The Motherlands: Street Food, Part 1

I was originally born in SE Asia, specifically hailing from Singapore and Malaysia.  It doesn’t come close to say that even though I immigrated to the United States at a young age, this is by far my favorite food.  It is what I crave the most, probably because it is so difficult to find.  However, even when I am visiting, I can never seem to get enough of the local food there.  The cuisine is unique in and of itself.  Having been a former British colony, there are definitely heavy UK influences such as high teas.  However, the locals have also concocted their own version such as the nonya high tea.  To go into every single deviance though would be to write a novel of which someday I would love to do.

Street food (or hawker food) is one of the trademarks of Asia.  Singapore however seems to be cutting down on a lot of the physical vendors, putting many of them in small food courts such as the “Kopitiam” that we see nowadays.  I have to admit that it has been about five years since I have last been back, and I am sure that there are multiple changes.  However, there are a few major hawker centres (yes it is spelt centre and not center) still around, mostly for tourists I believe.  One major one is the Newton Circus hawker centre.  However, much of the same “street food” can be found at many of the food courts in the major shopping complexes that line Orchard Road.  I believe the last time I went, the newest one was on the fifth floor of the Atria building, right at the corner of Scotts Road and Orchard Road.  The lunch hour is terrible for lines, and it is very difficult to find an open table.  Many times, a group will split up with half of the group searching and claiming a table while the other half orders their food first.

There are so many fusions of respective races in Singapore that it is difficult to say it is merely “Chinese food”.  Chinese people themselves have so many dialects and sub-groups that it would be unfair to lump it all together.  I believe the predominant groups in Singapore would be the Cantonese, Hakka, Teochew, and Hokkien groups.  In truth, I could also be completely wrong.  Hopefully there will be a Singaporean or Malaysian out there who will be able to correct me on this if need be.  The flavors of each subgroup are also very different.  Some people will say that the Teochew tend to be a little more lighter on the flavors while the Cantonese tend to be heavy with the salt and sugar.  This doesn’t even take into account the heavy influence of East Indian (not to be confused with American Indian) and Malay cuisines that also have their own definite niche.  Sometimes you can see combinations of two cultures such as curry yong tau foo soup (or curry soup with stuffed vegetables).  It’s not completely teochew/chinese because of the curry which is malay/indian influenced.  The combination however, is fantastic!

However, I will first introduce a few dishes that have always been top of my list to eat when I return back to the motherlands.  The first being char kway teow.  “Char” means fried and “kway teow” is Hokkien for a specific type of rice noodle.  In cantonese it would be on the equivalent scale as “hor fun”, the wide flat rice noodles that are either stir fried dry with beef (beef hor fun) or it can be served with sauce.  In Singapore, it is specifically cooked with a local ‘caramel’ sauce, not too much salt like soy sauce and definitely thicker and darker.  It flows a lot faster than maple syrup, but less than molasses.  This sauce is also used in fried radish cake of which we will describe at another time.  Singapore char kway teow has specific ingredients of which include fishcake slices, egg, chinese sausage, chives, bean sprouts, and of course the infamous cockles or mini clams.  This is different than the char kway teow you would find in say the Penang region up in Malaysia.  I have had Penang char kway teow, or versions of it rather, in the United States.  It just doesn’t taste quite the same as it does back in Singapore.  Then again, nothing beats the original.

char kway teow

char kway teow

Another favorite dish that I like to get from time to time but is not the first on my list is called “nasi lemak”.  This is a malay dish I believe as the word “nasi” means rice in the malay language.  According to wikipedia, nasi lemak is the national dish in Malaysia, but can be found in other countries such as Singapore and Brunei.  The rice is cooked with coconut milk and pandan leaves (screwpine) and is much more fragrant than normal rice.  It is normally served with side dishes, mostly deep fried anchovies in a spicy prawn paste (belacan) and peanuts.  Some places will serve either a fried egg or a hardboiled egg sliced in half.  Others will even throw in a fried chicken drumstick or a wing.  It is served and wrapped in a banana leaf or in the local wax brown paper.  The plastic brown paper is so key for hawker food as one side is plastic and keeps all sauces and oils from breaking the brown paper on the otherside.  It can be wrapped in a packet form like a rectangle or in a triangle form, similar to that of the chinese rice dumpling “zong zi”.  It is then sealed with a rubber band or sometimes the “local twine”.

nasi lemak

nasi lemak

However, the one dish that reminds me most of my childhood is called “mee pok”.  Essentially, it is simply fishball noodles.  The word “pok” only differentiates the type of noodles served in the dish as “mee gia” is the same dish but with different type of egg noodles.  It can be served dry or in soup, but I normally like it dry because you can request that they put a tomato sauce with it.  This reminder stems back to when I would visit Singapore and Malaysia the first few years after moving to the United States.  We would stay at a close friend’s house which happened to be near a fresh market and hawker centre.  The hawker centre is gone now I believe, but there was this one local fishball noodle stall that we used to go to each time we went back.  Part of the reason was because this vendor was one of the few that was open as early as we were up due to our jetlag.  My mother would always get each of us a bowl which would be our breakfast for the day, and on our walk back, we would pick up a few bags of fresh soymilk and chinese crueller donuts for our friends.  More information can be found on Wikipedia here.

The dish is honestly super simple.  Fishballs are boiled and so are noodles.  Sometimes they will have some fishcake in there as well.  It is served plain with a little bit of soy sauce, sometimes a bit of deep fried fatback (or bacon lard) bits which is to die for, a piece of lettuce, and sometimes bean sprouts.  It comes with onion soup and of course, the tomato paste.  I’ve seen some vendors make the fishballs from scratch.  This type of fishball is fairly unique.  It is very “bouncy” and springy.  I’m sure part of it has some kind of tapioca flour or flour of some sort.  They were huge to a girl of seven but now they just seem average size.  The portions of course are great for your typical Asian person, but I’m not sure how the average American would feel.  I think they would probably have to order two to feel satisfied, or be ready to go on a savory diet.

mee pok

mee pok

This is the first food entry that I’ve written since starting the new blog.  I actually had an old post of it, but the pictures were tiny and the timing as well as the wording of that post just doesn’t seem to apply now.  I hope to continue this trend as this post was such a great one to write.  It reminds me of the book “Tiger In the Kitchen”, which was a gift given to me about an Asian American immigrant, just like I was, who ended up pursuing various recipes from her grandmothers back in her homeland of Singapore.  Perhaps I too shall embark on a similar journey.

Thank you for reading.  Bon apetit!


This entry was published on December 23, 2013 at 22:54. It’s filed under Asia, Singapore, street food, The Gastronome and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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