Larry Reutens' Guide to Singaporean and Malaysian Food and Ingredients in NYC
Manhattan can call Larry Reutens one of Singapore's culinary ambassadors to the city. Masak is one of very restaurants in New York that serves Reutens' native food, but it's not Singaporean the way his grandmother made it. "When I cook, I try to marry those traditional flavors with what I can find here at the farmers market or whatever is in season, rather than trying to replicate them entirely."
Despite the dearth of traditional Singaporean food and ingredients in New York, Reutens notes that his native food is heavily influenced by a variety of different culinary traditions which all have a strong presence here: Chinese, Malaysian, Indonesian, and Indian. By combining a little of each, as well as a dash of creativity and childhood memory, Reutens is creating something entirely new. Below, his favorite places to shop for Singaporean ingredients and eat traditional dishes.
Everyone's always sketchy about buying seafood in Chinatown, but if you know what you're looking for, you can find some really fresh stuff. The Hai Sein is a seafood market that looks like all the other stalls with fish lying on ice, but I think they have the freshest stuff. The guy has been there 35 years. They do have the cat that hangs out there, but they also have branzino from Italy, and local sardines from Long Island. I go there if I'm cooking at home and I want to do a whole fish. I like the range that they have; I don't usually go there with a plan because some days it's amazing and some days it's not.
I go to Tung Woo Co., which is a hole in the wall on Grand. There's always a line of grannies outside; follow the grannies and you'll find really fresh tofu and all kinds of noodles. They make a short rice noodle (three to four inches long) that's traditionally hand-rolled, called lou shu fun. When I found this noodle, it inspired me to do a traditional laksa at Masak. They also have fried tofu, and one that's set into a dessert. The part of the store on the left is a tub filled with steaming fresh tofu that's almost like a panna cotta.
There's a vegetable stand in Chinatown called Choi Kun Heung on Chrystie Street between Grand and Broome. Almost all stalls have the same vegetables, but the difference is the ladies here really tend to theirs, covering them up when it's too cold or windy or wet. They take good care of their stock, and they're always so friendly. The store is tiny so they have a lesser selection, but you'll never see anything wilted or browning. Right now they have great Arrow Heads, which are very traditional around Chinese New Year. I got some recently and they were firm and dense, a little smaller than usual, but that's because the season for them is ending soon. They also have really nice dried Chinese sausages and great fresh duck eggs.
Fresh galangal is really hard to find; I only know of one or two places in Chinatown that have it. But there's a vegetable stand on the corner of Chrystie and Grand that has galangal almost all the time. It's easy to find galangal dry or frozen, but they get it fresh, and at quite a good price. Asia Market also has it. It's the basis of many dishes: it flavors soups and braises, laksa, fish curry, etc. It goes really well with seafood because it has a similar flavor to ginger, but less aggressive.
You can find that really thick, black, sort of caramel-y soy sauce in Chinatown. I get it from Ken Hing Food Market. Sometimes it's used as a condiment, like with chicken rice, and very often it's used in sauces or dishes as an ingredient.
Hong Kong Supermarket, which tends to be more Chinese, doesn't have that Malay and Indonesian stuff, but they do have shrimp paste, dried shrimp, and dried shitake mushrooms.
Singaporean and Malaysian Dishes
There's a place in Flushing called Malay Restaurant Inc. that I like a lot. They have really good Hainanese chicken rice, satay, beef ho fun (wok-fried beef noodles with lots of garlic and black soy), and some other noodles. That's where I tell most people to go if they want something authentic. It's a bit of a hole in the wall, definitely not refined. It's clean, but dive-y in a good way; it reminds me of being home.
I used to go to Taste Good in Queens a lot. They do a pretty good chicken curry, with potatoes and sometimes a hard-boiled egg.
In Singapore there's a lot of ways to do crab, like black pepper crab, salted egg yolk, and chili crab, which is the most well known. The taste of the black pepper crab at the original Fatty Crab is spot-on. The only difference is that the crab itself is different. Here, when you get a whole crab, likely Dungeness. At home, we use a Sri Lankan crab which is maybe a bit smaller, but the meat is so intensely sweet and crabby, and the shell itself is packed full of meat.
I usually get my biryani from Curry in a Hurry. It's an Indian restaurant, but there's not a whole lot of difference between Indian and Singaporean biryani. Singaporeans identify biryani as Indian-Singaporean, since we have such a large population of Indians. I always get the lamb biryani; the rice is cooked together with the meat, so the flavors infuse the rice. They also give you a little lamb curry on the side, which I always slather on top. The curry has a lot of coconut—it's really rich and intense, and it goes great with the rice and the lamb. I always get a few chicken samosas as well; I typically don't eat anything with ground chicken, but these are so flavorful and packed with spices, and they heat up really well in a toaster oven.
There are some dessert-like drinks that you can get at Nyonya, like cendol, which is a sweet drink with some agar jelly in it.
Beef Ho Fun
There's a place called Lantern whose pad see ew is like a Thai version of beef ho fun, and it's really close to the way I think of the dish. I get it with the beef, and it has all those same flavors, and is almost black with the dark sauce. It's the same wide rice noodle.