Singaporean Dumpling Ladies [SOURCE]
In order to truly understand a culture, you need to taste their food. A country's cuisine has always been an important part of cultural identity, and Singapore is no exception.
Although Singaporean culture geographically originates in Malaysia, the ethnic diversity and historical cultural interactions found within the borders of this country is also reflected in it's cuisine, making it both vibrant and unique.
Along with a strong Malaysian influence, Chinese, Indonesian, Indian, Peranakan, and European cooking traditions also form the base of typical Singapore bites.
But even today, contemporary dishes there have been influenced by other areas such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Philippines, and the Middle East, all of which add an exotic twist to local food culture as well.
In this installment of our Food in Four Courses series, Filipino expat and certified drifter Noel Mac shares with us three of his personal favorite Singaporean dishes, a starter, main course and dessert. And to keep things interesting, he's added on a dish that's definitely not for the faint of heart.
FIRST COURSE: Chee Cheong Fun Prawn Filling with Kopi or Teh
The comforting look of its texture invited us to stop by in front of a food stall of Kopitiam (food court). The photographer, definitely a professional, did a great job of turning a simple click into a magnetic recipe.
There was a pause, then a mumbling discussion if we would select it for our snack. The look of it was so naive yet tempting. We finally told the middle-aged lady, whose gleaming eyes now seemed dribbling, that we wanted to have the Chee Cheong Fun.
But then, we realized the request was not yet complete. Three choices were presented:
Chee Cheong Fun (Plain) with Kopi/Teh S$3.00
Chee Cheong Fun Prawn Filling with Kopi/Teh S$3.40
Chee Cheong Fun Char Siew with Kopi/Teh S$3.40
Another exciting experience when in foreign land is to learn the native language. In my case, I've learned a few. When you say Kopi, the coffe is mixed with condensed milk. Bitter and strong, Kopi O kosong comes without milk or sugar. Teh is tea with many variations like teh kosong, a tea without sugar.
Chee Cheong Fun Prawn Filling was simply a roll of rice flour. From the outside, nothing was so special. The clean, white roll was drenched in soy sauce, giving the dough a brownish stain. On the side was a mound of sweet paste and a pile of roasted garlic.
The delicate roll tasted like a plain rice, but the mild soy sauce infused a smack into it. A pinch of the roasted garlic, straight into my mouth, was so flavorful. The garlic per se was already a crunchy bite. With this snack, the chili paste was another surprise. It was not spicy but hot and spicy!
Chee Cheong Fun Prawn Filling looks tasteless. That was my first impression that simply didn’t last. The blend of the rice roll, soy sauce, chili paste and roasted garlic was satisfying. The way I relished the dish down to the final slice, I can only say – I’ll stop by for more of it.
SECOND COURSE: Hainanese Chicken Rice
If you're a tourist in Singapore, most probably you haven't heard of Chicken Rice yet. I don't think so. When someone says, "I'm going to Singapore", chances are tasting this dish anywhere in the island is already in mind. This cuisine is a permanent recipe at food stalls whether in the malls or hawker centers.
A set meal is normally served with steamed rice, chicken meat crowned with cilantro sprigs, Chinese cabbage with roasted garlic and a soup. A saucer of sourly chili sauce or fish sauce is optional but recommended.
Oozing with delectable charm, it’s not hard to give in.
Start with the sauce soaking the sliced chicken. I do this, first of all, to savor its potent flavor before tasting the rest of the meal. Mild on the salt and sugar – just nice -- the sauce is enhanced with the natural juice of the chicken meat.
Slightly glutinous, the steamed rice was delicious. Likewise, I enjoyed the way the meat of the chicken was prepared tenderly. Its sauce gave it the needed salty touch. As I munched the chicken, something unique to its taste like a twang in a language was perceptible.
On the side, a plate of half-cooked petchay (Chinese cabbage) topped with crumbs of fried garlic came with the meal. It was as well drenched in mild soy sauce. Now, with the juice of carrots and cabbage in the soup, they were more than enough to divert my attention. Finally, the slices of cucumber with the chicken can be a good neutralizer at the end of your bite.
THIRD COURSE: Number One Chendol
This one was on top of the choices. My eyes kept coming back to its spot. The photos of the other enticing desserts right below it were seemingly delectable.
In the square bowl was a finely crushed ice. A liquid sweetener spilled a chestnut hue on its top down to the slope. I dug out an opening to see what it was concealing. Small curls of green jelly came with brown beans. I let my cool dessert still, waiting for the ice to water.
One scoop of its melted chunk revealed a rich taste of coconut milk. I could even smell its sweet aroma. The chill of the scraped ice, in turn, enhanced the milky fluid of the coconut. The lush jelly, even though its taste was not that obvious, matched the coconut cream. Lastly, I reserved the red beans. The gentle consistency of these nutritious seeds was a play on my palate.
OPTIONAL: Claypot Frog with Dried Chili
Think of it this way. A bullfrog was staring at you with its gloating eyes. After the hard rain, you stumbled upon it right there. You kept still. The night sky was pitch black, the street light flickering.
Its hoarse croak was snapped by your presence. There was a deafening silence. The only visible movement was its loose throat beating fast. Then, you noticed the slime greasing entirely on its filthy skin.
Nested in a bed of scarlet big chilies cut wide open, the cultured bullfrogs sans their slick skins, webs, heads and internal organs promised a meal of heaven. The dish was served in a claypot not commonly seen in other servings. Meanwhile, the steam left a lingering trace of peppery odor in the air.
Full with anticipation, I craved for its soup. I spooned out the dark, thick fluid and finally tasted its flavor. A piquant, mildly sweet, gingered semiliquid substance plus unknown condiments began to spur my appetite. I soaked the steaming rice and had several mouthful bites.
The small meat of the frog is compact. While chewing, I found it to be tender yet meaty. So it was as if one big chunk of a chicken meat was reduced into a tiny piece. The result? I was making some huge chomps against the little, tasty frog meats. Imagine holding one whole leg of a chicken, minimize it, and then bite.
Topping it were slices of onion, thin chops of ginger and sprigs of cilantro. Most, if not all, of the spicy dishes here have cilantro. The aroma and spicy tang of the ginger helped boost the zest of the thick sauce.
Never be scared of the big chilies. They are more of an ornamental than true threat. They are even there, as I noticed, as stuffing. The ones that bring out the real fire are the small red chilies cut into bits and hidden within the sauce.
GUEST BLOGGER: Noel Mac
Noel was born in Caba, La Union, Philippines to a poor family. They then moved to San Fabian, Pangasinan when he was about four or five years old. His small childhood adventures of catching fish in rice paddies with his bare hands, making kites and flying them in the ricefields and swimming in the river with his friends, family and relatives, have influenced him to travel and see different places. Noel is a graduate of Bachelor of Science in Physical Therapy in Lyceum-Northwestern University and has worked in the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia. Now, he and his wife have migrated to Long Island, New York, U.S.A. Follow along in his adventures at Stories on Travel.
For more on traditional Singaporean cuisine, check out these books:
I'm JR. I come from a long line of adventurers, some were nomadic explorers of the sea and others wandering cultivators of the earth. Ultimately, this legacy of drifters has deeply affected my view of travel. Read more...