The Best Bits
Although, in my mind, my two-week trip keeps blurring together into a neverending merry-go-round of plate-hopping, three things clearly stand out:
1. Prawn Mee (in Katong) - This is a noodle dish that you can either have "dry" or in soup. I always go with dry because the flavor is more intense, and you'll get a side serving anyway of that rich broth made from pork bones and prawn heads--anyone picturing plump, shiny black shrimp eyeballs, well, yes, they were probably cooking in there too, but you just have to close your eyes and taste that soup! Anyhow, with the dry version, what you get is a bowl of noodles (I like an even mix of egg noodle and rice noodle) with a thin gravy poured over. I don't exactly know what this soupy sauce is, but it probably contains sambal blachan (chilli and prawn paste) and that prawn/pork stock. The noodles are then topped with sliced pork belly, sliced red chillies, crispy deep-fried shallots, and a pretty pink ring of prawns. I like to add just a few more spoons of soup to my noodles, toss everything to coat nicely, and then slurp that baby down.
Admittedly, this is somewhat down-and-dirty eating. The prawns still have their heads attached, the noodles often threaten to splatter chilli oil, and there's nothing to cool the air but a dinky little fan revolving a bit too far above your head, and maybe a breeze if you're lucky. This means that all around you are people slurping hot soup on a hot day, and there's probably going to be a bit of sweat flying.
The place we go in Katong can get crowded. You have to line up in front of a little stall, bellow your order above the kitchen din, and hopefully by then the people you're with will have secured a table so that you can also bellow the table number to the cashier--that's how they find you in the endless, haphazard mess of humans in various stages of shrimp and noodle consumption. The room is set up cafeteria-style. It's likely you'll have to share a table with other parties, and you may have to endure table poachers lurking all around you, hoping you're going to get out of "their" seat cause they've already placed their order. You get used to it.
2. Samsui Chicken at the Soup Restaurant - Why is this chicken so good? I'm not absolutely certain myself. But to someone who's never tried it, this dish might look almost unappealingly spartan. Gleaming white steamed chicken, deboned and sliced in neat rectangles, encircling an equally pale dish of grated ginger sauce. Some might even say it's just Hainanese Chicken Rice chicken, but without the rice. But it's SO good.
In fact, to the Samsui women--poor female laborers who literally helped build modern Singapore, and were the inspiration for the Soup Restaurant--this chicken dish was part of a special feast, only eaten during the Chinese New Year.
Maybe the appeal is in the simple flavors of the dish, or maybe it's because of the simplicity that the chicken must always be fresh and flavorful and cooked perfectly: plump and fine-textured, never mushy or stringy. Don't let that white color fool you--this ain't simple boiled chicken.
And the ginger sauce...I could just spread it over white rice and wolf it down. There's not much there, grated ginger, sesame oil, and chicken broth. But put a blob of the stuff on top of the chicken, and the combination is absolutely perfect. Meant to be. Even a die-hard Chicken Rice lover like me will happily admit that absolutely nothing more is needed.
3. Gula melaka - this means "Melakan sugar," in Malay. Essentially, gula melaka is a dark brown sugar tapped from the coconut palm, and usually comes in the form of solid little half spheres, each the size of a small egg. But how do I emphasize that this is no ordinary brown sugar? Well, think of the distinct flavor of Lyle's Golden Syrup or dark molasses. Gula melaka has an intense aroma and flavor that is all its own, and is used all the time in Singaporean cooking. This trip, I came across something called kueh kolek, which at first glance appeared to be a thin rectangle of chocolate cake. Upon further questioning, the shopkeeper explained that it was a sweet made of gula melaka and green beans. Have you ever had real, homemade vanilla fudge? The first bite of kolek reminded me of the texture of freshly made fudge, not yet crystalized, creamy. But the flavor of the kolek did not have the cloying sweetness of white sugar in fudge. Instead it was dark and moist, delicate and yet heady with the aroma of gula melaka.