I am happiest when I am well fed, and I am always happy in Singapore.
To say that I will travel 20-plus hours straight -- four hours from Anchorage to Seattle, 10 hours from Seattle to Tokyo, and finally seven hours from Tokyo to Singapore -- to eat griddled bread from an outdoor food stall is no exaggeration.
When I travel, I don't buy souvenirs -- the sombrero just never looks quite right back at home -- but I collect food memories. And a favorite is of a perfect starry night around a small metal outdoor table, surrounded by people I hardly knew, sharing Singaporean flatbread called roti prata. We laughed, people-watched, ate, drank and ate some more. And that's a reason for travel, isn't it?
The Singaporean culinary scene is on fire if you haven't noticed, and no wonder. The street foods of Singapore, called hawker foods, are legendary. Roti prata is delicate crepe-like bread that is sometimes filled with herbs, cheese, or, my favorite, dipped in egg. It's one of the many must-try street food dishes you'll find roaming the hundreds of hawker stalls found in food centers throughout Singapore.
The cuisine is an ethnic swirl of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Western tastes, seasoned, simmered and seared into a perfect mash-up metaphor of Singaporeans themselves. A visit to Singapore is one endless food festival that costs mere dollars per meal. The lights, the people, and, oh, that roti prata!
Another favorite is chicken rice. I went to the source to learn about this national dish. I sought out Wee Liang Lian, a famous chef well known for his exceptionally flavorful Hainanese chicken rice. (Hainanese cuisine refers to a Chinese food style from the southern Hainan region in China.) Chicken rice seems deceptively simple. It's boiled chicken and white rice, but there are strong opinions in Singapore about what comprises a distinctive version.
Wee Liang Lian first boils the chicken in a rich chicken broth and then makes the white rice using a similar broth. I know it sounds a little like my mom's Sunday dinner, but where it happens with this dish is with the add-on condiments. A soy sauce and sesame oil blend is served at the table alongside fresh coriander and cucumber, pounded ginger and loads of garlic.
Chili crab originated in Singapore in 1950, and I personally know it has migrated to restaurants around the world. Cooked crabs are simmered with egg-thickened stock, chili paste, a little sugar and fermented soybean paste. K.F. Seetoh, the mastermind behind his Makansutra brand universe (guidebooks, food courts, television shows and organized hawker safaris) shows me how to make chili crab. I don't think I can ever have a crab merely dipped in butter again.
Rojak is a Malay word for mixture. It's a combination of fruit, vegetables and shrimp paste. I know, it sounds complicated flavor-wise, but I actually began to develop a taste for rojak that seemed to increase with each serving I tried. The rojak I had consisted of cucumbers, pineapple, jicama, apples, mango, chilies, lime, peanuts, small Chinese dough fritters called yu tiao and shrimp paste. In the end, it was addictive.
A bucket-list Singaporean dish to seek out is char kuay teow, flat rice noodles stir-fried in sweet soy sauce, fish, eggs, Chinese sausage and vegetables -- cockles are optional.
Another personal favorite of mine is laksa. This is a shrimp and chicken noodle soup dish infused with coconut, ginger, galangal, garlic, chilies, coriander and a secret ingredient, tamarind water. The oil from the chili paste separates from the creamy coconut broth with an appealing rich red sheen over the surface of the soup.
These are all classic Singaporean street dishes. There's a government initiative for healthy, lighter (less fried) fare to be served in the hawker community, and culinary entrepreneurs are bringing in creative options, like a German wurst hawker stall. But in my mind, when in Singapore why eat anything but what they do best?
You can check out K.F. Seetoh's website for reviews on hawker stalls, tours, safaris and other up-to-date information on the moving-target landscape of who's hot or not amongst hawker stalls in Singapore.
There's also an extensive government-run website to learn more about hawker centers. There is an intriguing link on this site on how to become a hawker. Hmm, do you think Alaska salmon burgers could become popular in Singapore?