The food in the Far East is very different. For the first time visitor, the array of strange offerings can be bewildering. Here’s a guide to the foods that Westerners will not only enjoy, but come to love!
My first meal in Singapore was a McDonalds Big Mac. One look at the bewildering array of offerings in the food hall of a large shopping center was too much for a body tired and hungry after an overly long flight. This normally adventurous eater simply fled and took refuge in a known quantity.
My second meal was not a success either. Tentatively, I ordered a bowl of something called Mie. The stall keeper asked whether I would like it with extra chili. Mistake. Those tiny little chilies in South East Asia are the hottest, fiercest chilies in the world. Chili lovers, be warned!
So what can you, as a Westerner, eat and enjoy in Singapore and Malaysia? Once you know the ropes, you’ll be ready to try anything. The food is delicious and interesting. But to guide you through the first couple of days of your culinary adventure, you may want to start with some safe options.
First, be aware that food stalls are everywhere, and this is where you should normally eat. Usually, you will find a variety of stalls all grouped together, each selling just one specialty. They may be informal stalls on the street, or a defined food hall in a shopping center. Either way, you don’t have to worry about unhygienic preparation: the food is clean and safe to eat. It’s also a fraction of the price you’d pay in a restaurant, but you do have to pay cash.
The idea is to choose items from a number of stalls in order to compose your meal. If you were to do a similar thing in the West, you would get a plate from one stall, your hamburger bun from another, the burger patty itself from a third, the chips from a fourth, salad from a fifth and a soda from a sixth stall. In Penang, in Malaysia, they actually offer a Food Tour in order to teach you how to eat from stalls.
Second, be aware that the portions are small. This is almost certainly as a result of the rather novel way of assembling a meal, as it would be difficult to compose a platter of three or four items if each was a meal in itself. If you do want to focus on just one item, you will probably have to order three or four portions.
Now, what to choose? The first thing to look for is food on sticks. If there are signs or posters, look for one offering Saté Ayam. You’ve probably been exposed to saté at barbecues or even some restaurants, and here’s your chance to try the real thing. Even better, you can rely on these to be good. They are surprisingly unspicy, although you should approach with caution any sauce served with them. “Ayam” means chicken, and most of the time the saté will be chicken. The Malays don’t eat pork, although you will find pork dishes in Chinese restaurants.
Any strange white cubes you see are most likely to be rice. This is simply plain white rice cooked and then compressed into a mold of some sort and then cut into pieces. You can try a similar stunt at home by pressing freshly cooked rice into small ramekin dishes, and then turning them out for serving. A sprinkle of peanuts or chopped cilantro over the top gives it a sophisticated touch. At a food stall in Malaysia, however, your compressed rice will usually be cubes.
Not all rice is compressed. A very popular dish among is Chicken Rice, and it’s also very appealing to Western tastes. It consists simply of rice cooked in chicken stock, topped with a piece of chicken. Also very unspicy, ideal for those needing a gentler introduction to Eastern foods. The Malay word for rice is “Nasi”, so anyone offering you “Nasi Ayam” is a good bet.
In fact, anyone offering you Nasi anything is a good bet. Rice-based dishes, especially fried rice dishes, rarely contain any chili at all, much less unexpectedly high doses of it. In fact, don’t be surprised to see fried rice dishes on the breakfast buffet of your hotel.
Anything in a sauce is likely to be a curry. The Eastern understanding of “mild”, though, is very different to the Western idea. Fortunately, the Easterners do understand that you will have different expectations. The question to ask is not “Is this curry mild?”. Rather ask “Is this good for a Westerner?”. Very often, the stall keeper will direct you to another dish.
Approach noodles with caution. Most noodles are served with a healthy dose of chili, especially noodles in soups. Fried noodle dishes are usually safer, and when cooked with no or very little chili, are delicious. They’re worth trying once you start feeling more adventurous. And in case you’re wondering, the word for noodles is “Mie”. Don’t ask for extra chili.
Something you absolutely must try is cendol (pronounced chendol), a refreshing iced coconut milk drink with sweet bean jellies and sticky palm sugar syrup. In fact, if you’re planning on trying something in a sauce, or a bowl of those interesting noodles, a glass of cendol may be just the answer to cool your mouth down between bites. But any time you’re feeling hot and thirsty, head for a cendol stall. They’re everywhere.
The street vendor meals are part of the charm of a visit to Malaysia and Singapore, and they do give you the opportunity to eat authentic food. However, you may want to visit a restaurant in order to try a “Steamboat”, which you’re unlikely to find at your friendly corner food stall.
A Steamboat is the Asian version of a fondue. Here, you have a pot of simmering stock, a selection of finely sliced meats, fish and vegetables, and a variety of sauces. You choose whatever you want to eat, cook it in the stock, then dip it in the soy sauce and enjoy. Of course, everything you cook adds more flavor to the stock, so at the end of the meal this is served up as a soup to complete the very sociable dining experience.
These few guidelines should stand you in good stead, to get you over the first hurdle of completely foreign food. Even if you’re too tired and hungry to care, food on sticks, a bowl of fried rice and a glass of icy cendol will soon assuage the image of a well-known burger and chips.