More than a decade ago, when circumstances brought me to the city of Singapore, all I knew was that it was a clean, efficient gateway to the world with glitzy malls and a superb airport. The years have flown by and as I have my eaten my way through the passage of time, Singapore has rewarded me with food experiences that will remain an integral part of my life for a very long time. Along the way, my food horizons have expanded significantly.
Sitting on a Singapore Airlines flight in 2003, I may have predicted a few events and gotten them mostly wrong. But I would not have predicted craving a morning breakfast of Kaya Toast (Kaya is a local jam made with coconut, eggs, pandan and love) dipped in runny soft boiled eggs, spiced up with pepper and soy sauce and washed down with Kopi (the local coffee with its own set of alphabetical suffixes, Kopi – C, Kopi –O. Almost like vitamins, only more nourishing). I would not have thought that poached chicken with rice prepared in chicken broth with dollops of garlic and chilli sauce could set right a hectic morning at work. And not in my wildest imagination would I have thought that craving for late supper would mean Ba Kut Teh (a peppery pork rib soup that is accompanied with salted vegetables, rice and chilies) on Balestier Road.
Yes, the city is a global ‘hub’ of anything and everything. That reflects even in the sheer variety of cuisine available in the restaurants ranging in affordability from astonishing value for money to eye-wateringly expensive. But if you are the sort who loves a local meal, Singapore could reward you with a different meal every day of the year and have a fair bit to spare. In a city of immigrants, what is local is difficult to define. But there is something unique about being an immigrant in Singapore. You feel like a local not by what you do or how you speak. You feel local by how you eat. The day you stand in queue at a hawker centre and order your first plate of prawn noodles, have it served to you in minutes, help yourself to the sambal in the sauce pot, queue again to order a fresh fruit juice or a cold barley, and then train your eyes to spot an empty seat –you’ve settled in. You start having favourite hawker stalls, because the prawns are good, because the aunty gives you a familiar smile and knows your preference, you think nothing of selecting dried tofu skin and extra fish balls for your yong tau fu as if you have done it all your life. There is no easier way to settling in. It helps if you are ready to eat anything. It helps if anything is mostly delicious local food that is an amalgamation of centuries of different cultures, carried to its shores by commerce and conquest.
I used to be a regular at the Serangoon Gardens Hawker centre in Singapore. It’s a large, bright hawker centre that offers a wide variety of fare. Lunch hour brings out office workers in droves to sample the many delights dotted all over Serangoon Gardens. As I walked around, I would contemplate my choices. I could opt for a plate of fried Ipoh Hor Fun (flat rice noodles with some greens and fried dumplings), or maybe some Nasi Lemak (Malay-style rice served with a selection of meat, vegetables and dried anchovies). Ultimately, I may settle for a Black Carrot Cake (made entirely of radish and eggs with chilies and dark soy sauce) and washed it down with a glass of fresh sugarcane juice.