Singapore is famous for its hawker food centres: since the government cleared hawkers from plying their trade on the street, they have been moved to what are essentially food courts. However, they're not food courts in the way you might imagine them if what you are used to is European or North American mall food courts. These hawker centres are mostly open air, with a covering roof but no walls, doors or, crucially, air conditioning. The stalls have access to plumbing and there are hygiene certificates prominently displayed (this is Singapore, after all), but they are still decently grimy, hot and chaotic. Kenny and Alan ramped things up by taking us to Chomp Chomp, a hawker centre that's a bit further out and less touristed than the Chinatown ones. The neighbourhood is tony, with gentrified wine bars and posh bakeries nearby, but Chomp Chomp remains unabashedly traditional, and packs in crowds of mostly (but by no means all) young people.
Where to start? We saddled up with two of the most canonical noodle dishes: Hokkien mee and char kway teow. Hokkien mee is the milder tasting of the two, with a mixture of rice and egg noodle, various bits of shrimp and egg, and lemon, chillies and sambal on the side. It was fine, but I didn't love it.
Char kway teow here is sweet and dark with soy and another mystery ingredients to be explained below. It is fried with meat and seafood. Kenny and Mr Lemur prefer the Hokkien mee, whereas I fell in love with the char kway teow. It's a dish I've always liked a lot but here it was sweeter, darker and with a hard-to-place umami richness that had me shovelling it down at speed. Alan, ever the gentleman, ordered me another plate.
Of course, we had to have satay – here beef and chicken sticks with a side of ketupat. Regular readers might recall my attempt to make my own ketupat by cooking rice and then squishing it under weights. These banana leaf baskets are the proper way to do it, and these condensed rice squares make perfect dipping into thick satay sauce.
I ended up buying a large metal ketupat maker (actually for lontong, a cylindrical version) which I suspect is going to give me trouble with airport security on the way home. You see, officer, you put the rice in here…
When I consider the best things I've eaten in Singapore, though, this next dish is in the top three, easily. It's BBQ sting ray with a spicy sambal and served with a calamansi lime and shallot dipping sauce. The fish separates in long strands, easy to pick at with chopsticks and perfect for a leisurely shared meal. Rip off some fish, dip it in lime, enjoy the dried-shrimp and chilli tang of sambal on the lips. Wash down with giant stein of sugar cane juice. Sigh. This, seriously, is the life.
Now, we get to the more alarming part of the evening's entertainment. Kenny insisted on ordering “cockles”, which looked perfectly innocent, like Manila clams. They're not cockles to my mind but whatever, they looked nice. Until I prised one open.
<insert Psycho music here> Yup, inside these little monsters are blood-red and as you eat them, bloody liquid runs down your hands. Now, I should say, to be fair, that blood cockles transpire to be delicious. Honestly, they tasted really good. I ate a bunch of them quite merrily until I noticed that not only was Mr Lemur not eating them, neither was Alan. The only person actually eating the damn things was Kenny and honestly, he had the look in his eyes that my cat gets when she fixates on consuming string. I backed away from the blood cockles, only to look them up online later and read the following: “make sure you are up to date with your Hep A vaccinations if you eat blood cockles”. Um, yeah, ok. Also, I discovered that blood cockle hemoglobin is the magic ingredient that makes Singapore char kway teow so very rich, dark and sweet, so I was eating them anyway. Hey ho, I'm still here.
But, lest you think that Chomp Chomp was about the horror, let me finish with one of the glories of Singapore cuisine. Mr Lemur was sent to order carrot cake, which crucially, is not that vile abomination Americans call carrot cake. I'm sorry, I know a lot of people enjoy it, but I just don't. People say it doesn't taste like carrots but dude, it tastes like carrots. I know they're a bit sweet but just no. Anyway, this carrot cake is made with Chinese radish and we had the black version, with sweet soy sauce. According to Kenny and Alan's disapproving faces, this was the Wrong Choice and we ought to have ordered white carrot cake with no soy. I can't really believe it would have been better but who knows. All I can say for sure is that this is the freaking food of the gods. It's not bitter at all, but meltingly soft and greasy and charred.
Chomp Chomp isn't exactly a secret, but I can't imagine having found it if we didn't come with a local. I am, however, enormously grateful that Kenny and Alan brought us there, where we really got a sense of what Singapore food can be (and of how much we can eat at one sitting). We kicked back like this guy, soaking in the atmosphere and, maybe just ordering one more plate of noodles.
Chomp Chomp, 20 Kensington Park Road, Serangoon Gardens, Singapore