On a weekend afternoon during the Christmas season, the number of people in SM Megamall must be close to the population of Iceland (around 340,000).
The crowds that jam into the two shoebox buildings and the adjoining Mega Fashion Hall are probably not so interested in hygge—that untranslatable Nordic sense of winter isolation and coziness—so much as they are in finding parking.
A man on the street beside Podium Mall down the road waves a giant sign that reads “Megamall Parking Full” and directs motorists to use its other parking facilities.
Even if our children might clamor for a white Christmas, perhaps from watching “Frozen” on repeat, we don’t like our holidays hygge. We like them raucous and tumultuous and frenetic, with Jose Mari Chan in the background.
You couldn’t walk a straight line in Megamall if you wanted to without bumping into a pregnant woman or a balikbayan horde or a gaggle of friends holding hands.
The ATMs were offline, the credit card machines didn’t work, and the IMAX 3D cinema was in 2D—probably one of the projectors was down, which also meant the film was half as bright as it should have been.
None of that stopped us from having a good time, because we’re Pinoy and can’t imagine a festive season without crowds and noise and lights and last-minute panicking for gifts.
After the movie we ended up at Makansutra, which I’ve been meaning to write about. The first time I went there, it had just opened, I was nursing a bad stomach, and the stall manager, who was selling only two items, gave me laksa which I hadn’t ordered. I wandered around clutching my tray in search of a table, and finally managed to share a space in which to eat a thin, watery broth with a few stray noodles in it.
The ventilation was poor, and the air-conditioning couldn’t cope—making it a bit too authentic a Singaporean hawker’s experience.
Like a hawker’s center
To backtrack: Makansutra is a Singaporean restaurant set up like a hawker’s center. As far as I understand, it is just made to look like one. The individual stalls are handled by chefs who trained in their particular specialities, so the food doesn’t actually emerge from a common kitchen.
But the bussing, accounting, and, most likely the sourcing, are centralized.
This shouldn’t detract from your enjoyment; after all, it’s unlikely that a group of Singaporean chefs would spontaneously open a bunch of stalls in the middle of Megamall. It’s a carefully selected mix of dishes that more or less capture the breadth of what one would find in an average hawker’s center.
I hadn’t written a review based on my single experience of a bowl of laksa on a bad stomach, and it was a good thing I waited.
I’m happy to report that Makansutra right now is one of the most enjoyable restaurant experiences you can have anywhere, for any price. Even the laksa is unrecognizable—and that’s not just a now equanimous stomach speaking. The flavors are far more balanced, the ratio of heat to the stench of bagoong more controlled.
Everyone has their favorite laksa, of course, and nothing will be as good as it is in Singapore. But this is the case for any ethnic cuisine: the Japanese food in Manila will never be as good as it is in Japan; the French food not as good as in France; even the northern Filipino food in Manila not as good as it is at Balajadia at Slaughterhouse in Baguio.
It comes pretty close, though, and even if it’s a simulacrum, it gets the vibe of a Singaporean food court quite well. The air-conditioning and exhaust are working now, and it’s easier to get a table even if you don’t have a friend to “chope” a table for you (which you can’t do with the all-powerful tissue pack, as they do in Singapore).
Particular standouts for me: the platter of duck and offal (Jin Ji’s Kway Chap); the bakuteh is good if you like the Singaporean style (pale rather than dark like the Malaysian version); the oyster omelette, and roti.
I’m not myself a great fan of kechang, the lasciviously rainbow-colored monolith of shaved iced drenched with various syrups, but those who were seemed to like it. I was happy with my Milo Dinosaur.
The one thing that definitely needs work is the teh tarik, “pulled” milk tea, which is made with all the flair that you would get at a Singaporean food stall, but lacks the punch of sugar and caffeine.
The flavors are bold and complex, the atmosphere is casual and laid-back, and you’re probably going to get salted egg sauce on your trousers or stain your shirt with fish head curry.
But this has got to be one of the most fun and satisfying meals I’ve had this year.
Makansutra is at 2/F, SM Megamall, Bldg. A, Mandaluyong City.