Kevin Kwan couldn’t be more accurate—Singaporeans worship food.
They can debate which hawker center is the best and they can do it all day long. The best-selling novelist wrote in “Crazy Rich Asians” that arguing about food is the favorite past time in Singapore. Talks over which stall offers the best satay can lead to arguments—and ensue “fistfights between grown men.”
But with a food scene as diverse as the locals and as competitive as its economic market, it’s hard not to argue where to find the best laksa or biryani.
The dining scene in this island country range from fancy restaurants to Michelin-starred hawker stalls, from Indian delicacies to Chinese food.
While these extremes—and more in between—are featured in the annual Singapore Food Festival, the event focuses on food heritage this time, as it takes foodies to the roots of the country’s cuisine.
Singaporean cuisine, after all, is deeply rooted in heritage. Hawker center stalls are manned by people who have spent a lifetime mastering the same dishes. The recipes of these dishes were passed on by their parents or grandparents.
In a sneak peek of this year’s festival, Super went on a one-of-a-kind food adventure which started at the iconic Maxwell hawker center for a wine-pairing event and ended at Bar Stories on Haji Lane for some desserts, cocktails, tea and coffee.
At the 81-year-old Maxwell Food Centre we sampled Popiah, a savory squash cake of sorts, which complemented the dry-style rosé wine.
Blue Pyrenees Sparkling Shiraz, meanwhile, intensified the smoky hot flavor of deep-fried curry puffs.
Popiah and curry puffs were sold from Bib Gourmand hawker stalls—Michelin-approved restaurants tagged as “inspector’s favorite for good value.” The wines were sourced from Australia and New Zealand.
Next stop was Jakpalang Eating House. We didn’t know it yet, but we were in for a surprise. A video of a woman making bak zhang (pork dumpling) started playing, suddenly a dancer entered the dining hall and started grooving to the music like she was making the dumpling herself.
Chef Nixon Low made the traditional Singaporean dumpling served with pork, mushrooms, sticky rice and chestnuts. Choreographer Naomi Tan collaborated with Low for this five-course dining experience.
We went to 1980s Singapore next. In Chinatown Food Street, we devoured our favorite kiddie treats—chewy White Rabbit and Haw Flakes (for some reason the Singaporean version of this childhood sweet is tastier).
But the real treats were the 50-cent dishes—Abacus Seeds (Hakkah dish made from yams), Cantonese Paper Wrapped Chicken, Hokkien Rikshaw Noodles. In the ’80s, these delicacies were sold for only 50 cents apiece. Our favorite? The red bean-flavored “ice candy.”
Final stop was Bar Stories on Haji Lane for some tea, coffee, cocktails and kueh—colorful Singaporean desserts usually made of pandan, tapioca, coconut, sticky rice, and is similar to the Filipino kakanin.
And because we’re like Lorelai Gilmore who needs coffee as much as air, we paid close attention to the kueh and coffee pairing.
We sampled a cup of Monsoon Malabar, a spicy, earthy, smoky coffee from India. The arabica coffee was paired with kueh made of coconut, tapioca and mung beans (which means it goes well with our favorite kutsinta and pichi-pichi).
A fruity cold brew of Ethiopian coffee (read: Ethiopia is the birth place of coffee) matched a coconut and cream kueh, similar to maja blanca.
Bar Stories owner Dave Koh concocted a special cocktail worthy of its name—Rainbow.
Rainbow is an alcohol mixture of pandan, lime, lychee, sour plum, egg white and Maracatu Cachaca made in Brazil but only available in Singapore. The cocktail has a velvety texture, with earthy and honey notes.
The flavors were inspired by the colorful layers of the Rainbow Lapis kueh made of coconut and pandan.
Koh said he gained weight from all the kueh he worked on the cocktail pairing, but noted that cocktails were serious business in Singapore.
“Singapore is a cocktail hot spot—that’s why we have the Singapore Sling,” Koh said.
Remember at the end of “Crazy Rich Asians” when Peik Lin and Nick Young were arguing which bar serves the best Singapore Sling? Accurate.
“Savour Singapore in Every Bite” at the 24th Singapore Food Festival until July 30. Visit www.singaporefoodfestival.com or www.visitsingapore.com.
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