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Singapore on a Full Stomach

You know you are in for something special in Singapore when you land at the world's best airport, Changi. It's not well sign-posted, but tucked away in its basement is a hawkers center mainly for airport workers but also for the general public. Essentially, a Singaporean hawkers center is a cafeteria with many different food stalls offering the holy trinity of local cuisine: Chinese, Malay, and Indian. "Cafeteria" might conjure up school memories of tasteless stale sandwiches or worse, tasteful meat loaf, but this is quite the opposite. A group of you can sit at any table and mosey around all the different vendors, ordering from any you please. Side by side you can have kway teow, roti prata, and nasi lemak. Deciphering these dishes should be the first step in gaining a foothold on the joys of Singapore. In fact, if you have a layover in Changi for more than a few hours, transit passengers are offered free city tours. Pleasant as that is, maybe you can ditch the group at some point and do your own food exploration. You won't have to go far. Food is everywhere, and Singapore's multi-racial composite, low prices and passion for good food guarantees a satisfied stomach.
This is perhaps my fifth time here and yet I am always making food discoveries. On this occasion my Norwegian friend, Frode, has shown me several new dishes. Just passing through town on a few visits there is simply not enough time to sample everything available. I suspect this is the real reason Frode has chosen to stay and work here, but he denies it---sort of.

Many foods sound like they have no business being delicious but often are. Among these are otah-otah, (a fish paste flavored with chili and wrapped in a banana leaf), ais kacang, (a heinous-looking concoction of crushed ice topped with a flourescent assortment of syrups, jellies, and unidentifiable nuggets) and durian (a spiky fruit, razor-sharp to the touch, with a pungent smell so potent it is forbidden in Singapore's subway system.)

Banana Leaf

One not-to-be-missed eating experience is the banana leaf restaurant. Peppered all over the Little India district, there's no need to be intimidated by the unfamiliar scene as you enter one. Find where everyone washes their hands, then sit down at any table and a banana leaf will be plopped in front of you. A succession of old men with small, stainless steel buckets shuffle by to ladle rice and dollops of various curries, vegetables, and yogurt. (Curiously, I have never seen young men do this job. Maybe it takes years of training to develop the flair for appearing out of nowhere and looking disinterested.) They can probably rustle up a fork somewhere if you ask for it, but normally you are not given silverware. Instead you eat with your hand--your right hand. The left hand is traditionally used for, uh, unsanitary purposes. The bucket brigade will continually come by on their rounds to bring more and more food until you are close to bursting. The brownish curry color on your fingers won't go away for a day or two.

A food court is a sort of more sanitary hawkers center, usually indoors with air-conditioning. There is an ongoing public debate as to whether the quality of the food is better. Last week it was a front-page issue in the main daily newspaper when a local starlet confessed a love for the "dirty" hawkers center. Ask anybody if they have a favorite dish at a particular place to eat and you will never lack for responses. Hainanese chicken-rice lovers swear by a grungy food stall near downtown in Maxwell's Food Centre and will line up to wait for this simple, wonderful dish of flavorful, boiled chicken slices atop rice cooked in broth. It comes with a tiny plate of its distinctively unique chili sauce and a cup of broth on the side. My purpose in life has sometimes temporarily been to find the best daging rendang, an Indonesian beef dish so spicy that your fingers burn from the touch of it. So varied is the cuisine that odd offshoots sprout up. In Little India there is a whole street dedicated to restaurants that specialize in fish-head curry.

Food often sits out all day. Singapore lies just a few degrees north of the equator and it is always hot and steamy, yet I never see flies or bugs circling around food and it always stay fresh. Maybe the tropical heat constantly "cooks" it all day. The foreigners certainly seem to cook. While the locals wear jeans and black shirts and look ever serene and graceful in this oppressive heat, by late morning westerners in shorts and t-shirts lumber around soaking wet, their sunburned heads about to explode. This might be considered a good time for a drink. No need to go to 7-11or the now-ubiquitous Starbucks. Hawkers centers come through again. Try fresh soybean milk with sugar (much better than you'd think) or young coconuts with the tops cut off so you can sip the juice and then take a spoon and scoop out the coconut. My favorite is sugar cane juice with a hint of lemon; it never disappoints.

"Service", as it is known, can be a little rough for first-timers. This is not The Land of Smiles, after all, but usually it is an enjoyable sort of roughness. The classic Asian case, not really occurring much in Singapore anymore, is where you order, say, fried rice, and then are asked, "Chicken or pork"?


"No have pork."

It's easy to get caught in this Abbott and Costello-esque miscommunication. If the person I am with orders coffee, and I say, "I'll have coffee, too." Then the drink man says, "Three coffee?"

"No, two coffees."

"You want two and she want one."

"No, I meant that I also want coffee…" and so on.

It's the fun of eating out. Just observing people interact is interesting. I like when some people order drinks they raise their voice at the end to say, "Ping!" meaning "with ice", the term coming from the pinging sound ice makes in a glass. Even better is the way "fifty" is communicated by showing the palm of the hand and quickly closing all the fingers on the thumb a couple of times. It's a beautiful gesture.

While a case can be made that Singapore is the food capital of the world, ironically, many Singaporeans like to pop across the causeway to Malaysia to eat, delving into massive seafood feasts where prices are lower and the eating experience mellower. Malaysia also has great numbers of Indians and Chinese as well as Malays, plus a comparable love for eating out. It is my next destination. I can't go wrong.

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