A ‘stall crawl’ of Singapore
By Fuchsia Dunlop
Published: February 13 2010 00:22 | Last updated: February 13 2010 00:22
|Hawkers preparing a meal in Singapore|
As we pass the first durian stalls by the side of the road, Seetoh winds down the car windows and we are hit by warm gusts of their infamous aroma – sweet, wild and suffocating, the kind of smell that makes you toss and turn in a fever of desire and revulsion. The spiked fruit are piled up all along this stretch of Changi Road, just beyond the Geylang red light district. It is past 10pm and I’ve been in Seetoh’s hands since breakfast for this crash course in grazing, Singapore-style.
It would be hard to find a better guide to the gastronomic delights of Singapore than KF Seetoh, father of the Makansutra guidebooks about hawker food. He is also a television star and international advocate for Singapore’s eclectic, obsessive and ubiquitous street eating culture. Seetoh’s first guidebook to the food stalls of Singapore appeared in 1998 and became a bestseller. Subsequently, he has organised food tours and started his own food courts for snack vendors specialising in particular dishes or regions.
I first met Seetoh at a food conference in California a few years ago, when he promised to take me out to eat if I ever visited Singapore. So, on a sultry October morning, he takes me to our first stop of the day, a hawker centre devoted mainly to regional Chinese food. A former market hall has been divided into tiny kitchen-booths around a common dining area, where customers eat breakfast at plastic tables immobilised in concrete. Seetoh makes a beeline for a stall serving soft, glutinous steamed ricecakes, smothered in an electrifying relish of preserved mustard greens fried in lard – a speciality of the Cantonese Chaozhou region. Washed down with Singaporean coffee, made from beans that have been roasted with corn, they make an arresting start to the day.
It is just the beginning of a stall-crawl that takes us to hawker centres all over the city. As the hours drift by in a haze of smells and flavours, the food courts we visit begin to blur one into another, but that is not the case for the food we sample. There is a stall with the famous Hainan chicken rice, where the brusque proprietor doles out plastic platefuls of poached chicken on aromatic rice to a long queue of customers; sweet mung bean soup with a tarragon-like medicinal herb; and warm, porcelain-white almond milk. The maker of our almond milk, Toh Hoi Yip, is a Cantonese man who tells us he spends three hours every morning grinding his seeds and nuts. “It’s a vanishing trade because it’s so slow,” says Toh, “but if you use metal, the nuts heat up, and it affects the flavour.” Seetoh says: “People like him are the dying soldiers who are defending our culinary heritage.”
Everywhere we go there are people eating. Small restaurants occupy the 5ft pathways outside the old shop houses in the remaining backstreets. Shopping centres open into large open spaces where young couples, pensioners, families and men in business suits tuck into bowls of noodles or platters piled with vegetable fritters. At mealtimes, the pace quickens to a frenzy, with long queues at the most popular stalls.
Seetoh sees these small-scale restaurateurs as holding the fort of Singaporean culture against the combined onslaughts of modernisation, commercialisation and Americanisation. “Singapore’s character is ebbing away, like that of Beijing,” he says, “The small mom-and-pop food businesses are disappearing. And if food as culture is not championed, it will fade away into commercialisation. All that will be available will be a plate of franchise, a bowl of business.”
We also visit a few small restaurants, such as the Ng Ah Sio Pork Ribs Soup Eating House. Here, a waiter tops up our little clay teapot with water from a kettle sitting on a charcoal stove. The food, made to a recipe devised by the father of the current owner, a Chaozhou hawker who ran a street-stall in the 1950s, is astoundingly good. The ribs are served in their stewing broth, a rich liquid seasoned lavishly with garlic and pepper.
Later, we visit a junction in the old Peranakan district that was the site of the notorious “laksa wars”, a cut-throat commercial battle between rival makers of one of Singapore’s most famous delicacies. Sitting in the arcade outside 328 Katong Laksa, we slurp silken noodles in a profound and complex soup, delicately spiced and garnished with laksa leaves and fresh seafood.
“I’m taking you to the parts of Singapore that still say Singapore,” says Seetoh. Singapore is becoming so bland, he says, that there is nothing for people to do here except to eat. But eat they do: according to Seetoh, there are 35,000 catering licences in the territory, and more than half of them are for the hawker stalls that make it cheaper to eat out than at home.
After dinner we are joined by Singaporean food writer Christopher Tan for a durian tasting. Seetoh selects three different fruits from different trees, and soon we are sitting under a plastic tarpaulin while he cracks open the first with a machete. The aggressive spikes of its skin yield to reveal tender yellow fruit sacs in their cradles of pith. Armed with thin plastic gloves, we pry out the flesh with our fingers. It smells like a sweet custard, with a whiff of turpentine and vegetable pungency, and has a texture like ripe avocado. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would ban this particular fruit from hotels and underground trains.
The second durian is stranger and more complex. The yellow lobes of its flesh look faintly putrescent within their greasy-looking membranes. We poke them out with our fingers, inhale the sweet sweatiness of their odour, and then devour them. It’s an amazing taste, sumptuous and faintly disturbing. The third durian is overwhelming, steeper and darker, with a marked praline flavour, a hint of bitterness, and a lingering stealthy aftertaste. It has all the appeal of a decomposing Ardrahan cheese, Hunanese stinking bean curd and rotted shark – which is to say that some people adore it, and some don’t. But for our gloves, says Seetoh, the smell would remain under our fingernails for days.
By the end of the evening, I am in a durian haze, hot and sultry, haunted by that weird and magnificent scent. In the morning, I was practically a durian virgin; now, I’m hooked.
Fuchsia Dunlop’s most recent book is the award-winning ‘Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China’
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010.