02 May 2012


This morning, after enjoying a mid-morning coffee with some American ladies, I got to experience a lesson on Singapore’s popular hawker foods. Shalyn Yamanaka is a nutritionist who decided that it would be fun to host an informational and interactive food session where attendees would have the opportunity to learn the food names, history, preparation practices and, of course, taste everything. The title of the series is “Welcome to Singapore…What Am I Eating?!”

I think we were all amazed at the number of options presented. We began the first of three sessions I informally refer to as “Shalyn’s Food Adventure” at the famous Newton Food Center. The center, which first opened in 1971, is famous for its size, the number of vendors present and the seafood that can be found under one roof, so to speak.

Tiger prawns, fish balls, grilled sting ray, oysters and squid are just a few of the items available at the more than 80 stalls. Surprisingly, only a few stalls are open for lunch; most of the stalls open in the late afternoon to prepare for the dinner crowds. Since the work day typically ends at 6 or 7 here, most of the hawker centers become quite crowded after 7 and stay that way well into the evening.

The first thing that I saw when I sat down at the table was something that looked like a cross between an egg roll and a burrito. I learned that it was a Chinese dish commonly known as Singapore’s version of a spring roll. A crepe-like, flour-based wrapper encompasses Chinese sausage, radishes, eggs and a sweet soya sauce.

I was warned that the roll was really spicy so I was disappointed that I could not taste the dish. Anyone who knows me knows that I have the weakest palate on the planet and something minutely spicy for any normal person is crazy spicy for me. So, knowing that everyone around me called the dish “really spicy,” I knew I would likely die if I had a bite. It looked so good!

We had two kinds of duck – one duck rice dish and one duck noodle dish. I happened to prefer the noodles, which had somewhat of a rough texture as compared to Italian pastas. The noodles were very long and very thin. The duck was extremely tender and the skin peeled right off the meat. 

Carrot cake is a very common dish here but there is nothing carroty or cakey about it. We got to try the black and the white versions, which were crowd pleasers. The white version clearly resembles an omelet with the yellow egg cooked to a toasty brown showing brightly alongside white pieces of daikon and green chives. A spicy sambal sauce accompanied the dish.

The black version included the same ingredients with the addition of soy sauce. Chai tau kway is the common name that hails from the dish’s Chinese creation.

I first tried the barbequed sting ray when my friends Van and Katie came for a visit. The sting ray was one of Van’s many conquered species. The seafood has a very stringy yet meaty texture. Today the ray was covered in the spicy sauce so, again, I did not partake, though I did have the memory from my prior experience. The ray is cooked on a banana leaf on top of a grill.

I have written about kailan, my new favorite vegetable, a lot lately. Today we sampled the version in the oyster sauce; I have previously eaten the garlic version and the kailan in the chicken broth. Though all are tasty, I would not likely order the oyster sauce again. I could eat it but it would be my third choice. My first choice would be the garlic.

Otak is a fish cake (fish pressed with fish paste and spices) that is cooked inside a banana leaf. The dish is widely known in Southeast Asia and is most popular in Indonesia. The smoky flavor melds with the spices to bring out a bit of extra heat.

Laksa, one of Anthony Bourdain’s favorite foods, is a Chinese-Malay dish that has taken a bit of a turn in Singapore. The Singaporean dish commonly contains seafood such as fish cakes, prawns and cockles, along with bean sprouts and noodles in a spicy coconut broth. The laksa noodles were thicker and shorter than the noodles served with the duck.

My neighborhood, the East Coast, is known for the seafood and the laksa. Just like Ray’s, Famous Ray’s and Famous Original Ray’s pizza joints in New York City, there is a battle for the true original laksa on East Coast Road. There is a Famous 49 Katon Laksa, 328 Famous Katong Laksa and The Original Katong Laksa and, as the story goes, none of them are actually the original. But, just like in New York, each shop has its own very loyal customers.

Though I was never a fan of tea before my cross-world move, I have fallen in like with Singapore’s iced lemon tea. Whether I am in a hawker or a restaurant on a typical hot Singaporean day, the iced lemon tea is habitually the first thing I order.

Today, Shalyn expanded my drink circle to include the lemon sugar cane juice. I admit, I was a bit apprehensive since I had previously tried and immediately disliked the plain Jane sugar cane juice. I thought the drink was very sweet and a bit overpowering in a non-appetizing flavor. I was brave, though, and I decided to go ahead and take a sip. If it was as bad as the first, I had water in front of me.

The lemon, as Shalyn explained, cut the harshess and the sweetness of the sugar cane and actually made the drink quite enjoyable. I could not drink the whole thing as the remnants on the bottom were too much for me to take but I did like the drink overall. We found out that a single cup was only about 85 calories but our cups were probably three times the original serving size.

Just when we thought we were done, Shalyn advised that the dessert course was on the way. I heard a few groans, one of which may have been mine, as we did our best to find room in our bellies. We were first presented with something called tau sar piah, also known as “wife’s delight," a pastry that encompasses sweet or savory fillings.

The first one I tried was filled with mung bean paste. I cannot tell you what a mung bean looks like or what else it could be used for, but I can tell you that the cookie tasted like a Fig Newton and I was completely O.K. with that. I really liked the mung bean.

We passed around another box that had cookies filled with pineapple, red bean paste (which I now realize that I really should have tried) and peanut butter with chopped nuts. I tasted the peanut butter cookie (N is for nuts) with the sesame seeds on top.

Our final dish was from a hawker vendor. An ice-based dish somewhat like a snow cone, ice cream sundae and fruit cake minus the cake all in one. Chendol is comprised of coconut milk, rice flour jelly, shaved ice and palm sugar. Here in Singapore the dish also comes with red beans and grass jelly. The consensus was good – people liked the dish.

This experience was truly a great way to get to know Singapore’s food world one bite at a time. I look forward to the next two toward the end of the month, but this week I need to work off all that I ate. 

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