A Taste of Singapore

Eating is an adventure on this tiny island nation, where fish-head curries and other exotic fare are part of a grand tradition called makan

February 16, 2003|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Sun Staff

At 1 a.m., the Singapore streets are mostly quiet, and the ubiquitous apartment towers are dark silhouettes dotted with just a few brightened windows. In the blackness, though, there are glaring beacons for the hungry, or, in my case, the hungry, homesick and jet-lagged.

They are the neighborhood hawker centers, the open-air food courts -- sometimes ramshackle, sometimes buffed to a Disneylike sheen -- where vendors in tiny stalls chop, dice, boil and fry the best food to be had in my native country, a nation fixated on eating.

Under the bright lights, to the smell of oyster omelets sizzling in woks and the loud flaps of the hawkers' flip-flops as they run from table to table, people huddle over bowls filled with delicate egg noodles simmering in a spicy broth with peppery minced pork and a generous sprinkling of sliced red chillis.

It isn't until I taste my first spoonful of these minced pork noodles that I feel it -- I am finally home.

In this tiny Southeast Asian country that straddles the equator, food -- or makan, as we call it -- is something a national obsession.

Singaporeans spend hours passionately debating where to find the best chicken rice, and think nothing of driving all over the island -- which, at 240 square miles, is less than a quarter of the size of Rhode Island -- in search of new feasting spots. And when we're away from home, we gather on the Internet to wax about the barbecued stingrays and fish-head curries we've left behind.

In fact, food is of such importance that many restaurants and hawker centers have become landmarks. Even now, people know exactly where I live when I tell them it's near the old Long Beach Seafood, a famous eating hole that hasn't been at that spot in more than 10 years.

"What else is there to do?" asks KF Seetoh, host of Makan-sutra, a popular Singapore food show that discovers and rates hawkers and restaurants. "Every piece of land is used up. You can't go to the country; you can't go to the lake. You can only watch movies or go clubbing and go makan."

The country's unique flavors have caught on in America recently as Malaysian and Singaporean restaurants have sprung up along the East and West coasts. These restaurants, however, tend to just skim the surface. To truly sample Singa-pore's smorgasbord and get to the heart of the country, you have to visit -- and be ready to eat.

Sure, the Singapore Zoologi-cal Gardens' Night Safari -- a showcase of nocturnal animals -- is popular with tourists. And yes, the country is a growing Asian arts hub, with a beautiful new $343-million arts center modeled after the Sydney Opera House.

But there is also the exquisite experience of sitting by the beach at East Coast Park, gnawing on sizzling chicken and mutton skewers from the Haron 30 Satay stall as a soft breeze rolls in over the water. Or digging into a bowl of ice-cold cheng tng -- a clear, sugary soup with ingredients like lotus seeds and dried persimmon slices -- on a sweltering tropical day.

And then there's chicken rice, which may be Singapore's most well-loved dish: tender chicken served with a rice that's been steeped in a mix of ginger, garlic, soy sauce, chicken stock and leaves from the tropical pandan tree.

Feels good!

As in many cultures, food isn't just important to Singaporeans because of taste. It's our way of bonding.

My fondest memories of growing up in Singapore revolve around food. There were the times in elementary school that my neighborhood friends and I sneaked out to a nearby hawker center for ice kachang, a dessert of sweet corn, red beans and jelly topped with shaved ice smothered in evaporated milk and syrup. And on special Sundays, my parents would take the family out for bak kut teh, a mouth- watering, peppery pork rib broth that's nearly impossible to find in the United States.

The cuisine of this country of 4 million is best described in a "Singlish" word any Singapore-bound tourist should learn: shiok (pronounced "shoke"), which conveys something like "feels good!"

The complex flavors of Singaporean food have their origins in the 19th century. The city-state on the tip of the Malay Peninsula, just north of Indonesia, was once a quiet, rural island of Malay fishing villages. In 1819, the British discovered the island and established a bustling trading port there, attracting settlers from India, Europe and China. Today, Singapore remains one of the world's busiest ports and is ruled by a democratic-socialist parliamentary government.

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