Looking down at this steaming bowl of offal I’m wondering why the hell I’m so scared to eat it. I have just crunched down on chicken legs for crying out loud! But this is beyond any UK offal, this is Singapore offal, and boy is it a different level.
I am no food wuss, I don’t really go for the tamed offerings for the western man’s palate while abroad, never refusing exotic and strange, even revolting delicacies many would cringe at back home; but where do you draw the line? We have all seen it on the telly, foodies on their hols, wincing as they chug down a festering egg or a beating snake heart, so here I am about to take on my own bush tucker challenge. It’s not insects and it is very dead, but my brain and tongue are telling me it is all wrong – what is this meal that’s making me wish I had ordered more of that beautifully tender satay? It is pig’s stomach soup. The Singaporeans see this as medicinal, but this particular stall in the food hall is rammed with rather healthy looking, young professionals, so I needed to know what all the fuss was about.
Singapore’s food scene is exciting, when the ruling party decided to clean the state up, and basically make it a bit less Asian to attract western dosh, they licensed the street food vendors and built them their own food halls. This means it is ultra-safe to eat street food here, no midnight bog-cuddling from dodgy chicken these days! Singapore is an incredibly diverse place and therefore so is the grub, with Indian, Chinese, Malay and Thai all featuring highly; so as you can imagine it smells incredible – even despite the overwhelming humidity which makes your shirt stick to your skin within 10 seconds outside of any of the air-conditioned refuges. Inside these noisy cathedrals roast ducks wink at you from hooks, little pictures of dim sum tempt you, and the ubiquitous Singapore noodles and chicken rice pull you in with their scent, lobsters and huge crabs crowd tanks dreaming of being turned into awesome salads or the famously fiery chilli crab – they dig out all the meat for you, mix it with chillis, spring onions and sticky sauce and very kindly put it back in the shell, put the lid back on and smother it with even more angry looking red sauce. I made my way to Lau Pa Sat, the oldest of the food halls, and spent far too long choosing my dinner, I ended up going for the satay, at a stall called Best Satay Number One, (well you would have to start there wouldn’t you?) I ordered 60 skewers of chicken, beef and whole prawn with a spicy dip, messy but beautiful – they wouldn’t tell me the recipe for their secret sauce, but I reckon it is tamarind-based, loosened with chicken stock and pepped up with a curry powder.
After chilli crab I then went for a Singapore Indian favourite, Parathas. Halfway between a nan bread and a chapatti, this simple tear-and-share meal is totally satisfying in its own stretchy, sweet style with an Indian fruit-based dip to accompany. Parathas are generally roti flour and ghee combinations, but as simple as that sounds, unless you have an upturned bowl-shaped hotplate seasoned through decades of use by your ancestors, you will not get anywhere near as good as this at home.
Then came the porcine viscera, the entrails soup, the pig stomach. I put down my chopsticks and opted for a fork to tackle this white lump – it looked like tripe, but without the pretty lacey details, similar to squid flesh. In I went. The pork broth steaming hot. My mouth ready for the shock. And then it came, and I can tell you it is absolutely underwhelming, almost disgustingly bland, yup, disappointing. You have to tear at it like a pitbull on a trouser leg, pulling at the slippery mass until you get a bite-sized morsel. I guess it could have been a wrong’un, a bad day for the chef but one mouthful was all I could manage, one pathetic mouthful. Although I was told I was the first westerner to order it here, I was not proud of my reaction, disguising my retching as a cough. Never again, as no amount of sweet coffee helped suppress the memory – here they mix their coffee with condensed milk.
The next night, after Singapore Slings (a sickly-sweet and moreish cocktail of gin, cherry liqueur, Benedictine and pineapple juice) at the overpriced and overrated Raffles Hotel - I was treated to an eight-course Chinese banquet in the amazingly beautiful Equinox, home to Michelin-starred Swiss chef Irma Dutsch, 70 floors up in the Swissotel. We had Baby octopus, delicate coconut prawn laksa, seared spicy duck and some rather bland spring rolls, finished off with a chocolate torte! And before we headed off to the karaoke, my nose pressed up against the window 70 floors up, looking down at the flickering lights of the food halls, I wished I was down there – that is where the real Singapore is, where real people eat real food. In the distance the massive and completely bonkers Marina Bay Hotel, with its three skyscrapers joined at the top with a half-mile long ‘boat’, is attracting some of the world’s most popular chefs to open restaurants in its marble-floored, ice-cold shopping mall, where the Earth’s wealthiest will no doubt swill their Krug toasting the new Singapore where anything considered vaguely unsightly, such as street food hawkers, is hidden away. And while I may have gagged, the real Singapore is in that bowl of offal and in the gappy smiles of the hawkers as they tell you “number one in country Mister, number one food”; and you know what? They’re right.
"like a pitbull on a trouser leg"
I have so enjoyed reading this Jim (gagging slightly as I did). Thanks.
That was an great read Jim , 60 skewers sounds an awful lot but I imagine they were tiny and you were sharing them.
I think that we have got a bit squeamish here in the UK about eating ' innards' as many used to say .. Offal .. In other words !
I expect that soup might have appeared more palatable if that pigs stomach had been cut into tiny pieces rather than one whole horrible textured mass
I would not have tried it but then I am vegetarian !
Good Post, I borrow Gordon's Far East book from the Library, every now and again. I would love to visit Singapore for real. People tell me the Airport and airline are cool, better than Easy jet perhaps?
Cheers for the post.
As one who still stuffs hearts, serves brains, kidneys, liver & tripes............I am not averse to trying the 'innards' as served by others.
I am definately NOT squeamish.
But they do have to be tender, delicious & moreish.............or out they go!