Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Wine Hawker

OK, I've gotten to the point were I really enjoy much of the Singaporean food on offer in hawker centres. For quit a while I'd not been enjoying the hawker centre food. I'd gotten a bad food poisoning from some nasi padang at a temporary Kopitiam near Bugis Junction one time and been very wary ever since.

Having said that, a friend once was HOSPITALIZED with food poisoning from a McDonald's here in Singapore, so nowhere is safe. At least you don't risk cholera too much, as you do in Hong Kong's island eateries...

I've always been a fan of regional Chinese and of Thai and Indonesian food, not to mention Indian, but my appreciation of the mix in Singapore has been growing only slowly. Not sure why. The whole concept of the small shops only confused me. Maybe that's because it's like finding a reliable winery and a favorite grape, not to mention a stand-out vintage… you have to keep on the go testing and tasting and keep an ear open, something which I never did. As a result of my lack of research, I'd grab some char kway teoh or chicken rice from just any old stall and… I end up not being impressed.

Unfortunately, living so near Newton Circus Hawker Centre has also impeded my gastronomic progress as well. I was always told it was a shithole - all you can get are the common or garden murtabak and various cookie-cutter fish/prawn/crab dishes, all overpriced, and the place is noisy and smoky and the constant touting (even though banned) is bloody annoying. But, hey, when it's 9pm and I haven’t eaten, off I'd go for a short walk and there's some convenient fast Chinese food. I'd walk through the place with my headphones in, blasting out the touts with some Audioslave - "Somedays Ain't So Easy"… grab some fried rice with salted fish and some cereal prawn and be relatively happy (two large Tigers as well of course).

But now I realize not only is the place physically horrible (despite the recent multi-million dollar "upgrade") but there is nothing interesting to eat. There is nothing different or original or even particularly Singaporean about this place. Just to get a *laksa* you have bargain and cajole because it's often not on the menu. There is no fish-head curry, no Hainan chicken rice, no herbal chicken…

Don’t bother with it.

My familiarity with the Singaporean cuisine and , um, cookin', and the corresponding fascination with it has grown by going to lunch with the office staff a lot more often than I first did and by listening to their recommendations. OK, it’s only to the various Kopitiams in Harbourfront and Vivocity, or across the way to, um what's that food court's name?, the one opposite the still empty Merrill-Lynch building.

A few times I have gone out with local food-lover PC and some others to places like the Geylang eateries, to the Old Airport Rd and Maxwell Road Food Centres and have always found something fascinating, delicious and worthwhile. (Problem at Maxwell Road - which has some fantastic stalls - is that most of the chairs are fixed in the ground and so close to the table that my fat belly doesn’t allow me to sit comfortably. Which is a pity, because it is here that Anthony Bourdain recommends chicken rice.)

There is one GENERAL crucial problem with food centres though, one that affects everybody, not just people with huge peri-abdominal spare-tyres and Hugh Jarses.

There is nothing to drink except beer (with or without ice). OK, there's coke and twenty types of iced tea, and fresh sugar-cane juice, but I mean DRINK, like alcohol...

You know what I'm talking about. That's right; there is NO WINE for sale. Wine is not traditionally associated with hawker food, so it has never been available.


Another thing that I've found terrific about Singapore in recent times is - how ironic! -the growing Trendy Wine Bar culture. Wine bars and wine shops are popping up everywhere, some terrible, some really good. It's great to see, it give me a lot more option for conversational evenings (or afternoons on the weekend) , and makes me think that Singapore is finally growing up.

Aside: Comment from a sales-person at one the now ubiquitous Denise wine-shoppes: "This one is a bargain. It's a Cabernet-Shiraz-Merlot blend- you get three wines for the price of one!" Ah thanks, but no thanks - your incisive knowledge of viticulture has scared me off… NOT!

Unfortunately my sinuses no longer allow to drink too much red wine these days so I don’t venture out on the vino as often I once would have done. I know it's the preservative in them, but what can I do - some have it some don’t and not all the labels mention their additives. I tend to start with white anyway, not because I am girly-man, but because the non-chardonnays tend not to have so much of the sulphur dioxide (preservative 220).

Nevertheless, when Dempsey Hill first took off, before it got full up with yuppies and tai-tais and banker-wankers, the original bars of Wine Company and Wine Network were great escapes and I used to love going there. You could sit amongst the tall trees, look up to see stars (not a lot, but certainly more than Hong Kong) and hear birds singing, feel the mountain mosquitoes biting, grab a nice bottle of either South African or Western Australian wine and pretend that blighted neon shopping-mall hell of Orchard Rd was a million miles away, not just a few hundred yards.

But I can't drink without a snack…

… and the snacks at ALL of the wine-bars I have visited were and still are just plain terrible. Absolutely shocking.

Cubes of cheap dry cheeses pierced with a toothpick, dehydrated pizza-ettes, a variety of boiled frankfurters… What is this, the seventies in suburban Melbourne? It's like a scene from "Ice Storm". I feel I should be wearing earth-tone clothing and beads.

When there is a real restaurant attached to the wine bar, such as Wine Company @Evans (and very good food it is!), it has a predominantly (but not exclusively) Western menu. Despite the opportunity, they have decided to go with the cliché that wine needs Western food…

Conclusion: generally the food on offer in most wine bars is a disgrace to Singapore, this supposed foodie hub of Asia.


Two problems - where there is good food, there is no wine. Where there is a reasonable choice of wine, there is really bad food, and certainly limited Singaporean food...

What is needed?

Well, I guess you could try a wine bar that serves -a range of Singaporean hawker snacks but I have a feeling that would be messy. You'd have to think of a new way to structure the delivery of the dishes, so you don't get food all over your cool wine-drinking clothes.

Tell you what would be better, a wine stall in a hawker centre!

Yes, brilliant! Why has this not happened before?

I guess it's that word I used above - TRADITION. Singaporeans have never consumed wine with hawker food. The perception is that wine should be taken only with a proper restaurant meal, which may indeed be Chinese, Thai, Malay or anything, either that or else in a wine-bar, with these shitty European snacks from some hippy time warp, not with our wonderful spicy, oily, sweet, fatty, fishy, noodles and rice.

Why not?

Why not offer the chance matching hawker food to a range of wines? Let's think out of the box!

Anyone got any money to help set me up?


Yes, so that's what I'm going to do - I'm going to get a wine import license and a hawker stall license and set up my stall in Maxwell Road (or maybe somewhere with air-con, or somewhere at least where my arse fits on the seat) and make a fortune selling wines to tourists and locals to match the marvellous Singaporean dishes!

What to match with Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, for example, when you've waited in that inordinately long queue. I am thinking something fresh; a nicely chilled Pinot Grigio perhaps… But friends will then say I am always thinking Pinot Grigio these days. Oh well whatever...

So, happy drinking to you all! I am in KL in Malaysia at the moment, the food is great... but wine, what's that?



Anonymous said...

Ah...becoming "localised", so to speak. :D


Unknown said...

Your'e too late marra, the hawker in Depot Road already has a wine stall. It's opposite the Botak Jones outlet.

expat@large said...

Dude: I want to internationalize the locals now that this inernational has become localized.

Ina: D'oh! Depot Rd though is not on the Tourist Route so there is still a chance for me. What about I bite the bullet (and put on a smoke mask) and flog vino at Newton Circle? With my wine expertise I could get a Denise franchise no problems...

Skippy-san said...

I don't have much money to help set you up-but I can do the grunt work to set it up. If you need a server/bus boy/bartender/bouncer-call me!

Your observation about no food at the wine bar's is right on the mark. I went to the Wine Company 3 years ago and was dissapointed to see not much food along with the wine.

JP said...

There is a new place aptly called "Wine Bar" at the newly opened Sophia Food Court on Sophia Road. Though I can't attest to the quality of the drink, by the name I'm pretty sure the sell… well, wine, and it’s more central than Depot Rd (though a small step up from a hawker center)

expat@large said...

Skip: don't be so desperate! It's almost... demeaning!

The hawker thing is really a joke o course, but I really wish the Wine Bars would lift their game on food.

JP: Sophia Rd somehow manages to be central and out of the way at the same time. Unless you live in those new condos. Will have a look...

Unknown said...

I live in Oz, we have wines!
I have a friend who is in the import business, you met her Fiona! I am sure that she could do export also.
Lets talk.

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