Saturday, March 10, 2012

1MB Travels: Singapore: Old Airport Road Hawker Center

A trip to Singapore is not complete without a pilgrimage to one of its meccas of insanely delicious street food for crazy low prices - aka "hawker centers". 

Hawker centers are essentially a collection of street food vendors, in tiny stalls piled aisle upon aisle within giant industrial looking open warehouse spaces. Flanked by rows of food-court style tables.  The better for convenient, quick 'shopping' and dining among massive selections of every key cuisine represented in Singapore, from Malaysian to Chinese to Indian to fusions or unique creations born of any or all of the above.

You could have a meal made of different courses from several different stalls, and sample the best of street versions of all these cuisines, quick service style, no frills, just authentic, good food for cheap. It's a place where office workers, still in suits, are as at home as the blue collar diners in shorts and flip flops - they come for good food, not a 'scene'.

Before our family vacation there this holiday, I had gotten a huge and amazing list of types of food I must not leave Singapore without trying from Sofia of Burp and Slurp, and a rec from globetrotting food maven miffyeats for the hawker center on Old Airport Road. 

Out of Sofia's list of signature Singapore eats, I was most excited to try barbecue stingray - it sounded intriguing to me, and not something you can find easily anywhere else (definitely not in LA that I'm aware of!)  So it was actually by happy accident that we ended up at the Old Airport Road hawker center - we had a short amount of time to slide in a quick visit to the closest hawker center before 'proper' dinner - and so my 'strategy' (or rather, lack of) was to jump into a taxi and let one of the friendly drivers (who so far have been self-appointed, proud tour guides and ambassadors for the city) take us to the closest place for stingray.

We somehow ended up with the one cabbie on the island who was grouchy as hell though, and when he recommended something that at first didn't sound good to us - and we asked him to take us elsewhere, he sort of had a little tantrum and griped very vocally about how we were making a mistake!  Anyways, all is well that ends well - despite his grumpiness and poor social/communication skills - he ended up bringing us to Old Airport Road hawker center - so it all worked out!

It was exciting to stroll through the aisles looking at all the unfamiliar dishes - I was in heaven and wanted to order a huge spread, fan them out over several tables and spend the rest of the night working through them all!!!  My dad was weary of the cleanliness of it all though, and was merely 'tolerating' the space for my benefit (my mom is the adventurous diner) - so I knew the clock was ticking and I could probably only fit in one quick dish.

We asked fellow diners at the communal tables the best place for bbq stingray (love that everyone is at least bilingual - if not trilingual or more - in Singapore) - and got directed to a stall that seemed to specialize in all kinds of sea creature deliciousness. There were fresh plates of clams, and live crabs their cramped little cages.

And then I spotted the sign / photo (i.e. for me the holy grail): "BBQ Stingray".
Photo: Jeremy.Collins via Wikipedia

So, what did we expect stingray to taste like?  Even my mom, the adventurous foodie, was skeptical it would be good - stingrays are kite-shaped marine animals that seem like they would have either a gelatinous, or tough, muscular texture like swordfish (check out the photo, they don't look like they would have much / soft meat, right?)

But, what arrived on the plate looked soft and tender, served up on the ubiquitous banana leaf, smeared in lush barbecue sauce, topped by onions and cilantro, with a side of lime and a translucent orange sauce that looked like it would taste sweet and sour. 

I think that was one of my favorite things about Singaporean foods - lots of bold, unabashed flavors with lots of (sometimes complex) interplay of layers working fantastically together - there is never anything that is just single note or bland.

I also loved that the stingray is served with skin-on - I always appreciate it when chefs leave the skin on with fish, it adds nice flavor and texture as well as gets points for presentation!
With the stingray, once I cleared a path through the sauce and toppings, I could see that it was decidedly fish-like, with smooth, tender texture and structure of narrow strands that remind me of skate wing, one of my favorite fish ever!!!
    The interplay of slight heat from the robust bbq sauce with bitterness and crunch from delicate strips of onion with clear, smooth sweet and sour fish sauce, over the softest, flakiest but sweet and flavorful fish - was amazing. In short, I LOVED it!!!  Wish I could have gone back for more.  There were also a ton of other must have dishes that I left without trying - like peanut pancake, radish cake, and char kway teow (though I ended up having a version of this at another restaurant later in the trip).

    But, I was really glad to have had this adventure with my parents - these are some of the best memories that we will have of our awesome travels together.  Sharing new discoveries, the sense of adventure - and the joyfulness and sense of accomplishment that comes from pushing ourselves to continually see and learn and experience new things (even if it is at first uncomfortable to get out of our comfort zone!).  Which I realized I may not have had the appreciation for when I was younger - when I was a little more rebellious, and a much more self-conscious wallflower.  Now older, not at all wiser but much more appreciative of my parents, and their unconditional love and support (indulging, encouraging and enabling this little passion project of a blog) - I am grateful that we can have these kinds of adventures together - thank you for being the best!!! :)  Ok sorry for the temporary bout of sentimentality. 

    So, fantastic time at our first Singaporean hawker center, as one of many stops and great eats on this trip.  Hope to be back again soon!

    [For more photos and stories from our visit to Singapore, check out the album of over 120 pics on my Facebook page!]


    Old Airport Road Food Center
    Block 51, Old Airport Rd Geylang, Singapore


    1 comment:

    1. Singapore Hawker is the trademark for singapore culture food. I actually recommend the food republic in sentosa specifically the hokien mee



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