Tag Archives: hawker centre

Hot food in hot places

All journeys have secret destinations of which the travel[l]er is unaware.
~ Martin Buber

Sweat in Singapore feels like a second skin, and powerful air conditioners are put to work in most buildings and vehicles to provide welcome relief to drenched humans.

There is something to be said for eating hot food in hot conditions, though – it’s magic. Somehow everything is tastier and more fragrant, and the experience of eating (spicy foods in particular) is heightened as you feel your clothes sticking to your back, sweat hugging your neck and embracing your legs… there’s something true to life about that, you know? It makes me fall in love with the function of eating and with the absolute miracle of being able to taste, smell, hear, touch and see. I enjoy eating ice cream in winter for similar reasons – it makes me feel awake and alive. You may be raising your eyebrows at your screen as you read this, but seriously, try it if you haven’t!

One experience I really love in Singapore is the hawker centre/kopi tiam* (coffee shop – “kopi” meaning coffee and “tiam” meaning shop, in a Chinese dialect) experience. The hawker centre/kopi tiam is no place to wear suits or heels or translucent tops (lest excessive sweat get in the way of keeping yourself modest and your expensive clothes clean) – but it’s a brilliant place to tease your senses and eat delicious food for not very much $$ at all. A meal will likely cost less than SGD$10 in most hawker centres/kopi tiams.

Here is a breakfast tradition that’s been revived in recent years – kaya toast and a cup of hot kopi. Kaya is the jam of my childhood – a sweet concoction infused with the wonderful flavours of pandan and coconut… and I could do a whole post about various ways of having your kopi – the unwritten kopi tiam coffee menu is way more extensive than Starbucks’s! My aunt and I enjoyed this breakfast the other day at a kopi tiam in East Coast:

Though Singapore be a tiny place, there remain many areas which I have never explored – Geylang being one of them! So Paul took me for a lovely bak kut teh lunch at Leong Kee (Klang) Bak Kut Teh near Lorong 11 in Geylang. Bak kut teh is this heady, aromatic soup infused with the flavours of pork, garlic and peppercorn… for me, it spells warmth and comfort. Peppery soup, pork with dark soya sauce, rice… mmmm! This version came with sheets of dried beancurd skin.

This mee rebus and char siew hor fun came from a hawker centre in Yew Tee – much as I detest food in plastic packaging for environmental and health reasons, seeing that familiar plastic-encased food bundle still causes a sense of nostalgia to ripple through me…

Tau sar pau (red bean paste buns) – still something lovely about biting into warm and fluffy pau dough and finding sweet red bean paste in the middle! It’s a sort of delicate, understated sweetness I miss when in New Zealand (where sweetness derived from the likes of fruit, cake and chocolate is more common).

Here (Rochor Original Beancurd – 2 Short Street, Singapore), Paul, Mich and I had bowls of impossibly silky and refreshing tau huay (otherwise known as dou hua, tau fu fa or tofu pudding – silky tofu served with a clear sweet syrup, though there are other variations available). A perfect light finish, especially after a rather heavy dinner! I really wouldn’t recommend the soy milk here, though…

And finally – this is a place with glorious mee pokJalan Tua Kong Lau Lim Mee Pok (The Art of Mee Pok Pte Ltd) (308 Bedok Road, Bedok Shopping Centre). Mee pok is a tasty Singaporean staple composed of springy noodles, toppings like fish balls or minced pork and a flavoursome sauce with elements like chilli and vinegar. Not a dish you’d pick for high nutritional value, but one I always have at least once whenever I visit this part of the world!

Delicious Hakka yong tau foo (a medley of tofu, vegetables, etc) and greens with fried shallots from an adjacent stall were wonderful side dishes we enjoyed with the excellent mee pok :-)

The question I’ve most frequently had to answer on this trip is “what do you want to eat?” (yeah, such a hard life, huh?)… the question which has then prompted conversations and visits to places all around Singapore in search of the perfect [insert dish name here]. Ahh… I could get used to this holiday ;-)

And on that note, it amuses me that though many hawker centres and kopi tiams may sell similar fare, I have rarely encountered a Singaporean who does not hold strong opinions about which one sells the BEST [insert local dish here], or a Singaporean who will not endure torturous traffic jams/public transport at peak hours just to get to their favourite food places…

Such a culture of food worship!

Food Alley

A smiling face is half the meal.
~ Latvian Proverb

Those who know me may know about my not-so-secret tendency to avoid most food courts in New Zealand. Mostly, food courts here bring to mind stale sushi, artificially-flavoured milkshakes, grease-coated chairs and a collection of brightly coloured, mass produced, scary food.

In other words… bad food.

In my mind, bad food has less to do with dirty seats or cheap food than it has to do with authenticity, freshness and a real love of and respect for food (as opposed to a penchant for overeating/eating anything and everything).

I love hawker centre breakfasts in Singapore, for instance – even those open, humid places where stray cats strut around your feet, seats are slick with other people’s sweat and grease, and Singaporeans do this awful, unreasonable quirky thing of using packets of tissue paper to “reserve a table” while they go and get their food (also known in Singapore as “choping” a table… gotta love it).

Anyway, if you successfully navigate all challenges at a good hawker centre, it’s worth it. Everything will be forgiven and forgotten when you get to sink into that $1.50 mug of warm fresh soybean milk (not to be confused with New Zealand soy milk), and stir fried chai tow kway/char kway (rectangular slabs of daikon cake with eggs, garlic, sauce) or $3 plate of mee siam (thin vermicelli in a spicy, sour and sweet broth complete with dried bean curd, boiled egg, tamarind, chives, spring onion and a squeeze of fresh lime juice)… it’s quite difficult to make it sound as good as it is, but you’ll know what I mean if you’ve tried it!

Anyway. When I first heard about Food Alley in Auckland, I was a little skeptical. Warning bells went off in my head as I contemplated stale sushi and brightly coloured sweet and sour pork.

It turns out that I needn’t have dragged my feet so much the first time I went there with my colleague.

Really, it’s the one food court in Auckland that I won’t say no to going to more than once every month. It gets madly busy at lunchtime, and I can quite see why. A rapid lunch for under $12 on a busy day is a great thing; a spicy flavoursome break from salad and sandwiches is similarly good when you want one.

There’re plenty of choices available – think steamed buns filled with pork/chicken/red bean paste; spicy Thai larb gai (minced chicken salad with chilli and citrus – palate cleansing!) and sticky rice; fried Malaysian char kway teow with chicken, seafood or beef; bento boxes; Indonesian fried rice… they have everything you need for a quick dash to Asia, right in the heart of Auckland Central.

You can expect tasty food cooked to a mostly consistent standard on every visit, with perhaps a little more salt, spice and oil than you’re used to. Freshly cooked food (with the number of people who pass through, you can be reasonably sure that you’re not eating stale reheated stuff). Quick service. A few dirty seats and a sticky floor.

In the unlikely event that Food Alley leaves you outraged and disappointed, though, just remember you’re not spending very much for a very generous lunch.

Food Alley – 9-11 Albert Street, Auckland