Because in Singapore there's no excuse for having a bad meal.

Not always pretty, but always interesting....

Tian Tian - a shrine to Singapore's (unofficial) national dish.

National symbols. Every country has at least one. In the US it’s the bald eagle; in Singapore the Merlion. But national icons aren’t just symbols, they can also be foods. In the United States—especially in the Summer—it’s hamburgers and hot dogs. The whole world attempts to replicate the good old American burger or frank, trying to capture that elusive, special something that backyard grills produce every weekend from sea to shining sea. But for reasons which most Americans abroad can’t describe, few places outside the States do it as well as at home. It’s just one of those things, where the flavor of the dish somehow exceeds the mere combination of its ingredients. And when it does, it’s magic. 

It’s no different in Singapore. Talk to anyone about Singapore’s unofficial national food and the conversation will quickly turn to one iconic dish: Hainanese Chicken Rice. It’s perhaps the most controversial issue in Singapore’s food world and everyone has their own opinion of how to eat it and who makes it best. But within this sea of discourse arises one place that most agree is a benchmark against which all others are measured: Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice in Maxwell Food Centre.  It’s world renowned, thanks to the praise by celebrity chefs like Anthony Bourdain, New York Times food critics and food experts the world over. Anyone who knows Singapore's favorite dish knows Tian Tian. 

 Just what is it that makes Tian Tian's chicken rice one of the best in Singapore? “It all starts with the chickens,” explains the master himself, Mr. Loi Chi Sam who, with his wife Madam Soo Kui Lian, turned the small stall started by her brother into the Singaporean eating institution it is today. The birds – specially raised in Malaysia – are boiled in an elixir of pandan leaves, ginger, garlic and stock made from birds which preceded them. They are then plunged into ice water for 45 minutes. Meanwhile fragrant Thai rice is cooked with the same stock that the birds bathed in, imparting a delicately-infused flavor that makes the dish truly unique.

Arriving at the eight by eight foot stalls – now two which are connected -- you inevitably encounter a sizable queue. Best not to fight it; just jump in and watch the action behind the counter. One guy cuts chicken; another preps the plates with a mound of rice and a few strips of cucumber; a third takes the orders and collects the money; while behind them is at least one other guy, cooking rice, boiling the chickens, or plunging them into the ice bath to seize the thin layer of fat into luscious, subcutaneous goodness. All under the watchful eye of the Mr. Loi.

Meanwhile, hungry diners scoop the three most critical accoutrements into bowls: Tian Tian’s chili sauce – a secret mixture of blazing orange chilies, ginger and garlic – thick black soy syrup and fresh grated ginger. Every bite should include these ingredients to bring out dish’s full splendor, but everyone does it differently. Some dip the meat into the sauces before eating, then chase it with a spoonful of rice. Others combine the rice and chicken, having first scooped sauces into the spoon. Still others pour them directly on the mound of chicken and rice, stir it all together and shovel it into their mouths as quickly as possible.

The manner of eating it determines the taste,” several people advise me as I sit in the hawker center with my own precious plate. But for me, any way you eat the tender rice with silky meat and glistening skin is the right way. And as I take that first bite I realize that maybe the reason everyone has such strong opinions about chicken rice is because the delicate yet distinct flavor touches the soul personally. Exclusively. The magic of Tian Tian’s chicken rice lies somewhere beyond it’s mere recipe; there's something more going on to make this seemingly simple dish better than so many other chicken rice stalls across Singapore. No one in Maxwell, other than the soft-spoken Mr. Loi himself, knows quite what that is. But one look at this quiet hawker legend and you know he’s not giving it up anytime soon.

Sushi Appreciation

It started out as a casual invitation to get together with a few people and eat some sushi -- presented by Dr. Leslie Tay of ieatishootipost. But to my pleasant surprise, it was not so casual after all. Instead, Chef Thomas Kok of Hokkaido Sushi in Singapore’s M Hotel moved to the front of the room with a cooler full of nothing less than the best sushi in Singapore.
Armed with little more than a thick cutting board and an exceedingly sharp knife, Chef Kok explained the art of sushi, the different qualities of fish and the proper way to kill, cut and, of course, eat his wonders of the sea. He sliced to our hearts' and stomachs' delight. His cuts were flawless, the fish so fresh it had a near-crunchy texture to it, delivering clean, by-the-sea flavors with every chew. The amount of fish that Chef Kok had was staggering; whole fish, cut at the tail, but not severed, white fish, red fish, shellfish and even $500 slabs of tuna glistened on his cutting board. In all he prepared twenty-eight dishes, carefully explaining the subtle yet significant differences between such tastes as Hamachi and Kampachi, and Hon Chu Toro versus Hon O Toro. The list went on and on and each bite -- starting with sashimi, through sushi and into lightly cooked items -- got better and better.

The depth of sushi knowledge shared was expansive; not just how to cut fish precisely and make perfectly sticky yet surprisingly light rice, but even the flavor and texture variations between specific parts of the anatomy. And not just of Chef Kok but also of Leslie, who was fully conversant on the topic.

And at the end of the session, as if to acknowledge the evolution of ancient fish dragging themselves from the wet, primordial ooze, Chef Kok strayed from the sea onto dry land with remarkable Japanese Wagyu beef. Licked for mere seconds by the flames of a blowtorch and dashed with crushed black pepper, the meat was so comprehensively marbled and rich that it radiated with shiny flavor. But keeping to his genesis, Chef Kok served it as sushi -- cut perfectly and laid atop his own magical rice.

And thus ended a memorable day of sushi that would have sated even the gustatory cravings of Poseidon.

What is a Foodwalker?

You just may not be the triathlete type like many of your trailing-male brethren here,” my wife pointed out as delicately as she could one morning as I stepped out of the shower. A lugubrious look in the mirror confirmed her theory. When I first came to Singapore I expected to lose weight. I thought those errant, unbidden pounds would simply melt off me in the hot tropical sun. That was before I discovered the food. Truth is my passions are more closely tied to food than to triathlons; my interests more about what is in the cups they thrust at the passing racers than the race itself. Not a wining formula in the world of weight loss and fitness. So, what to do?
Do what you love; love what you do,” read the slogan on one of my tee shirts, and it struck a chord that day. And so was born the concept of foodwalking; where you walk to your food, get good exercise and eat guilt-free. Now I spend my time combing the streets, seeing the sights and enjoying the flavors that make Singapore famous. My wife was right: I am not a triathlete; I am a Foodwalker.
It’s about food; it’s about walking. It’s the activity that is both good for you and tastes good. The tools of the trade: comfortable shoes, a bottle of water and a sweat rag. Maybe bring a food guide. Beyond that it’s up to you; walk where you want, eat what you want, see what you want to see. You can chart your course, follow an itinerary or just freestyle it, starting anywhere and just seeing where your feet—and your stomach—take you. Either way you’ll walk briskly in the hot, Singaporean sun while the sweat pours and your heart pounds. Make it as easy or challenging as you want because foodwalking is not about getting from point A to B, but rather the journey in getting there. It is geographic and gastronomic travel on a local level; exploration on a well-worn path. And it’s good for anyone old enough to strap on their own shoes and carry a water bottle. 
There are those of us, of course, who take foodwalking to a professional level. We head out in the morning and finish after dinner. We walk far, sweat liters, and eat lots. Recently a fellow foodwalker and I started the day tasting kaya toast in Tiong Bahru, had five lunches between Chinatown and Arab Street, and finished with a pre-dinner comparison of thosai in Little India. Along the way we witnessed life in HDB housing estates, wandered solemnly around temples and took shelter from a malevolent storm in an historic landmark. We explored hawker centers and eating houses, cut through malls and strolled down narrow streets and small parks which we never knew existed. We sat with strangers—colorful personalities who spoke of old Singapore—and drank warm kopi and cold beer. It was a day of discovery and culture in the place we call home. It was a foodwalking day.

Best of all—and here’s the real secret—is that in addition to the obvious physical benefits, foodwalking sneaks in some psychological perks. A strange thing happens when you wander down unfamiliar streets or into buildings that you have passed so many times but never ventured into: you discover riches all around you. You smirk with wonderment and scratch your head in surprise at the fascinating places and people who live all around you. You fall in love with Singapore all over again. 

So if you are feeling a little too deep in that rut of everyday existence, do yourself a favor and take a foodwalk. Go somewhere different; eat something new. Get lost for a while. And rediscover the magic of this special place where you live.