Mega food, mini prices

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

Eat­ing in this city state is cheap and de­li­cious thanks to hawker food mar­kets in ev­ery neigh­bour­hood, writes Ian Neubauer.

N THE 1950s when un­em­ploy­ment in Sin­ga­pore was rife, peo­ple took to the streets with food carts to make a living. Known as hawk­ing, the pro­fes­sion re­quired lit­tle cap­i­tal and turned tal­ented home­schooled cooks into neigh­bour­hood celebri­ties.

Hawk­ing also brought the coun­try’s di­verse eth­nic­ity to the fore, ex­pressed through the end­less vari­a­tions of Malay, Chi­nese and In­dian cui­sine.

By the mid-1960s, more than 24,000 hawk­ers were work­ing the streets of Sin­ga­pore. But the ex­plo­sion of food carts also cre­ated wide-scale san­i­ta­tion prob­lems be­cause of the way hawk­ers dis­posed of food waste and dish­wa­ter – di­rectly into road­side drains.

In 1968, the gov­ern­ment stepped in, tak­ing hawk­ers off the streets and re­lo­cat­ing them in pur­pose-built food courts with in­creas­ingly fas­tid­i­ous hy­giene stan­dards. Cooked food stalls in Sin­ga­pore are now sub­ject to ran­dom checks by health of­fi­cials who rate ven­dors’ clean­li­ness with a mark from A through to D. And hawk­ers must dis­play their grades promi­nently above their stalls.

To­day, Sin­ga­pore is home to 218 hawker cen­tres that have be­come the fo­cus of in­nu­mer­able TV shows and ar­gu­ments over who makes the best chicken rice or chilli crab. Here are five of the best cen­tres, with up-to-date data on clean­li­ness, when to go, sig­na­ture dishes and who makes them best. Back in the 1930s, Tiong Bahru was a Chi­nese burial ground. To­day it’s a charm­ing in­ner-city her­itage area crammed with art deco apart­ment blocks and trendy bak­eries and bou­tiques.

At its heart is one of Sin­ga­pore’s old­est hawker cen­tres where tourists can ex­pe­ri­ence a real Sin­ga­pore­anstyle break­fast. Start with a strong black kopi brewed in a white cot­ton fil­ter sock, a cup of English break­fast tea or kopi cham, a quixotic lo­cal blend of cof­fee and tea!

Truly ad­ven­tur­ous gas­tronomes can test their met­tle with pigs’ or­gan soup, though the spe­cialty here is ch­wee kueh, a sim­ple dish of steamed rice cakes topped with a tangy casse­role-style sauce made of radish, turnips, dried shrimp, chilli, gar­lic and shal­lots. “Ch­wee keuh is orig­i­nally a Chi­nese dish, but in Sin­ga­pore it’s sub­tly dif­fer­ent,” says Book Geok Beng, a Tiong Bahru hawker since 1983. “It’s true fu­sion – a dish made from many cul­tures.”

Break­fast

Best for:

Sig­na­ture dish:

rice cakes

Steamed

Best stall: Clean­li­ness rat­ing: Price:

Jian Bo

$S1.40-$S3 ($A1.30-$A2.80)

A With more than 100 stalls, Maxwell Rd Hawker Cen­tre in the heart of Chi­na­town dishes up one of the big­gest va­ri­eties of food in Sin­ga­pore: fish XO soup, a noo­dle broth made with brandy; chilli crab, the is­land state’s na­tional dish; durian, a large scaly fruit with pun­gent creamy flesh that lo­cals say “tastes like heaven but smells like hell”; and Hainanese chicken rice, silky smooth pieces of poached chicken served on rice in­fused with chicken stock.

For the past three years, a chicken war of at­tri­tion has played out be­tween two prom­i­nent Maxwell Rd hawker masters: Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken, whose chicken-stock in­fused rice was de­scribed by Amer­i­can TV chef An­thony Bour­dain as “so fra­grant and de­li­cious that it can be eaten on its own”; and arch-ri­val Ah-Tia, run by a vet­eran Tian Tian chef who flew the coop and opened his own stall next door af­ter a fall­out with his for­mer pay­mas­ter’s daugh­ter.

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