Having once been part of Malaysia for many many years, Singapore only gained her independence on August 9th, 1965.
Aside from British and European influences, historically, Singapore has also very much a Malay background-most of which is still imbued and integrated into modern society today.
From foods like Laksa, sambal, nasi lemak and goreng pisang to the national anthem, Majulah Singapura, I think it’s safe to say that a major portion of modern Singaporean culture is, and always will be, inexorably tied to Malay roots.
And there is no better place to celebrate our prominent counterpart of culture in Singapore than at the core of the Malay settlement-homely, friendly, Geylang Serai.
Geylang Serai food center and wet market is just a 10 minute walk from Paya Labar station. Despite the heat and afternoon sun, plus the noise and annoying fumes from cars along the road, that 10 minute walk was really worth.
Serai means lemongrass- an abundant crop of the 19th century that flourished along the land on which the wet market and food centre lies upon now. There are varied theories of the name Geylang- some believe it derived from “Gelang” (gur-lung) which is malay for “ankle” or “bracelet”, and others believe that this name can be traced back to “Gelanggang”, which means ‘arena’, for many cock fighting matches were rumoured to be held here in the past.
I finally arrived at the front of Geylang Serai with a softly grumbling stomach and a pair of eyes ready to see everything.
We had to pass the wet market stretch first before reaching the food centre.
The vibe of the market exuberates ‘community’, and I loved that stall owners very willingly explained to me what type of produce was on showcase, the unique ingredients of traditional malay food.
Lots of brightly coloured hunks of ginger, and a feminine, pink version of it- tumeric, sat next to its yellow counterpart.
There was a strong visual to olfactory connection here in this market.
The bright greens- okra, coriander, bayleaves, all gave off its organic fragrance.
But there was more. Fresh sticks of lemongrass, galanggal, dark purple eggplant, green and red chillis, cucumber.
The vendor watched as I handled this leathery fruit that i’d never seen before with caution- “pisang jantung”, she smiled.
Here I was, holding the unbudded flower of the banana plant, a large, ovoid, purple clad object.
And of course, never forgetting the malay curry powders and salted fish, ikan billis.
By the time I arrived at the food centre, my insides were crying out for a saucey plate of Mi Rebus (literally translates to boiled noodles), which has been an all time favourite malay cuisine of mine even as a smol scrub growing up in Singapore.
It is a dish with strands of yellow Hokkien noodles, doused in a thick and slightly sweet brown curry like gravy.
The life of this dish is the gravy. It is made from shrimp’s broth, salt, lemongrass, galanggal, salam leaf (Indonesian bayleaf), kaffir lime leaf, gula jawa (dark palm sugar), with cornstarch as a thickening agent. For a Mi Rebus to find favour in Sabrina’s good books, the gravy must be thick as velvet, enough to luciously coat every mouthful of noodle.
Yo’ girl here ain’t wastin’ any time and calorie space on Mi Rebus soup okay?
The flavours are mellow and quite subtle, but even an untrained tongue, given two samples of Mi Rebus, can easily taste the difference between a good Mi Rebus gravy from a terrible, tasteless one.
The noodles are also garnished with a whole boiled egg, some firm tofu (tau kwa), bean sprouts, green chillis and fried shallots.
…and today, I found a winner, right here in Geylang Serai.
Mi Rebus coming from Alrahman Kitchen (#02-139) sure didn’t stay on its green plate for long (aside from the fact that it was sedap-tasty, one must not allow Mi rebus to go cold, for the gravy will cool into soup, and you’ll just miss the whole point in eating Mi Rebus altogether).
Today, we ordered a basic Mi Rebus (3 dollars), and mother dear wanted to add Tempeh and Begedil (fried malay potato cake), at 1 dollar per extra piece.
We also tried this stall’s Lontong- ketupat (malay rice cakes), boiled egg, tempeh, boiled cabbage and tofu submerged in a light, warm curry (this curry was a milk based one, different from Mi Rebus gravy). It was delicious too, and definitely soooo worth the 3 dollars.
Father then came around after queueing next door to Alrahman’s kitchen for a solid 10 minutes, all for Nasi Padang- rice with assorted malay curries and delicacies (like sambal fish, ayam penyet) of choice. Thanks to pa, I can now say that paru goreng (beef lung fried with sambal chilli) doesnt taste all that bad, pretty delectably chewy in fact.
There was just a different vibe sitting in the well ventilated, clean and spacious Malay hawker centre. It was nearing the afternoon peak period- but the lunch crowd wasn’t madness and it didn’t leave you feeling oppressed.
The seats were clear of tissue paper packs, water bottles and umbrellas used to “chope” (reserve) them while people went to buy food (see post about Yong Tau Foo). Malay couples and families were glad to share tables and spoke at friendly volumes.
The tables were promptly cleared by a smiley malay lady cleaner, who dangled a bunch of bananas from her orderly push trolley. Her head was dressed in a clean, colourful burkha. The place was harmoniously orderly.
I was even gently addressed as ‘sister’ by the malay vendor at a drink stall, and not the usual (and slightly derogatory) ” 小妹” (xiao mei, meaning little girl) that i’ll usually get from frumpy stall vendors at a chinese hawker centre.
After lunch, we headed downstairs to the famous (and only) putu piring shop- Traditional Haig Rd Putu Piring, to satisfy our sweet tooths.
Putu piring is a type of kueh (malay cake, also a term used a lot in Chinese hawker food), and it is made from fragrant rice flour.
The inside of this flat, round bite sized kueh contains gula melaka- traditional malay palm sugar, which was readily available and used as a substitute for white cane sugar in many malay foods and desserts during times of deprivation in WW2.
Putu is the name of the rice cake, and piring (pee-ring) means ‘plate’ in malay, referencing the round metallic plates used for steaming the cakes.
Each and every cake is individually crafted by hand; starting first with some rice flour on the bottom of the plate (that has been lined with a white polyester cloth), then some gula melaka (which has been previously steamed to create a malleable sugar paste), before another dash of rice flour to complete.
The plate is then covered with a lid and placed over a hot steamer for 2 to 3 minutes, before it is swiftly transferred onto brown paper with small squares of pandan leaf for extra fragrance, and a generous mound of desiccated coconut tinged with a subtle hint of salt.
Best eaten fresh straight from the steamer. The rice cake is much lighter than the chinese version of kueh tutu street snack, and the gula melaka simply melts into heavenly sweetness at the touch of your tongue.
Having eaten to the point of satisfaction and satietation, I strolled slowly, making my way back to the MRT station, happy at discovering another one of Singapore’s gems.