Empire Cafe is a Chinese-style cafe located in Singapore’s legendary Raffles Hotel. The round marble-topped tables took me right back to Thailand circa 1978, when my fellow greenhorn Peace Corps volunteers ventured out for lunch after our first morning of language class. We picked Empire from our trusty copy of Lonely Planet Singapore, which listed it as a good place to try classic Singapore specialties. We made a running start on our hotel’s list of Top Ten Singapore Specialties in one sitting.
Laksa Lemak combines Chinese soup noodle traditions with Malay-Indonesian spiced flavors in a spectacular bowl of fresh, round rice noodles in a plush and gorgeous coconut curry, which disappeared very fast.
Roti Prata is a warm, chewy Indian flatbread, made from a wheatflour dough stretched paper thin and then folded up into a sturdy little rectangular packet of fabulously textured roti, served with a side of fantastic chicken curry. In this case that was a plump chicken thigh in deletable curry sauce, surely made that morning in a mortar by expert hands.
Hainan Chicken Rice is the familiar dish of the three, one I remember so well from my Peace Corps days in Thailand, and adore. I include it in several of my Chronicle cookbooks. Simple perfection, it’s poached chicken, served skin on and bone in, cut up and presented on lettuce leaves, accompanied by fantastically delicious long-grain rice cooked in the broth left from cooking the chicken, and simple soup made from the same broth served on the side. Singapore version comes with three different sauces (I love Asia; we pick up “ketchup” and end up with catsup, which I love on Fries and Hot Dogs, it ain’t the Evil Empire, but in Asia, people adore food and flavor and toil to create finely tuned sauces and create dishes in which to provide them in hearty but miniscule quantities, to complete and elevate a dish. Details, details, details!!!
Hainan Chicken Singapore-style comes with
1) Dark Sweet Soy Sauce (aka ketchap manis)
2) Fresh Chili Sauce/sambal of fresh red chilies, salt and lime juice and maybe more
3) Fresh ginger ground to heavenly goo with a little oil
Thais are more practical here: the sauce is One Sauce in an accompanying bowl and it is all about ginger, soy, fish sauce, and I think tamarind??? I’m on the road and can’t turn to my own dog-eared copy of Real Thai (shameless commercial moment, sorry but it’s my homebase as the memory units get filled up by life) to check for sure; but it’s hearty and piquant sweet; in Singapore they give you choices. What ever this dish comes with in terms of sauce, it is hearty heavenly comfort food, simple Chicken heaven, and the rice is the best part of all. Thais mostly want rice to be plain white unseasoned rice, but they make a few brilliant exceptions and this is one. I love that this dish has traveled all over Southeast Asia and found a home, with a few minor local adjustmenst, i.e. sauce, to cater to our longing to be special.
And that was lunch, accompanied by a perfectly thrilling fresh coconut avec juice, which dazzled our daughteres beyond words, and made my heart sing. It’s a little harder to find than Coke and Sprite in Southeast Asia, but not by much! Note the Kopi C in the background, another side item on my Singapore short list, Chinese-style spiced coffee, with a little sweetened condensed milk stirred in, served hot in a glass mug.There was dim sum too, and lovely vegetable melange for vegetarian delights….a strong start, and that’s only Meal #1…..