It’s always fun to foodwalk with food experts; especially if I can take them somewhere they’ve never been. And such was the case with Nym Punlopruska, Bangkok’s Siren of Street food, when she was recently back in Singapore to update one of her books. I wanted to take her to some place she’d never been, just as she had done with me in her hometown. That’s no easy task with a girl like Nym, who has written more than a dozen books on food, has been Andrew Zimmern’s guide and fixer on Bizarre Foods, and is fearless in both what and where she’ll eat. In other words, my kind of Foodwalker.
“What about eats on the beach?” I asked her after a litany of “been there” and “done that” responses to my grilling her over Singapore food experiences she’d not had. “Beach? In Singapore?" was the gist of her reply to an afterthought question. “Not been, not done.”
East Coast Lagoon Hawker Centre
So off we were to East Coast Lagoon Food Centre, Singapore’s answer to seaside hawker food in lovely East Coast Park. The longest continuous oceanfront playground on the island, slipping into the gentle surf of the South China Sea and overlooking countless cargo ships and tankers offshore, this place is a magnet for those wanting to stroll, run or bike along the 12 kilometers of pathways, play in the sand, camp under coconut trees or, of course, eat. Which is why we were there.
It’s easy to get great food here; the hawker centre has a wide selection of Chinese, Malay and even Indian stalls that are open late into the night. But there are a few specialties which draw the crowds: Satay, BBQ stingray and laksa. Most who eat here pick a table beneath an umbrella or at one of the pavilions shading large tables for group dining. But East Coast Park is all about the beach to this Foodwalker, so I suggested we take our goodies to a more apropos venue – a table in the sand.
We order our satay from Musa Ikan Bakar (stall #51), my fave of the seven or so satay joints here. A collection of skewered lamb, beef and chicken is tossed on the fire. Our plate is dressed with raw onions, cucumber and cubes of dense rice cake to compliment the meat. A side bowl of coarse, sweet and spicy peanut sauce accompanies.
The narrow steel satay grill pops and fizzles, spattering a little fragrant fat amidst the dancing flames and billowing smoke of the singing meat. The smell is intoxicating; earthy from the charcoal; rich and sweet from the meat and marinade.
As the flames drop off a little, Nym grabs the leafy fan from the chef and sparks it up again. We inhale deeply and moan at the haunting aroma, happy to be alive. We take our plate and head off for the next dish.
Roxy Laksa (Stal #48) makes an old-school version of its namesake dish that few can match. Mike and his wife took over the business from his father after the old Roxy Cinema in Katong closed down and the height of the so-called Laksa Wars was flaring. Not wanting to play in that field of puffery and self-promotion, Roxy pulled up roots and headed downstream to the beach where it has been ever since. By all appearances it’s a stall like any other – though neater and sparser than most. But one bowl of nearly the only thing he sells, and you’ll realize that Mike’s mainstay of sustenance is special. Shunning the short-cut noodle style of Katong Laksa, his has full length mee noodles – smooth and silky and ever so al dente. He douses them with fiery orange laksa gravy, then pours it back into the pot, and douses them again. And again. And again, until he has infused the noodles just right, leaving them swimming in the bowl full of the rich gravy. A dollop of spicy rempah, ground laksa leaves, fish cake slices and a couple of prawns on top complete the masterpiece. But he doesn’t add the typical raw cockles unless you ask; old-schoolers never had them, so why should he.
We walked our food over to the sand, where stone tables are scattered around for picnics. There’s something about the briny breeze in your face, cooling your spoonful of laksa before your first bite, that’s sort of romantic. Like a prelude to a kiss, it blends with the coconut and spice aroma of the dish and advances it into your olfactory’s before the food even touches your mouth. And in that instance before the taste buds are activated, a flash of excitement shoots though your brain about the delicious experience to come. The gravy is coconutty and slightly biting; not thick and viscous like that of some who take condensed milk shortcuts, but smooth and complex, triggering all 6 senses in your mouth at the same time like a symphony of flavor.
I’m one of those people who get emotional about beautifully grilled meat, and the plate of satay raised a lump in my throat. Between each chicken slice on the bamboo skewer was a small flap of fatty skin – the old-school answer to making a good dish great. The lamb and beef was drippingly moist, sweetened by the marinade that was brushed on while dancing in the flames. The peanut sauce, slightly piquant with the right coarse crunch and hint of heat, expanded the flavors in my mouth and stirred a haunting memory of a place called Home – even though I’m not from were this dish comes. Seems comfort food is comfort food, no matter where you're from. I looked at Nym and recognized her own efforts to suppress the misting in her eyes as she slowly chewed in hallowed silence, lost in her own happy place.
So whenever someone complains about Singapore not really being a beachy island kind of place, I tell them about East Coast Park and the great food available to enjoy on the edge of the sand in the sun by the sea....