Emerging cuisines: Singapore/Malaysia

Where Asian cultures merge and mix.

Pan-Asian is a term batted around loosely in restaurant circles these days, but the cuisine has long existed in its truest form in Singapore. This tiny island nation at the tip of Malaysia became a trading hub in the 1800s, attracting immigrants from China, Indonesia and India. When Chinese men married Malay women, another distinct group evolved—the Nonya (also known as Peranakan or Straits Chinese). All of these cultures are reflected in Singaporean cuisine: the Chinese contributed stir-fries and noodles; the Indians, curries and samosas; and the Indonesians, sambals and satays. Native Malaysian and Nonya (a.k.a. Nyonya) cooking utilizes some of the same ingredients that typify Thai and other Southeast Asian cuisines, including lemon grass, galangal, tamarind, dried shrimp paste, kaffir lime leaf, coconut milk and fish sauce.

Singapore has a vibrant dining scene, exemplified in both its sit-down restaurants and lively hawker centers, where vendors sell no-frills street foods from outdoor stalls. Although Singaporean cuisine is less familiar than Vietnamese and Thai, the nation’s reputation as a “foodie paradise” and its familiar Southeast Asian flavors is creating a fan base among Americans. Plus, authentic ingredients are easier to find; the United States imported close to $500 million of Singapore food in 2007, according to International Enterprise (IE) Singapore, the government trade promotion agency.

One concept that will be sourcing some of these imports is RockSugar Pan Asian Kitchen, a new, 285-seat restaurant just launched in Century City, California by David Overton of Cheesecake Factory fame. The menu, developed by Singapore-born corporate executive chef Mohan Ismail, showcases many selections rooted in his country’s culinary traditions. “I tried to incorporate both the flavors of Singapore and my food memories, if not
the actual dishes,” he says. Crispy Chicken Samosas ($9.50), for instance, enclose a filling like his mother used to make (chicken, coriander, cumin, cilantro, tamarind and palm sugar). Beef Skewers with Aachar Pickle and Peanut Sauce ($12.50) are close to the original, but the pickling liquid for the sweet-tangy green mango, pineapple and carrot accompaniment is toned down a bit. And Nyonya Seafood Laksa, a typical noodle prep, is made with the characteristic coconut milk broth but spiked with less fish sauce to reduce the pungency.

Other menu items adapt accessible ingredients to Singaporean cooking. For example, RockSugar’s Red Curried Shrimp ($17.50) is a takeoff on Fish Head Curry, a popular hawker food, but Ismail gives the dish wider appeal by swapping in shrimp and taming the heat with a house-made sauce. And he sources Pacific coast Dungeness crab instead of the Sri Lankan species for the classic Singapore Chili Crab.

“It’s not that tough to source the products I need from Asian suppliers,” Ismail reports, “it’s just hard to get consistency.” He is very picky about double-checking his orders and doing business with several specialty purveyors to make sure everything is “right.” Many formerly “exotic” fresh ingredients are now available through local Los Angeles suppliers.

That wasn’t the case when Chris Yeo started Straits Restaurant in San Francisco back in 1987. “Ingredients like banana flowers, curry leaves and kaffir lime were very hard to get and we paid very high prices,” says the owner and CEO of Straits, which now number two more in the Bay Area and a new location in Atlanta, opened in partnership with rap singer Ludacris. Yeo’s dishes pay homage to the flavors and ingredients of Singapore, but he gives them sophisticated twists. “I make the traditional more fun by using California ingredients and enhancing the presentation.” He also sources better seafood and cuts of beef (filet mignon vs. shoulder) and goes easy on hot spices and oil to appeal to American taste buds. Local and organic produce are  priorities, but items like galangal and curry leaf are from a Hawaiian supplier.

Straits’ menu is divided into small and large plates, the former featuring some of Singapore’s celebrated street foods. There’s Yeo’s rendition of Rendang Beef, a slow-cooked dish of tender beef cubes served with a side of pandan polenta and tucked into a banana leaf ($10). Another small plate is Grilled Beef in Grape Leaves ($9), with fresh mint, basil and toasted nuts tucked inside. Items like honey-glazed pork ribs, satay sticks and chili crab veer toward the more straightforward. Yeo’s striking signatures, such as Banana Blossom Salad (composed of real banana flowers, grilled chicken and seasonal fruits) and Origami Sea Bass (baked in a parchment paper box) have remained on the menu for years and made the move to Atlanta as well.

Singaporean and Malaysian food is meant to be shared, and both Straits and RockSugar encourage communal dining. Dishes are served family style in a shared plates format. And house cocktails, infused with Asian ingredients like lemon grass, kaffir lime and lychee, add to the conviviality at both concepts.

Street food guide

Eating out in Singapore is never complete without a visit to a hawker center. Makansutra, a company founded by local culinary expert KF Seetoh, offers tours and publishes guides to these vendors. Here’s a rundown of the top 10 street foods.

1. Singapore Chili Crab: Fresh crab sauced with red chilies, garlic, ginger, tomato ketchup and sometimes even eggs and peanuts.

2. Hainanese Chicken and Rice: Fragrant rice accompanied by steamed or roasted chicken and a hot and tangy garlic chili sauce.

3. Satay: Marinated and skewered chicken, beef or lamb cooked over a charcoal fire; served with peanut sauce, fresh cucumber and raw onion.

4. Bak Kut The: Pork ribs stewed with Chinese herbs, garlic and spices; served with sliced red chilies and dark soy.

5. Fried Carrot Cake: Comes in “black” (sweet) and “white” (savory) versions; made with rice flour and radish fried with soy sauce, eggs, garlic and pickled radish.

6. Roti Prata: A multi-layered pancake that’s crispy on the outside and soft inside; served with curry gravy.

7. Rojak: This “salad” translates to “wild mix” in Malay. The combination of fruit and vegetables, including sweet turnips, pineapple, cucumber, bean sprouts and green mango, is tossed with fried dough bits and bean curd in a pungent dressing.

8. Laksa: Rice flour noodles in a curry made from dried shrimp, coconut milk and chilies; often topped with fish cakes, prawns and other shellfish.

9. CharKway Teow: Fried broad rice noodles enhanced with bean sprouts, kale, seafood, eggs and/or Chinese sausages.

10.Fish Head Curry: Complete with lips and eyes, the fish heads are cooked in fragrant curry sauce.

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