If it’s good, why should I care about where it comes from?
Y’know, there’s a lot more order to all this than just random food posts – I don’t like to use my cellphone camera these days, and besides, I can’t stretch it to an acceptable quality for the blog templates I select. I do try to bring my camera everywhere I go, but the worst thing to do (and I’m guilty of this), is to have a backlog that’s unmanageable and disrupting my own life. It’s for these reasons that my recent visit to Europe, in particularly France, look very minimal – there’s far too many sights and too many photos for me to make it all come together. But then, there are times that you miss that you look back and go, “I’ve got time, I want to relive that again”, and today’s lunch was all about that. Living where I live – with the enclaves of Upper Thomson, Sembawang Hills, Casuarina, as well as the districts of Bishan and Ang Mo Kio within easy reach – I have absolutely no worries about variety when it comes to food. Having grown up mostly in Ang Mo Kio, the evolution of the food scene is just fascinating as it’s intriguing. This constant confluence of different cultures, with every community imprinting onto the estate, keeps the scene constantly refreshed. From finger lickin’ curries to hearty satay bee hoon, from some of the best xiao long baos outside the restaurant scene, to uniquely Singaporean fusion; you’ll find it all here. To truly discover what the region has to offer, you need a bit of patience, though.
In preparation for her presentation the following Monday, Keidi invited me to offer some advice and tips, and specially made her way to Ang Mo Kio. Having just come back from France, I was looking forward to reacquaint myself with the local fare, so I was glad that Keidi suggested we have dinner at S-11. I was in the mood for a good ole’ classic barbecue stingray with a good smother of sambal chili, sliced shallots and parsley with an accompanying tangy chili sauce, so I ordered that for our main. Keidi proceeded to order a bowl of Penang Prawn Noodles, and offered me some – the moment I had it, I was hooked. There was a certain complexity and richness in the broth that was just ramen-esque – poetic in its execution and resolute in its doneness. It was so good, that I had it again just two days later.
It’s likely that many food aficionados will find Blk 711, occupied by anchor tenant and food court franchise operator, S-11, unfamiliar. The huge cluster of food stalls offering the best of what Singapore street food has to offer in this single space, and the competitive nature of it all to keep revenues going, ensures that there’s a certain upkeep to the standard of the food. Tucked in a collective close to the restrooms, is the comparatively small stall simply titled Penang Delights. In spite of its suggestive name, it harbors no grandiose thoughts of representing the culture of the Northern Malaysian state in its hole (if you want a more comprehensive selection, there’s Gurney Drive, a restaurant in Jubilee, a small mall neatly slotted just opposite), choosing to focus on a particular niche, Lor Mee and Prawn Mee. Although Malaysia and Singapore, and to a certain extent, Indonesia and Thailand, share similar dishes, there are variations and takes, even within the same country – colonialism, multiculturalism and assimilation, based on the degree and geography of influence, have altered the content into a very nation or sometimes, district specific taste. Malaysian Chinese street food for example, tends to boast more spices due to the influence of the larger Malay community, while Singapore Chinese hawker fare favors uniformity and less sophisticated flavors on the whole (ironically, preferred by more Westerners), because of minimal Malay and Indian clout.
While it’s referred to as Hokkien Mee or Prawn Mee in Penang, you’ll find Singapore referring to the dish specific to its region: Penang Prawn Mee. This seemingly unnecessary classification is crucial – locally, Penang Prawn Mee, Hokkien Mee, Hokkien Prawn Mee and Prawn Mee refer to completely different dishes. Penang Prawn Mee is a classic Southeast Asian staple, rice and/or egg noodles, served together with prawns, sliced meat, bean sprouts and water spinach in a spicy prawn and pig bone broth. This is then topped with condiments (another Southeast Asian classic) including freshly chopped parsley, deep-fried shallots, pepper, mandatory chili sauce and topped with a speck of fried pork lard for that extra flavor. The result is a very rich, flavorful dish. Unlike Sichuan fare, the spiciness is never numbingly so – it’s hot enough to get your adrenaline pumping. And it becomes a rush: it’s hot, but you wanna keep going on downing everything till the last drop. The locals don’t know how to verbalize this sensation, except to call it “shiok”.