From durian to Kampong Glam
It is 4pm and the Ramadan bazaar in Geylang Serai, the Malay enclave of Singapore, is bustling. Tomorrow is Hari Raya Puasa, the local name for Eid al Fitr and everyone, it seems, is out shopping. Multi-coloured lights twinkle above stalls. Lilting Arab music plays from within. The scent of kaffir lime, lemongrass, galangal, and garlic perfumes the air. Skinny Malay women in colorful sarongs and form-fitting tunics called baju kebaya flit between the stalls. One sells just Middle Eastern dates: sekki, sukkari, medjool, sufri, ajwah and others. Another displays bottles filled with the snacks that Malay households set out for visiting guests on Eid day: roasted peanuts, savoury mixtures, green and red cookies and ketupat rice cakes. Traditional Malay women make these at home but Singapore is a working culture and most of my young Malay friends buy everything, including their buka puasa (breaking fast) meal. Most food stalls have official names but go by informal monikers. My friend, Ahmed, for instance, likes Hamid's US$2 (Dh6) mutton biriyani from the Geylang Serai Biriyani Stall. Jenny, who is Malay-Chinese, prefers the "Three Sisters" biriyani but goes for Sinar Pagi nasi padang that evening. Ayesha is a newlywed and picks up several dishes from Hajjah Mona's stall for the Eid spread: spice-coated beef rendang, beans spiked with sambal paste, and carrot cake. Most dishes cost about $1.40 (Dh5) and a couple can dine very handsomely for a mere $7 (Dh26). This is why Singaporeans rarely cook. As Ahmed says, when a hawker stall sells mutton biriyanis that are better than your mother's for $2 (Dh8), why bother cooking? For such a slim people, Singaporeans are passionate, concerted eaters. Hawker stalls are a national obsession and opinions about food form the background drumbeat to the island state. "Try Haron's satay at East Coast, la," the hairdresser will tell her customer. "The char kway teow (noodles with eggs, cockles, fish cakes and sprouts) at Joo Chiat was so good," the matron will exclaim to her subway companion. Two years ago, membership swelled at the Jurong West public library when the in-house cafeteria began serving roti prata along with the usual sandwiches. Singaporeans routinely cross the island to get their morning kaya toast (toast slathered with a coconut-egg jam and runny eggs) and kopi from a favoured vendor. I usually had mine at Ya Kun for $3 (Dh10), but locals considered this franchise horribly overpriced. I also had a cab driver refuse to take me to the Tekka market when I told him I was going to buy the famously stinky durian fruit there. "Too expensive. Bad quality," he announced and took me to the faraway Tanjong Pagar neighborhood. What I saved in durian, I spent on the fare. A tiny country about the size of Rhode Island, Singapore possesses a giant-sized ego. This is apparent in the kiasu or "me-first" mentality: Singaporeans want to be the first to get into a new store, new gallery or new restaurant just so they can brag to their friends about it. Like most Asians, they are acutely value-conscious. People stuff themselves at buffets because they've paid for it. They are also suspicious of expensive restaurants. Why should I pay $176 (Dh644) for dinner at Les Amis when I can have a filling and tasty lamb "Muslim-style" for $2 (Dh8) at the hawker stalls is the prevailing mindset, one that is hard to argue with given the quality of the street fare. Singapore integrates beautifully the three great cultures - and cuisines - that make up its population. Young Singaporeans, be they of Malay, Chinese or Indian origin, or frequently as is the case these days, a combination of ethnicities, enjoy hokkien mee, roti prata, curry puffs and satays. Ethnic enclaves persist, but much of Singapore is a zesty rojak mixture, just like its food. It's not all street food either. Compared to other Asian countries, Singapore has a concentration of fine-dining restaurants, headed by local and foreign chefs. "The Singapore market is an odd one," says Samia Ahad, chef-owner of Coriander Leaf (www.corianderleaf.com) and Screening Room (www.screeningroom.com.sg), two concept restaurants. "Firstly, it is small: the same people go to the various top restaurants and we all compete for them. Also, there is no commute or much theatre, so everyone has dinner at the same time, making it hard to turn tables." Born in Pakistan, and trained at Peter Kump in New York, Ahad, 47, interned at acclaimed Manhattan restaurants including the Quilted Giraffe and March before settling in Singapore with her family 10 years ago. A diminutive woman with the sensibility of a chain-smoking, fast-talking New Yorker, she helms Coriander Leaf, serving Middle Eastern and Asian food in Singapore's buzzing Clarke Quay. "My mother called me up and said: 'Of all the professions, you had to go become a bawarchi [cook in Urdu].' She hid it from her friends for years." Ahad appeased her mother by conducting corporate bonding classes in her show-kitchen. Her laid-back drawl belies her perfectionism: "Remember, garnish has to be edible and if possible tasty," she rasps as blue-suited executives bend over their dishes. A focused and passionate cook, Ahad blends cuisines without too much fuss: witness her Za'atar-encrusted spiced lamb rack served with herbed couscous and pomegranate sauce for $25 (Dh90). At the Screening Room, her latest venture, she serves New York steaks, lamb kebabs and French cheeses to patrons who can watch James Bond films in a beautifully preserved five-storey mansion in Chinatown. Across town in the Arab Quarter, Chinese belly dancers enliven Cafe Le Caire (www.cafelecaire.com) founded by a third-generation Arab-Singaporean Ameen Ali Talib. An atmospheric space offering Turkish coffee and shisha pipes, the cafe's intense $7 (Dh26) harissa, $11 shish kebabs (Dh39) and mezze platter with warm pitta bread, also $11 (Dh39), are hugely popular with the working crowd. My Malay friends and I would end our dinner with samovar tea, and amble over to the nearby Blu Jazz cafe to listen to Aya Sekine, Angelita Li and other local acts till 2am. The Malays were the original inhabitants of Singapore and much of Geylang Serai belonged to a rich Arab family called the Alsagoffs who cultivated serai, or lemongrass, in the area. During festival time, Singapore's Muslims converge in Kampong Glam, where street names that hark back to the Middle Eastern roots. Arab Street is lined with fabric shops where you can buy delicate Dhaka muslin, scalloped lace and raw silk, which Indians buy to make saris. The action centres around the Indo-Saracenic style Sultan Mosque, between Muscat and Kandahar streets. During Ramadan, worshippers come to pray and then break their fast at the impromptu food stalls that spring up. Since homes are spruced up during this season, most Ramadan bazaars also sell lacy curtains, embroidered table runners, silk flowers and even the occassional parakeet in a cage. Matrons in hijab haggle over the price of giant bags of rice and spicy sambal belacan or seasoned shrimp paste. Young Malay children, who are exempt from the stringent fast, trail behind their mothers, clad in jeans and T-shirts, sipping on cendol, a refreshing drink made from coconut milk, crushed ice, gula melaka - a type of palm sweetener - and light green pandan-flavored noodles. Sometimes, they drink brightly colored katira, which, like the stinky fruit durian, is an acquired taste. Nowadays, a number of Muslim families break their fast at halal-certified Ramadan buffets. Popular ones are Straits Kitchen at the Grand Hyatt (www.singapore.grand.hyatt.com) and Carousel at the Royal Plaza (www.royalplaza.com.sg), both owned by the Sultan of Brunei. This year, the Hyatt has flown in a guest chef from Dubai so my Malay friends are salivating over omm ali and ktayef, besides the usual Malay specialties for $37 (Dh136). The Concorde Hotel (www.concordehotel.com.sg) also just became halal-certified and plans to serve traditional Malay and Indonesian dishes tomorrow. The restaurant that intrigues most of my Malay foodie friends is Fika (00 65 9002 3853), a new halal-certified bistro on Beach Road owned by Tasmeen Noor, a Malay woman married to a Swede. This all-white space in the heart of the Arab Quarter serves Swedish dishes that Noor learnt from her mother-in-law. Meatballs with lingonberry jam on Eid al Fitr? If it's halal, why not?