Os hawker centers they are a kind of Singaporean institution.
We felt officially desperate at the abundance of indoor stands twinned in several rows and with their specialties and menus arranged in a similar way.
We were hungry but we limited ourselves to going around that aromatic area of the Teka Mall. With that, we only fueled the enormous indecision, made even more ridiculous by the simultaneous nods and appeals of the counter employees of the closest establishments:
“Come here, try my specialties! They'll love it!” or "It's my food they're looking for, I'm absolutely sure!"
Singapore is one of the most orderly nations on Earth, there is no doubt but these shopkeepers had to do for a living and the vision of two outsiders trying to decide was stronger than the most uncomplex.
Lost in the Menus and Flavors of the Teka Mall, at the Doors of Little India
We ended up giving in to the call of one of them, of Malay ethnicity. We approached his window and unleashed a list of questions about what consisted or contained this or that.
Enlightened, we ended up asking for a fried rice (fried rice with pieces of meat and vegetables) and a large mommy (a soup of noodles rich and quite spicy).
When the food was ready, the lady served us without big smiles at the table where we had been seated.
It took us forever to share the two dishes, largely due to the potency of the soup that we weren't prepared for.
Then we tried a glass of chendol.
We celebrated when we saw how similar it was to the halo halo desserts that we had devoured countless times in the Philippines, made from coconut milk, rice flour, gelatin, palm sugar and, as with the chendol ahead of us, often fortified with red beans.
More than satisfied, it occurred to us that this was a real food court. It's not that Singapore didn't have them in large numbers, too, in its countless shopping centers that are little or nothing different from what we have here.
Already a covered area, huge like that, with hundreds of mini-restaurants side and side, grouped by ethnic groups, to avoid as much as possible quarrels and confusion, serving a little of everything, that we were not used to seeing.
Hawker centers like Teka and dozens around the island are not just for lunchtime meals during the week. Even when Singaporeans dine out in groups, they prefer them to conventional restaurants.
Thus, they take advantage of its convenience, much lower prices and the endless diversity of offer that had left us so confused.
The Historical, Ethnic and Gastronomic Wealth of Singapore
Singapore has always been a key Asian port served by a population largely from elsewhere.
Over time, the cuisines of the Malay natives and that of the island's largest ethnic group, the Chinese, mingled with each other and with those of the Indian ethnic groups – especially Tamil -, the Peranakan of Chinese descendants for a long time. installed in Penang, Malacca, Indonesia and Singapore itself.
The ethnic spice did not stop there.
The genetic fusion of the Portuguese who dominated the spice market for two centuries and continued to inhabit Malacca and Singapore with the natives, English, Dutch, Chinese and Indians gave rise to the Kristang group.
Its cuisine also enjoys great prestige.
As was to be expected, in addition to a countless number of ingredients and dishes from all those places as well as their variations, many other recipes today considered hybrid or multicultural have also appeared on the island.
A Multi-Ethnic Nation with a Multi-Awarded Food
We only need to move from the localized but delicious and invigorating world of Hawker centers to the world of international prestige to see the popularity of Singaporean cuisine.
In 2011, CNN decided to conduct an online election of the “50 Most Delicious Foods in the World".
Four of the most popular dishes were idolized in Singapore: Hainan Chicken Rice, Crab Chili, Laksa (Perakanan noodle soup) and Roti Prata, usually served with meat or vegetable curry and which can be cooked with cheese, onion , banana, beans, chocolate, mushrooms, eggs or others.
Ingredients like these are obtained in different markets conveniently adjacent to the hawker centers.
There are those of meat, fish, vegetables, etc, etc., in which several restaurant owners maintain other businesses and where everyone is supplied.
After that meal and others in similar places, we almost never resist wandering through its confusing corridors.
Among housewives wrapped in saris, under hijabs or in Western and modern dresses, attended by butchers, fishmongers, and other merchants, given body and soul to the trades.
Wandering through Singapore's Prolific Markets
A large part of their purchases are dedicated to almost secular homemade meals, sometimes shared by groups of different religions, in this case, paying attention to the restrictions of each one: the pork for the Muslims, the cow for the Hindus, preferably poultry or vegetarians if both are seated at the table.
On any other day, we were walking through the neighborhood of little india when we came across the strange scene of dozens of Indian Singaporeans on a terrace, almost all of them with lassis in hand, watching what looked like a Bollywood classic.
Curious, we sat down, ordered two and watched the last moments of the noisy feature film. In the end, we found ourselves chattering away with a haughty Sikh and infectious speech.
We spoke to him about the phenomenon of lassis and ended up getting involved in a long three-way debate that involved the Singaporean political system and the true importance of Indian ethnicities in the country. But it also obviously went through the food.
“What are you guys, by the way? Catholics, Protestants? Are they nothing? Ah, OK, that's it, those are free thinkers no god or gods, I get it.
The Role of Gastronomy in Singaporean Complex Identity
Well, anyway, you have to understand that here in Singapore, things have been working like this for a long time”, sought to enlighten us, Singh, who was increasingly excited by the interest we showed and the depth that the conversation took on.
“We coexist with our ethnicities and religions but the rivalry between ethnic groups remains.
One of the ways to prevent our identity from being lost in that of others or, worse, simply in the West, is to respect traditions. Those weary and gastronomy in general plays an unavoidable role in Singapore.
It only takes some money for a family from here to cross the entire island to get to a restaurant with food they really like, whatever the time.
In fact, it's even common for Singaporeans to return home earlier than they thought from abroad just because they miss their favorite dishes.”
The dissertation continued. It left us convinced and more attentive to the matter.
In the last days of our visit, we explored the Marina Bay area, at the mouth of the Singapore River.
We found that even the architecture of Esplanade – Theaters on The Bay, the main arts center in the country, is reportedly inspired by the durian, the malodorous national fruit that the authorities had to ban from the public transport network.