On A Culinary Mission In Singapore

Today’s culinary mission in Singapore: Unearth the best chili crab and Hainanese chicken rice and sample Hawker food at Maxwell Road Food Centre.

First Stop: No Signboard Seafood at Geyland.

As the luxurious ambassador of Singaporean food, chili crab is the national star. In my humble opinion, No Signboard Seafood serves up the best chili crab around. Upon arrival, I met the owner and hand selected my crab from a large milk crate. I watched the seasoned chef chop the sweet crab into several pieces before placing in a deep fryer. In the wok, a dizzying array of chilies, tomatoes, garlic and shallots sizzled over hot flames. Soy sauce, chicken stock and sugar syrup formed an aromatic bouquet. Whisked egg and cornstarch slurry thickened the gravy with bands of silky ribbons. The savory marriage of the fleshy, satisfying crab, doused in thick sauce yielded the perfect balance of sweet, salty, and spicy. My happy, yet sticky, fingers slipped against the metal claw opener while cracking the rigid shells. Eagerly, I mopped up the last bits of sauce with soft, doughy Chinese rolls. YUM!

Next Stop: Maxwell Road Food Centre.

The clustered open street food court offered an abundance of mom and pop “hawker stands” representing Malaysian, Indian and Chinese specialty dishes. As I entered the centre, I was struck by the buzzing excitement of clay pots and pans clanging, exotic fragrances looming and the chitter chatter of authentic “regulars”. After some chef recommendations, I found a standout stall named Tian Tian, where I sampled the classic Hainanese Chicken Rice. Originated in Hainan, a tropical island off China’s southern coast, it has become a culinary staple in Malaysian culture. Served simply on a lime green plastic plate, succulent boiled chicken was roughly chopped and delightfully served on top of a heap of the most fragrant rice I’ve ever tasted. Each grain had it’s own identity; fluffy, aromatic, distinctive. Best completed with drizzled soy and chili sauce, the tender, boneless chicken dish was perfectly complemented with a frosty mug of Tiger beer. The cold brew helped battle the beads of sweat forming on my brow from the stifling heat.

Although I was stuffed, I decided to forge on because I only had a small amount of time in Singapore! And as an innately curious chef, the show must go on!

One stall caught my eye for its modest dumpling. Special Shanghai Tim Sum (#92) where chef Sebastian, served up a scrumptious tapestry of flavors. The recipe, which he has been whipping up for 50 years, felt like an entry point into someone’s ancestral cookbook. His flavors are transferred ceremoniously through secret tastes past on to the next generation.

Final Stop: Chicken Curry Stall.

Bursting at the seams, I made my final stop for some Malaysian Clay Pot Chicken Curry served up by a mother/daughter duo. Met with two glorious smiles, I was impressed how they harmoniously flowed in a very small kitchen. The clay pot glowed as flames enveloped and danced over a fiery grill. Decadent curry packed with chicken wings added collagen, which emulsified fat into the sauce. Pillows of starchy potatoes swam across a burnt orange basin laden with idiosyncratic curry leaves. With each bite, I felt happy and grateful for the culinary stamps in my passport.

Mission completed. Belly full. Can’t wait to get home and experiment with these flavors. I feel like the luckiest lad in the world.

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© 2016 Jon Ashton