In my perhaps I see now, limited experience, a food court was always a haven for the pre-drinking age pubescent. I remembered them only as a sea of rolled up skirts, untucked shirts and loosely tied ties. Places where a jacket potato was the height of the gourmet meal, because of course this was not really a place of sustenance, merely a cheap hangout.
Internationally speaking however, I am entirely and woefully wrong as my recent trip to Singapore has proven. A food court, I now realise is an absolute must in regards to Asian cuisine and whilst the fare is perhaps not Michelin star level, it is still award winning. Case in point, my first day in Singapore took me to Maxwell Food Centre where my friend (who currently resides in Singapore) encouraged me to sample the delicacy that is ‘chicken rice’. Before you ask, yes, this is exactly what it says on the tin; a dish consisting of chicken on some rice, and deliciously so. As we looked round in the food court, I couldn’t help but notice that whilst most stalls had either no queue at all or else one or two patient customers, one kiosk had people queueing out the door. Conveniently, it was a stall for chicken rice. So, ignoring all of my father’s life lessons about lemmings, we headed for the really long queue. About 15 minutes later, as we finally reached the window of the kiosk I spied several posters which described how that the particular chicken rice I was about to taste had beaten Gordon Ramsay’s chicken rice in a cooking competition. With that I very happily handed over my money, anyone who had beaten Gordon Ramsay at his own game was alright in my book. It was, as it turned out, very good chicken rice.*
Day 2, and we decided to explore alternative food establishments, by that I mean a new food court. Lau Pa Sat has been recently refurbished and therefore is the shinier and newer cousin to Maxwell. The range of cuisine is also larger with a great deal of Southern Indian and Japanese food and some stalls specialising in breakfast deals or dessert. Lau Pa Sat can also boast to being home to a countless array of satay stalls. Indeed as night falls the street outside the food court is cordoned off and instead of the usual flow of traffic, plastic tables and chairs are scattered alongside a number of stalls, all of which provide exactly the same service; satay sticks. As you amble along the street nearby you are very quickly accosted by various venders with different menus all of whom come from the best satay stall. After said accosting, I was waved over to a table and handed the menu of whichever stall was adjacent to me, the waiter promptly returning to take my order. The whole concept slightly resembled a night-time street party but with table service, which was bizarre enough. But it was the fact that despite every stall providing exactly the same service, it all seemed to work that really amazed me. Much of the choice was down to where there was an available seat and in that way no particular satay connoisseur was receiving more attention than the other. Indeed the sheer amount of satay being cooked only made the atmosphere better. What with the amount of smoke rising from each stall and engulfing the surrounding street and the overpowering smell that could only come from about eight groups of people char-grilling some meat the whole place felt more alive and sensual than the Singapore I had previously come across had any right to be. It gave this usually clean, fresh and polite city a little bit of dirt and edge; a contrast that I thoroughly enjoyed.
One aspect of Singapore that comes up trumps time and time again is the food, and my trip did nothing to dispel these rumours. The food was fantastic. But more than that, what I discovered was a love of communal eating. In Singapore there is nothing voyeuristic about the idea of sitting and eating in a public place. Nor is there the need for privacy and intimacy. The ritual of eating becomes communistic and inclusive. One that allows the joy of eating and great food to be shared.
*The stall in question, Tian Tian, features in the Guardian’s article of the top 10 cheap eats in Singapore.