Greetings from Singapore! I am en route home from Brunei—a tiny country on the island of Borneo in the South China Sea. I was in Brunei for work and decided to have an extended layover in Singapore on the way home to visit a friend who lives here. My friend’s parents are also visiting and it’s always nice to see familiar faces.
Singapore is the city of the future, they say. High rise buildings, Wi-Fi on the busses, a financial hub…it’s incredible. The city-state, formally The Republic of Singapore, is teeming with people and you can hear every language imaginable—and even some you can’t recognize—on the street. It is cosmopolitan, people come from all over the world to work and create a life for themselves. As you walk on the streets you see a wide range of people dressed in a variety of outfits: stilettos and chic dresses, cargo shorts and Birkenstocks, hijabs, saris, you name it.
Despite being a heavily populated metropole, it is impeccably clean and crime rates are very low. Singapore has strict laws that are seriously enforced against littering, spitting on the street, vandalism, etc. You may recall the American teenager, Michael Fay, who in 1994 was sentenced to four months in prison, a S$3,5000 fine, and six strokes of the cane for vandalism. Chewing gum is forbidden. You won’t find street food, either, as they are banned. Instead you will find hawker centers—open-air markets with many stalls selling inexpensive food. It is fascinating.
While I have been indulging in my fair share of food from the hawkers, my favorite dish by far has been soto ayam made by Yati, my friend Emilie’s Indonesian housekeeper. Soto ayam is an Indonesian spicy chicken noodle soup. I was drawn to the kitchen by the smell of sautéed coriander only to find a huge tray with all of the ingredients neatly spread out and Yati hard at work behind a mortar and pestle. I asked her what the yellow paste was that she was pounding and she told me it was the marinade for the chicken: garlic, ginger, shallot, and turmeric. There may have been other ingredients, too. I watched fascinated; I have no experience with Indonesian cuisine. When it was dinner time, we were each served a soup bowl and on the surface there was sautéed celery and celery greens; a hard-boiled egg, cut in half; chicken sausage; fried chicken; fried tofu; a quarter of a tomato; and fried onions. Underneath this was fresh noodles, bean sprouts, and fried peanuts swimming in chicken broth. I watched Yati mix the contents of her bowl, add lime and chili sauce, and start eating with chopsticks in one hand and a Chinese spoon in the other. I followed suit.
The first bite was overwhelming. Overwhelming in the best possible way, it is incredibly rich and fragrant. Although I had never had this or anything like it before it was comforting. It was warm, sour, spicy, and flavorful. The crunch of the cool bean sprouts in the warm broth was delightful. The fried peanuts were so unusual to me in a soup and I loved it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t bring Yati back with me although I asked her if she would come and she loved the idea. And there are no Indonesian restaurants in the area but I found a few online in the Bay Area. I haven’t been so I can’t vouch for their tastiness but I do plan to try one the next time I find myself up north.
They say when in Rome, do as the Romans, so if you go to Singapore, be sure to eat the hawkers’ food, find soto ayam—although it’s Indonesian, and look up the laws and be sure to abide by them.