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I don’t usually have a particularly sweet tooth, and I also tend to find Asian desserts to be a bit ho-hum. But Singapore and Malaysia may have changed those opinions forever, because the world of kueh has opened up for me. It all started in Singapore, where Kenny suggested that we buy some little cakes right after our massive blow-out meal at Chomp Chomp. We laughed, because really we couldn’t have eaten a wafer thin mint at that point. But Kenny insisted that we take some back to our hotel, so we bought two tiny, jewel-like green cakes. And sure enough, an hour later, in our hotel room, we thought why not, they’re very small…They proved to be absolutely delicious morsels, combining sweet sticky rice, coconut custard and pandan layers. When I reported this back to Kenny, he said that Singaporeans have a finely-tuned sense of when the human body will be ready to ingest just a little more food. Read the rest of this entry »

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I already wrote about the putu piring, but there was so much more going on at the Geylang Serai pasar malam. Blocks and blocks of tents were set up for a giant market that runs through Ramadan, adjacent to the hawker food centre where we ate. Outside, the streets are decorated with lights and in lots of places, decorative ketupat holders. Inside you can buy most anything, but if you are in the market for some spiffy new headscarves, then you have really come to the right place. We spent a happy couple of hours wandering around the stalls.
 
While in Singapore, we stayed in Chinatown, one of the few city neighbourhoods to retain many older buildings. Even here, you are surrounded by hulks of sci-fi style high rises. Some of the shophouses of Chinatown are run down but, this being Singapore, many have been renovated and now house chic bars and restaurants. Most are very nicely done, but there is a bit of a Disneyfied atmosphere in the more touristy sections. Still, what's fascinating about the city is the rubbing up together of the gentrified night clubs and the old men shooting the breeze outside the temple. Maxwell Road hawker centre is perhaps the best example of this promiscuity: on the one hand, it is definitely a tourist destination, with quite a few Europeans wandering around; on the other, it is a locus of genuinely excellent food, with long queues of locals patiently forming at the best stalls.
 
 
While in Singapore, we stayed in Chinatown, one of the few city neighbourhoods to retain many older buildings. Even here, you are surrounded by hulks of sci-fi style high rises. Some of the shophouses of Chinatown are run down but, this being Singapore, many have been renovated and now house chic bars and restaurants. Most are very nicely done, but there is a bit of a Disneyfied atmosphere in the more touristy sections. Still, what's fascinating about the city is the rubbing up together of the gentrified night clubs and the old men shooting the breeze outside the temple. Maxwell Road hawker centre is perhaps the best example of this promiscuity: on the one hand, it is definitely a tourist destination, with quite a few Europeans wandering around; on the other, it is a locus of genuinely excellent food, with long queues of locals patiently forming at the best stalls.
 
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. Read the rest of this entry »
I have much food to blog about. So much food. But before I get into the vast meals, let's stop to consider just one dish. Not even a dish really, a simple sweet made of rice flour, coconut, pandan and palm sugar. But as simple as they are, putu piring are one of the most delicious things I've ever eaten. They come in packs of five and Kenny tells me he has been known to buy four packs all for himself. He's not an especially greedy person, but these things are like crack. We went to the pasar malam or night market at Geylang Serai that was packed with Ramadan crowds, and then headed to the Haig Road hawker centre. Among the savoury food Kenny picked us up some packs of putu piring from this bright little stall. Somehow we knew this was not something to hold out till dessert. No, in between mouthfuls of soup, we moved in on the fluffy little morsels. With a pandan scent from fresh leaves, and oozing with gula melaka, these steamed rice and coconut cakes are transcendentally good. Read the rest of this entry »
Yes, the Lemur trip to Singapore and Malaysia is underway! We arrived in Singapore yesterday morning after a sleepless thirteen-hour flight, but luckily the energy of being here carried us through, at least till a much-needed afternoon nap. More to the point, our desire to be out and eating won out over tiredness, and we met up with Lemur friend Kenny* for a late breakfast. Our first stop was the Chinatown Hawker centre, which is a sprawling, labyrinthine food hall on the second floor of a concrete mall. It's nominally indoors but open to the elements, not air conditioned, but with breezy balconies around the edges. We wandered a lot, weaving through colour-coded sections, sometimes ending up walking in circles past the same kway teow stall or the same family with a giant fish on their table. It was the perfect introduction to Singapore food and possibly an extension of our feverish jetlagged minds. Eventually, we settled on mixed meat noodles with fish balls and fried wonton. The broth was spicy and tasty, and the tangle of noodles included delicious secrets like little cubes of deep-fried lard. So. Very. Good.
 

Image by Tichan on Traveljournals.net.

Here’s part 2 of LocAlien’s guest post from Singapore. Thanks again, LocAlien! I will totally go hunting for grimy biryani parlours with you if I ever get the chance…

I suppose that Anthony Bourdain has done more than most to introduce this street food culture to the world. I believe that he honestly tries to find its genuine elements, while evading and even subverting the manufactured gimmickry and antiseptic options that the tourist promotion board pushes on innocent food tourists. But he can unnecessarily overreach, as when he asserts that chicken rice has the strongest claim to being the national dish. (Check out a clip here.) The problems: One, other dishes have more justified claims to the title. Two, ethnic hegemony. The chicken rice he eats on tv is the Chinese version, which you’ll never see Malays or Indians ever eat. The less famous Malay version of chicken rice can be very well executed, especially if you prefer the chicken more roasted-y rather than poached, and the rice drier. Nevertheless, Chinese chicken rice can be superb, especially if the initial thought of boiled chicken served cold grosses you out. The gelatinous skin alone is gold. Three, over-selling it. Telling people that chicken rice is the national dish, convinces them to buy the first plate they see, and they will see it everywhere. Most chicken rice isn’t worth the hassle, and will make you think Bourdain is a moron. Pick the wrong place, and you’ll be gagging on rendered chicken fat. I’d venture that only 40% is decent, and the best handful of sellers would serve you a plate that might just be worth half your airfare. Four, he just plain eats it wrong. Whatever you do, don’t douse it in soy sauce for fuck sake. If you know enough about sushi to know that soy sauce disrespects the chef, you should know that the same about the chicken rice cook. Oh, and fun fact: Pay close attention to the guy chopping your chicken with the cleaver. Count his fingers, and see if you reach 10. If you do, he might not have being doing this for long enough. Read the rest of this entry »

(Image by mailer_diablo, used under CC licence BY-SA 3.0)

I’m just back from Italy with a bunch of amazing food still to post, but first I’m going to hand over to a guest blogger. Lemur friend LocAlien has also been travelling – from the US to his childhood home of Singapore – and he’s been kind enough to write about what’s changed (often for the worse) in Singapore food culture and where you can still find authentic street food. LocAlien is a badass writer and has a real insider’s knowledge of Singaporean culture, so I’m super pleased that he’s written these guest posts. Enjoy…

Ten days in Singapore, and the food situation is dire. Whatever paradigm you use – loss of aura, pastiche, simulacra – they all apply. Neoliberalism has wrought urban renewal and franchising. Many legendary street food vendors are simply history. Malls everywhere, with their food courts modeled after colonial style coffee shops. You can’t walk 100 feet without hitting another, but they’re abominations. I can’t list all the examples, but I can cite one from personal experience. There used to be this cafe in a row of shophouses called the Polar Cafe. It served coffee (I mean real coffee) and a selection of pastries, and only that small selection of pastries. It was cooled by ceiling fans, had marble table tops, wooden-rattan chairs, and mosaic flooring. It was in the colonial downtown area on High Street, and I remember going there with my mother for tea-time snacks before walking over to city hall to ride home with my father. The restaurant is gone, of course. In its place? Franchised outlets that get their food from a central kitchen, which also stocks Polar-labelled display cases in things like the 7-11. I saw one of these glass cases the other day, moved towards it by pure instinct, then remembered the original location, and swiveled away in disgust. The website tracks the death of food culture quite ably, as a matter of fact. Read the rest of this entry »

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