Maxwell Food Centre
Due to head colds and bronchitis, neither of us was up for lots of sweaty outdoor dining even though that's what Singapore's famous for. But we had to make at least one hawker stop since eating only in air conditioned spaces would be negligent.
Maxwell Centre is a good standby, easily accessible in Chinatown, with a large selection of well organized stalls. The only problem, a non-problem really, is that even small sizes tend to be hearty so my plans to sample like crazy always get squashed after a dish or two.
I've never eaten real bak kuh teh before (though I made my own version to try and reverse the ill effects suffered by an idiotic attempt at master cleansing) and remembered two women eating bowls of the pork rib tea three years ago, last time I was at Maxwell Centre. I made a mental note to try it if I ever returned. Plus, bah kuh teh is meant to be restorative, filled with lots of medicinal herbs (uh, and fatty meat) so it seemed like perfect sick person food.
I was pleased to note that my version using a mix I bought in Kuala Lumpur really wasn't far off at all. The deep amber colored broth smelled like a Chinese pharmacy (I know, because we patronized a few looking for homeopathic sore throat cures before giving up and visiting a hospital clinic. We now have tons of pink Eu Yan Sang cough relief packets in the medicine cabinet).
The substantial hunks of bone-in pork proved difficult to handle with chopsticks and I'm fairly adept. I was making a splashy mess until I gave up and used my fingers.
One should review individual stalls rather than a hawker center as a whole but I couldn't deduce the names of every stand. This was the bah kuh teh shop, #01-89.
The world's biggest bowl of bah kuh teh was cooked in Malaysia a few months ago, and the pictures actually provoked a rare audible chortle from me. There's something so very Asian about such food follies.
James thought he ordered mee goring or something similar from an Indian-Muslim stall but ended up with roti john. I'd always wondered what the strange minced lamb sandwich was like. I still don't know because I didn't taste any. The sweet and sour sauce, kind of like an orange au jus, freaked me out a little.
Round two for me was carrot cake, black (as opposed to white, which was also available and equally popular) from sweet soy sauce and stir-fried with egg and scallions in what I'm pretty sure is lard. It's like char kway teow but with cubes of grated radish and rice flour instead of noodles. No one thinks carrot cake is healthy, but the sweet, starchy and oily combination is irresistible.
Obviously, this isn't American-style carrot cake, but radish, you know, the type used in turnip cakes. Carrot? Radish? Turnip? It's so confusing. Once again, I couldn't determine the name of this stall.
James ordered chicken curry noodles from Hock Hai (Hong Lim), a stand with a name and lots of press clippings. To me, this is laksa. In fact, it's just like the first laksa I ever had, the one that started my obsession. In the mid-'90s my favorite lunch spot, Taste of Bali, was run by Filipinos and made a laska with chicken. Given the cultural mishmash and that Portland, Oregon isn't exactly a Singaporean hotbed, I didn't think it was necessarily authentic but I loved it. And the owners actually noticed my absence when I moved to NYC, asking my friend what happened to his "jolly companion." I hope jolly wasn't a euphemism for fat.
Over the years, I've realized that laksa in all its regional guises, doesn't generally contain chicken but shrimp or fish instead. Well, Sarawak laksa uses poultry so now I'm just confused. Apparently, chicken laksa is just called curry noodles even though to me it's the same thing (cue the angry corrective commenters). Ok, the potatoes aren't laksa-like at all but the fried bean curd strips and fish cake are.
This was coconut milky and had that appropriate throat-tickling amount of spice. I was way too full to eat more than a few spoonfuls of this, unfortunately. (12/2/08)
I knew The Scarlet was close to Maxwell, but I didn't realize it was one block close. Besides the obvious benefits it also made a nice landmark to tell cab drivers since many weren't yet familiar with the new-ish hotel. If I lived a block from hawkers…well, I'm not sure what would happen but it would likely ruin my figure more than it already is.
I hate to admit that all I had was mee goreng and lime juice, which was plenty since Singapore portions are practically triple Penang's where a large is almost snack sized. James had a curry chicken dish and grass jelly drink. That's the problem with travel, you can only eat so many meals. And Maxwell isn't 24 hours so we weren't able to hit it again when a late night craving hit. We had to venture to the touristier Newton Centre. (9/2/05)
Maxwell Food Centre * Maxwell Rd., Singapore