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

Not always pretty, but always interesting....

Secret BBQ chicken wings that aren’t so secret….

In Singapore it’s not advisable to proclaim one hawker center food stall as the “best” for any particular dish. With sky-high food standards virtually wound into the DNA of most Singaporeans, it’s just too controversial an issue. Still, every now and then one stumbles upon a stall which operates on a different level than its competitors and merits bold commentary. Such places are often little-known to the uninitiated, but if you keep your food radar on when waiting in queues or sitting in crowded restaurants, you will inevitably pick up names of secret places in the furtive whispers of locals talking about great food. These are the places to find; the secret food that everyone knows about, but no one thinks anyone else does. In Singapore, however, food secrets don’t stay secret for long.

Singapore Wings
Before I go further, I should say a word about barbecued chicken wings here. They are very popular and found all across the island. But don’t expect the dripping, red bar food favorite of the US, because whether you call it the Queen City, the Nickel City, or even the City of Lights, Buffalo is still over 9000 miles away and its culinary claim to fame is nearly as distant as Singapore’s hawker centers. Here, wings are cooked in one piece – complete from soft tip to meaty shoulder. They are neither deep-fried nor tossed in cayenne sauce, and they are not served with blue cheese or celery. Instead, wrap your culinary imagination around a flame-roasted, slightly charred wing, stretched, tanned until golden and glistening with a thin, soy-based marinade cooked deep into the skin. They are moist inside, crisp outside and barbecued over an open fire. You smell them on wisps of charcoal smoke before you even reach the stall. The wafting aroma summons a primal response, causing you to stretch your neck and strain your eyes in search of the roasting delicacy you suddenly must have. That’s what wings are in Singapore. And they’re usually about three bucks for an order of three – that’s, like, nine wing sections for the US equivalent of the small latte at Starbucks. Need I say more?

The Secret Place
Barbequed chicken is all they do at Sheng Pin Xiang and they do it well. Really well. The stall is tiny, with no menu posted and not a single rating or newspaper review plastered on the wall. The inside is as austere as the outside: neat, clean and oddly uncluttered, almost as if unoccupied. But on this day the sumptuous smoke trailing from the fire said otherwise, and it pulled me like a cartoon character toward the small, open counter, behind which stood a sole cook calmly tending to a row of plump chicken wings on the steel skewer.

The wings looked sexy roasting over that perfect bit of gray and red glowing charcoal – and not those little briquettes, but earthy, blackened twigs and branches of carbonized wood. Flames danced rhythmically to the fizzing and popping of chicken fat dripping from just inches away. The meat shimmered in the heated haze as if alive and teasing my taste buds with slow-cooking aloofness; its smoky aroma broadcasting the wonders of things to come. Minutes stretched like hours as I stood, transfixed, while the meat cooked, slowly, slowly. Until at last the cook lifted them from the fire and in one smooth move slid them from the skewer to a thick wood carving board, cleaved them into sections and eased them onto my waiting plate.

The Wings
I took my order to a nearby table and examined it like a scientist. Each wing was roasted to a deep, golden gloss with just a tinge of crispy carbon along the edges. Steam bubbled through the skin in miniscule puffs of heavenly perfume like a prelude to the first bite. A slight, sweet/tart essence from the soy mystery brew that the cook had brushed on during cooking elevated the juicy, free-range flavor to heights which, in its live state, that bird could not have flown. The citrus sparkle of the tiny calamansi lime
I squirted on, combined with a drizzle of fire-orange chili/garlic/ginger sauce for just the right touch of heat, sent me into a tailspin of gastronomic delirium.

Maybe it was the exceptional quality of chicken that made these tender wings so profoundly delicious. Or perhaps it was the charcoal, or the soy BBQ, or the fresh lime, or the chili sauce. Probably it was all of these combined. But whatever it was, I now daringly stick my neck out and proclaim the barbecued wings from this obscure little stall in the middle of a Toa Payoh hawker center as the best I have ever had. Anywhere.

So far, that is, because I will keep my ear low to the ground in hopes of catching yet more whispers of secret places to eat. But in the meantime, remember – this is my own whisper about my own secret place. So mums the word….

Packaged Laksa?!?

I’ve been spending a lot of my time over the least few weeks eating laksa. As a foodwalker I would be remiss if I didn’t – it’s one of Singapore’s premiere foods, even if loyal Malaysians argue that it’s not actually ours. But like so many things splashing over the rim of Singapore’s melting pot, the initial origin of a food does not bestow proprietary rights. Even before the early days when the legendary Mr. Janggut pedaled his short-noodle version in Katong, laksa has been one of Singapore’s most popular dishes. Today it’s found in nearly every hawker center in every heartland neighborhood. It’s in food courts, restaurants, hotels – even the airport and the Botanic Gardens. And it’s found at home, too. One stroll through a grocery store will reveal many brands of instant laksa, each extolling superior quality and taste.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Prepackaged laksa on the shelves of your friendly neighborhood grocer? That’s treading dangerously close to that other ubiquitous meal-in-a-minute: Ramen. And comparing real ramen – a culinary discipline taking a lifetime to perfect – to those cellophane squares of stale noodles and foil packs, 10 for a buck, is much like comparing Sean Connery and George Lanzenby as James Bond: the name, pistol and cocktail are the same, but that’s as far as it goes.

Taking issue with my dour view of pre-packaged versions of any soup that normally takes all day to make, however, was a comrade in my world of food exploration. We were sitting in a hawker center eating kway chap (stewed pig organs) and beef laksa, having just talked to the guy in the stall who for the last forty years has been coming to work at 1:00 am to start his soup for the afternoon crowd. "Well, there is one instant brand that’s pretty good," my friend murmured under his breath, avoiding eye contact and the risk of physical reprisal. What’s that?" I clamored, shocked at such a statement. But he stood his ground, cleared his throat and almost looked me in the eye.  "Prima Taste," he said.

I wanted to disagree with him as a matter of principle. No way a small package from the deep shelves of Fairprice can spawn anything remotely similar to the rich, coconut, fish, spices and chili elixir that takes so long to make. But I let logic supersede my welling desire to ridicule. He is, after all, a committed eater both respected and knowledgeable about local food. Plus he’s Singaporean Chinese, so I figure he might know a thing or two. Prima Taste?

Just hours later I found myself scanning the rows of instant soups. I counted 9 brands of laksa, each claiming to be authentic. Some were better packaged than others – even going beyond cellophane and opting instead for a box (with essentially the same ingredients). I found the Prima Taste laksa and – purely in the name of food science – grabbed four, hid them beneath the toilet paper in my shopping cart and absconded as quickly as I could.

In the kitchen I examined the package more closely. The instructions were clear and simple and the level of fat suggested that this did, indeed, have some real laksa ingredients (read: this stuff is really bad for the waistline).
As this was an impromptu and somewhat dubious experiment, I did not have additions which are de rigueur in any decent laksa: fishcake, tofu, prawn and laksa leaves. So I decided to first taste the laksa as it was presented in the package, then add other ingredients from the fridge; a little cooked chicken, some sliced porkballs and fresh coriander.

The package consisted of packed Laksa premix powder, laksa spice paste smelling of balachan and a round block of nicely formed noodles. Still doubtful, I gently cooked the paste before adding the premix and water.

The noodles plumped and thickened in minutes as the broth roiled. And in just seven minutes I had before me a surprisingly fragrant pot of soup.

In the bowl, the laksa was both visually tantalizing and tasty. The noodles had a firm bite but then softened in the mouth, delivering a well incorporated noodle-to-broth balance.  The curry itself had a rich coconut background against which the pronounced seafood and spice tastes might almost fool one into thinking it had been made with the real thing. The spice level was also well defined; lighter than most authentic versions (presumably toned down for a mass market) but piquant enough to satisfy your average chili craving.

When I slurped my last noodle and drained the bowl of any remaining drops of the bright orange broth I realized that somewhere in the midst of my meal I had forgotten my predisposition against packaged soup. The laksa was, indeed, delicious, in a last minute, whip-it-up-at-home sort of way. And while it may not displace the toiling of laksa masters who have for generations been carefully blending fresh ingredients into the masterpiece that is well-made laksa, it will also not make the great Janggut roll in his grave. 

In other words – much as it pains me to say – Prima Taste Laksa is worthy of a spot in my quick-cook kitchen cupboard.