Thursday, 10 May 2012

lau pa sat and a little bit about singapore's hawker centres

lau pa sat during lunch time
as per the singlish dictionary makkan is both a verb and a noun. it denotes food as well as the eating of it. makkan time is singapore’s national past time (along with shopping that is). there is a range of ‘makkan’ places in singapore starting from the ubiquitous hawker centres to kopitiams, food courts and food republics in its many malls to high-end restaurants. it’s diverse population of indians, malays, chinese and pernakan have influenced its cuisine. the hawker centres in particular offer great variety from around south east asia. 

inside lau pa sat
the one’s that o and i frequented most during our trip were chinatown complex and lau pa sat simply because they were the closest to us. singapore’s modern day food centres are a throwback to its tradition of street hawkers. the hawkers were an expression of the national preoccupation with 'makkan' as well as the nature and dynamics of singapore's population. in the late eighteen sixties the male-female ratio was ten to one. this is unsurprising as singapore was a trading hub and therefore populated by traders who were male. the lack of family life specifically women, coupled with the fact that men could not cook meant that someone had to assume the role of sustenance. it was the hawkers and later the kopitiams that filled this gap. post-independence the imperatives of public health and sanitation led the government to build facilities to house hawkers. most of these facilities came to be centred around public housing providing cheap and accessible meals. by the mid nineteen eighties all of singapore’s hawkers had been relocated from the street and installed in purpose built food centres. the government continues to manage the stalls through a strict food hygiene grading system and if you look carefully all stalls display their hygiene certificates. 

food centres also have their own set of rules foremost of which is securing a table to eat at. when you find a vacant seat or table all you have to do is leave a tissue or a personal item such as a pen or lighter. then make a note of your table/aisle number. most food stalls are self-service but the ones that serve will ask you for your table number. you do not have to clean up after yourself as all food centres have staff that attends to clearing the tables. 

hawkers inside lau pa sat
once you have your table secured its time to do a recce and figure out what you want to eat. i was partial to the dim sum at lau pa sat and often found myself at the dim sum stall. it was easy to find as it was always clouded in steam and populated with mini-towers of bamboo steamers. the cooks look like laboratory personnel in their white uniforms. it takes roughly three to five minutes for the dim sum to be steamed. i would order a combination of opaque steamed buns that melt softly in the mouth along with the translucent ones that display their insides. the prawn dim sum assumes the shape of its contents and dim sum with chives show flashes of green.

one afternoon o and i had indian food. the vegetables had been cooked with little sympathy and were quite mushy but the chicken tikka along with a slim dhal were quite tasty as was the tandoori roti. on another occasion i tried thunder tea rice. this stall has inordinately long queues between noon and two pm. i must admit i was a little reluctant to try a dish that boldly advertises itself as a nutritionally balanced meal that aids the digestive system and expels gases and winds. but after days of eating chicken and fish i was craving something bright and green. traditionally known as lei cha, thunder tea rice is a hakka chinese dish that has an illustrious history. its origins lie in the time of the qin dynasty. it is said that the combination of ingredients in lei cha served with rice sustained the hans during turbulent war and plague. the green tea has the consistency of a thick broth and is made with a combination of herbs including basil and mint. it is poured over rice and an assortment of greens, nuts and tofu. there is a gentle simplicity of flavours with lots of texture from vegetables that hold their bite. in addition, there is a two toned nuttiness from the brown rice and peanuts. if you want something that is healthy and with lean flavours i’d definitely recommend lei chai. 

thunder tea rice
satay stalls at lau pa sat
a corny advertisement 
lau pa sat at night
in the evening lau pa sat is transformed into a satay-fest. rows and rows of grills line the street along with tables and chairs for diners. it was the only time i saw the food centre spill outside their purpose built structure. a rather bossy lady took charge of our order, which was a pity as i would have liked to wander and see what was on offer. we had the famous singapore chilli crab, chicken, beef and prawn satay. the prawn satay was outstanding. the otherwise round bodies had been skewered straight and grilled in their shells. this is messy eating but so worth it! the chilli crab although very tasty makes for an unpleasant experience because it is so badly cut. this is further compounded by the lack of proper cutlery. plastic forks are no match for the hard-shelled crustacean. i suspect we would have had a better experience if we had headed down to the east coast lagoon hawker centre that is famous for its seafood offerings but we didn’t manage to fit that into our trip. 

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