It’s half past 1pm but the place is still crowded, packed with office workers lining up to buy lunch. Several stalls are inside, offering cooked meals mostly paired with rice or noodles. The smell of food is quite overwhelming.
I feel like having bihon, hungrily imagining the taste of soft glassy noodles tossed with bits of seafood and vegetables. I line up in one of the stalls I usually go to. But instead of Seafood Crispy Noodle (which I regularly get because its photo in the menu looks familiar and delicious), I choose #14 Mix Bee Hoon. I was sure they meant “bihon” but likely with an interesting twist.
I confidently talk to the cashier -- “Number 14!” -- paid and patiently waited for my order. But when I see her packing what appeared to be my take-away, it wasn’t at all what I expected. It looked “soup-y” and strange. No, definitely not bihon. And I did not want it. I turned to the cashier and, with a big smile, requested that I change my order, desperately pointing to another man’s bihon-looking meal. The cashier looked at me and seemed a bit confused. I guess they don’t do that here. They choose a meal quickly and move on. They don’t change their minds. The cashier looks at the customer next to me and they speak in Chinese. They laugh, point at my order and the strange looking thing is eventually (thankfully) packed for this laughing customer. I didn’t understand what they said and I did not really care. I shrug a bit, smile and happily take the new bihon wrapped for me.
I guess this has been the story of my two-month-old life in Singapore so far. A series of hits and misses. Pictures of me trying to understand Singlish (the local slang combined with English, like the Taglish that we have) – but struggling for the most part, especially when it’s spoken with a fast, thick local accent. I rely mostly on pictures when ordering food. Pointing to pictures leaves absolutely no room for misinterpretation, especially when you’re in a hawker centre like the place where I bought my bihon (Singapore style). “Hawker” places are basically where vendors sell cheap local food. In short, mala-“turo-turo” or “karinderya”.
But I have also learned to be more adventurous when it comes to food. I suppose that’s what happens when you move to a different country. You open yourself up to change – in the culture, the language, in the way people generally do things. Heck, the right hand drive here is so disorienting and counter-intuitive. But there is also so much to discover in Singapore. Especially when it comes to its local cuisine.
During my first weeks, I stayed at Naumi Liora -- a lovely boutique hotel located near Chinatown. The location is amazing. Walk a few blocks and you’re in Maxwell Food Centre, definitely one of the best hawker centres I’ve been to. And no wonder. It has Michelin Star stalls and the lines for chicken rice can get very long. I would wake up early (at 630am, still a bit dark & cold) and run around the city to work up an appetite. Then I would stroll to Maxwell and check out whatever I fancied. I always ended up with duck and rice or noodles, served with a few slices of pipino. For more zing, you can eat it with slivers of siling labuyo. Sheer heaven for only $5 (or roughly P170 – very cheap by Singapore standards). Wash it down with a cold glass of Mango shake. And cap it off with their delicious local coffee, served stylishly in a plastic bag. Amazing. I also easily gained back all the calories I was hoping to lose by running.
The best local meals I’ve had here are heavy. Carbo-loading extravaganza. One of my favorite carb-heavy dishes is definitely Laksa. It’s a spicy, milky, coconut-based soup. Thick and rich with the flavors of the sea. Every sip is so flavorful – fiery soup that tickles the tongue and goes straight to your throat wonderfully. Thick firm noodles, shrimps, slices of squid, mussels, kohol (they call cockles) and lots of tiny surprises like bean sprouts and herbs. I recently moved to the East Coast and happily discovered I live near one of the best Laksa places in Singapore: 328 Katong Laksa. It’s a small, ordinary-looking restaurant. Without knowing its popularity, I went inside (the word Laksa outdoors was enough of an invitation) and checked out what I could order. The lighted menu display had a few items: Laksa small ($5.35) or big bowl ($7.50). It also had “Otah” ($1.40) which turned out to be rice with dried fish (or bulad) inside, wrapped in grilled banana leaves. Laksa and Otah supposedly make a perfect combination (noodles and rice!). I tried it and was surprised the pair did blend well. So yes, carbs on carbs indeed.
I did not expect to fall in love with Singapore food. I came here with low expectations (virtually none) when it comes to local cuisine. I’ve had a few visits here in the past but never really had the luxury of exploring the rich, diverse variety of dishes spread all across the country.
My journey has just begun and I am far from tasting everything. This makes me very happy. And hungry. There is so much more hawker-stalking ahead.
(Elaine Meris is a young Filipina working in Singapore’s advertising industry. “This is my personal account of my delicious adventure in this beautiful country,” she writes.)