Street smart in Singapore

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Walk into alfresco food streets and fascinating sidewalk shops.

Hawker centre: Singapore's Chinatown.
Hawker centre: Singapore's Chinatown.

Rupa Gopal

The Hokkein Chinese have a name for such a person —‘one who loves to eat’. No words are truer of the Singaporean, generally found exploring hawker centres. Chinese, Malay and Indians make up Singapore’s cuisine spectrum. Chinese food is varied and region-specific — hot Schezwan, mutton and lamb dishes from Beijing, Cantonese-steamed delicacies served with fine sauces, Hokkein seafood with ginger and garlic sauces, Hunan’s glutinous rice and cured meats, Teochew seafood and braised goose in vinegary sauce — all titillate the hungry.

Singapore’s unique hawker centres, or food courts, serve all types of food from breakfast to dinners. Entire streets are closed to traffic in the evenings, turning them into alfresco food streets, offering an extravaganza of flavours. Chinatown has become a place of sinful gorging, even by day. Sidewalks are replete with stalls selling steaming hot food, corners roasting chestnuts, or at the very least, selling fresh fruit — the chief attraction being the durian, a strong, evil-smelling delight. Bak kut teh, the pork ribs tea, has stock flavoured with dark soya sauce and chilli. Another beef broth has liver and tripe in it.

The carrot cake is made of white Chinese radish and rice flour, steamed and then fried, and served with fish sauce. Dimsums, steamed in bamboo baskets, are served round the clock, along with tiny parcels of rice, wrapped in leaves. Fragrant rice permeates the air and one comes away with strong memories of its aromas. A wholesome, and the most popular, dish is the Hainanese chicken rice — tender bits of poached chicken served on a bed of rice, flavoured with soya sauce. Slit chilli and slices of cucumber, with a hot bowl of clear soup accompanies this dish.

The ‘steamboat’ dish gather diners around a table, where a steamer in the centre has bubbling stock into which the diners lightly cook their bits of meat and vegetables. The Singapore chilli crab, along with other seafood, is found in eateries along the coastal highway.

Hawker centres serve Indian food too, along with Nonya, Malay, Western, Japanese, Korean and Indonesian cuisine. The Chinese herbal vegetarian menu, touted as having health-giving properties has many followers as well. Malay and Nonya sweets with a base of coconut milk and seaweed jelly, like chendol, are much liked by the locals. Hot and spicy Nasi lemak and Nasi padang are mainstays of Malay cuisine. Ice kachang seems to be the preferred dessert —a mountain of shaved ice flavoured with coloured syrups on a base of fruit and jelly, with boiled red or black beans.

Newton Centre, Chinatown and Lau Pa Sat are all justly famed hawker centres, with the last housed in an antique Victorian iron filigree structure.

Lots of shopping

With Chinese lanterns and kites, clogs, silken garments, medicinal and herbal remedies, green teas, snake oil and dried seahorses, Chinatown is a perfect tourist attraction. Pagoda Street and Temple Street lie adjacent to the Mariamman temple — a confluence of cultures. Sago and Smith streets too beckon the visitor with their wares.

Flea markets have extended the wide range of Singapore shopping. The weekend ‘thieves market’ is a charming attraction spread out on Sungei Road, near Little India and Bugis. Over 30 years old, this market is a pleasure for the bargain hunter and for those with an eye for the unusual. A patch of sheet comprises a stall, maybe under a large umbrella if raining. Stalls could also be in a car boot, or a large van. Four or five streets around a big park beckon the shopper with old car parts, stereos, video players and games, old English and Chinese records, playing cards, posters, old edition books, china and glassware, blue pottery, coins, enamel dishes, clothes, shoes, luggage, old cycles and trinkets. Shopping here is great fun with low prices adding to the delight.The market also has old people trading their possessions for… survival.

Flea markets are also been set up outside Tanglin Mall on two Saturdays in a month where fine textile bits can be found. Stalls in gazebos at the Stadium beckon shopper. Singapore can enthral a different kind of visitor — a connoisseur of food, and an indulger of curious bargains. Sizeable slices of life, as it were.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated October 12, 2007)
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