BY BARBARA HALUSA
It’s soon going to be my sixth month here in Singapore and I can luckily say, cooking has never been easier than it is here. No, not because of my gas stove which is a pleasure to cook with, but due to which I own three burned kitchen towels now, and no, not because of Redmart which delivers food and drinks and household items free of charge straight into my kitchen, and certainly not because local food is inexpensive, unless you buy organic veggies and fruits which not only expats but also Singaporeans are asking for more and more. No, it is simply because I hardly ever cook.
You may wonder why. Well, Singapore makes it so easy to buy freshly prepared food or to sit down and indulge in the most delicious cuisines from all over Asia, and this, as mentioned before, at sometimes unbelievably affordable prices if you stick to the famous hawker centers or food courts that are an oasis of Singaporean culture, a symbol of racial harmony and a place where the rich and the poor and well, the rest of us sit side by side to eat.
Food in Singapore is a way of life and Singapore is the place to explore food. People here know good food, they have strong opinions as to which places you get the best, and they demand and live for it. Wherever you go, you pass food stalls (more sophisticatedly called food operas), hawker centers, restaurants of all price ranges, Kopitiams (Singaporean coffee shops), but also European style cafés, salad bars, bakery shops, and more. And no matter at what time of the day it is, you’ll find people eating. Singaporeans make time to eat, be it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It’s a social and even more importantly, a family event. Singaporeans sit down for a full meal; they would never have a quick bite out in the streets (even if permitted) or on their way to the office or home. Anyway, eating or drinking on the bus or on the metro is strictly forbidden. And believe me: You had better not be the one doing it if you visit or live here.
But Singapore not only offers a great variety of places to eat, it also offers an incredible range of food. No wonder people proudly call their city a food heaven and a culinary melting pot. Why is that? For hundreds of years people from all parts of Asia and beyond have been coming to Singapore to work, live and settle, bringing with them many of the traditions and flavors from “home”, such as Chinese, Malay and Indian cuisines, that have been blended over the years with other cuisines from all corners of the globe to create something “uniquely Singaporean”. So the food of Singapore reflects a mixture of styles, ingredients and flavors.
The Chinese cuisine highly dominates since 70% of Singapore’s human history relates to China. In particular the Cantonese and Hokkien ones which consist of cooked and fried dishes including nearly all available meats and organs. But just as important and liked is the Northern Chinese cuisine with the famous Peking duck, and the Peranakan cuisine, a mixture of Malay and Chinese ingredients and spices. So in a food court, you’ll find stalls of all those cuisines, in addition to the same liked Indian cuisine, the Malay, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean and Thai.
It is so exciting to stroll around watching the chefs in the stalls preparing the food and breathing in the smells (although not all appealing to the European nose), comparing the diverse freshly made dishes, and finally ordering and tasting them. It’s too hard to resist and so easy to adjust to this nice and embracing Singaporean lifestyle.
Now even you “domestic goddesses” might understand why there is no reason to stay home and cook for yourself, even more so since the kitchens aren’t equipped with air-conditioning and the heat becomes almost unbearable while standing in front of the gas cooker. The all-year round temperature in Singapore is about 35 degrees Celsius, so working in the kitchen and having the sweat dripping down your face and your back makes you feel like you are sitting in the sauna. Not so enjoyable and certainly one of the main reasons why most of the expats more than happily hand this task over to their maids.
But you stand in a cool kitchen and you love to cook, so let me share with you the most popular Singaporean recipe:
Hainanese Chicken Rice
Source: Asian Journeys Magazine, Kevin F. Cox
This is the so-called national dish of Singapore. So simple yet so complex, good chicken rice is considered art and virtually every Singaporean is a critic. It may, at first, appear simple and almost boring but don’t let first impressions deceive you. The complexity lies in its preparation, which according to many, takes years to perfect. While variations can be found, there are certain basics that must be followed in the creation of any self-respecting chicken rice.
First, good quality Thai fragrant rice must be sautéed in pandan leaves and ginger, the brewed in a flavorful chicken stock, which itself is made from specially raised chickens used in the dish. Which came first, the chicken or the stock? No one knows for sure but, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is including plenty of garlic, ginger and pandan leaves in the stock. The whole chicken is boiled in this elixir until perfectly tender, then plunged into an icy bath, instantly halting the cooking and creating a paper-thin gelatinous layer of rich chicken fat between the skin and the meat. It’s then artfully cut and placed atop the rice. Each bite, dipped in a blazing orange chili/ginger/garlic sauce that is concurrently both delicate and robust, takes nearly every Singaporean one step closer to that special place they call home.
“You can’t profess to understand Singaporean cuisine if you haven’t had a plate of good chicken rice” ~ Anthony Bourdain
Good luck preparing and makan, makan!
With love from Singapore,