We sat down with Gaul Porat, cinematographer and fearless eater, to give us the skinny on Singapore’s slamming food scene. Born in Israel, raised in New England, he now splits his time between New York and LA (but will always feel most at home in Israel with its great beaches and yummy cuisine).
3 Days*: What brought you to Singapore, was it work or pleasure? Had you been before?
GP: I got a call on a Monday asking if I was available for a last minute job for Red Bull. Luckily I was available and after a day of negotiating contract rates, flights were booked and I began prepping for the shoot. The only day I had to prepare for my personal time in Singapore was the day of. I bought a guide book at Barnes & Noble on the way to the airport. Not only had I not been to Singapore before, I had to look it up to see where in southeast Asia it was because I honestly had no clue.
3 Days*: How does it compare to other Asian countries you've travelled to? What is unique about Singapore?
GP: The only other Asian country that I’d been to was China, where I spent a solid month in 5 different cities. Singapore is unique in that it’s both Western and Asian at the same time. I like to call it Asia- “light”. It’s sort of like if Beverly Hills relocated to an Island in a jungle and took a third of its white population and gathered the remaining two thirds from nearby Indonesia and Malaysia. I think it’s got one of the highest GDPs in the world, and you can certainly feel how pervasive the consumer culture is there. It’s all about malls and shopping. What sets it apart from other cities that might seem similar on the outside, like Hong Kong, is how seriously they take manners and public service. They’ve adopted the British custom of sayubg please and thank you (always), there is a mandatory military draft and littering carries an extremely high fine (including spitting gum on the street - in fact they are so strict about gum that it’s illegal for stores to sell it). It’s a city and culture that appears to be unanimously in agreement that the ways of the west are best and strives to embrace those western ideals.
3 Days*: What is the cuisine like? Can you describe your favorite meal?
GP: One of the distinctly Asian influences that remains is the cuisine. I didn’t waste one minute. First thing I did when I woke up after recovering from the 30hr journey, was to seek out a dish called “chicken and rice.” They serve it at stalls that are like hidden gems in indoor/outdoor dining facilities called Hawker Centers. These Hawker centers have 50-70 different food stalls, all basically serving one of five different types cuisines. The chicken and rice dish, also known as Haianese Chicken and Rice, is basically boiled chicken served on top of a rice that has been cooked in the broth of that chicken, making it the most deceivingly rich tasting rice ever. It barely changes in color, yet it’s so packed with flavor, it feels as if you’re eating chicken that’s been molded into the shape of rice.
While this wasn’t my favorite meal, it is definitely the one that Singapore is most uniquely known for. If there was a national dish- this would be it. Aside from the Haianese Chicken, Singaporean cuisine is really a mix of Chinese, Indonesian, Malay, Indian, and Korean with a bit of Japanese influence. One of my favorite meals (not just on the this trip, but like ever) was an Indian dosa with masala.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the ice cream street vendors. I love my fair share of fancy gelatos. I've spent 5 weeks strolling the streets of Rome trying a new gelato place nearly every day. I'll splurge on some Van Lewen if I feel like treating myself. But every once in a while I like me some cheap, artificial, sweet stuff, be it a McDonald’s soft serve or something you find at the gas stations in Israel.
In Singapore, they have street vendors selling ice cream sandwiches for $1.20SIN… They pull out a cinder-block-sized chunk of ice cream and slice off a 1/2 inch slab. Then, they put that slab in a slice of rainbow confetti WonderBread. Then they hand it to you and you finish it in about 3 bites. One thing I loved about it was that even though its 100 degrees there, and the ice cream melts right away, you don't get dirty eating with your hands because the melted ice scream soaks into the bread. SO good. My favorite flavor was Taro…
3 Days*: What is a typical breakfast?
Gaul Porat: A piece of toast with Kaya jam on it (a local fruit), with two (very soft) soft boiled eggs, and a Kopi, which is basically intensely sweetened black coffee mixed with hot water (similar to a Turkish coffee). If you like it creamy and sweet then you order a Kopi ci, which is the same thing but with carnation milk. They add carnation milk to a lot of drinks there instead of creamer and sweetener.
3 Days*: Any recommendations which restaurant, street cart or foodstall not to miss while in Singapore?
Gaul Porat: I generally ate at local eateries… I did a few walks through the malls to see what they had but it was all heavily marked up food that I could get at home- boring. Or they would have the same dish, but not freshly cooked and costing twice as much.
Food stalls and dishes not to miss:
1) Hainanese Chicken and Rice, which is world famous, so there is a line. Insider tip: there is a place two stalls over with exact same dish, minus the line.
2) In the Tekka Center there is a stall called Jamal Restaurant, only big enough to fit one cook. Order at the counter and don’t get more than a dosa, methu vadai, and one of those fried onion things. you’ll be stuffed. Oh and all that should be about $2.50.
3) Go to Singapore Food Trail right on the harbor by the ferris wheel. There is a good stall serving classic Wonton and Pork noodle soup. Get a lightly sweetened Birds Nest with aloe vera drink to compensate for the saltiness of the food.
4) For something spicy- get Mee Siam. It’s fucking HOT. It the kind of spiciness that doesn’t burn your tongue right away, but 5 minutes into your meal, you’ll start feeling flustered, sweaty, and your friends will ask you if you’re holding your breath because your face is turning red.
3 Days*: Did you cook with the ingredients while you were there? What is a Singaporean dish you would replicate at home?
Gaul Porat: I didn’t cook at all. But I would attempt to replicate the chicken and rice dish at home. An important aspect of the dish, and an essential Singaporean spice, is the sweet spicy chili sauce that is mixed by each individual diner depending on their personal taste. It is usually a blend of fresh chilis, garlic, ginger, vinegar and dark soy sauce. The condiments and the getting the combination and balance of flavors perfect before diving in is an important part of the process.