Cheok Kee Duck Rice (Singapore): Seaside Surprise

Cheok Kee Duck RiceMy mother and I often find ourselves jumping into the car and heading for the beach in Singapore.

We’re not surf-bound or bikini-clad though — what we are is hungry.

Bordering the sand is a lovely outdoor hawker center, East Coast Lagoon Food Village. On weekends, this place can be a zoo, as Singaporeans come from all over the country to canoe, windsurf or bike along the water, then stop for a little nibble or sip.

On weekdays though, this hawker center is charmingly sleepy. The stalls hawking curry puffs, soursop drinks and coconuts freshly hacked open and delivered to your table with a festive straw are all open. But there are few lines at lunch, making this the perfect time to go.

The thing Singaporeans tend to crave in this salty air is often grilled — satay, glistening chicken wings, barbecued stingray (skate) slathered with fiery sambal chili. But there are several other non-beachy foods of note at this hawker center, too — the best laksa in Singapore (Roxy Laksa) is located here, for example. And recently, I’d been hearing about a little stall that’s been serving up some terrific duck rice

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Sum Kee Food (Singapore): Simple Does It

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One of my Singapore cravings is a simple dish: Fried braised tofu with a big pile of minced pork on top.

You can find this in some hawker stalls — but you’ll likely find the better versions at zi char restaurants, which are casual Chinese eateries that serve inexpensive homespun dishes. (“Zi char” means “stir-fry” in Hokkien.)

As much as I adore this tofu dish, I hadn’t had a good version yet this trip back, so when my father mentioned liking a little zi char place his old schoolmates had taken him to recently, it was settled. Dinner at Sum Kee Food it was …

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Feng Kee Hainanese Curry Rice (Singapore): A-List Rice

Feng Kee Hainanese Curry RiceOne of the great joys of Singaporean cuisine for me is Hainanese curry rice.

I had my first taste of this as a teenager, at a small stall in Singapore where you pointed at troughs of items in a glass case then watched as the hawker quickly used a big pair of scissors to snip everything you’d picked into bite-sized pieces, piled it onto rice and then sloshed a ladle of curried gravy over everything, turning it into a brownish yellow mound. The final product may look like swill, but each mouthful of this heady combination of flavors and textures is divine.

So when Singaporean writer Colin Goh, a friend whose tastes and appetite I respect, mentioned having a go-to curry rice place in Singapore, I knew I had to check it out. “It opens at 4 am, and you eat with the port workers,” he said. “Make sure you drench your rice with ALL 3 GRAVIES.”

Well, he certainly didn’t need to tell me twice …

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Xin Heng Feng Guo Tiao Tang (Singapore): Scratching a Noodle Itch

Meepok taMy mother and I sometimes have to do a little sneaking around when we go to our neighborhood wet market / hawker center in Singapore.

You see, if we’re spotted sitting near or even just passing by a certain noodle stall, a sweet lady will pop her head out with a wave and chirpy “Ni hao ma?” Which always makes us feel so bad we’ll drop all other breakfast plans to dutifully belly up to her counter and order a bowl of noodles.

It’s not to say that we don’t like her noodles — sometimes though, I may crave something else for breakfast. My sister, on the other hand, always craves the one dish this hawker makes — mee pok ta, a dry Teochew style dish of noodles with fishballs, fishcakes and minced meat — and has been a faithful fan for years. And that is why this mee pok lady stalks us.

Naturally, for my sister’s first breakfast after landing in Singapore, she has meepok on her mind. So, off we went …

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Mum’s Pork & Chinese Yam Soup: Rejuvenating the Soul

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In 1993, Straits Times editor Felix Soh gave a teenage news intern a tip that an illegal puppy mill might be operating in Singapore and said, “Check it out.”

After some digging and a little undercover work, a story ran that drew swift justice — authorities instantly shut down the mill, which had been keeping dozens of dogs in the most deplorable conditions. And I’ve been hooked on journalism ever since.

Felix, the man who walked and talked faster than anyone I know and had an infectious child-like glee whenever he smelled a good story, was the best first editor, teacher, mentor and friend that anyone could have — he taught me how to write a news story, never to be afraid to ask the tough question and pushed me to always, always be both curious and skeptical. I would not be where I am today without him.

It was with great shock and sadness that I learned Felix had suddenly passed away last week. I had just arrived back in Singapore for a visit and had been thinking of checking in. Although it’s been over 20 years since I was his intern, Felix has always been something of a journalism father figure to me and I greatly treasured the catchup lunches he’d managed to squeeze into his busy schedule.

Felix and I shared many things in common — a big passion for newspapering, the same birthday and most of all, a love for good food. During our lunches, he was always trying to teach me something about food, whether it was taking me to a new terrific Hainanese chicken rice joint or savoring foie gras chawanmushi at the Shangri-La’s Nadaman, an upscale Japanese restaurant he knew I likely wouldn’t have tried as as a college student because I simply could not have afforded it.

While I can’t make either of those dishes, I did want to share a recipe for the memorial-themed Let’s Lunch that my online cooking club was doing this month. This Chinese soup is not a tribute to Felix in the sense that we never enjoyed this dish together. Rather, it’s what my mother whips up whenever she thinks I’ve had a trying time and need a little pick me up.

And so after returning from paying our last respects to my old boss, this ensued …

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Mr. and Mrs. Mohgan’s Super Crispy Roti Prata (Singapore): Gold-Standard Prata

Mr. and Mrs. Mohgan's Suoer Crispy Roti PrataRoti prata is one of those staples of Singapore eating — this fried Indian bread paired with curry is so beloved as a breakfast or late-night supper dish that Singaporeans often love expressing strong opinions on which they think is the best in the country.

Recently, I’d been hearing about a tiny Indian stall a little hike from the beaten path that various food experts have waxed lyrical about, some even declaring it’s one of the best. What apparently makes this version special, I’d heard, is how crispy it is.

Well, if you’ve been reading this blog at all, you’ll know my massive love for all sorts of crispy foods. So as soon as I could persuade my mother, we hopped in her car and were on our way to Mr. and Mrs. Mohgan’s Super Crispy Roti Prata …

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Sinaran Cahaya Bedok Corner (Singapore): So-So Mee Soto

Mee sotoIn Singapore, I have the great fortune of living right by a popular mosque.

What this means is, the closest hawker center to me — a rather small one named Bedok Corner Food Centre — is a veritable smorgasmord of incredible Malay food. From dawn to past dinner time, there are stalls there selling hearty Malay noodle soup breakfasts, turmeric fried chicken lunches, satay and more. While lunch and dinner are always delicious, my favorite meal there is breakfast.

I love walking in when the place is still a little sleepy — you can smell the chicken that’s just been fried; some hawkers have commandeered whole tables and are hunched over benches peeling potatoes and chopping onions.

My favorite Malay breakfast, mee soto, is offered at not one but five stalls. After hopping around and sampling versions from two or three over the years, I finally decided to analytically work my way through the lot and decide once and for all which one I liked best.

And so it began bright and early this morning. First stop: Sinaran Cahaya Bedok Corner …

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Mei Wei Economic Bee Hoon (Singapore): Fried Chicken Surprise

IMG_6545Just after dawn on a weekday, my mother and I make a short trek to Joo Chiat, one of the sweet pockets of Singapore‘s laidback East Coast where you’ll still find pre-war townhouse-packed narrow lanes that feel like 1970s Singapore.

A dusty little corner kopitiam (coffeeshop) beckons — Poh Ho Restaurant, which we’d visited once for excellent plates of wanton noodles. When we left then, I had vowed to return — from what we could see, the handful of other stores there held much promise. One Indian hawker, for example, is constantly mentioned as one of the best makers of roti prata in the country.

Unfortunately, we had chosen to make the journey on one of the few mornings each month that the prata guys are off. Our disappointment was brief, however. A queue snaked around the front of the kopitiam, framing it like a necklace.

Singaporeans like queues — in a country filled with thousands of superb eating options, there’s no need to line up for good food. So if there is a line, something terribly good must exist at the front of it. Well, we immediately got in line …

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Ah Lim Jln. Tua Kong Branch Mee Pok (Singapore): A Spicy Noodle War

IMG_9351A minor war of sorts has been taking place not far from my home in Singapore.

In a sleepy pocket deep in the East Coast, on each side of a tiny carpark, two eateries selling the exact same dish, with very similar names, have been facing off for years now. On one side, you have the large, often more crowded Jalan Tua Kong Lau Lim stall. Across the street, there’s a tiny stall in a cozy kopitiam (coffeeshop) called Ah Lim Jln. Tua Kong Branch.

Both specialize in mee pok tar (which means “dry wide noodles”), a Teochew-Chinese dish featuring tagliatelle-like egg noodles tossed in a spicy chili oil gravy and topped with items like fish cakes, fish balls and minced pork.

Of these two, the larger one is talked about more — the people who run it come from one of the old and beloved mee pok families in this country, after all. Having tried both however, the smaller stall is my favorite — the gravy has more zing and it’s just a better bowl. Why? Let me tell you …

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Selera Rasa (Singapore): A Classic Malay Breakfast

Selera Rasa

Breakfast in Singapore truly is something to behold.

For starters, it’s incredibly varied, with Indian, Chinese and Malay offerings ranging from rice and noodle dishes to piping hot roti prata and fried meaty treats. A classic must, however, is nasi lemak — a Malay dish comprising fragrant coconut rice with hearty ingredients such as fried chicken and crispy anchovies. It’s so popular and commonly eaten that some hawkers have it packed ahead of time into tightly folded banana leaves for a quick and tasty breakfast to go.

While I’m fortunate enough to live not too far from one of the great nasi lemak joints on the island — International Food Stall in Changi Village — I’d been hearing about another place for years, one that’s supposed to be the absolute best. Selera Rasa, in fact, is so well-regarded that the Sultan of Brunei supposedly pays a visit when he’s in Singapore, ordering up dozens of packets for takeout.

“Look for the long queue,” Singaporean food personality KF Seetoh counseled, when I asked him about Selera Rasa a few years ago.

A long queue? Singaporeans, an impatient lot, don’t queue for anything unless it’s worth it. I knew right away that I had to get myself to Selera Rasa, to find said queue …

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