For such a tightly wound place—gum chewing carries stiff penalties—Singapore is freakishly casual about eating. Central to the food culture are thousands of street carts, each serving one or two specialties from a roster of hundreds flaunting Indian, Malaysian, Indonesian, and Hokkien Chinese pedigrees. This folkway arose in the days when the city had an overwhelmingly male population, uprooted from their homelands and too busy to cook for themselves. Though most of these carts have been moved indoors, first to open-air hawker centers, then to air-conditioned food courts, the intoxicating habit of wolfing down cart meals persists. This cuisine is collectively known as kiasu makan in Spinglish, the polyglot patois of the metropolis—”meals to be craved.”
New York has no culinary equivalent, except perhaps our beloved frank and curry-chicken wagons. Luckily, we can experience many of these Singaporean wonders in a string of Malaysian restaurants that feature hawker food as the core of their menus. Near the corner of Mott and Canal, Singapore Café is one of the showy new places that are remaking Manhattan’s original Chinatown. Though it bills itself as a Malaysian restaurant, the menu and decor is clearly meant to reflect the sophistication of Singapore, where the smorgasbord has expanded in recent years to include Thai and Japanese fare, dishes from nearly all regions of China, and even pizza—though it’s likely to be topped with beef rendang. The streamlined room at Singapore Café is flooded with an unworldly light issuing from competing sources, and the yellow-and-blue color scheme is rendered in several jarring variations. Never mind, since the quality of the scarf is a step above competing establishments.
The South Indian origins of roti canai ($1.95) will immediately become apparent: a buttery pancake accompanied by a dipping sauce of curried chicken mellowed with coconut milk. If New York street food were like this, no one would eat in restaurants. Another dish of Indian origin is pasembur ($6.95), a huge salad shingled with crunchy, shrimp-embedded flatbreads and ringed with boiled eggs and fried bean curd. Underneath, in successive layers, find matchsticks of jicama and cucumber, and, below that, a final bonus of clear wobbly noodles with an unusual and elusive texture—shredded jellyfish. Less exciting is mee goreng, a rather dry stir-fry of noodles, sprouts, potatoes, shrimp, and other tidbits that tastes too much like mediocre Cantonese lo mein.
Noodles form the basis of many hawker offerings—steamed, stirred into soups, and fried. Even the simplest-seeming dishes have complex sour and fishy flavors, some of which are unfamiliar to many Westerners. Prawn mee ($4.95) is a Malay-leaning favorite that modestly offers only two shrimp and a couple of pork slices to embellish its bounty of soft egg noodles. The center of attention, though, is a brick-red broth so irresistible you’ll lick the last drops from the bowl. Another taste farrago is “crab in special aromatic flavor” ($11.95), an exoskeleton heap smeared with a black amalgam that incorporates the apparently redundant combination of tiny dried shrimp, diced dried squid, and belacan, the fermented shrimp paste that’s central to Malaysian cooking.
But turn from this mire of strong seasonings for a moment and consider the lowly chicken satay ($4.95). Though probably invented in Persia, this Indonesian favorite is rendered in most Southeast Asian restaurants as a boring ellipsoid of breast meat pierced by a dowel and indifferently grilled. Singapore Café’s features tiny morsels of poultry, both light and dark, swaddled in skin and adhering little bits of fat. It’s so tasty you don’t need the oily brown sauce that beckons from a small bowl. But go ahead and dip. It ain’t just peanut butter.