On a recent trip to Singapore, I toured the prerequisite botanical gardens, museums, and famous shopping avenues. But to me the most interesting and impressive places to visit were the hawker markets located in each section of this city-state.
At a hawker market, 20 to 80 vendors in booth after booth offer a specific dish or dishes at a very low cost to patrons who either take it to the office or home or consume it on-site at tables in the center of a large “food court” area.
After a few days of tasting and eating a variety of delicious “street foods” for breakfast and lunch, I was fortunate enough to be a dinner guest of Ms. Samia Ahad, a young Pakistani woman chef, at her famous restaurant, Coriander Leaf. I was also invited to participate in her Singapore Classics cooking class, where she prepared eight local dishes. Recipes for three of them are offered below.
Adding “kecap manis,” a thick, sweet, soy-based sauce/seasoning/condiment, to the vegetables makes these spring rolls unique to Singapore. To replicate this ingredient, simmer one cup of soy sauce with three ounces of coconut sugar or dark brown sugar plus one tablespoon of dark molasses until the sugar is dissolved. Transfer to a clean glass jar and refrigerate for up to six months. Or you can order it from Kalustyan’s at 1-800-352-3451 or on line at www.kalustyan.com.
The chicken with dried red chiles dish is typical Singapore-style food. Large dried red chiles season and flavor the oil or for more “heat”; add them to the dish at the end. Eat the chiles if you like, if not, the dish should have just enough pizzazz to whet your appetite.
And remember: little chiles are hotter than the large ones! Serve bowls of steamed basmati rice with the chicken.
For dessert, serve a delicious black rice pudding. The warm pudding with sweet bites of fresh mango topped with cold vanilla ice cream creates a magical finale to dinner. If the flat, pale yellow honey mangoes are available, they would be typical Singapore fare, but any variety of ripe mango will work. Bon appétit!
Singapore Spring Rolls
(Serves 6)1/4 cup canola oil3 cloves garlic, chopped1 cup fresh shiitake mushrooms, finely sliced2 carrots, julienned to measure 1 cup2 medium zucchini, julienned to measure 1 cup1/2 cup fresh ginger, julienned1 cup bean sprouts, washed and drained1 bunch scallions, chopped2 tablespoons kecap manis or sweetened soy sauce (per introduction)Sea salt to taste12 spring roll wrappers—found in specialty section of the grocery store1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons of water (egg wash)Canola oil for deep-fryingChili Dipping Sauce:2 tablespoons fish sauce4 tablespoons fresh lime juice1 teaspoon sugar4 cloves garlic, finely minced6 whole long thin green chiles, seeded and finely chopped (or less to taste)To prepare:
For the filling: Add the oil to a wok or large skillet over high heat; when it shimmers, add the garlic and stir fry for 30 seconds. Add the mushrooms and stir-fry for about one and a half minutes.
Add the carrots, zucchini and ginger and toss for 30 seconds.
Add the bean sprouts and scallions and toss; season with kecap manis.
Mix until the vegetables are crunch tender and coated with sauce. Taste and correct the seasonings.
Remove from the heat and cool completely. Can be done ahead and refrigerated.
To assemble the rolls, place the wrapper on a flat board in a diamond shape in front of you. Put two tablespoons of the filling in a band about 2 inches above the base point of the wrapper nearest to you. Bring up the bottom corner of the wrapper over the filing and then fold the side corners in to the center.
Roll up to the top and brush the top edge of the wrapper with egg wash to seal the spring rolls.
Place the rolls on a tray, leaving room around each roll. Refrigerate the spring rolls up to six hours ahead of time. Any unused wrappers can be frozen for another time.
To cook and serve:
In a wok or deep fryer, heat 2 to 3 inches of oil to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Add a few spring rolls at a time and deep-fry until golden brown on all sides.
Drain on paper towels and serve immediately with chili dipping sauce.
To make the chili dipping sauce, whisk together the fish sauce, lime juice and sugar and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Stir in the garlic and green chilies.
Set aside and serve in tiny bowls for dipping the spring rolls.
Chicken with Dried Red Chiles
(Serves 6)1½ pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts, cubed1½ tablespoons honey2 teaspoons soy sauce1 teaspoon crushed black pepper1/4 cup canola oil15 to 20 whole dried red chiles, deseeded4 cloves garlic, chopped1½ teaspoons fresh ginger, chopped1 teaspoon sugar2 teaspoons oyster sauce2 teaspoons soy sauce or mirin1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce1 teaspoon vermouth or rice wine1 tablespoon cornstarch blended with ¼ cup water1 bunch scallions cut into 2-inch piecesTo prepare:
Whisk together the honey, soy sauce and black pepper; add the cubed chicken and marinate for 20 to 30 minutes or up to overnight.
Add the oil to a wok or large skillet over high heat, and heat until it shimmers. Add chiles and fry until they are dark brown, almost smoking, remove with slotted spoon, and drain on paper towels.
Working in batches, add the marinated chicken and stir-fry until the chicken is light brown on the edges.
With a slotted spoon, remove to a bowl and set aside. Continue until all the chicken is browned.
Add ginger and garlic to the hot oil, stir-fry until aromatic, about 1 minute.
Add sugar, oyster sauce, soy sauce, rice vinegar, Worcestershire sauce and rice wine and bring to a boil. Cook for 2 minutes, then whisk in the slurry of cornstarch and water to lightly thicken the sauce.
Return the chicken, and the chiles if desired, to the pan and cook until the juices run clear, about 4 to 5 minutes.
Add the scallions, toss to blend, and serve at once with steamed basmati rice.
Black Rice Pudding with Honey Mango
(Serves 6)Palm sugar syrup:2 cylinders of palm sugar (gula melaka) found in Asian markets 1 cup waterFor the pudding:2 cups black rice, washed and strained9 cups waterOne 4-inch stalk lemon grass1 ripe honey mango, pitted, peeled, and dicedFresh mint leaves for garnishVanilla ice creamTo prepare:
Add the palm sugar and one cup of water to a heavy saucepan over medium heat and bring to a boil. Simmer slowly over low heat until the sugar is melted and the mixture is thick.
Meanwhile, bring the water to a boil in a large pot over high heat, add the rinsed rice and boil for 5 minutes.
Reduce the heat and simmer until the rice is cooked and tender, about 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, bruise the lemon grass with the back of a knife and add it to the rice while it is simmering. Once the rice is tender, add the palm sugar syrup and remove the lemon grass. Mix well and taste to correct the sweetness.
Spoon warm rice pudding into dessert bowls, top with chopped mango, a small scoop of ice cream and a sprig of fresh mint.