Last September when I visited Singapore—that sleek, sexy, steam room of a city—the first thing I did was hit its famed food stalls. (Well, okay, the first thing I did was sleep for 16 hours and sweat through what felt like my entire two-week wardrobe.) We were fortunate enough to have food and travel docent Vivian Pei and Willin Low, chef and owner of Wild Rocket, as our guides. By “we” I mean my college girlfriend, The Original Grace. As in, “Will & Grace.” The One had to stay home and make us some money.
We commenced our opus of eating at the Maxwell Food Centre (shown above) in the city’s Cantonese neighborhood. In Viv’s inimitable, tireless, Type A fashion, she motioned us over to a plastic table in the open-air market, pulled a packet of tissues from her purse, and placed some on three seats to stave off any impertinents, an act Singaporeans call “to chope a chair.” The Original Grace and I followed as Viv did her rounds, stopping at nearly every stall the way a devout Catholic kneels and worships at every sign of the cross, until she found a dish suitable to undo our hawker virginity. She triumphantly carried over the booty from Marina South Delicious Food, stall 35, and pushed the green plastic plate across the table at us. On a banana leaf was what looked like a heap of scrambled eggs with chunks of potatoes, fried shallots, and a sprinkling of scallions.
“Carrot cake,” Vivian said smiling, waiting for my double take. I glanced at The Original Grace. She nodded. Clearly she’d done her homework on the plane while I snored. Damn her. Always prepared, just like in college
“Okay, Viv, what gives?” I asked, which was exactly what she wanted. She explained that Singaporean carrot cake, known in those parts as chai tau kuay, got its name because it contains long, slender, white daikon radishes, which are known as carrots in Chinese. The raw radishes are grated, steamed, and mixed with rice flour to make a batter that’s then poured into a pan and steamed into a firm cake. The cake is sliced into pieces–those potato-like chunks–and stir-fried in lard with eggs, preserved radishes, fish sauce, and white pepper. A drizzle of sweet dark soy sauce is sometimes also added, and a fiery sambal chili sauce sat in a puddle at its side. I could taste fruit and smoke and sweet and sour in that chili sauce. At home, hot was, well, just hot. But here, well, it was the first time I understood the pleasure of heat.
The Original Grace and I did everything short of lick the table. I wanted to hold up my plate, just like Oliver in the Dickens classic, and say in me best Cockney, “Please, Viv, I want some more.” But she cut short any demands for seconds. She had an agenda. We hit 22 stalls, restaurants, bars, and food stores in 12 hours. Yet my longing for that carrot cake stayed with me. After all, you never forget your first, do you?
I lived in Singapore for many years, we called it Paradise Island. I think we miss the hawker stalls as much if not more than we miss living there. My kids grew up on carrot cake, they would run over to the hawker and order it or noodles or dumplings for after school snacks. They didn’t quite understand the stateside version served at Grammas. And Sambal…it’s the ketchup of our house. We make it by the gallon, okay maybe by the pint, but you get the idea. It’s great on fries. 🙂
Ooooh, Shelly, I can almost taste that sambal on fries trick. But not quite. I think I need to go do something about that fact…many thanks for sharing the temptation.
I am from Malaysia and I love the carrot cake…glad you got to try it. Do try to come to Malaysia, too, and I will be your guide to hawker stalls, restaurants, etc.
Sharon, thank you for your kind invitation. If my travels take me to Malaysia, I may take you up on your offer.
Ah! I love carrot cake and got seriously excited when I read the beginning of this post but now I’m just super intrigued. What is the texture of the “carrot cake” like?
Hi Omeletta, this is definately not your normal carrot cake as there is nary a carrot in sight. Brenda, one of our testers, described it like this;”flavors were balanced and the textures varied from the softness of egg to the crispness of radish to the crunch of the vegetables.”
Give it a try, you will be surprised!
David, I’m tempted by the chili sauce that’s more than just hot, but not by the idea of sweating through two weeks of clothes! I’m not high maintenance, truly I’m not, but I fear I am a high-maintenance traveler.
Jean, I hear you. And that’s why Renee picked the accompanying recipe. You can have your heat and not sweat through your wardrobe. (She think of everything.)
Makes my chili dog from the local A&W seem a little tame…
I hear you, Casner. This ain’t no burger and fries place.
The last time we were in Hong Kong we ordered some kind of fish dish for dinner. A few minutes later our waiter returned to our table carrying a bucket…containing a fish. He looked like a nice enough fish swimming around in there, splashing a little water over the side. We smiled and nodded, doing our best to convey, “Ah, yes. A fish! Yep. A fish!” The other tables, filled with local folks, watched with great interest so we smiled at them too and nodded like idiots, “Oh, you have fish here in China too? Yes, so do we! Hooray for international friendship and fish!” Big smiles all around. As dumb as this sounds, it never dawned on us until our dinner was served. Oh….