Singapore is amazing! Singapore is amazingly hot, amazingly humid yet amazingly attractive in many ways. Singaporeans are amazingly tolerant to the heat especially while enjoying sizzling hot dishes inside hawkers centers without air conditioning. I truly admire their tolerance to the humidity, almost 365 days a year. I guess I admire all those who live in the southeast asia region with similar climates! The last time I was here was over a decade (or perhaps two decades) ago when I still consider junk food as part of my daily balanced diet. Time flies and looking back I should have visited earlier and more often as well. My first impression upon arrival on this recent visit (aside from the heat and humidity) was one of ... welcoming with mixed feelings. The occasionally random smiles from strangers (and lovely ladies) on the streets made a world of difference even if such smiles were a direct result from my "lost / OMG" tourist look on my face. Whatever the reasons were they do not matter because such small acts like a smile made me feel right at home.
Singapore has become an international financial hub over the past few decades and aspired to be (if not already) one of Asia's top food destinations / culinary capitals. One of the more well known or must-go once in Singapore is the so-called well established + maintained hawker centers for their cheap yet delicious eats. Not only does the Government and tourism board promote these hawker centers, even Anthony Bourdain once commented them as foodie's heaven. Books and blogs are dedicated to the food from these hawkers centers, not only covering the food but as well as their history and culinary cultures. Chicken rice priced at around SGD 3 - 4 a dish is hard to beat. The abundance of choices is second to none under the given circumstances. No phrase can be used better than value for money especially when the same (or smaller) dish of chicken rice cost you about SGD 5 at Food Opera Food Court and a bowl of disgusting Japanese ramen (which should go nameless here) inside a famous mall drop you another SGD 15. How about a sub-par afternoon at around SGD 32??? Not to mention some upscale restaurants charge you double what you would pay in Hong Kong's equivalents. With that taken into consideration then yes, those hawkers centers are a foodie's heaven for sure. What bothers me is a totally different matter in relation to hawker centers ....
If we look at the existence or perhaps the continuous development of these hawker centers, they are there not necessary because of the quality of the food or how the nation wants to promote its culinary cultures, but out of social necessities. To justify my argument, I need to provide the necessary justifications of course. Singapore, similar to Hong Kong, has a rather HUGE income disparity / inequalities which can be expressed in terms of Gini Coefficient. I am not going to go into details how this number is generated but every now and then the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) publishes reports in this matter for many developed and developing countries, in a scale of 0 - 1 (or 0 - 100 in some cases depending on the unit used), the higher the number the greater the income disparity. The latest figures I got are from 2007 which to me are equally relevant since it can only get worst for the above-mentioned country / city over time.
Singapore in 2007 achieved GDP of USD 161.3 billion with a Gini Coefficient of 0.425 (or 42.5). Hong Kong in 2007 achieved GDP of USD 207.2 billion with a Gini Coefficient of 0.434 (or 43.4). Yes, don't be surprised, Hong Kong has a higher income disparity than Singapore. Both Singapore and Hong Kong rank in the top of the list among developed countries and many developing countries as well. Let me try to put it into perspective.
USA 2007 Gini Coefficient = 0.408
Sri Lanka 2007 = 0.402
Jordan 2007 = 0.388
Denmark 2007 = 0.247
Mexico 2008 = 0.441
Romania 2008 = 0.31
Alright, I think you get the picture, Singapore (SG) and Hong Kong (HK) have way higher income inequalities compared with even Sri Lanka, Jordan or even Romania. However, SG and HK are developed cities in all perspectives. In terms of share of expenditure (%) in 2007, the poorest 10% in SG contribute 1.9% vs the richest 10% contribute 32.8% of total expenditure. For HK, the poorest 10% contribute 2.0% vs the richest 10% contribute 34.9% of total expenditure. I can easily go on with this topic and move onto minium wages in HK, business ethics and various social benefits that affect many hard working individuals in HK and how fortunate many of us are yet very little we can do. However, I will have to post at a later day when I find it more relevant to the intended content.
The bottle line: The existence of hawker centers that serve cheap food of whatever quality are of necessities for many in the city not out of culinary promotion in my personal opinion. (rough evaluation but I stand by my argument) It is a good thing that Singapore has such establishments and that the Government is in full support of them. Look at Hong Kong and its handful of food centers hiding above ground level ... all we can do = a big SIGH ...
I might have generalized the whole situation but several casual chats with taxi drivers were in support the above. For your information as well, SG's latest inflation is up 5% on-year in Feb 2011. This is not a low figure for developed economies.
Alright, enough with my out of the blue discussion on hawker centers and time for some food in hawker centers? As soon as we checked into our hotel, we headed to the Maxwell Food Center for some SGD 3 chicken rice at the famed Tian Tain Hainanese Chicken Rice.
Expect long queue during peak hours.
It was good especially the chicken rice which I was quite impressive. Strong aroma and rich flavor on every spoonful. The oily surface to me = good stuff, be it chicken oil or chicken fat did not matter to me because the rice was enjoyable as it. The chicken was tender and quite bland as it should be because the rice was the main thing while the chicken and sauces were in compliment to the chicken rice.
While it was good on our first visit, I made another trip on day 3 for another round of Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice and this second visit was beyond words ... in a very negative way. I doubted that an order of half chicken would make any differences but it was ... bad. It can be my own problem or the sauce they poured over the chicken which made caused an artificially plastic-y flavors to come out. Some say it has to be the sauce, the over abundance of various powder or whatever but again I did not really care much when I had to ... stop chewing with my eyebrows raised and get rid of it. Huge issue with consistency I have to say.
Of course we ordered more than just Chicken Rice, more varieties the merrier. I quite enjoyed the Chai Tow Kway which was quite heavy on flavors yet the hints of sweetness just made me continue to eat by the spoonful ignoring how thirsty I will become in less than 5 mins.
The above consumption of food at the Maxwell Food Center was just out late lunch so afterwards it was a perfect time for afternoon tea! We headed right to Ya Kun Kaya Toast for something ... light, relatively speaking.
What really annoyed me was how the staff continuously sell their bottled Kaya to us every 15 mins asking if we have decided or interested to purchase them in a jar or in a gift pack. Really annoying!!!! While he was talking to my friends, I just looked away and thanks to the lovely posters handing on the wall, I was less annoyed and quite entertained to be exact. "Screw the French Press, We've got the Sock." Gotta love this one! Yes that's how coffee is done here! :)
I ordered the Kaya Toast to "start with." Love how they come with the runny and wet egg to go along with the thin, crunchy toast with a big slap of butter and plenty of kaya in between. The coffee on the other hand was quite hard to describe because it carried a natural sweetness to it perhaps due to added condensed milk. I wanted to approach the tea / coffee station to check it out but just a few steps towards that direction clearly triggered staff immediate assumption that I was interested in buying their packaged Kaya Jam. NO I AM NOT! I REPEAT I AM NOT!
Back to my table, I was rather pissed so to make myself feel a bit better, I ordered another set, the French Toast set to be exact. Simply put, I prefer the Toast rather than this because of the overly soggy-ness of the fried toast and how little kaya I got! (was it a way to make me buy more in those packaged jar? perhaps)
I have not done a word count on this piece so far but I think it is time to stop before I go on with what I had for my ... second afternoon tea before some chili crab for dinner. And of course how can you miss my ... interesting visit(s) to Yoguru froyo ...
... to be continued! ...