Singaporean street food : Char kway teow (stir-fried rice noodles)

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Char kway teow, like chicken rice is another Singaporean food court staple, but variations exist in Indonesian and Malaysian food also.

Thick, wide rice noodles are stir fried with dark & light soy sauce, onions, garlic, Chinese sausage, beanspouts, cockles, sliced fishcake, egg and chives. The soy turns the whole dish a brown colour.

Historically char kway teow was invented to fuel the labourers in colonial Singapore, it was a cheap filling meal, with plenty of carbohydrates to keep the workers going. It was cooked with lard, presumably to add extra calories and also flavour.

Char kway teow

Char kway teow

Fast forward to the modern day and there’s a bit of a cultural shift, as modern, cosmopolitan Singaporeans aren’t working in manual or labour intensive jobs and mostly aren’t that poor either. The traditional, fatty, char kway teow has evolved to suit the healthier eating people are more accustomed to. Many char kway teow stalls now hang a ‘no lard’ sign.  There are also hawker stalls that modify the dish and add greens to the mix, too.
Char kway teow is Singaporean heritage that’s falling out of fashion due to the high fat content – It’s likely in a generation or two when the current hawkers hang up their aprons there will be no one to take their place. A  very realistic reminder of the precarious position endangered dinners can be in.

The flavours are well balanced for what seems like an arbitrary mix of ingredients; the original sellers were fishermen and farmers who supplemented their income by moonlighting as chefs in the evenings. The Chinese sausage and cockles offer sweet and salty tones respectively and the beansprouts provide a bit of crunch. In terms of edible Singaporean history, char kway teow is up there and absolutely worth trying at least once.

It’s worth noting the cockles aren’t the same in char kway teow as the sort myself and other Europeans would be used to. As a child, my dad would always buy pickled white cockles from the fishmonger on Saturday mornings, lace them with vinegar and we would eat them with wooden chipforks. I still love that taste, they might look like tiny bird foetuses and are full of grit, but it reminds me of my childhood. The cockles used in char kway teow are called blood cockles (si hum) because they are red and contain haemoglobin. the same protein that makes blood red. This imparts some of the rich flavour that char kway teow is so well known for and is quite a different taste.

Any food court, or hawker market will provide you with the hit of salty, smokey dark noodles. Maxwell road food court is well versed with tourists, and many of the stalls offer dishes in $3/4/5 price brackets making it perfect for singles, and groups to share.

Another variation, which I hopefully will be trying in the coming weeks is ‘Penang style char kway teow’, which I’ve read is not so sweet.

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Singaporean street food : Hainanese chicken rice

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Singapore is one of those countries where everyone is obsessed with their food, which is good for transient foodies because standards are high and choices are vast.

Follow the general rule of go where the locals go and get in line. You will be rewarded with either the cheapest, or the tastiest place, but the locals obviously know something and that’s why they’re queuing. Singaporeans are very patient, especially it seems when it comes to food queues.

Chicken rice, one of the national dishes of Singapore with thousands of stalls, restaurants and places to eat it. Everybody likes it a certain way and has their favourite place. Ask a group of Singaporeans where to go and they will argue amongst themselves about the best place including the merits of the food, opening hours and location for an unnecessarily long time – I know this, because I asked.

The meal consists of chicken, slowly poached (never boiled) in a fresh ginger and spring onion broth to flavour the meat. Sometimes when it is cooked it will be put into ice water to firm up the skin and create a bit of jelly, the chicken is served cold in this instance, but can be served warm too. Sometimes the chef serves it up sliced on the bone, and sometimes without.

The meat is served with aromatic rice, flavoured with fried garlic and cooked in chicken stock, to enrich the rice and gives it a glossy appearance & slightly oily texture, but in a good way.

The chicken and rice is served with sliced cucumber and a side of chilli sauce, spiked with fiery heat and flavoured with garlic.

Delicious!

Delicious!

Most places offer the chicken rice combo for around the $5 (Singaporean) mark which includes a soup also, made from the chicken stock poaching liquid.

By means of observation, there seems to be no ordered or standardised way for Singaporeans to eat chicken rice. I tend to eat the soup first and then everything else together. Some people pour some of the soup over the rice and others eat the soup in between mouthfuls of the chicken & rice.

It’s always nice to know that you’re not breaking some unwritten cultural code or social taboo by eating in the wrong order. We’ve learnt from experience that it’s embarrassing to be told how to eat correctly.

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Indonesian street food : Bakso (meatball soup)

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“Ding, Ding”
“Ding, Ding”

“What’s that noise?”

The first few days in Indonesia followed this pattern, at some point in the day until we saw the bakso cart parked outside our hostel. The seller either rings a bell or taps their spoons onto the plastic bowls to make their presence known!

Bakso is ‘meatball’. A type of processed ball, similar in size and texture to Chinese fish balls. They are made by mixing meat and spices in a food processor until a paste, then balling them up and boiling. When they are done, they float. Many street sellers will use flour to make the meat go further.

One of the best things about bakso is the variation, whether you’re in Bali, or Java there are temporary roadside restaurants selling chicken bakso, beef, shrimp and fish! The balls can be skewered and griddled to give it a crispy outside. Many stalls in Muslim Java offer halal bakso, too.

The stalls, like the meals can be any variation on street carts, a hand pulled cart, one of the strange contraptions where they carry it on foot with a pole over the shoulder or a modified motorbike with gas bottles and glass casing attached to the rear like some sort of volatile panniers. Just look for the hand daubed ‘bakso’ on the side.

Due to having our camera stolen in Indonesia, I don’t have any original images from our eating adventures. Images here are used under a creative commons license via Flickr. These image has not been altered and you can view the originals at the following links – Thanks, lostmyway_0101 & khensiong

The dish is fairly simple, meatballs a beef stock made using the liquids the balls are cooked in and some soy to add saltiness and colour to the broth.

Fried tempe, a type of soy product similar to tofu but with less density is also added. Personally, I can take of leave the tempe because after a few minutes in the broth it breaks down a bit and has the texture of an old washing up sponge.

If you’re really lucky you might get a boiled egg, wrapped in bakso meat too. Kind of like an Indonesian scotch egg, I guess.

For me, the beauty of bakso is that you see all types of people eat it. Males, females, young and the old; Hindus, Muslims and anybody else. A bit like Phó in Vietnam, its food for everyone.

When we went diving in Amed, the bakso bike turned up and everyone from the dive shop went out to get a bowl.

“Bakso is good for you after diving, makes you strong!”  

Technically, I’ve read online that bakso is not really very good for you! The way the balls are made generates some sort of protein which can be harmful to your liver over a 5-10 year period if you consume a lot, however it’s not going to stop me having a couple of bowls here and there and it shouldn’t stop you either.

Don’t pay more than 10’000rp for a bowl!

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Indonesian street food : Kupat Tahu (tofu and ketupat salad)

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Kupat tahu wasn’t really something I had any intention of trying it just sort of happened one afternoon, sitting around on the beach with a Jaja, a local surfer we hung out with.

It’s a pretty simple meal,  like a lot of street cart recipes, it doesn’t involve hundreds of ingredients. Cubes of fried of tofu are mixed with ketupat, beansprouts peanut sauce and fried onions.

Due to having our camera stolen in Indonesia, I don’t have any original images from our eating adventures. Images here are used under a creative commons license via Flickr. These image has not been altered and you can view the originals at the following links – Thanks,  fitri-agung  & Faniez.

Ketupat is one of several Indonesian (although, eaten across South East Asia) compressed rice products and is pretty similar to lontong, which is often served with sate.

The distinction between the products is that lontong is wrapped in a banana leaf, cylindrical and boiled. In my experience the green of the leaf can bleed onto the rice.

Ketupat is a made using a small woven box made from young coconut leaves which is steamed. Personally, I cannot really see too much difference between the two products, my untrained palate may have missed the subtle differences. It’s also kind of hard to pick these out when they are coated with sauce, which by the way in this instance was thick and packed full of flavour.

Flavourwise it all kind of works, it looks a bit seventies on the plate, all shades of brown & off white. In the nicest way possible, it’s a kind of mushy, cold mixture with peanut sauce smothered on top. Probably not for everyone, The fairer half of this eating tag-team has some issues with texture and wouldn’t go near it.  I would happily eat it again.

We paid 8’000 Rupiah from a street cart.

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