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Posts from the ‘Hawker/Food Court’ Category

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Birds, Blood, Chile Oil

paet rio nam tok soup

Paet Rio take two. I didn’t do a very good job of selling someone who wanted Japanese noodles for lunch and isn’t into Thai food because he thinks it’s all sweetness and coconut milk. I said no pad thai because I’m controlling, then eased up and didn’t provide enough guidance and he ended up ordering rad na, which is the weirdest, blandest, gravy-drenched Chinese-Thai noodle dish that I’m convinced only means something to people who grew up with it. So much so that I passed on a photo. I went looking for a nam tok soup replacement post-Plant Love House (Pata Paplean succeeds, but that’s not a weekday affair) and received an ok rendition. It was a little wan when I was seeking something more powerful and dank.

ivan ramen trio

Ivan Ramen came through on the Japanese noodle front, though accidentally, while weaving from the East Village to Chinatown, not all that hungry after green tea bun at Panya and afternoon beers and a shot at 7B.  The spicy broth slicked with chile oil was softened by finely minced pork and a yolky egg fluffed into an almost-scramble. The tangle of noodles light and springy. I wouldn’t consider $22 a bargain lunch special but with a can of Japanese beer and a chosen side (cucumber pickles in my case) it’s as good a way as any to spend a leisurely afternoon.

le coq rico trio

Le Coq Rico is where you’d expect a prix-fixe lunch to be $38 (though I had a $27 deal because I’m a grandma, see above). The Parisian import is all about aged birds of many breeds, some more than $100 a pop. This particular week, and maybe always, the featured non-whole chicken was a 110-day aged Brune Landaise, roasted with riesling and other aromatics, ideal for the dark meat types (I’ll never understand white meat-lovers), plated simply with jus and a side salad, but not necessarily revelatory. It’s chicken. I’d need to taste more varieties in quick succession to better suss out this particular breed’s attributes. First course was chicken livers with another salad. There is a lot of liver lurking under those leaves, plus some unexpected smears of hummus for added creaminess and richness. That île flottante, though (baked Alaska is next on my list of classics). The meringue mound surrounded a crème anglaise moat and slivered toasted almonds was the breakout star. It was practically a sext when I sent a pic of myself cradling the dish–and now, I’ve firmly entered middle-aged Better than Sex Cake (Better than Robert Redford Cake, if you’re even more aged) territory. Wow. 

duck soup

And speaking of poultry offal, the shop with a three duck logo and name I can’t recall because I don’t think it was in English, is where to go in the New World Mall food court if you want a bowl of mild, cloudy broth full of clear bean thread noodles and bobbing slices of fried crueller and hidden cubes of duck blood, gizzards, and other, livery bits instead of the more popular hand-shaved noodle soups. It lacks the luxuriousness of fatty roast duck and the herbs to read as medicinal. I’d say the soup is restorative. When in doubt, add chile oil. It’s Probably good for a hangover.

white bear wontons

White Bear is hardly an unknown. All non-Chinese order the 12 for $5.50 #6, and I’m not one to buck that wontons with chile oil trend.

Newborn: City Kitchen

Hopefully, this will not be the state of affairs in practice.

Not indicative of actual lunch crowds (I hope).

I’m pretty sure that I recently said 2015 was going to be about embracing the personal, not the service-oriented. How does a new food court, more Gotham West/Berg’n than Riese Organization, fit into this rubric? Well, City Kitchen is two blocks from my office in Times Square’s sad lunch zone. So, yeah.

Imagine these full sized

Imagine these full sized

Open to the public today, the second floor collection of stands includes established favorites like Luke’s Lobster, Dough, Sigmund’s Pretzels, offshoots like Ilili Box and perhaps most notably, Kuro Obi, an Ippudo spin-off with noodles that are supposedly resistant to take-out.

Whitman's Upstate PB&B (bacon and peanut butter) slider

Whitmans’ PB&B (bacon and peanut butter) slider

Also, there will be breakfast tacos (at Gabriela’s Taqueria) which I would be willing to trade for my usual hard-boiled egg (I know) every now and then, as well as beer, wine and sake, for lunch hour tipplers. (Though if you’re a serious day-drinker, you’ll probably be better suited to Smith’s across the street when it re-opens courtesy of Hayden Panitierre’s dad.)

 City Kitchen * Eighth Ave. & 44th St., New York, NY

New World Park

Having started with the Gurney Drive hawkers, then moving onto more modern Northam Beach Café, New World Park was the next logical step. Only a little over two years old, this complex is home to casual upscale restaurants like Shanghainese Rou Gu Cha King and Sri Batik Nyonya Café, as well as this tidy hawker center, all signage homogenized into one distinct style.

New world park stand

New world park popiah

The popiah stand was popular and I hadn't tried any on this vacation. I'm not sure if it's the nature of popiah or just this version, which were freshly made on the spot, but I found the rolls kind of bland. I think it was the jicama-heavy filling.

New world park roti canai

We ordered roti canai from the Indian Muslim stall. The sauce was redder than anything I've encountered in the US, and I think vegetarian. Then again, roti canai here isn't the same since most Malaysian restaurants are run by Chinese.

New world park shrimp fritter

And a shrimp fritter too.

New world park char kway teow

James ordered char kway teow because…he usually did in Penang.

New world park hawker center-1

New World Park * Burmah Rd., Penang, Malaysia

Northam Beach Cafe

Northam Beach Café is a newer, more organized, I guess pricier, hawker center than Gurney Drive. I liked having a numbered table because who’s to say you’ll find a seat near where you ordered? The other benefit was a dedicated beer stand where you can get your large sized Tiger beer (we initially grabbed a bottle out of the cooler but the cashier gave us a colder one from behind the counter) and two iced mugs. Two fresh mugs each round. In Thailand they drank ice in their beer, a practice I didn’t encounter in Penang.

Northam beach cafe tables

And while there appeared to be fewer obvious tourists (I couldn’t identify a Singaporean or Kuala  Lumpur resident by sight) the stalls were more international, going well beyond Malaysian classics. What convinced me to try this center in the first place was the supposed presence of a Mexican food stand. That, I needed to see. Unfortunately, it wasn’t there.

Northam beach french stand

Consolation prize went to La France. I do still wonder about the advertised frisee salad with lardons.
Northam beach german stand

German sausages were a close second. 

Northam beach pork bbq & spaghetti

Northam beach filipino stand

My international maneuver was a mistake. I got excited when I saw the words ihawan and Filipino bbq because in the US that means sweet, smokey meat on sticks. I love it way more than satay. But they only had dinner combos and bbq pork ended up being a few fatty slices or meat drenched in a gooey sauce and served with spaghetti. If you’ve ever encountered sugary, wiener-laden Filipino spaghetti, you’ll know it’s an acquired taste. I’ll eat pig’s blood, shrimp paste and the like, but really do think you have to have to have grown up with this spaghetti it to love it.

Northam beach satay

Some of that perfectly pleasant satay. Chicken because they were out of mutton.

Northam beach pasembur

Gurney Drive has pick-a-mix pasembur where you can choose from plates and plates of fried beige things to be tossed with the sweet potato dressing. Here, you get what they give you. I like the idea of crunchy bits, seafood and vegetables tossed together but it’s bland compared to rojak.

Northam beach belacan fried chicken

James will almost always order fried chicken when it’s available and it was plentiful in both Malaysia and Thailand. I told him I saw a stand in the back corner. What I didn’t tell him was that it was belcan fried chicken. He thinks that he hates shrimp paste, though I really think he just hates the smell of the block I keep wrapped up in the crisper drawer of our refrigerator. It really isn’t that strong after it’s been cooked, I swear. The funny thing was that he didn’t notice the shrimp paste until the chicken cooled down to room temperature. The fishiness doesn’t hit you over the head, instead adding rich umami undertones.

Northam beach mua chee stand

Northam beach mua chee

Mua chee, as they call it, is mochi. Here, steamed glutinous rice blobs drizzled with a peanut sauce. Apparently, offering a variety of flavors is unusual. You can mix two and I had pandan and black sesame. The others were sweetcorn, original and green tea.  My only quibble was that the pretty colors don’t show up once peanut-coated and displayed under the night sky.

Northam Beach Café * Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, Penang, Malaysia

Gurney Drive Hawkers

When I first started reading user reviews of Penang's G Hotel, which is shoulder to shoulder (but not adjoining—that air conditioned, never-exposed-to-the-elements luxury is more Singaporean) with Gurney Plaza, they were almost evenly split East-West. I'm generalizing of course, but a typical Asian reviewer might say, "It's next to a mall—great location" while the Europeans (Americans barely make a dent) would be more, "It's next to a mall—ick."
Penang hotel & mall complex

Not ick because the hotel, which didn’t even exist on my last visit in 2005, is not just next to a mall, it's also across from the Gurney Drive hawkers, the best-known outdoor food court in the city. If you're a novelty-seeker like me, it doesn’t get much better than walking out of your room to beef ribs at the ground floor Chili's and rojak down the street.

Gurney drive rojak

Here would be said crazy salad of jicama, cucumber, pineapple, water apple (the fruit a cashew is harvested from. I know! Nuts from fruit?), cuttlefish, bean curd and Chinese crullers tossed in a thick, spicy prawn paste and topped with crushed peanuts. I am a fiend for the hot, fishy sweet. Shrimpy and fruity is likely to either disgust or charm you, no in-between.

Gurney drive rojak stand

You can buy the dressing at the stands here and probably elsewhere, too. I'm not sure what the difference is between the white-topped and red-topped jars. Perhaps one is pure prawn paste and the other has sugar and chiles added for a ready-to-use dressing.

Gurney drive laksa 

Gurney drive asam laksa

Penang laksa is a totally different beast than most Malaysian laksas. Coconut milk-free and lemongrassy, the asam style is soured with tamarind and enriched with flaked mackerel. Once again, the sweet and fishy combo. Toppings usually include cucumber, pineapple, mint and torch ginger bud. The dark condiment on the spoon is black prawn paste, same as in the rojak. I don't order this in NYC because my experiences have been more bad funky (at Singapore Café there were twigs floating around in the broth) than appetizing funky.

Gurney drive fried things

James picked up some chicken and a few other unidentified fried tidbits served with sticks at a stall wonderfully named McTucky Fried Chicken.

Gurney drive char kway teow 

Gurney drive char koay teow stall

We only made one attempt to seek out exemplary char kway teow on this visit. Loh Eng Hoo Coffee Shop, my first choice, was closed. Honestly, I'm not enough of a connoisseur to find fault with this version.

Gurney drive sarsi & sugar cane juice

Sarsi is a sarsaparilla soda. I thought it tasted a little like Dr. Pepper. I was told to order a sugar cane juice with lime so I did. Some proprietors can be pushy, not rude more this is our specialty. If I'm correct the beverage-sellers have territories, so if you sit in their section you have to order from them.  I'll say yes to practically anything because the food is cheap even when tourist-priced. For reference, the laska above was RM3.00 (approximately 90 cents).

Gurney drive hawker center

Gurney Drive Hawkers * North end of Gurney Dr., Penang, Malaysia

La Vaguada

Ok, this is it, no mas. I'm finally finished the with sporadic Madrid recapping. But I would feel empty inside if I didn't briefly mention my mall excursion. I always visit a mall when on vacation. Obviously, I only travel to big cities, but even Penang had one, which only surprised me a little since Asians have quite an affinity for mall culture. Only Mexico City posed problems with its Santa Fe mall hidden way on the outskirts, inaccessible by public transportation. (Not really surprising at all considering their seeming lack of a middle class. Maybe that's why NYC can't sustain a proper mall either, too-rich and too-poor all smooshed together.)

La vaguada

Madrid had more than one centro comercial to choose from; we picked La Vaguada because you can get there smoothly on the subway. I figured it would be a rinky-dink Manhattan Mall atrocity, but it was the real deal with an enormous supermarket, or rather a hipermercado, Alcampo, that was way larger than Fairway, and that was just the bottom floor. Upstairs, they sold washing machines, plus-size smocks, saws, and more relevant to my needs, a cheap corkscrew. I should know the answer to this since I cover retail topics at work (I’ll look into it tomorrow) but why do we not have grocery stores inside US malls? Here, I'd appreciate the convenience. In other countries, for the fun of experiencing packaged foreign food.

I feel self-conscious taking photos inside grocery stores, but do regret not capturing the entire towering aisle heaving with hoof-on whole jamon. Canned seafood is also allotted an unusually large proportion of shelf space.

The heart (or I guess if you were corny like me, you could say stomach) of any mall is its food court. I didn't know what to expect from a Spanish food court. And it wasn't really fast foody (no Cinnabon but a homegrown chain Canel Rolls with savory versions like cheese and bacon) but a level ringed by sit down restaurants and tapas bars (and a hair salon, movie theater and video store), almost exclusively Spanish in culinary style.

Vaguada food court

Bocatin is a taberna specializing in sandwiches, a.k.a. bocadillos. Way in the background is Gran Sol Marisqueria  and Cervecería. I like that beer is prominently mentioned everywhere. Drinking in an American mall just seems weird.

Cantina mariachi

The non-Iberian offerings included The Wok, Istanbul, L'Alsace and Cantina Mariachi. It was also hard to ignore the plywood covered a giant coming soon ad for Taco Bell, fittingly with a larger than life packet of mild salsa. The first public (naval bases don't count) Taco Bell in the country opened not so long ago in December. The chain has never been a success in Europe (or Mexico, duh) so I wonder how the Spanish will take to Crunchwraps.

Gambrinus cerveceria exterior

We chose a random casual eatery, Cervecería Gambrinus, that I later saw all over the place. Their logo is a portly pageboy’d Falstaffian guy called Gambrinus. From what I could deduce the lore is German not Spanish. Maybe it’s like our use of Friar Tuck in association with drinking establishments.

Gambrinus cerveceria gambas al ajillo

I love gambas al ajillo, maybe even more so for the saucy remnants. I could just pour the shrimp, chile and garlic infused olive oil into and dish and eat it alone with crusty bread.

Gambrinus cerveceria chicken wings

Ok, so we ordered chicken wings, a.k.a. alitas. You get what you deserve doing such a thing but we were curious. Pallid tomato sauce inevitably accompanies fried chicken parts in other places (marinara in Hua Hin). I realize putting blue cheese or ranch dressing on poultry is an American abomination.


Because I'm childish this café gave me pause. I thought a bit, and duh, it's a cute abbreviation of Vaguada Mall.

Vaguada market

One of the cool things was that despite housing a clean modern supermarket (and a weirdo smallish storefront that only sold packaged frozen food—can you imagine an entire store devoted to Tombstone Pizza, Banquet Chicken and Hungry Man Dinners?), the shopping center also had a series of rows emulating traditional market stalls: seafood, produce, dried legumes and nuts, butchers, cheese and the like.

Just across the way, on the same floor, was a tattoo parlor. Not so traditional, I would say.

La Vaguada * Monforte de Lemos 36, Madrid, Spain

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)

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Alhambra Padang Satay

threeshovelI’m trying not to talk about illness any more but one fascinating (well, if you’re like me and find malls enlightening) part of being told by a doctor to not spend time outdoors due to the heat and humidity aggravating your bronchitis, is that in Singapore you don’t have to spend much time in open air. You can walk for what feels like miles through malls connected to each other by passageways, underground tunnels and sky bridges.

Our goal was to get from Suntec City to Gluttons Bay at the Esplanade with as little outdoor exposure as possible. And with the exception of a single outdoor walkway and escalator, we accomplished this. The major problem, we were both aware of, is that Gluttons Bay is outdoors and that was a no go. It sounds like I’m being melodramatic but James literally couldn’t walk more than 10 feet outdoors without starting to wheeze and gasp for air. Frankly, it was a little irksome for a tropical vacation but I have a hard time mustering sympathy for sick people, which is probably why karma caught up and sickened me the following week. Satay probably isn’t worth your health but whatever, it had to be done. The plan was to grab food to go and catch a cab immediately, which was a touch unrealistic since there always seems to be woefully long taxi stand lines in Singapore. No street hailing allowed.

Carl's jr double cheeseburger
Along the way we found a Carl’s Jr. Not having any on the East Coast, James felt compelled to get two humongous Super Star with Cheeses for the road (neither of us allowed a little illness to hamper our vacation eating). One for later that night and one for the flight to Hong Kong the next day (when I was seriously hurling the entire plane ride–let’s just say that that monster burger inches from me didn’t help matters). The burger in the pic looks pathetic and squashed, but that has more to do with my photography.

Some may deride Makansutra’s Gluttons Bay as an overpriced marketing gimmick. I don’t know who specifically, not me, maybe I’ve been in NYC too long because I automatically assume people will have a problem with everything. The concept is a collection of hawkers in one spot that was organized by a popular food site. It would be like having a Chowhound-created Porkers Pier at South Street Seaport or some such.

Alhambra padang satay
We weren’t even hungry because we’d already eaten Indonesian food, prata and had two enormous cheeseburgers in a bag. But I’d made a fuss about coming so we had to get something, something small and snacky from Alhambra Padang Satay. Except James ended up getting suckered into some too-large combo deal with 20 sticks of mixed lamb, beef and chicken.

Mixed satay
Real satay is tiny, thankfully, no tough meat slabs awkwardly threaded onto a skewer. Three bites per stick. We were given enough sauce, in dangerous Asian-style plastic bags, to practically fill a sink. And most important to me, the accompaniments: lontong, pressed rice cubes, and chunky slices of cucumber and shallots. You could tell the lontong was made traditionally, steamed in banana leaves, because the curved edges had a pale green hue.

I think I made myself sick eating so much rice dipped in peanut sauce. I ate a bunch for breakfast before heading to the airport and I do wonder if that had some impact on the intestinal issues that plagued me that entire day. But no, I won’t put the blame on the poor satay.

Ah, it appears that Gluttons Bay is having a holiday promotion through Jan 1, 2009. I’m amused by the promise of “cool December” weather for dining when I was just there a few weeks ago and temperatures approached 90 degrees. Wow, eight hawker courses, “Rose Shandy, Roast Turkey with Fruit Chutney, a stinging BBQ stingray, Crispy Cereal Prawns and let’s not forget the Satay, White Fried Carrot Cake, Banana Tempura with Kaya sauce and a cool coconutty Chendol” for S$ 89 per couple. That’s $31 each (sure, spendy for Singapore) and you can BYOB. Now, I could get into that kind of New Year’s Eve festivity. I’d rather sit at home this evening than spend $100+ per person for the mediocre food and drink that’s the norm on December 31st in NYC. I’m officially old.

Alhambra Padang Satay at Gluttons Bay * 01-15 Esplanade Mall, Singapore

What You Do Prata

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.)

Food republic

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.

Suntec city food republic

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.

What you do prata

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…

Cheese prata

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

Newton Food Centre

I had big plans for our sixth (dating) anniversary. Originally, No Signboard Seafood, which isnt fancy fancy, but eating crab feels special. Then I was leaning towards a belated celebratory meal the following night at Opia, the new sleek "Australian freestyle" in the JIA. But we'd already splurged a bit, so we opted for low key. I didnt imagine quite as low key as a hawker center, but it just kind of happened.

This was the only hawker center where we were really hawked at. And aggressively. I'd avoided Newton on the last vacation because I was aware it was touristy and pricier than others, but it was sort of on the way from the Night Safari and certain to be open.

I had chicken murtabak, James the chicken rice. I later ordered char kway teow (from a woman who appeared to be falling asleep at a table, which made me wonder if cooks get really bored during down time) just to sample the Singapore style. We fended off attacks from all the pushy seafood vendors, but after seeing a young couple gorging on chile squid, mussels and grilled fish, I kind of wished we tried some, after all. I was just afraid of getting gouged by inflated prices.

I also made a sourpuss stray cat hang out with me. He didnt take much coaxing to come over to our table, especially since no one else seemed terribly fond of him. Loose non-pet animals just dont evoke much sympathy from locals, which I can understand. But I was fascinated by S.E. Asian cats, which tend to be tinier than American felines and almost always have short kinked tails that look like theyve been chopped off or broken (I'm assuming theyre all distantly related and not hacking victims). The Newton cat wouldnt eat the satay tidbit we handed him, though he munched a few bean sprouts from our char kway teow. Maybe he was a halal cat.

Newton Food Centre * Newton Circus, Singapore