Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Eating in... Singapore

This post should really be titled "Eating in... Maxwell Food Centre". Having been to Singapore several times before, and about to travel for three months with a 32L backpack, shopping on Orchard Road (a favourite past-time) was low on my priorities. All I wanted to do was eat.

Singapore is famous for it's open-air hawker-style food courts and has several throughout the city which are positively bustling at peak meal times, and fairly busy at any other hour. And despite the generally high living costs of this financial and business hub, this style of eating comes cheap. And so so delicious.

We stayed in Chinatown (at this awesome hostel) and as soon as we'd confirmed our accommodation, I immediately checked Google maps for the closest hawker centre. The slightly touristy Chinatown Food Street, on Spring Street, presents a pretty, sanitised version with all of Singapore's culinary specialities under one roof canopy. Lines are long at various stalls, and the food looks and smells great. We only had a brief char kuey teow (fried flat wide rice noodles) here, but I knew we could get it tastier and cheaper.

Chinatown Food Street on Spring Street, Chinatown
Hill Street Fried Kway Teow (char kuey teow) in Chinatown Complex

Chinatown is also home to a couple of other large internal food courts (including the Chinatown Food Court and Chinatown Complex), but the place we frequented most often was Maxwell Food Centre. At the corner of Maxwell Road and South Bridge Road, this felt as much like home as our hostel. Again, all of Singapore's classics can be found here, but I'm a sucker for my favourites: Hainanese chicken rice, char kuey teow (Singapore style with clams and chinese sausage), laksa, and fried 'carrot' cake (nothing to do with the sweet dessert cake, or carrots for that matter). We ticked these off the list fairly quickly, but I also found some other 'Singaporean' specialities I had to try. This included popiah (fresh Malaysian spring roll), banana fritters specifically from Lim Kee Banana Fritters, and the famous Fuzhou Oyster Cake which appealed to me on so many levels.

Maxwell Food Centre, corner of Maxwell and South Bridge Road, Chinatown

The taxi driver who brought us to Maxwell on our first visit let us in on the local secret: Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice is among the best of this Singaporean speciality in town. We found it quickly by its long line of locals, despite being 3pm. The line moved swiftly and I made our order.

(l) A hungry queue at Tian Tian, (r) perfectly poached Hainanese Chicken
Hainanese Chicken rice with the classic sides: cucumber, clear soup, chilli, dark soy sauce and greens

What I love about Hainanese Chicken rice is that the chicken is poached in a flavourful water-come-stock, which the rice is then cooked in as well. The meat is beyond succulent, with a clean taste and mouth-feel, and simply eaten with a no-hesitations dousing of the punchy chilli sauce and flavoursome steamed rice - it's an absolute [guilt-free] pleasure to eat. The bok choy simply cooked with oyster sauce and topped fried onions is not a compulsory part of the meal, but tasty nonetheless.

The stall for excellent popiah
(l) Rolling up the popiah, (r) coined as an 'Asian-style burrito'

Despite popiah's Malaysian origins, I had never tried these before this visit to Singapore. Now, I'm addicted. The 'wrapper' is pleasantly wafer-thin and is typically made from flour and eggs, while the filling can be a combination of many different things. China Town Popiah's version comprised of crunchy peanuts, lettuce, bean sprouts and a mix of jicama, carrot and cabbage (my best guess of the vegetables) cooked-down in Chinese bean sauce flavoured with dried shrimp; however, many family recipes include whole prawns and/or pork. Chilli was also an option I took, which added another welcome dimension to the sweetness of the bean sauce, and crisp and light texture of both fresh and cooked vegetables. Again, guilt-free deliciousness.

The Fuzhou Oyster Cake, however, was our indulgence.  

Anthony Bourdain's photo and review provides a credible plug 
Freshly cooked, crispy-on-the-outside, delicious-on-the-inside Fuzhou Oyster Cake

A crispy batter encasing oysters, prawns, pork, and chives - this was only going to be amazing. The only fear was that the oyster could be lacking, but nope, the sought-after bivalve was front and centre with its meaty texture and pleasantly salty flavour, providing seasoning for both pork and prawns. I was overcome with so much joy as I devoured this medallion of goodness, and immediately after we finished it, I went back to buy another one to take away for later.

For dessert on every visit to Maxwell Food Centre, I couldn't go past the famous banana fritters, or goreng pisang, from Lim Kee. The first time we tried a few other items, e.g. sweet potato and yam, but gave these up quickly to focus on the stall's namesake.

Lim Kee (Orchard) Banana Fritters is referenced all over the internet for the best banana fritters in Singapore.

Their special batter recipe is what makes their fritters the best in the city. Super crispy, even after cooling down, light and non-oily, it encases an ultra-sweet banana, made so by the cooking process which has caramelised the banana's natural sugars. The perfect sweet (without the sugar) ending to any meal.

Other blissful eats in Singapore included black pepper crab (an alternative to the famous chilli crab) out at Long Beach on the East Coast for a splurge with friends, and cheap and tasty Roti Paratha for a snack in Little India.

Needless to say, Singapore is a foodie's dream and, like many others, I only wish I could have eaten more. So my biggest piece of advice for anyone visiting this great food city is: whatever you do, eat at these open-air hawker centres! Forget the air-conditioned, over-priced cafes and restaurants! You'll only be wasting your money when the best Singapore has to offer only costs a few dollars.

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