Monday, January 3, 2011

Eating Singapore: Starches

Eating non-stop for three days is like running a marathon.  (Ok, I don't run unless I'm being chased, so I'm just speculating here.)  It's hard work, and you have to carbo load to prepare.  Fortunately, Singapore offers a number of delicious starches, from noodles to radish cakes to the most iconic of Singaporean dishes, "Hainanese" chicken rice.

Among the most classic of hawker dishes is char kway teow.  It's so central to Singaporean street cuisine that there's a whole book on it.  Char kway teow is the transliteration of the Hokkienese phrase for "stir-fried ricecake strips."  It involves stir-frying flat rice noodles with a flavorful blend of chilis, belacan (shrimp paste), soy sauce, and various accoutrements such as egg, shrimp, bean sprouts, and oysters or cockles.  

We had ours from the very popular Lao Fu Zi Fried Kway Teow, a stall at the Old Airport Food Centre. Fresh from the wok, their version is perfectly al dente, with a ton of belacan and snappy bean sprouts.  Fried kway teow is probably not my favorite dish of all Singaporean dishes, but Lao Fu Zi's is among the better iterations of the dish that I've had.

Far more tasty in my opinion is chai tow kway (sometimes char kway) or "fried carrot cake."  No carrots are actually in this dish.  The "cake" is created by mixing rice flour and daikon radish, and large slices of it are eaten pan-fried for breakfast or for Chinese New Year.  For chai tow kway, the "carrot cake" is diced into small pieces and stir-fried with eggs, garlic, spring onions, and soy sauce.  My favorite is the "black" version of char kway, which uses dark sweet soy sauce.  There's also a "white" version, which has fish sauce and light soy sauce.

We tried this dish from the Huat Huat stall at Makansutra Gluttons Bay and from the FoodRepublic at the Wisma Atria Shopping Centre on Orchard Road.  Both were equally delicious.  The sweet soy sauce is savory and sweet, and the "carrot cake" has the texture of very fluffy gnocchi -- it just melts in your mouth.  Combined with the crispiness of the egg and the fresh spring onions, the dish is heavenly.

What might possibly top even char kway, is this humble bowl of wonton noodles from Hua Kee Hougang Famous Wanton Mee at the Old Airport Food Centre.  When a fellow eater at the hawker centre recommended this stall to us, we scoffed: "Wontons? We have that in Hong Kong, and I'm not going to waste time or stomach space eating that here."  But as we were leaving the centre -- after we'd filled our bellies with multiple courses, including dessert -- we saw a long line in front of Hua Kee and we just knew we had to taste this "famous" wanton mee.

Hua Kee's wanton mee is a "dry" version, which means that it's not served in soup.  The wantons are good, and the noodles are well-cooked, but what makes this bowl amazing is the sauce that they mix it with.  I don't know what's in the secret recipe, but I tasted sweet soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, and chilis.  It tastes sweet, savory, spicy . . . completely unreal.

But if a noodle soup is more your thing, then you need to taste Singaporean laksa.  Laksa is a spicy noodle soup.  There are different varieties of laksa, some (like the one above from FoodRepublic) with coconut milk and some (like Penang laksa, which is a tart version with tamarind) without.  There's nothing as satisfying as a bowl of laksa for breakfast: it has noodles, egg, tofu puffs, fish balls . . . everything you need for a kickass start to the day.

Excuse me while I go cry in a bowl of cold cereal now.

In tomorrow's post . . . chicken rice!


nellie January 3, 2011 at 1:45 PM  

OMG. Nothing gets me going like Asian starches. They're my comfort food. The husband laughs at me because when I'm homesick I crave a bowl of noodles... not burgers and fries. Guess it says a lot about my upbringing!

lavenderpug January 3, 2011 at 2:11 PM  

oh noodles. noodles i love you. i know you said there wasn't a lot to do in singapore culture-wise, but the food sure seems like it's worth a trip!

Katie January 3, 2011 at 4:56 PM  

Ohhh my goodness...the description of that "carrot cake" is making my mouth water!!!! I want!!!1

Sandy January 4, 2011 at 7:23 AM  

I can't live without carbs. I love Hainanese rice, especially because of the chicken broth & spices you can add with the chicken and rice.

BigAppleNosh January 4, 2011 at 8:17 AM  

Yum yum - I want all of these things - especially the laksa!!

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