Food Court Ennui.

So when I was a teenager, I lived in Singapore for a year and a half.  The things that I remember the most about this time are the impossible greenness of the place (seriously there were pothos with leaves the size of dinner plates, as an Alaskan, I was amazed,) and the food.

Food is a kind of a big deal in Singapore.  The reason for this, as far as I’m able to determine, is that their food is fucking good.  I remember when my mother was in some designer clothes shop, after we had left Kunokuniya Books, we went to the food court downstairs in the mall that we were in.  Singapore has an almost incomprehensible number of malls… I think that the attraction of air conditioning is a part of it.  I stood there, in the food court, which at my age, fifteen or so, was a familiar place to me.  Or rather, it ought to have been.

I was stunned to see ZERO fast food names down there.  Stunned.

In the United States, a food court is usually a collection of slightly stunted version of several fast food chains.  These may vary somewhat regionally, but in my experience, mall food courts in the U.S. are generally the same all over.  There’s the McDonalds, the Subway, maybe a Kyoto, or a KFC.  It’s all things that a young woman out of her element would recognize anywhere.

Singapore food courts are not like that at all.

Singapore food courts are a wonderland of independent food producers.  In fact, there aren’t always even restaurant names, as far as I was able to recognize them.  The signs were in a combination of english, bahasa malaysia, mandarin, hindi, or a combination of any of those languages, and so I can’t say definitively what the non-english signage said.  I only ever learned a few words of mandarin and bahasan each.

In that first experience, in a state of commercial bewilderment, I settled on a stand that proclaimed in enormous fonts “CLAY POT.”  Now, let me explain to you what clay pot is, just in case you are as clueless as I was during that first Singapore food court experience.  The claypot meal, also often referred to as “claypot rice,” is a cooking method in which an unglazed clay bowl is soaked in water, and then has rice cooked in it, often over a charcoal burner, but more likely a gas or electric burner in the mall food courts.  The soaked clay gives off steam, and other ingredients are added, including vegetables, boiled chicken, chinese sausage, soy sauce, and dried fish flakes.

I, in my previously mentioned state of bewilderment, ordered the chicken.  What was produced for me was a small pot of rice topped with meat and vegetables and served with soy sauce and chili sauce.  I remember this as being my first “real” Singaporean meal… this was before I had been to the wet market or any of the hawker stalls.  In fact, I recall still being dressed in the navy skirt and white blouse of my school uniform when we were in the mall.  I remember the exotic smells of the food court… we here in the states are so anxious to annihilate food smells from our environment, but I honestly cannot fathom a better smell than good food, unless it is the smell of a man in freshly laundered cotton, but that is an entirely different context.

So I sat down to this meal.  Keep in mind, this was the equivalent of fast food; really, historically, it is peasant’s food.  It was served with good, dark soy sauce, with sweet chili sauce and spicy chili sauce.  I dug in with the cheap bamboo chopsticks and I was thrilled.  I ate the entire thing to the bottom.  It wasn’t that it was a masterful work of the culinary arts… it was that it was simple food prepared well.

This was not my last experience with Singapore food courts.  There were the ones in the “poor people” malls, the buildings without air conditioning where folks sold plastic kitchen implements and bootlegged DVDs and pirated video games… these places had cheap folding tables and plastic chairs and if anything the food was even better.  It was at one of these malls that I first made the acquaintance of Hainan Chicken Rice, or known more simply in the food court in question, as chicken rice.

This is a sublime plate of pandan-scented rice topped with room temperature chopped boiled chicken, often served with cucumber and cabbage, but ALWAYS served with a variety of condiments and sometimes a rich bowl of broth.  The dish is so simple yet so complex… The rice is sweet and herbaceous, the pandan contains a flavor compound that is the same as that in jasmine rice, so pandan rice is an incredible way to make regular rice transcend its usual destiny.  When you add to that the fact that the rice is usually cooked in a broth that has cooked the flesh of many chickens that day, and the rice is absolutely the best rice you will ever have.  The broth on the side is the chickeniest broth I’ve ever tasted. and loading it up with cabbage and leaving it to wilt was perhaps the best choice I’ve made thus far in my life.  The chicken is boiled and the cooled in a water bath, resulting in tender, moist meat encased in a silky, slightly gelatinous skin… it is usually chopped with a cleaver, leaving the bones in, and with the black sauce and the chili sauce, each bite can be so different from the last.

Hainan Chicken Rice
Hainan Chicken Rice

I did at one point attempt to make chicken rice at home… I used some of the broth from my pet rooster (that’s another story) to fortify the cooking liquid and my results were beautiful and delicious, but even at the asian market in town, I couldn’t find all of the ingredients for the black sauce.  I settled for a thick dark soy instead.

So now, as an adult, I find american food courts to be one of the most incredibly depressing things.  How do we get more independent vendors into our food courts?

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