Most of Singapore's street-food vendors today occupy vast open-air food courts called hawker centers. Just a handful are allowed to actually remain on sidewalks, such as the two youths I encountered along Orchard Road, Singapore's answer to Rodeo Drive for all its high-rise malls and fashionable boutiques. In a scene more suggestive of London in the time of Charles Dickens than prosperous Singapore, these two are roasting chestnuts in a large wok also filled with a sand as shiny and black as obsidian.
It's so hot and humid in Singapore that my glasses fogged up as I stepped from air-conditioned cab into the heat of the afternoon, so I'm amazed by the resilience of cooks here. Even in the hawker centers scores of electric fans set at "typhoon" only stir the air, turning the cramped and crowded facilities into veritable convection ovens.
Singapore has plenty of fancy restaurants, but the small stalls occupied by food vendors are what most distinguish the city's culinary scene. By one count, there are 11,500 of them. At the National Museum of Singapore, an entire gallery is devoted to the country's gastronomic heritage, with most of the exhibits focusing on street foods like bak kut teh (a soup of pork ribs boiled in a rich herbal broth), char kway teow (fried noodles with soya sauces, Chinese sausage, fish cake and garlic), and laksa (thick rice-flour noodles in a spice-based gravy with coconut milk, shrimp paste and cockles).
Haven't had any of those yet, though dinner last night was another dish included in the gallery, chicken rice - chicken boiled in stock with garlic cloves, chicken fat, pandan leaves and ginger. KF Seetoh, who as editor of the annual comprehensive Singaporean food guide "Makansutra" is one of the country's leading culinarians, says without equivocation that chicken rice should be Singapore's national dish. "All else is fantasy, naievete and rebellion, no joke," he remarked in an e-mail as I was sketching out my Singaporean menu. The chicken rice we had last night, however, which included a fried egg on rice, really wasn't far removed from a pretty ordinary teriyaki chicken. Because of some logistical and time issues, however, we hadn't chosen one of the practitioners Seetoh recommends, so the search continues.