I won't say much about the hawker food in Singapore except to limit my comments to this solitary post. But the general rule of thumb is that if you can find similar food in the Malayan peninsula, chances are very good that these are better alternatives than the Singaporean version.
During my brief stay in Singapore last week, I did get to try the food at the much ballyhooed Maxwell hawker centre. Tried the Tian Tian chicken rice, the peanut soup and the Zhen Zhen porridge. I didn't have the space in my tummy to try the fish beehoon soup stall, though. But at all three stalls - selling chicken rice, porridge and beehoon soup - there were long queues. I actually waited in line for about 30 minutes before I got to my porridge, just to determine whether the stall's reputation was deserved.
But first, the chicken rice. Okay, I do accept that the chicken was very well done. I could have requested for the chicken drumstick but I allowed the hawker to serve me chicken rice with breast meat. I had expected the meat to be tough but wonders of wonders, it was soft and tender. Yes, that part was worthy of their reputation. But the rice was only of average standard. Definitely, I can get better rice even here in Penang. That, unfortunately, was the reality.
The peanut soup was acceptable enough to me. The hawker asked whether or not I wanted the glutinous rice balls. One came filled with grounded peanuts while the other was filled with red bean paste. Not bad, but I can still get this equivalent peanut soup here in Penang, with the slices of yew char kueh thrown in, although without the rice balls.
While I was enjoying the soup, an old gentleman sat to share my table. He had with him a bowl of the fish beehoon soup. So I struck up a conversation with him. He said that he always travelled down to this Maxwell hawker centre because these were the original hawkers in Singapore and the food here was marvellous. Marvellous by Singapore standards only, I thought silently to myself. And what would he recommend me, seeing that I've already satisfied much of my hunger pangs?
Try the porridge, he urged me and poured all sorts of compliments on the food. And that was how I joined the 30-minute queue. Some of the people in line, obviously office workers, were buying back three, four, five packets of the porridge and that contributed to the long wait. But at long last, I settled down with my own bowl of fish porridge. I stirred the bowl. Yah, thin slices of fish came up. But the porridge itself was a surprise. The grains were so broken down through the long hours of cooking that the porridge had become one uniformly thick, gooey constituency. But don't get me wrong. It was all right with me. The first few mouthfuls were okay but as I progressed further through my food, I began thinking, "hey, why am I still consuming this starchy paste?"
So that's my brief food adventure at the Maxwell hawker centre. Reputable though the hawkers there are - one had even received an endorsement from the celebrity chef, Anthony Bordain - I couldn't help thinking that Penang hawker street food is still very much better, by and large.
(Picture from eatdrinkcooktravel.wordpress.com)
But the food items that are uniquely Singaporean are definitely worth experiencing. The bak chor mee for one. I didn't pass up the offer from one of my friends to take me to Meng's Kitchen, an 24-hour bak chor mee shop in Upper Thomson Road. As the place was packed, there was nothing to do but to wait until a table was freed. Soon, we were enjoying a bowl each. Ahh, here I must admit that this could be one of the best dry bak chor mee that I have ever had in Singapore. Just the right ingredients - pork, sliced liver, a small bowl of soup with accompanying meat balls - and perfect balance of sourness from the dash of vinegar.
And the other food item that is uniquely Singapore? Nothing else but their chwee kueh, which I located at the Ghim Moh market hawker centre. The old couple were busy attending to the short queue that had built up. Beside them was a large stack of small metal containers they used to steam their chwee kueh. I don't know how many are actually sold every day but I would hazard ... at least around a thousand? The name for this food item came from the small depression in the steamed rice cake in which a minute pool of water would condense and accumulate. The chwee kueh is best savoured with some minced meat and a dash of the hawker's chilli paste. Yes, I enjoyed it.