Monday, January 26, 2015

Is it possible to find traditional Singaporean food on Orchard Rd?

As many of you know, Singapore is an example of a country that's gone through light-speed economic development in the past 30 years. I've been returning to Singapore almost yearly since I've lived there in 2008, I'm still surprised how many things continue to change on a yearly basis.

The new Duxton HDB complex provides a huge contrast to the old shophouses in the Chinatown area

It's hard to imagine that Singapore's food culture, maybe about 40 years ago, looked like Penang, with open carts in the streets, hawkers organizing themselves in a car park after hours. In fact, a number of Singaporeans are worried that their food culture and heritage is getting lost, especially with the explosion of blogs and articles on Singapore's vanished hawker centers

 On my most recent trip, I thought I'd try to find some "old fashioned" food on Orchard Road, Singapore's most premium shopping street, filled with mid-end and high-end malls. Although Orchard Road does have many fine restaurants, like Ding Tai Fung's soup dumplings in Wisma Atria, most choices are all air-conditioned inside a mall.

While shopping on Orchard Road, I asked the young cashier if there's any good places for chicken rice, but in a hawker center setting. The response surprised me - he said there's a good place down the road, but he was concerned it would be too hot, as it was an outside setting. A hawker center on Orchard Road? Seems out of place!

I walked about 2-3 blocks (considered far in the cashier's mind), to the corner of Orchard and Cavenaugh Road, next to the Concorde hotel, I came across a hawker center, nearly invisible and ignored under the towering malls and hotels nearby.There were only a few patrons eating lunch there, maybe because it was already past lunch. And as the cashier mentioned, it was warm, but nothing out of the ordinary in Singapore. Fans throughout the hawker center helped to keep the air flowing, and send enticing aromas my way..

Sure enough, there was a Boon Kee chicken rice stall, with a full set (chicken, rice, soup, vegetables) was available for only S$6.50.The stall next door, selling oyster omlettes, another favorite of mine, was not yet open, but it was clear the operators were preparing for the evening, with the trays of brown chicken eggs occupying most of the counter.

I had only 24 hours in Singapore, and having Hainanese chicken rice was on the top of my list. Fragrant rice, flavored with chicken stock and pandan, served with a side of soft slices of poached chicken, with ginger and chili sauce on the side. A plate of vegetables and a light chicken soup helped to round out the meal. My lunch craving was satisfied!

Of interesting note - the previous picture of the stalls still has the old name of the oyster omlette store as "Orchard Road Car Park Fried Oyster Omlette".  According to the previously linked blog, the Orchard Road Car Park hawker center was demolished in 1978, and the hawkers were re-settled into another location. I find it interesting that 36 years later, the stall still retains the name of the old stall as "Orchard Road Car Park". As Orchard Road (and the rest of Singapore) continues to develop, what will happen to these old hawker centers? Will they disappear into modernization? Although I appreciate the convenience of eating inside an air conditioned food court in a mall, there's something special about eating in an outside environment that hasn't changed in years.

Boon Kee Chicken Rice, Hawker Center at the corner of Orchard and Cavenaugh Road, next to Centerpoint Mall and the Concorde Hotel