By Saugato Banerjee May. 11, 2017
In Singapore, you feel at home not by what you do or how you speak. You feel at home by how and what you eat.
It was more than a decade ago that Singapore opened its doors to me. Aboard a Singapore Airlines flight in 2003, I anxiously predicted a few events and got them mostly wrong. But I did not predict mornings on which I would wake up with a mad craving for a breakfast of Kaya toast (Kaya is a jam made with coconut, eggs, pandan, and love), dipped in runny soft-boiled eggs, spiced up with pepper and soy sauce, and washed down with Kopi, the local coffee with its own set of alphabetical suffixes: kopi – C, kopi – O. Almost like vitamins, only more nourishing. Ten years ago, I would not have thought that poached chicken with rice prepared in chicken broth with dollops of garlic and chilli sauce could set right a hectic morning.
My earliest memories of Singapore are of a hawker centre in the Central Business District – a tiny relic that seemed determined to be grungy. Equipped only with Indian-Chinese food lingo – Manchurian, Hakka, and Schezwan – I took few shaky steps toward one of the stores and asked for fried noodles with chicken. The subsequent interrogation of the type of noodle I wanted, did not enlighten me in any way to change my answer. I wanted fried noodles. Fortunately, the woman at the store took matters in her own hand and served up some flat noodles, stir-fried with chicken, vegetables, and plenty of chillies.
It hit the right spot.
For the next week, I stuck to a routine. I returned to the same stall and pointed to the noodles I wanted to sample. Soon, the chicken was substituted with slices of pork, prawn dumplings, beef, and fish. Sometimes I’d suggest a combo, and the woman behind the counter would vehemently shake her head in disagreement. A smile meant I was on the right track. By the end of a few months, I knew hor fun, mee sua, lor mee, mee pok, kway teow, bee hoon, and ee fu. They were my friends. Some tasted better in soupy broth, some were better stir-fried.
You’re truly a local when you grab the empty seat first.
By the end of a few months, I also knew that in Singapore, you feel at home not by what you do or how you speak. You feel at home by how and what you eat. The day you stand in queue at a hawker centre, order a plate of prawn noodles, have it served to you in minutes, help yourself to the sambal in the sauce pot, queue again to order a fresh fruit juice or a cold barley, and then train your eyes to spot an empty seat, that’s the day you know you’ve settled in. You’re truly a local when you grab the empty seat first.
And in no time you have a favourite hawker stall, because the prawns are divine, the aunty at the counter gives you a familiar smile and knows your preference. You think nothing of selecting dried tofu skin and extra fish balls for your yong tau fu, as if you’ve done it all your life.
The Serangoon Gardens Food Centre became my regular lunch-hour jaunt. As I walked around with hordes of office-goers, I would contemplate my choices. I could opt for a plate of fried ipoh hor fun, flat rice noodles with some greens and fried dumplings, or maybe some nasi lemak, Malay-style rice served with a selection of meat, vegetables, and dried anchovies. I would frequently settle for a Black Carrot Cake, made entirely of radish and eggs with chillies and dark soy sauce, and wash it down with a glass of fresh sugarcane juice.
And if in a mood for something simple, I’d opt for chicken rice. Chicken rice is as close as you can get to the national dish of Singapore. The chicken tastes mostly like chicken, the rice is fragrant with broth and pandan leaves. You can control the fire in your mouth by being judicious about
the amount of garlic chilli sauce you dab on. But nothing is simple in the world of food. There’s chicken rice and then there’s chicken rice that makes you emit a long sigh… so tender is the meat of the chicken and so delicately fragrant is the rice. The Maxwell Road Food Centre induces that sigh in me. But Pow Sing in Serangoon Gardens and Boon Tong Kee on River Valley Road also deserve a mention.
I would chance upon the food stalls and feel less like a stranger.
This is a subject close to the heart of every Singaporean and can trigger a national debate.
You may pick Maxwell Road Food Centre or Boon Tong Kee, but the formula for eating in Singapore is simple. I remember as a newbie, I would often hop onto a bus and sit around until it reached its final destination, mostly be greeted by the sign of an interchange. I could pick my next destination, get on an MRT, or take another bus. It was a little game to get familiar with the city. And then, I would chance upon the food stalls and feel less like a stranger.
Time and circumstances have changed. Singapore is now familiar. “Home” is difficult to define, but that’s an immigrant for you. But the friends I’ve made here have offered me comfort and love. They will be friends for a very long time. Thank you, hor fun, mee sua, lor mee, mee pok, kway teow, bee hoon, and ee fu.
Pune, Goa, Kolkata, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City, Tokyo, Seoul – cities I have called as home bases. The food adventures have been numerous. When these meals, or their memories, are shared with Ani and Priya, we add chapters of taste to our enduring story.