Singapore in Manila

Having recently left Singapore I thought it was cool to see Singaporean restaurants in Manila, specifically in Megamall.  I suppose it makes sense that there would be Singaporean restaurants here, in Manila.  A large amount of Singapore’s foreign labor force comes from the Philippines and while Filipinos may eventually go home, they might still crave some Singaporean dishes like I do.

So, here’s Singapore in Manila:

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We took a brief look at the menu for ‘Orchard Road’ and saw Hainanese Chicken Rice listed prominently.  It’s nice to know that I’ll still be able to satisfy that craving.  I hope they serve the red chili sauce with it though, or it just won’t be the same.  If you’re wondering, the chicken rice is priced at roughly 6 SGD there.

The second restaurant will hopefully help me satisfy my craving for kopi, though I didn’t think about it at the time and didn’t check the menu.

Discovering What Halal Really Means

I recently came across an article about an ongoing problem in a town called Colne in the UK.  According to the article, the KFC there has switched to serving halal foods as part of a trial.  A KFC representative said this was done because there have been quite a few requests in the UK for halal restaurants.

So… what does that mean?  The article explained that halal meat is meat that has been prayed over and blessed by a Muslim cleric at the point of slaughter.  Also, for a restaurant to have a halal rating, all food products served in the establishment must be halal, and the establishment can also no longer serve pork products, which were on KFC’s menu previous to this trial.

This has angered a lot of non-Muslim local residents who don’t appreciate having food blessed by another religion forced on them.

The first time I ever ate something that was ‘halal’ was at a Hardee’s on a US military installation in Kuwait.  When I saw the phrase ‘halal certified’ on the outside of the restaurant I thought it was amusing, but didn’t give it a lot of thought.  I assumed that it just had something to do with how the food was prepared but I had no idea that it was being blessed by a Muslim cleric.  Thinking about it now, I suppose that was set up to cater to the Muslim foreign workers that were employed on the camp.

I’ve been living in Singapore for almost two years now and I’ve never given much thought to halal food at all.  I always figured that hey… halal, kosher, whatever.  It’s just prepared a special way and not mixed with what those people find ‘unclean’ right?

Now that I understand the true significance behind the meaning of food being halal… I suppose I still don’t really care all that much.  It does bother me a bit that the food is being blessed by another religion, because it reminds me so much of the rite of Communion, which is considered holy and something only Christians should take part in.  On the other hand, if I’m right and they’re wrong then the blessing isn’t going to amount to anything in the long run, is it?  Besides, halal or not it’s still just a piece of chicken.  A fried chicken leg isn’t going to jump off my plate and try to convert me.

I feel bad for the people in Colne, though, because in switching over the restaurant to halal to suit the needs of the Muslim minority, they’ve effectively alienated the Christian (minority?) who may not want to bend their religious principles to eat food blessed by another religion.  Depending on the size of the town, those people may have just lost their only KFC.  I also feel bad for them because people are labeling them as bigots just for standing up for their religious beliefs.  People from one religion not wanting to eat food blessed or ritually killed by another religion is nothing new.  According to AsianCook.co.uk, sikhs will not eat kosher or halal foods either.

What’s most interesting about the situation to me, though, is KFC’s religious insensitivity in the matter.  When confronted about the issue, they replied that the food they’re serving is “still made from the same great ingredients”, effectively dodging the primary issue.

[Note: Keep in mind that I don’t personally know the people in Colne that are protesting this.  All I know is what’s in the article I read. They may certainly be bigots that are using this as a platform for grandstanding.  Regardless, I believe in letting people believe in whatever they want, without putting undue restrictions on their religious rights, insomuch that it doesn’t cause harm to others.]

Eating At Home Vs Eating At A Hawker

Over dinner, my wife and I made an observation about the food we were eating.  It was heavy on vegetables and we liked it that way.  It was a home cooked meal of pork chops, broccoli, and a sinigang based soup with radish and a green, leafy vegetable.

It’s really easy to get roped into the habit of eating at the hawker all the time.  The food is good and it’s well priced.  Depending on what country you come from, you might even say it’s dirt cheap.  When you can eat a tasty, filling meal for a good price it’s hard to make yourself get into the kitchen and break out the pots and pans.

The problem with that is hawker food isn’t the healthiest choice more often than not.  Hawker dishes tend to be heavy on rice, a staple food, and light on vegetables which are necessary for a balanced diet.

Here are a few example dishes:

On top of that, most hawker food will be loaded with MSG.  MSG in small doses probably won’t do much harm, but if you fall into the habit of eating all of your meals at the hawker, or even eating there multiple times in one day, it can cause health issues.  Here’s a list of what you experience from too much MSG:

  • Headaches/migraines
  • Lethargy
  • Sleepiness
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Mental confusion/disorientation
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach cramps
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Bloating
  • Asthma attacks
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Runny nose/sneezing
  • Extreme dryness of the mouth
  • Hives or rash
  • Palpitations
  • Flushing
  • Mouth lesions

Please follow through on this link for additional information about the hazards associated with MSG, along with who should avoid MSG.  I’ve had an MSG induced migraine on more than one occasion and it is NOT fun.

Hawker food can also have other health consequences, like higher risks of food poisoning and even death, as reported in a recent case where 152 people fell ill and 2 died from food contamination at an Indian Rojak stall at the Geylang Serai Temporary Market.

By all means, enjoy Singapore’s food culture, which is most prevalent in the country’s numerous hawkers, but be aware of the health risks and remember to eat at home more often than you eat out.  When you do the math you’re not going to pay much more, and often it’ll be less, and you’ll have more peace of mind that your body is getting what it needs.

Singapore 2010 Chinese New Year: Luck, Decorations, Crowds & Surcharges

Last year my wife and I missed out on seeing Chinatown at Chinese New Year’s completely.  Somehow, I got the date mixed up and we wound up going down there the day after the celebration.  This year I made sure to mark my calendar correctly.

Luck

We’d originally planned on eating at Bugis Junction, at the Pastamania in the food court.  We didn’t realize the place would be shut down.  In fact, almost everything was shut down.  Yoshinoya was open but I don’t care for the way the food there tastes.

We decided to take our chances and headed on to Chinatown.  There was a hawker open across the street from the MRT exit so we walked over to it, using the pedestrian bridge to go over the road.  At the base of the stairs, hiding by the edge where the plants are, we saw this kitten:

 

This is the year of the Tiger and a tiger is basically a big cat.  Maybe this means luck will come our way this year?  We like cats, so my wife carries around a little cat food to hand out to strays that look hungry.  We gave some to the kitten before going into the hawker to have our dinner.

Decorations

The reason we went down to Chinatown was to see the decorations.  The atmosphere was very lively so we wound up staying a bit longer than we’d planned.  I was really impressed with the decorations.  They were very nice looking.  It put us in a great mood and we even stopped for ice cream.  There was a guy there selling ice cream from a push cart.  He cut a slice (literally) and put it between two wafers and handed it to me wrapped in a plastic.  It was really good and only cost me 1 SGD.

Here are some of my favorite photos.

There weren’t as many decorations as there were at Christmas, which surprised me, but the decorations that were there were really nice.

Crowds

For a short while, we considered staying for the main event, but the crowds were starting to press in real tight.  We could hardly walk.  The crowds kept bottlenecking in certain areas which made it hard to get around.  Also, having so many people in such a small area was cutting out the breeze.  The place was starting to get hot, sticky, smelly and just plain unpleasant.

The stage was set up in such a way that unless you were a special person, a VIP, and had access to the privileged seating area, you could barely see anything.  There were very few vantage points that would offer a decent view and they were packed.

I have to wonder why the stage would be set up in the center of the road like that.  It offers such a narrow viewing area.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to set it up caddy-corner in an intersection?  A LOT more people could get a good view then, rather than just the few VIPs that were likely sitting comfortably across from the stage.

If you’re going to have a public event, set it up so the public can actually see it.

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We decided that it wasn’t worth the hassle and moved off into the side roads to look at the stuff for sale.  The crowds there were horrible too, so after fighting our way free to a major road we headed back to the MRT station and went back to Pasir Ris.

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Surcharges

Toilets

I forget the name of the mall just outside the MRT exit in Chinatown, but they had a clever scheme set up.  I really can’t blame them because it makes sense from a business perspective, but it was still annoying.  When we were leaving we stopped in at the mall to use the restroom.  The female restroom on the lower level was conveniently closed for cleaning.  So, we searched further into the mall and found another restroom.  The difference was that it was a pay restroom.

Like I said, I don’t really blame them, because there were a lot of people going into the mall just to use the toilet.  They have to cover the cost somehow.  But still… obvious scheme was obvious.

Food

The hawker we ate at on CNY Eve didn’t charge us anything extra for our meal.  When we got back to Pasir Ris and had roti prata and beer, we weren’t charged extra.

Yesterday though, on Sunday, we went to Bedok to look for something to eat at the hawker.  We were hoping the New World Mutton stall would be open, but it was closed. There was a chicken rice hawker stall open though.  Great Wall chicken rice I think.  We ordered two plates and after our food was ready the guy told us there was an extra .50 SGD per plate as a holiday surcharge.  Thanks for letting us know up front.  At least the food was good.

Sunday evening after jogging we passed through the hawker to get dinner.  We ordered two plates of roast pork rice.  2.50 per plate.  After the food is ready the guy says, “7 dollar”. I asked him what he was talking about and point at the sign. 2.50 and 2.50 is 5 bucks. Turns out this jackass wanted to add 1 SGD to each plate as a holiday surcharge.  I told him he should’ve put up a notice.

Well, turns out he did.  He pointed to a tiny sheet of paper, covered in Chinese characters and prices which I had assumed was another menu, or the same menu but in Mandarin.  I just gave him a look.  I’m white.  The chances of a random white guy being able to read Mandarin are pretty damn slim.  I’m sure that there are people from a lot of other countries in Singapore that don’t read Mandarin either, which is why English is the business language. Nice calculated way of trying to pressure people into giving up more money.

Well, I didn’t have 7 dollars on me.  We had literally just finished jogging and we brought just enough for what food usually costs plus 1 dollar for either a fee or in case I felt like having an iced kopi.  So, I told him sorry, that I only had 6 bucks, and turned and started to walk away.  Of course, the guy called me back and said 6 dollars would be ok.  I figured he would say that.  6 bucks is better than him throwing the food away.  So… haggling win for me.

I understand the point that they’re working on a holiday, but something tells me the workers aren’t getting paid any extra.  Also, with only a few stalls open, I know they’re already making a killing picking up business from all of the other stalls that were closed. The .50 SGD extra from earlier I can accept, but 1 SGD extra on a 2.50 plate?  That’s about a 30% markup.  Seems greedy to me.

I don’t remember this kind of surcharge being added to food last year.  Hopefully they don’t try to drag that out for the full 15 day holiday.

All in all, it was fun to get out of the house and look around and we had a real good time seeing the decorations in Chinatown.  It reminds me of when I used to go to Chinatown in New York City as a kid.  I regret not seeing any dragon-lion dances but I’m sure they’ll be other times.  I’ve seen quite a few since being here in Singapore, especially with the opening of so many malls over the past year and a half.  Lion dances seem to be a tradition to bring luck to a newly opened store here.

Happy New Year everyone!  I hope you all have good fortune this year!

Hawker Centers in Singapore

Hawker centers in Singapore are basically food courts.  I’ve had a few people argue with me that a hawker center indoors is actually a food court, but they have the same types of stalls and selections of food so I don’t see the point in differentiating the two.  Coming from the US I initially considered them to be the ‘poor man’s’ choice of dining establishments, but experience has proven otherwise.

There are a lot of good sit down restaurants in Singapore, like Sakura and Seoul Garden, but the majority of what Singapore has to offer in terms of food comes from its hawker establishments.  Hawker centers can have anywhere from a handful to dozens of stalls to choose from.  You can get anything from ‘Western’ style food (typically fried chicken, steak, lamb and fish & chips) to mee goreng and roti prata.  You won’t find much in the way of Italian food that I’ve seen, or anything Russian, etc.  The choices seem to focus mostly on Asian cuisine, which only makes sense given that Singapore is in Asia.

Some of the best eating I’ve had has come from hawkers, like Hainanese Chicken Rice, which is one of Singapore’s signature dishes.  You can also find chili crab in hawker centers, which is another local favorite.  These hawker centers are like a door to experiencing Asian eating.  I can’t even count the number of foods I’ve ‘discovered’ through eating at them.  My latest discovery is a great mutton soup from a hawker stall at Bedok’s interchange.  It’s incredible!

Indoor hawker centers do closely resemble what you’d see in the US in terms of set-up.  The only major difference is that when you want drinks you have to go to a separate stall to order them, where in the US you would order your drink along with your food.  The stall that serves drinks is also where you go for local desserts like pulut hitam or ice kachang (sp?), should you want to sample them.  The outdoor hawker centers are typically covered, or partially covered, by a roof with fans.  Most will also have a TV to cater to the beer drinking, football (a.k.a. soccer in the US) loving crowd.  People do tend to gather together in the evenings here, especially the weekends, to watch TV and drink at the hawker centers, which is pretty cool.

There are a few things you have to keep in mind when eating at a hawker center, as a foreigner.  The first thing you need to know is to bring your own napkins!  Hawker centers won’t provide you napkins, with few exceptions.  Most food in Singapore is spicy too, so if you don’t come prepared you’ll wind up using your hand and pants / shirt to wipe away your sniffles.  I’ll admit I’ve had to do that myself a few times and it’s not at all pleasant, and is a bit embarrassing.  Another thing to keep in mind is that you’ll want to wash your hands somewhere else before-hand, or bring hand sanitizer.  Not all hawkers have a restroom, and the ones that do are often not the best smelling or cleanest looking.  That’s more the case with outdoor hawkers than indoor ones, because indoor hawkers are typically located in malls which have great restroom facilities.  Also, most hawker stalls have pictures on billboard style menus to help customers with the ordering process.  It helps in a lot of cases, but don’t let the pictures fool you.  Sometimes the food is better than it looks.  And well… sometimes it’s not.

During my first trip to Singapore in March of 2008 I avoided the hawker centers.  Like I said before, I considered them to be the ‘poor man’s’ choice and assumed I would find better food in sit down restaurants.  I was actually disappointed with my choices and wasn’t too impressed with the food offered in Singapore.  Later, my wife told me to stop being so damn picky and to eat at the hawker and I’m glad I did.

In closing, if you come to Singapore don’t fall into the trap that I initially did.  Don’t assume that price equates with quality or good taste when it comes to Singapore’s dining scene.  If you come to Singapore and don’t try the hawker food you’re going to be missing out on most of the best of what Singapore has to offer.