Snacker's Paradise: Devouring Singapore's Endless Supper

September 10, 2003

ASIAN JOURNEY; Snacker's Paradise: Devouring Singapore's Endless Supper

By R. W. APPLE Jr.

''FOOD is the purest democracy we have,'' K. F. Seetoh said as we dug into breakfast bowls of bak kut teh, a peppery, restorative Teochew soup of pork ribs, mushrooms and kidneys. ''Singaporeans recognize no difference between bone china and melamine.''

Slurp, slurp. Yum, yum. The clear, aromatic broth, full of tender, close-grained pork, perked up by herbs and whole garlic cloves, was cooked in a hole in the wall next to a busy expressway and eaten at a sidewalk table. Cab drivers, teachers and a few junior executives slurped around us. Bak kut teh is the city's preferred hangover remedy, and Ng Ah Sio makes the best, which is why Mr. Seetoh took me there.

This was the start of 16 hours of almost continuous talking and eating, with the rollicking Mr. Seetoh -- ''K. F. stands for King of Food,'' he joked -- as my guide and noshing companion. Racing around this island city-state in his Mitsubishi van, with two brief pauses to shower and change clothes (eating in Singapore can be messy), we would make 18 stops before midnight.

''Don't eat, just taste,'' he kept saying. I tried, but I failed. More gourmand than gourmet, I finished much of what was put before me at a dizzying array of food stalls, storefronts and hawker centers, which are so called because they were built by the government of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to get open-air food-sellers, or hawkers, off the sidewalks and indoors.

Fish balls followed chwee kueh, soto ayam followed roti prata and rojak followed chicken rice, in a multicultural parade of gastronomic hits that issued, in most cases, from kitchens no longer than walk-in closets. With so little overhead to defray, gluttony was cheap: $2 a plate on average.

Singapore is one of the most food-mad cities in an ever more food-mad world, with more than 6,500 restaurants and 11,500 food stalls jammed into its 250 square miles. They offer Cantonese, Teochew, Hokkien, Hakka and Hainanese dishes -- all with roots in China -- plus curries from south India, tikkas from north India, Malay and Indonesian and Thai specialties, and adaptations and mixtures of all of them.

It adds up to a feast fit for the gods, but for the ordinary visitor, even one who has been here often, it can seem more like culinary chaos. Which is where Mr. Seetoh, 40, steps into the picture. Once by his own description ''a useless street kid,'' he skipped university, learned photography in the army.

But food was his passion, and in 1998, he and Lim Moh Cher, an equally enthusiastic eater, started a guide to street food.

They called it Makansutra, from the Malay word for eat and the Sanskrit word for a set of rules or maxims. It has grown into a small empire, including a Web site and television programs as well as an amazingly comprehensive guidebook, whose current, 456-page edition contains detailed information about thousands of eating places.

Now Singapore's unchallenged makan guru, instantly recognizable in his trademark sunglasses and his crumpled cap, Mr. Seetoh is greeted by one and all as he chugs by on the yellow Vespa or the Canondale mountain bike he uses -- when he isn't lugging an elderly visiting makan maven around town.

I THINK the knock on Singapore is way overdone. Sure, it's squeaky clean and modern, but come on: does anyone actually prefer the beggars, rubbish and shantytowns that deface many large Asian cities? Not the poor souls who live in them. It's plenty tough on miscreants, but hardly deserving of William Gibson's woundingly dismissive tag line, ''Disneyland With the Death Penalty.''

Under Goh Chok Tong, Lee Kwan Yew's successor, individualism has gained a little more breathing room. The longstanding and much-ridiculed ban on chewing gum has just been relaxed. Censorship guidelines are currently under high-level review. Nightclubs, once invisible, now throb into the wee hours. And the louchest of Maugham's or Conrad's characters would feel right at home in the seedy bars and brothels off Geylang Road, east of the city center.

Having spent many years bulldozing old buildings, Singapore is now busy saving others and putting them to new uses. One of these, a grandiose neo-Palladian pile close to the Padang, the city's central green, was once the General Post Office; now it is the Fullerton, a luxury hotel with one of the city's best upmarket dining rooms, Jade. Having spent years in headlong pursuit of Mammon, Singapore is now busy chasing culture, as exemplified by the new, $343-million Esplanade arts center, known colloquially as the Durian because its spiky profile resembles that of a local fruit.

''We are witnessing many changes,'' said Tommy Koh, the country's dynamic former ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, who helped to bring many of the new developments about.

One thing that hasn't changed is the Botanic Gardens, founded in 1859, which I would nominate as the island's top tourist attraction. Its brilliant orchid collection is the world's largest, with 700 species and 3,000 hybrids, many named after leaders like Elizabeth II and Nelson Mandela.

My wife, Betsey, and I ate the best European meal of our recent stay in Singapore at Au Jardin Les Amis, a restaurant in the gardens created by one of the city's superstar chefs, Justin Quek. Small portions of worldly food with punchy flavors -- truffled sandre (pike-perch) with girolles, rabbit with mustard sauce -- were enhanced by artful presentation on glacier-white plates, fine French and Australian wines, lush flowers and silky service.

There were few Asian grace notes that evening, but for lunch in a private dining room at Jade a few days later, Sam Leong, another local culinary wunderkind, pulled together a stunning pan-Asian, European-influenced menu.

A classic Peking duck with skin as crisp as parchment was accompanied, for example, by five-spice duck foie gras. Crisp prawns were served with wasabi mayonnaise. Meltingly soft tofu, better than any I had ever tasted before, was house-made with puréed spinach, like tagliatelle verde. A jellied dessert was flavored with lemon grass. It was Singapore on a plate, or rather several plates, brought up to date: traditions blended without strain.

BUT back to Mr. Seetoh and the magical makan tour. From Ng Ah Sio we headed west to the Tiong Bahru Cooked Food Center, a low, shedlike structure adjacent to an apartment complex.

We picked up one dish from each of the stalls that he considered first-rate and carried them to the roofless central courtyard of the building, where several tables sat around an angsana tree.

''Always try the soup first,'' my food philosopher advised. If it really stinks, he added, ''call the police.''

It didn't, even though it was (gulp!) my second bowl of pig soup that morning -- a rich, porky brew, full of chunks of chitterlings, liver and spleen, made by Koh Brothers (no relation to Mr. Koh). Incredibly, given the ingredients, there was no acrid taste or aroma. I was reminded of the ways the French transform tripe.

Next, fish balls, made of flaked fish and flour and fried on the spot. ''Too springy,'' Mr. Seetoh said. ''Inconsequential taste,'' I told myself, ''and unappealing texture.''

Then onward to the cake stalls.

I had no complaints about humdrum flavor when I bit into Jian Bo's famous chwee kueh, which are steamed rice cakes topped with fried preserved radishes, called chai poh, and chili. The radishes taste slightly of bitter chocolate, and the chili provides a welcome bit of bite. People drive from all over town to taste this dish.

Chai tau kueh was another winner -- omelettelike savory fried rice cakes with shredded radishes and carrots, topped with sweetened soy sauce that resembles the Indonesian kecap manis.

If my soy-stained notes are right, this tidbit is Hokkien, cooked by people who trace their origins to Fujian province, between Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Before we left Tiong Bahru, whose stall holders are all ethnic Chinese, we tasted further evidence of the Asian genius for making a lot from a little, in the form of mee chiang kueh, a thick pancake filled with coconut and peanuts crushed before our eyes in an ancient heroically clanking and banging contraption.

But my favorite Tiong Bahru specialty was suckling pig spit-roasted in the Cantonese style, right there in a 6-by-8-foot kitchen.

Remember the crackling on your mom's roast pork? Here they never got rid of it. Thin layers of fat tucked between layers of lean melted in my greedy mouth.

''That's char siew, my friend,'' Mr. Seetoh said. ''These people have been making this for 30, 40 years. Cooking is not about creating and evolving for them. It's all tradition.''

LUNCHTIME (I kid you not). We stopped at the hotel to pick up Betsey, who had spent the morning on more pressing business, then swung by Nasi Padang River Valley for some beef. Our porkfest was over. Nasi padang, named for a city on the Sumatran coast, is a dish of rice (nasi) surrounded by a variety of spicy side dishes -- proto-rijstafel. The star of River Valley's spread, which is laid out on utilitarian metal tables, is beef rendang, a grainy, coconut-based curry, made not with the usual off-cuts but with juicy rib eye. No doubt that's why Malaysia's Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, stops there often.

Mr. Seetoh traded jibes with Zulfa Hamid, the chef, and told me, much more soberly, that nasi padang had begun as ''desperation food,'' developed by the poor to make cheap meat and fish more palatable.

From Indonesia, we traveled to Malaysia, gastronomically speaking -- to Janatul Jalan Kayu, a roti prata stand halfway across town, tucked beneath a modern low-rise building. There Anwar the roti master, decked out in yellow sneakers and a kangaroo T-shirt, pounded and stretched a large pancake, flipped it into the air like a practiced Neapolitan pizzaiolo, slapped it onto a hot grill greased with ghee, trapping air inside, and folded it like a napkin.

The result was crisp and fluffy, absolutely perfect for dipping into a rich, thick curry sauce and stuffing into waiting mouths.

Almost next door, at a little stand called Inspirasi, we tucked into bowls of soto ayam, which was the first Singapore street food I ever ate, back in the late 1960's. A gloriously full-bodied Javanese chicken soup, flavored with galangal and star anise, it is garnished with parsley, fried shallots and bean sprouts. Every day, hungry customers line up 40 minutes before noon, when Inspirasi's doors open. That's how Singaporeans feel about food, and that's the reputation of this place.

''Food writing is a godly calling,'' Mr. Seetoh said, smacking his lips. ''Chefs are the soldiers who defend Singapore's culinary heritage. They are my heroes. Without them, it would all disappear in a few years.''

A brisk crosstown dash ensued, to visit Karu's, a new Seetoh discovery near the Bukit Gombak military base. All but hidden by hardware stores and hubcap dealers, it serves a breathtaking fish-head curry, laced with tamarind and turmeric -- another example of desperation food, created by Indian cooks here from fish heads their British colonial masters threw away.

Served on a banana leaf with tomatoes, okra and a superb pilau of long-grain rice, the curry is eaten with the right hand. No cheating with the left, and no fork.

Fish heads contain some of the most succulent flesh on the animal, of course; cod cheeks are a delicacy much appreciated in Spain (and increasingly in New York). But if the whole idea seems too anatomical, don't despair. Chicken rice, Singapore's all-time favorite dish, is made just for you.

Chicken rice originated among the descendants of immigrants from Hainan Island, in the South China Sea. It consists of a whole bird poached in stock and cut into easily managed, skin-on pieces, with aromatic rice sautéed in chicken fat or oil, then boiled in stock with garlic and ginger. It may sound unexciting, banal, white-on-white. But if the rice is right, the dish has the allure of a fine risotto.

Everyone who serves it offers sliced cucumbers on the side and a special condiment to flavor the chicken. At the chicken-rice shrine where we ate, a modest stall beneath the corrugated roof at the Maxwell Road Food Center, the dipping sauce (lime peel, chili and garlic) packed a punch.

THAT evening, we stopped at the grandly named but mundane-looking Old Airport Road Emporium and Cooked Food Center for a few light hors d'oeuvres.

Of course we didn't need them, but moderation in the pursuit of flavor is no virtue. So we sampled rojak, a remarkably complex salad freshly assembled by an elderly couple from turnips, pineapple, green mango, dried tofu, peanuts, shrimp paste, tamarind paste, charcoal-grilled crullers and many, many other ingredients; fried Hokkien mee, an utterly addictive dish of egg noodles cooked with cuttlefish, shrimp and pieces of belly pork, enlivened with squirts of juice from a fresh lime; and that old skewered standby, satay, made of chicken.

More morsels awaited at the Zion Road Food Center, but time was fast running out. So it will have to wait until next time.

We ended our peregrinations, for that day at least, at a rickety table on the sidewalk at Sin Huat, a garishly lighted seafood joint in Geylang, the red-light district. Dishes arrived and vanished, arrived and vanished, amid excited chatter from Mr. Seetoh and our first wine of the day, brought by one of his buddies: sweet little bay scallops in their shells, with black bean sauce; baby bok choy with oyster sauce, not quite raw, not quite cooked, and delicious; prawns steamed, tossed in a wok and showered with blanched garlic.

But what we had come for, what has made the name of Danny Lee, the chef, and what has earned Makansutra's ultimate accolade, ''Die, die, must try,'' was the crab bee hoon. After a considerable wait (everybody waits at Sin Huat, even the makan guru) a platter of huge, bright orange-red crustaceans appeared. They were piled atop a tangle of rice vermicelli, in a sticky sauce made from spring onions, ginger, red chili and Mr. Lee's ''secret stock.'' The sweetness of the crabs and the tang of the spices had been fried right into the noodles.

''Do you smell it?'' Mr. Seetoh exclaimed, fanning the aroma toward us with his hand. ''Mama! Mama!''

It was the best crab dish we tasted in a city famous for crabs. (All the top chefs, intriguingly enough, use the meat-packed jumbos from Sri Lanka.) It was better than the excellent, magnificently messy chili crabs at Roland's, whose owner's parents invented the dish, and better than pepper crabs laden with pungent, lip-searing, freshly ground black Tellicherry pepper.

But more work lay ahead. The next morning, Tommy Koh's son, Aun, a photographer, and Aun's slim, glamorous wife, Tan Su-Lyn, an editor, took me to a traditional kopi tiam, or coffee shop, where we ate another of Singapore's national dishes, char kwey teow -- broad, stir-fried rice noodles with sausage and cockles, dressed with soy sauce as thick as molasses -- and then to Ya Kun, a 50-year-old cafe now installed in a rehabbed Chinatown building.

Ya Kun's specialty is kaya roti, a dish created by Nonyas, the female descendants of intermarriage between Chinese and Malays. It consists of thin brown bread grilled over charcoal, rather like melba toast but less dry, spread with a rich egg custard and coconut jam. Starbucks, please copy!

Realizing that he had not yet exposed us to laksa, Mr. Seetoh asked us to join him for lunch that day at a favorite spot, Marine Parade Laksa, which has such a following that imitators surround it. Often it sells 600 bowls of noodles a day, drenched in coconut chili curry and flavored with daun kesom, also known as Vietnamese coriander.

Peranakan cooking, the cooking of the Nonyas and (occasionally) their male counterparts, the Babas, is unique to Singapore, Malacca and Penang -- the old Straits Settlements. We saved it for last, as a summing-up of the city's food culture. Saucers of tiny, bright-flavored local limes and fiery sambal waited on every table at the House of Peranakan Cuisine, and the menu was dotted with unusual, complicated and, as it turned out, captivating dishes.

Three of them shot our lights out: otah-otah, spicy sticks of mackerel paste wrapped in fresh banana leaves and grilled over a smoky fire; chap chye, a mixture of lily flower buds, cabbage, bok nee tree fungus and bean curd, cooked in a clay pot; and ayam buah keluak, chicken cooked with the black, nutlike fruit of the kepayang tree, sometimes called the Asian truffle.

It is exacting and exhausting food to prepare, Bob Seah, the restaurant's owner, told us, but ''full of rare flavors worth preserving for posterity.'' Like so many flavors and aromas here in Singapore.

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