1/2 I’m not ashamed to admit that a good food court is one of the few things in life I can get excited about. And by good, I mean a well-curated space offering diverse foodstuffs from the Asian continent. Essentially, an indoor hawker center (I’m not persnickety about hygiene but I do love me some air conditioning).
Singapore really takes the cake in this genre, which isn’t surprising since they prefer modern tidiness over grit. Yes, some might say soulless compared to say, Malaysia, Vietnam…or really anywhere in Southeast Asia. Of course you can eat outside in Singapore too; it’s just that everything’s organized and regulated in comparison.
I love the Food Republic concept. I even watched a television segment about its founder while recuperating in our hotel (one of the many evening spent lying in bed rather than gallivanting around town—I got like zero drinking accomplished on vacation). The thing about these restaurant collections is that for the most part, they’re not mega-chains, many are extensions or evolutions of local eateries, and you won’t find all of the same establishments in each mall.
I first stumbled upon a Food Republic in the Wisma Atria and they had a little of everything: Hainanese chicken rice, herbal soups, sushi, dim sum, laska and so on. We vowed to return for dinner but after spending all day going from mall to mall (nearly all of the shops on Orchard Road are connected) we had strayed too far to go back, plus, we’d already discovered a million other places where we wanted to eat (ultimately, My Mum’s Place in Paragon across from the always packed, distressingly named, Spageddies.)
Our last night in Singapore, after eating so-so Indonesian food at House of Sundanese in Suntec City we did the mall-to-mall crawl and eventually found ourselves in another Food Republic. This one was classy and designed to look like a library with green-shaded desk lamps, wood tables, book wallpaper and padded leather signage. Seriously? A library-themed food court full of amazing Southeast Asian treats in a ginormous mall?! I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced this level of awesome before.
We desperately need an NYC Food Republic. The equivalent would be going to…well, we don’t have real malls in Manhattan. But imagine a giant suburban mall at Union Square. There would be a food court but minus any McDonald’s or KFCs (they would be in the mall, as they are in Singapore, but not as part of the food court). Instead, you might find some of the beloved Red Hook vendors. You couldn’t get DiFara but definitely those Artichoke guys (they’re expanding, right?). Obviously, street cart favorites like Kwik Meal and Calexico could be there. You could go trendy with a salumeria stand, porchetta and charcuterie too. There would have to be bbq, bagels, oh, and deli food and hot dogs but not Junior’s or Nathan’s who would certainly jump on the wagon, Rachael Ray would also want her burgers represented but the public would demand a Shake Shack satellite (I say the public because I’ve never eaten there. Weird, I know) Will Goldfarb could pretend Picnick never happened and get in on the desserts. Duh, and a speakeasy stall, mixology for the masses. Alcohol is one thing Singaporean malls totally lack because they are lame that way. There would have to be drinks. The theme could be Gangs of New York and it could be decked out like Tamanay Hall. Or maybe the Immigrant Experience, yes, the second location in midtown would have Ellis Island memorabilia everywhere. I see pushcarts, newsies and chamber pots.
Do note the books tucked into the shelves in front of the stands. No eating in the library?
Many of the Food Republic shops are showy with big picture windows letting diners watch their Chinese donuts being kneaded, cut and deep fried in a giant oil-filled wok. Or their prata being rolled out and filled with tasty stuffings…
I could only make room for something small, I mean, I wasn’t going to not try something, so James and I shared a cheese prata with the default vegetarian curry containing a lone okra pod. The griddled pancakes weren’t too oily and there was just a hint of mild white cheese (I couldn’t say what type). There’s no getting around the fact that prata are heavy, though. I restrained myself from ordering two and then thought twice when I noticed the woman in front of my getting three (if I were truly nosy, I could’ve followed her to see if she was dining with two others). I am always humbled by the culinary fortitude of Asian girls.
I didn’t realize the name of the stall was What You Do Prata until we were leaving. Despite the silly moniker, the food is a notch more serious. They have guy who makes your prata on demand. I was kind of paralyzed by indecision because in NYC we only have roti canai, no choice of filling or sauce. Here, you could have egg, onion, cheese, combinations of those or meat, but then I think chicken or mutton makes a prata become a murtabak. And there were curries in steam table trays behind glass. Everyone else seemed to know what everything was despite no labels.
Typically in Southeast Asia I haven’t been stymied by language barriers, Singapore is super English-friendly, it’s the food customs. I was thinking of this when I read about Ferran Adria being taken to Katz’s. Even though he could communicate with the Dominican counter guy in Spanish, it’s not like he knew how and what to order.
Roti canai, a flaky, layered pancake that’s always served with a little cup of curry that usually contains as small bone-in chicken piece and one potato chunk, is something you’ll often see as an appetizer in Malaysian restaurants in NYC. I’ve since realized this is weird. For one, what we call roti is prata in Southeast Asia. That’s fine, just a semantics issue. It only occurred to me this time, on my third visit to Singapore, that roti, prata, whatever, isn’t even Malay (though it could be argued that it is Malaysian). It’s something you find at Muslim Indian stalls, a style that I’ve heard called mamak (don’t know if that’s an un-PC term or not). So, Malaysian restaurants in New York, which are run by ethnic Chinese serving Muslim Indian food, are really no different than the American restaurants run by Brits or Australians in Asia that serve tacos, bbq and Cajun food all together.
But more importantly, I have no idea how to categorize prata. Prata is a Singaporean bastardization of Indian paratha so is it Singaporean because it's part of the country's culture or still Indian? Malaysians would claim prata too and they are more Muslim than Singaporeans so is it also Malaysian? Ok, I'm going to call it Malaysian and Singaporean but not Indian, convoluted as it may seem. The closest local example I can think of is whether gyros are Greek or American. It's crazy when food starts making me think like a librarian.
What You Do Prata * Suntec City, 3 Temasek Blvd., Singapore