Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Food in Singapore

Mango ice kacang

As I mentioned in my last post, I had the good fortune to spend three weeks in Singapore this summer for a math program. During that time, I also took a short jaunt to Melaka, Malaysia, about 5 hours away by bus. Here are some thoughts about eating while I was there. This is a long post, so bear with me. (Or not, if you don't want to.)

First, I should say that I did not eat strictly vegetarian while I was there. There are several reasons for that. After eight years of being a vegetarian, I wanted to see the other side again, and I've partially fallen away from my rather naive reasons for becoming a vegetarian, so it wasn't important to me to avoid meat. I also found myself in many social eating situations where I did not want to make my food choices a big issue. I'm sure many other people with different diets can sympathize with this. It gets tiring always to feel like your dietary choices cause a hassle or even just raised eyebrows to others, so I took the easy way out. My third reason is that when I travel, I like to try new and authentic local specialties, and those are often meaty. If I am with Jon, I can just try a few bites from his plate, but on my own, I just order it. After three weeks of not being vegetarian (in which I probably still ate vegetarian more than half the time), I was ready to go back. Meat just isn't my thing.

That said, Singapore is a pretty easy place to be a vegetarian. Most Hindus and many Buddhists practice full- or part-time vegetarianism, and most food courts have clearly labelled vegetarian stalls. One difference from the US, however, is that in Singapore a non-vegetarian stall or restaurant may have no vegetarian options at all, whereas here, most restaurants have at least something, BBQ and steak places possibly excepted.

The main food traditions in Singapore are Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, and Peranakan, which is a blend of Chinese and Malaysian very distinctive to Singapore and some parts of Malaysia. While there were lots of restaurants specializing in just one food tradition, there is also a lot of merging of them, and it can be particularly hard to separate Peranakan from Chinese and Malaysian. I must say that eating a few traditional Chinese meals has dispelled any pretension I had of being an adventurous eater. Especially as a vegetarian, a lot of the dishes were well outside my comfort zone. Indian and Peranakan food were more my speed, but they were almost always too spicy for me. Singapore was a British colony for quite a while, so English is one of the official languages. This made dining much easier because I always at least had some idea of what I was eating. Western food is also available, and there are a few very highly-rated French and Italian restaurants, but the only non-Asian meals I had were salads.

Food in Singapore is relatively cheap compared to the US, and in Malaysia it is even cheaper. Hawker centers/food courts/canteens are ubiquitous and cheap. They are areas where lots of different food merchants set up shop, so you can pick and choose whatever you want. Each one has rather limited offerings, but the variety is so great that it can be really tough to choose. They're like food courts in malls but with really good food at great prices. The university where the conference was held had several canteens, all of which had several different stalls and were ridiculously cheap. For my first lunch there, I was worried that the plate I had ordered for S$3 (about $2.25) wouldn't be enough, so I added a S$1 side dish and barely got through half of my meal. I think it's very hard to get a huge, filling meal at a college cafeteria in the US for $3. Food in the rest of Singapore was about 30% more expensive than on campus, but I was still eating well for about $5 a meal. In Malaysia, I had some great meals for RM6-12, which is about $2-4. On the other hand, alcohol was very expensive, so I only drank when someone else was paying for it.
This picture doesn't show you the vast scope of this hawker center, but it does show you that it had a stage on top of one of the dessert stalls.

The Indian food I had was fairly comparable to Indian food in the US. There were both North and South Indian restaurants, but a lot of restaurants served food from both areas. Many of the Indian restaurants were vegetarian, I think to a larger extent than in the US. The people eating Indian food were much more authentic in Singapore. Many people used their hands instead of utensils, although I was always given a fork and a knife. I tried a new beverage in one of the Indian places I visited: jal jeera, a bracing lime, cumin, and salt concoction. The idea was OK, but the end product was pretty intense. I ended up ordering a sweet lassi (yogurt drink) as well to counter the spice of the food. I might explore the idea of a similar beverage, but it will be much less strong. One very popular Singapore Indian dish that I never tried was fish-head curry. I did a lot of stepping outside my comfort zone, but I never got around to stepping out in that direction.

Peranakan food was really great. One of my favorite dishes in both Singapore and Malaysia was laksa. There are two types, curry laksa, which has a spicy coconut milk broth, and asam laksa, which has a sour (I think tamarind-based) broth. I loved curry laksa and had it a lot. I only tried asam laksa once, and I wasn't a fan. The curry laksas I had varied a lot, but they all had noodles and spicy coconut milk and seafood broth. The other toppings included fried tofu, bok choy, eggplant, fish balls, shrimp, mussels, octopus, bitter gourd, mushrooms, and seaweed. I liked everything but the mussels. I've had mussels a few times now, and they taste like sea mud to me. I am definitely going to try to make my own vegetarian laksa here.

A great Malaysian dish I only managed to try once was nasi lemak, which is rice cooked in coconut milk and served with fish, breaded chicken, peanuts, sprouts, and fiery sambal sauce. Once again, it can be adapted to whatever you have on hand, and I was just intoxicated by the coconut milk rice. It wasn't sweet at all but just had a rich, coconutty flavor and texture. I have only used coconut milk a few times in savory dishes, and clearly between laksa and nasi lemak, it's time to explore that more.

Soy and adzuki bean products are all over the place in Singapore, and what I loved about them is that they usually weren't trying to be something else. In the US, we buy vanilla soy milk and chocolate soy yogurt and fake bacon strips. I went to a Mr. Bean soy shop one time toward the end of my stay. Mr. Bean is all over the place and sells soy milk beverages, frozen soy desserts and the like. I got a drink with soy ice cream on top, and the ice cream tasted like sweet frozen beans in the most wonderful possible way. I had some tofu in a soup in Malaysia that tasted fresh and beany. I've never had tofu here that really tasted so much like itself. Usually before cooking it, it tastes like nothing, and afterwards, it tastes like whatever I cooked it in. I am really going to have to get myself down to Chinatown and see if they have any tofu as good as the stuff I had in that bus station in Malaysia. It was a revelation. The exception to the "not trying to be something else" clause is that the Chinese vegetarian restaurants and stalls are masters of disguise and use a lot of very realistic fake meat. But this soy posing is pretty much confined to Chinese vegetarian restaurants and can be kind of fun, although I tended to prefer the dishes with less fake meat.
Revelatory tofu soup from a Malaysian bus station

One of the best things about Singapore was the abundantly available fruit and fresh-squeezed juice. At home I don't drink much juice, and it's usually a little bit of grapefruit or orange juice with breakfast. In Singapore, I drank juice with almost every meal, in part because it was so tasty and in part to tame the spiciness of a lot of the food. Honeydew-pineapple was one of my favorites, and watermelon was not far behind. Sugarcane juice was widespread. It was a small amount of pressed sugarcane diluted with water and ice, so it wasn't as sickly sweet as I had expected. Indonesian alpokat juice, a smoothie of avocado, sugar, condensed milk, and chocolate syrup, changed my life. Oh my gosh, it was amazing. I will definitely try to recreate it here.

I also drank and ate my very first whole young coconut while I was there. And then had probably 10 more over the course of my stay. Coconut water is not very sweet and has a complex but very fresh flavor. The most satisfying coconut I had probably came at the end of the day I spent mountain biking around Pulau Ubin, a smaller, less developed island owned by Singapore. I think coconut water had just the electrolytes I was looking for.
A great Indian meal, including my first coconut

On the other hand, it is very hard to find raw vegetables in this part of the world. I talked to a Malaysian friend recently about this. He has lived in the US for about five years now and has finally gotten over his initial reaction to salad, which was disgust, and gotten used to the idea of eating a pile of raw veggies, although he doesn't do it left to his own devices. It is just a cultural difference, I guess. I did eat two meals at a salad restaurant in the downtown business district because I was really craving them.
A really great (and welcome) salad

Finally, something must be said about cendol and ice kacang. These two desserts have the same idea: shaved ice, syrup, red beans, corn, jellies (like the texture of jello or the tapioca balls in bubble tea), and either coconut (cendol) or sweetened condensed (ice kacang) milk. They look truly wacky and taste great but are way too big for just one person. The ice is very finely shaved, so it isn't long before it's melting and you're eating sweet, cold, brightly colored soup. There are lots of variants, and you can also get the shaved ice with almond milk or other fruits, but I never got around to that.
Cendol. The bright green things are not alien eggs. They're sweet jellies of some sort.
Ice kacang at a soupy stage

All in all, I think my time in Singapore has given me a lot of great ideas for my own cooking and eating. I haven't tried any yet because I've spent the last week eating non-Asian-type food because I was kind of tired of Asian food, but maybe next week I'll crack open some cans of coconut milk and make some magic.

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