“We should try the barbecue stingray,” she exclaimed.
“Are you serious?”
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Oh, she was. So on a recent New York evening, my friend and I found ourselves digging into something we never knew existed.
This is Mr. Fried Rice at Urban Hawker. Urban Hawker is an outstanding Singaporean food hall in midtown Manhattan that was one of Anthony Bourdain’s last projects.
Hawker centers are a tradition in Singapore, as well as Hong Kong and Malaysia. They serve simple, delicious food to people from all walks of life in a fun, homey setting.
The food is so good that these tiny stands have won Michelin stars, normally reserved for fine dining restaurants. In 2020, UNESCO even listed the humble hawker center as part of the world’s intangible cultural heritage.
Urban Hawker is the only Singaporean hawker center outside Southeast Asia.
Our little hockey puck erupted with lights and vibration — our food was ready! In life, there is no moment more exciting than this.
I gingerly carried the clamshell containers back to our table. Drop them and lose a friend forever.
“When is she going to get back from the bathroom — and can I wait that long?”
Her timing was impeccable. She slid into the booth and we popped open our containers, unleashing the smell of fresh fish and fragrant rice.
The sauce was a wonderful surprise — redolent of hot chili and deeply flavorful. I was rather unsure how to eat the fish, so I started with the massive mound of rice.
Each grain shined with crackly unctuousness. I crudely shoveled rice into my mouth like a bulldog at dinner.
Okay, let’s figure out this fish.
Stingray has a lot of bones. For Americans like me who are less accustomed to fish with bones, it can be a bit of a puzzle.
But as I plunged my fork into its depths, it soon rewarded me. The flesh is delicate and toothsome with a slight whiff of the sea.
My friend’s childhood in China seemed to have given her a distinct advantage. She surgically dissected the flesh with her fork, scraping the tines through the bones like a comb.
“Ah, that’s how you do it.”
It reminded me of when I took a Korean friend out for calzones. I neatly sliced mine and gobbled it down, smile on my face.
After a few minutes, I looked over at my dinner companion.
She had taken the calzone apart, turning it back into something resembling a pizza. Nothing had been consumed.
“How do you eat this?”
I guess she felt a little like I felt with that stingray. But for both of us, once an old hand showed us the way, we never looked back.
For all its problems, this is why I love New York. People from every culture come together and eat good food and are happy.
I hope we can do it for a hundred years. Cent’anni.
What are your favorite restaurants? Leave a comment and let me know!
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