The Siren Song of Singapore’s Streets

Legendary raconteur and bon vivant Calvin Trillin has a story in the most recent New Yorker that examines the bewilderingly diverse world of Singapore street food. The story is unavailable online, a marketing decision designed to sell the print edition of the magazine … and while this kind of old-fashioned, shortsighted print-media hucksterism is detestable, the quality of Trillin’s writing still merits celebration (and the $4.99 cover price).

Trillin dives into what may be Singapore’s outstanding culinary innovation: the hawker center. Rather than having dodgy street-food stands scattered throughout the city, Singapore gathers them together into food-safety-controlled clumps of up to 100 or so vendors, some only selling one particular specialty.

Under the wing of hawker expert K. F. Seetoh, Trillin embarks on an epic street-food tour, aided by a list of target dishes.

I’d come up with a preliminary list of dishes that I considered, well, must try. There were nine: chwee kueh (the rice cakes with radish), grilled stingray, roti prata, curry puffs (which Seetoh describes as, more or less, a Chinese improvement on an Indian samosa), chili crab (and its cousin, pepper crab), laksa, fish-head curry, carrot cake (fried white radish and flour cake, with garlic and eggs and scallions) and charkway teow. Seetoh looked disappointed.

‘Wrong list?’ I asked.

Not wrong. Insufficient.

The final list of target foods tops out at around 20, but it seems to expand, accordionlike, as Trillin makes his rounds. For this blogger, who just sampled 18 different items at the Minnesota State Fair, it’s an inspiring tale.

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