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?