One professor's adventures in the Singapore food scene
Steve Kelman tastes the delights of the far east.
Some observations on the food scene in Singapore:
1) Singapore is of course the original home of “street food,” based in so-called “hawker centers” that are everywhere around the city. (I knew that “street food” had arrived when I was in Stockholm last year and saw a restaurant called “Singapore” in a fancy location downtown, with a sign indicating they served “street food.”) Hawkers have been around for a long time in Singapore, but they underwent an official rebirth into so-called “hawker centers” when the government set aside space, at low rent, in the government-owned housing developments that dominate the city, for hawkers in just about every residential community on the island. These serve low-priced (usually $6 or less) meals of various kinds of noodles, dumplings, soups, satays, etc. The government’s involvement in this, and the effort to channel chaos into some kind of order (though the hawker centers are pretty lively and even boisterous) is very typically Singaporean.
2) A kind person at a Harvard Club of Singapore dinner gave me some good advice – which I hadn’t known before, and which blog readers who interact with Chinese people in an eating setting may find useful – about chopstick etiquette. I was holding chopsticks in my hand and, in-between using them to take some food, gesticulating (mildly) with that hand. This turns out to be impolite. You should not move your chopsticks around with your hands or point with them. Put them down while you are gesticulating or don’t gesticulate.
3) The version of Chinese food served in Singapore restaurants has adapted to Western ways in one important respect – the frequent presence, at least in Chinese restaurants serving a lot of Western customers, of a Western-style dessert course. Traditional Chinese cuisine doesn’t really include dessert, although fruit is typically served at the end of a meal. Chinese people don’t make the same distinction Westerners do between sweet dishes and other foods. People who have eaten in a dim sum restaurant in an American Chinatown may have noticed that Chinese customers order, for example, dumplings with sweet bean taste as just another course of their meal, eaten in between spinach with garlic and spicy pork wontons. There does not seem to be a Chinese equivalent of every mother’s American phrase, “No dessert before you’ve finished your dinner.” However, in many Singapore Chinese restaurants, there is a mouth-watering page of desserts, generally pancakes or dumplings filled with different kinds of sweet pastes or sweetened dried fruits.
4) American fast food is big in Singapore, which boasts some chains – such as California Pizza Kitchen, Dunkin Donuts, and Popeye’s – not seen that much elsewhere in Asia. Starbucks outlets are everywhere, some of them open around the clock. However, the menu balance is very different from the US. Not surprisingly given the tropical climate, there is a big emphasis on cold drinks. However, even the hot coffee offerings have a different emphasis. Starbucks standard US offerings are reduced to a one pathetic line on the menu called “café Americano,” under a hot coffee section of the menu called “expressos.”