Date: 30-03-2020 published by Nick Baines
The small economic powerhouse of Singapore is home to a veritable melting pot of Asian cuisines. With strong culinary influences from India, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, paired with the various regional Chinese cooking styles, this tiny nation punches well above its weight when it comes to food offerings.
It’s a little known fact that Singapore’s hawker centres were ground zero for the modern food halls sweeping the western world by the likes of Dinnerama and Time Out Food Hall. In an attempt to crack down on rogue street vendors, improve hygiene and create jobs, centres in Singapore were built to accommodate a multitude of street food vendors, or hawkers as they’re more prominently known, all in a government managed building. Communal seating was created, as were jobs for tray collecting and the cleaning up of used cutlery. The birth of these centres created the blueprint for how many hipster food markets operate today, with not so much as a nod in the direction of Singapore’s game changing concept. However, that’s about to change…
One of the most quintessential Singaporean street eats is Hainanese chicken rice, a simple dish of poached chicken breast sliced and fanned over rice that’s been cooked in chicken broth. It’s a hearty and robust comfort food that is praised throughout the country. Served with sliced cucumber and a fiery chilli sauce that has a distinct orange-like note in the finish, this humble meal has finally made it in the culinary zeitgeist of the UK. At London’s foodie mecca Borough Market, Mei Mei is the recent opening that’s been winning the hearts of national critics for newspapers like the FT. Along with rendang curry and nasi lemak – a Malaysian breakfast of coconut rice, a spicy sambal and a fried egg, Mei Mei also turn out a shockingly good kaya toast.
For the uninitiated, kaya is a jam made from coconuts which is served slapped between two slices of toast with a knob of butter. Often accompanying two coddled eggs and the ubiquitous sweet coffee, kaya jam is expected to get a lot of attention in 2020. Yotam Ottolenghi is playing with the Singaporean staple at his NOPI outpost in central London, while opportunistic brunch spots would do well to emulate this quick-fire breakfast item.
Another big player in the bustling world of Singaporean classics is the roti. This buttery Indian bread that traditionally comes served with a fragrant curry sauce all over Malaysia. Tearing off chunks of the soft, flaky roti before dunking into the spiced liquid is a mesmerising ritual that has been recognised at Euston’s Roti King by Time Out, The Guardian and Eater. The roti canai (there are several types of roti) at this side-street operation has become so popular that the owners have now opened a new outpost in Victoria called Gopal’s Corner turning out the same ethereal rotis alongside dosas and laksa.
The diversity of Singapore’s food landscape is finally being explored, providing new concepts for food operators at street food markets like Kerb, through to established bricks and mortar restaurants. As we delve deep into the intricacies of the hawker centre, perhaps we’ll nurture a progressive new frontier in culinary technique, and unearth dynamic new dishes in the process.
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