On the Menu
Nonya is Singapore's best showcase for cross-cultural foods. When Chinese settlers moved to Malaysia, their methods of food preparation underwent a slow evolution as they incorporated local ingredients and cooking styles. Simple Nonya snacks include poh piah, soft spring rolls stuffed with such components as bean sprouts, pork, and minced prawns. Other cross-cultural meals include the spicy Indian-style mee goreng (fried noodles), noted for its tomato-derived reddish color, and the fish-head curry, a celebrated local classic, neither of which originated from India. Spicy and simple sop kambing (mutton soup) is an Indonesian spin on an Indian dish. The Chinese food-derived Peking/Beijing duck isn't native to China. Hokkien mee (fried noodles) in the style of the Fujian people from China, packed with prawns, and the Malay curry laksa, a.k.a. laksa lemak (coconut-milk curry), are also unconventional options. Don't wear white to munch on the fiery, crunchy, messy chili crab, a meal of which inevitably ends with cracked shells scattered around your table.
Singaporeans love chili, but their concept of "mild" may not match yours. Pungent sambals (chili-based pastes), such as sambal belacan (chili with pungent, fermented prawn paste) may not be to everyone's taste.
Keeping healthy can be difficult when many local foods are fried, sugar is used liberally in drinks and desserts, and most Asian dishes comes with rice, noodles, or bread. A light and nutritious lunch that you can control is yong tau foo, a Chinese dish where you select such ingredients as quail eggs, Asian vegetables, and soybean curd to mix in a clear soup (noodles are optional).
Note: Wine isn't always the best accompaniment to local cuisines—whiskey or beer is often preferred. If you're dining on European fare, consider Australian wines—they seem to survive the tropics better than do the French labels. If you want wine with Cantonese fare, check the wine list for Chinese wine (be sure that it's made from grapes and not rice).
Cantonese. This cooking style is known for its fresh, delicate flavors, and is the best-known regional Chinese cuisine. Characteristic dishes are stir-fried beef in oyster sauce, steamed fish with slivers of ginger, and deep-fried duckling with mashed taro.
Teochew. Though the cooking of the Teochew (or Chao Zhou), mainly fisherfolk from Swatow in the eastern part of Guangdong Province, has been greatly influenced by the Cantonese, it's quite distinctive. Chefs cook with clarity and freshness, often steaming or braising, with an emphasis on fish and vegetables. Such Cantonese cooking staples as oyster sauce and sesame oil don't appear much in Teochew meals.
Characteristic dishes are lo arp and lo goh (braised duck and goose), served with vinegary chili-and-garlic sauce; crispy liver or prawn rolls; stewed, preserved vegetables; black mushrooms with fish roe; and a unique porridge called congee, which is eaten with small dishes of salted vegetables, fried whitebait, black olives, and preserved-radish omelets.
Szechuan. The Szechuan style of cooking is distinguished by the use of bean paste, chilies, and garlic, as well as a wide, complex use of nuts and poultry. The pungent dishes are harmoniously blended and spicy hot. Simmering and smoking are common forms of preparation, and noodles and steamed bread are preferred accompaniments. Characteristic dishes are hot-and-sour soup, sautéed chicken or prawns with dried chilies, tea-smoked duck, and spicy string beans.
Pekingese. This cuisine, also known as Beijing style, originated in the Imperial courts and makes liberal use of strong-flavored roots and vegetables, such as peppers, garlic, ginger, leeks, and coriander. Meals usually come with noodles or dumplings and baked, steamed, or fried bread. The most famous meal is Peking duck: the skin is lacquered with aromatic honey and baked until it looks like dark mahogany and is crackly crisp.
Hainan. One of the most celebrated contributions made by arrivals from China's Hainan island, off the north coast of Vietnam, is "chicken rice": whole chickens are poached with ginger and spring onions; then rice is boiled in the liquid to fluffy perfection and eaten with chopped-up pieces of chicken, which are dipped into sour-and-hot chili sauce and dark soy sauce.
Fukien. Soups and stews with rich, meaty stocks are emphasized in this cuisine. Wine-sediment paste and dark soy sauce are used, and seafood is prominent. Try the braised pork belly served with buns, fried oysters, and turtle soup.
Hunanese. Sugars and spices dominate this semi-rustic cooking style. One of the most famous dishes is beggar's chicken: a whole bird is wrapped in lotus leaves and baked in a sealed covering of clay; when it's done, a mallet is used to break away the hardened clay.
Hakka. This provincial food uses ingredients not normally found in other Chinese cuisines. Red-wine dregs are used to great effect in dishes of fried prawns or steamed chicken, producing delicious gravies.
Southern Indian. This chili-hot cuisine generally relies on strong spices like mustard seed, and uses coconut milk liberally. Meals are very cheap, and eating is informal: just survey the displayed food, point to your choice, then take a seat at a table. A piece of banana leaf will be placed before you, plain rice will be spooned out, and the rest of your food will be arranged around the rice and covered with curry sauce. Generally, these meals are vegetarian because of the predominantly Hindu population in Southern India.
Northern Indian. These meals are more likely to include meats because of the region's Muslim population. This food is less hot and more subtly spiced than southern, and cow's milk is used as a base instead of coconut milk. Yogurt is used to tame the pungency of the spices; pureed tomatoes and nuts are used to thicken gravies. The signature dish is tandoori chicken (marinated in yogurt and spices and cooked in a clay urn) and fresh mint chutney, eaten with naan, chapati, and paratha (Indian breads). Northern Indian dishes may cost more because of the meat ingredients.
Malay and Indonesian
Malay. Turmeric root, lemongrass, coriander, blachan (prawn paste), chilies, and shallots are among this hot and rich cuisine's key ingredients; coconut milk is used to create fragrant, spicy gravies. A basic cooking method is to gently fry the rempah (spices, herbs, roots, chilies, and shallots ground to a paste) in oil and then add meat and either a tamarind liquid, to make a tart spicy-hot sauce, or coconut milk, to make a rich spicy-hot curry sauce. Dishes to look for are gulai ikan (a smooth, sweetish fish curry), telor sambal (eggs in hot sauce), empalan (beef boiled in coconut milk and then deep-fried), tahu goreng (fried bean curd in peanut sauce), and ikan bilis (fried anchovies). The best-known Malay dish is satay—slivers of marinated meats threaded onto thin coconut sticks, barbecued, and served with spicy peanut sauce.
Indonesian. This cuisine is very similar to Malay; both are based on rice and don't use pork (except for dishes prepared by the non-Muslim Indonesians). Nasi padang consists of various dishes, such as curried meat and vegetables with rice, and offers a range of tastes from sweet to salty to sour to spicy. Nasi goreng (fried rice), and ayam bakar (grilled chicken) or ikan bakar (grilled fish) are ubiquitous.
Nonya (Nyonya or Peranakan)
When Hokkien immigrants settled on the Malay Peninsula, they acquired the taste for Malay spices and soon adapted Malay foods. Nonya (the cuisine was given this title, which is the Malay for word "woman" or "wife," because cooking was considered a feminine art) food is one manifestation of the marriage of the two cultures. Nonya cooking combines the finesse of Chinese cuisine with the spiciness of Malay cooking. Many Chinese ingredients are used—especially dried ingredients like Chinese mushrooms, anchovies, lily flowers, soybean sticks, and salted fish.
Nonya cooks use preserved soybeans, garlic, and shallots to form the rempah needed to make chap chay (a mixed-vegetable stew with soy sauce). Other typical dishes are husit goreng (an omelet fried with shark fin and crabmeat) and otak otak (a sort of fish quenelle with fried spices and coconut milk). Nonya cooking features such sour and hot dishes like garam asam, a fish or prawn soup made with pounded turmeric, shallots, galangal (a hard ginger), lemongrass, shrimp paste, and preserved tamarind.
Although influenced by Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, and Malaysian cooking styles, Thai cuisine has a distinctly different taste. Its characteristic flavors come from fresh mint, Thai basil, coriander, and citrus leaves; extensive use of lemongrass, lime, vinegar, and tamarind keeps a sour-hot taste prevalent. On first tasting a dish, you may find it stingingly hot (tiny chilies provide the fire), but the taste of fresh herbs will soon surface. Not all Thai food is hot; a meal is designed to have contrasting dishes—some spicy, others mild. Traditionally, salt isn't used in Thai cooking. Instead, nam pla (fish sauce) is served on the side, which you add to suit your taste.
Popular Thai dishes include mee krob, crispy fried noodles with shrimp; tom yam kung, hot and spicy shrimp soup, and tom kha gai, small pieces of chicken in a coconut-based soup; gai hor bai toey, fried chicken wrapped in pandanus leaves; and pu cha, steamed crab with fresh coriander root and coconut milk. Thai curries may contain coconut milk and are often served with garnishes and side dishes. Most meals come with rice and soup. Accompany your meal with o-liang, a very strong, black, iced coffee sweetened with palm-sugar syrup.
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