By Anna Merlan
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Devoted readers of Chowhound.com learn to look out for certain authors—as democratic as it is, and as wonderful as that is, you can't trust just anyone. For outer-borough eating especially, Dave Cook is one of the hounds we look to. His thoroughness as an eater is well-documented on his blog, Eating in Translation. Cook, who is six-foot-three, tends to stick out when hounding in places like Singapore, where he'd eat his last meal at beloved food courts like Maxwell Road, Zion Riverside, Tanjong Pagar, and Newton Circus. But that's OK; you get the best hot-sauce tips that way.
I'm a grazer, and the best place for that is Singapore. I've been there four times—a college buddy moved there, lucky for me, so I've been able to spend some time. You might have seen the food courts on Anthony Bourdain's show. I think I get around a little more than he did, though.
And Calvin Trillin wrote about them in The New Yorker last summer. I was jealous. And now I'm jealous of you. So rub it in. I would go to all my favorites. Maxwell Road Food Court is one of them. You go with friends, snag a table, then procure certain things from certain stalls. Each one is not a full-scale restaurant. They might have just two things, but they have perfected those two things. So you get chicken rice from this place, peanut soup from that place, pandan pancakes from another—if you're as ambulatory as I am.
What about chicken rice? It's an emblematic Singaporean dish. It's really just chicken and rice, not exciting-sounding, but the rice has been cooked in broth, and a hot sauce and a sharp ginger sauce both accent the chicken perfectly. It's very simple, so it has to be done perfectly.
Is there a consensus on where they do it best? Yes. After many years, everyone seems to agree that Tian Tian is the place.
Yourself included? Yes. There are other chicken rices that I wouldn't push aside, but this is the place, if there is one. Then there's peanut soup, which is also pretty much what it sounds like: a peanut base, maybe with glutinous-rice balls in it.
So it's a dessert? It's sweet. I don't know if you'd call it dessert, because of the way you eat meals at these places. It's like how, in New York, you can have a cannoli at 4 p.m.—it's not dessert; it's a cannoli. And then pandan pancakes are fluffy, risen, and layered like a sponge cake, and they're rolled around some kind of filling. There's a tong shui stall, where the guy gets there at 3 a.m. and grinds everything by hand. I would want laksa, the spicy noodle soup you eat in Singapore and Malaysia. There's assam, which has the sour taste of tamarind, and then luksa lamack, which has a spicy undercurrent but is flavored with coconut milk.
How does an outsider sort through all this? I approach it the same way I might go to a neighborhood in New York: just go in cold, eat anything, talk to anyone. The same thing I'll do tomorrow in Elmhurst. I mean, not that I haven't been there before, but I'll just explore. Singaporeans are very forward—in a very friendly way, like, "Hey, you gotta try the mutton soup!" or "This is the hot sauce that goes with that." They go right up to you and want to discuss it. William Gibson, the science-fiction writer, described Singapore as "Disneyland with the death penalty." People don't feel like they can say a lot, but food is one thing everyone can talk about.