft, brittle and flaky skin enveloping a moist curry paste (the chicken was not dry). This was a gem at SGD 1.20 (EUR 0.75, USD 0.90), which I only found out later was awarded a mention by the Michelin Bib Gourmand list. I guess I’m turning into a tire man myself, I mean my waist.
I was happy in my tummy, but the heat meant that my tongue was calling out for some liquids. That was when I stumbled upon another stall, Coffee Break. The owners of this store were even younger, perhaps even younger than me, and the coffee was not more than the basic options on offer. These three young hawkers were third generation hawkers taking over from their parents. They spruced up an coffee stand that began in 1935 and made it modern.
The stall served artisanal coffee alongside basic coffee and tea, with melon milk flavoured coffee, salted caramel coffee and almond ginger coffee among the flavours on offer. At around SGD 4 (EUR 2.5, USD 2.99) this was a very very affordable cup of artisanal coffee, and alot more spunky than the generic Starbucks and Coffee Bean cuppas.
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Noor’s Pisang Goreng @ Tekka Food Centre
It’s not what’s in the name, its whats in the banana that matters when it comes to goreng pisang. Translated as deep fried banana fritters, the malay term places both goreng pisang and pisang goreng interchangeably. Deep fried banana fritters are made by both Chinese and Malay hawkers with one difference, while Chinese hawkers like to use small bananas for their deep fry, Malay hawkers prefer to use big bananas. Which makes the fritters at Noor’s Pisang Goreng a little different.
Located at the famous Tekka Food Centre, this stall run by Mr Abdullah Omar is easily one of the best in town. The almost 70 year old hawker saved up to buy a smple pushcart and has been selling his Goreng Pisang since 1969. It is not just bananas that get deep fried, other fruits such as chempedak can also be deep fried, enhancing the flavour of the snack. According to the article (linked in his name), a good Goreng Pisang is made based on controlling the temperature of the oil.
The right temperature of oil ensures a crispy battered fritter on the outside and a soft and creamy banana on the inside, warm enough to soften the banana so that the natural sugars start to exude from the fruit.
My fritter was fragrant and sweet, but it was a little colder than it should have because I chose the wrong time to buy. Deep-fried dishes are best eaten warm and not hours after they have been deep fried.
Would I go back for it, if I’m in the area, definitely.
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Terry’s Laksa @ Bukit Timah Food Centre
I had to have one of my favourite local dishes when I was in town, but it had to accord with the challenge. Laksa is one of my favourite local dishes evinced by the fact that I had written about 6 different laksa stalls in my previous blog (Roxy Laksa, Janggut Laksa, 328 Laksa, 363 Laksa, Sungei Road Laksa and Wei Yi Laksa). Since I was doing a challenge about good local food that was new to me, those were all out of the question – at least for the purposes of this post.
Laksa is a spicy soup noodle dish made by the Peranakan people. The soup base is made of two sorts of bases a rich and creamy coconut base (known as the Nonya style Laksa) as well as a sour tamarind based Assam Laksa, the former is popular in Singapore while the latter is more popular in Penang. Even in Singapore, there are variations on Laksa, with Roxy, Janggut, 328 and 363 Laksas all belonging to something called the Katong Laksa. Katong Laksa is usually made with fresh coconut and is eaten with a spoon and without a fork – the original creator of Katong Laksa also serves the soup out of a scoop made of a coconut shell.
Luckily there are many many good laksa places in town, and a short while of googling threw up a top quality option – Terry’s at Bukit Timah Food Centre.
This food centre serves a much more local crowd than Amoy Street or even Tekka centre, seeing as there is no real tourist site of note in that location of Singapore. The crowds are much thinner too which means that the chef, Terry (I reckon that’s his name) has time to personally prepare dishes bowl by bowl. By preparing every dish bowl by bowl, the chef is able to maintain the quality of every laksa bowl, even though it may take a little more time.
The selling point for this laksa is that it is prepared fresh daily from scratch, without any MSG or added sugars and is sold until the laksa broth is finished. The strength of a Nonya laksa is measured by the quality of the broth and Terry’s has a really good one. T o be able to get the rich laksa flavour without being cloying (which 328 sometimes has) and to not use any MSG or added sugars to is a mark of a great laksa.
The noodles is served with cockles, fish cake and prawns and laksa leaves are added for colour and flavour. This dish came close to what I think is the best laksa in Singapore – Janggut’s. I was more than satisfied 🙂
They ran out of broth (called guah) barely 15 minutes later, when I tried to get another bowl for the road 😦
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