“Let’s take a dive in the deep end of the pool.” That’s what I told my friend Audran when he asked me how we should start my culinary exploration of Singapore.
Boy, did he ever take me to my word.
That night, our friends Audran and Joëlle, Canadian expats living in Singapore, take us to the Golden Mile Food Center, a legendary hawker center in Singapore’s Arab Quarter.
We find a Tamil Indian man wearing a kufi cap, stirring a cauldron filled with a blood-thick gravy, from which broken mutton bones poke out.
It’s time for soup tulang.
Tidy City, Messy Dish
Conceptually, soup tulang is an antidote to the clichés heard about Singapore. For such a tidy city, the dish, purportedly invented right here in the Arab Quarter, is spectacularly messy.
Let me stress that: don’t go to a soup tulang meal wearing white. Not unless you want to emulate the ending of Stephen King’s Carrie.
The bones we see protruding from the cook’s pot are mutton femurs, roughly broken off near the end. The tomato and chili gravy gives the dish the air of a gruesome Halloween display.
That soup tulang rose to become one of the city-state’s most revered dishes is a testament to Singapore’s cultural diversity. It was invented here, in the Arab Quarter, by Muslim Tamil Indians, also known as Mamaks. The Tamils are the third most numerous ethnic groups in Singapore, after Chinese and Malays.
We ask the hawker for soup tulang. He brings us a large dish covered in blood-red sauce and mutton bones, along with a plate of bread, and a plastic glove each.
Are You Gonna Suck That?
The plastic glove is recommended, although you should be warned that the thick red of the sauce will seep through the cheap plastic.
You eat soup tulang by picking up a femur, and chewing off the meat. The mutton, cooked at length in the broth, is tender and filled with subtle flavors; but the best pieces require persistence and a good set of teeth.
Next, you drink the marrow, which is the entire point of the meal. Some prefer to dunk them like shooters and suck the marrow out, but an easier way consists of sticking the straw in, and drinking it up, like a madman’s slurpee.
Lastly, you take a piece of bread, and soak in the thick, flavorful sauce.
If you’re wearing white, this is typically when you start to wonder how much the dry cleaner will cost you in the morning.
Savoring the Marrow of Life
Later, we emerge from the hawker center, slightly dazed. We might not have eaten the fanciest dish in Singapore’s repertoire, but we have tasted one of its most spectacular.
Underneath the modern metropolis’ glimmering surface, lies a city obsessed by its multicultural food, and willing to dirty its hands for a good meal. Singapore, I know, will be a good place for an adventurous foodie. As long as I stay in the deep end of the pool.
Singapore food lovers agree: the best place for soup tulang in Singapore is in the basement of the Golden Mile Food Center, at 505 Beach Road. The restaurant selling it is called Haji Kadir – M. Baharudeen. Just look for the large, blood-red cauldron with bones sticking out. That stall has received numerous awards, and was featured, among others, on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations.
Singapore food lovers agree: the best place for soup tulang in Singapore is in the basement of the Golden Mile Food Center, at 505 Beach Road. The restaurant selling it is called Haji Kadir – M. Baharudeen. Just look for the large, blood-red cauldron with bones sticking out.
That stall has received numerous awards, and was featured, among others, on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations.