Fashion stylist and blogger Nneya Richards thinks you should extend your stay in Singapore for a food holiday.
SINGAPORE – Often thought of as a layover town, Singapore is a common stop on the way to places like Bali or Australia. With its stability, unique geographic positioning, strong economy, and widely spoken English, the island city-state is a welcoming entry point to Southeast Asia. While not much bigger than Manhattan, you'd be remiss to spend your layover in the airport (although Changi Airport is one of the best in the world) because Singapore is a food lover's dream.
Chef Anthony Bourdain has cited the country as one of his favorite food destinations, even tapping Singaporean food guru KF Seetoh to curate the hawker center for his much anticipated Blade Runner-themed mega food market in New York City. Locals are food-obsessed; there's even a commonly used Malay word, shiok, to describe a feeling of unadulterated pleasure in reference to food. If the idea of experiencing unadulterated pleasure isn't enough to have you booking the next flight on Singapore Airlines — they have a remarkably fresh prawn salad by the way — read about my top ten moments of shiok in the Lion City.
1. Eating Breakfast That Tastes Like Dinner
With the time stamp a full twelve hours ahead of my home base, I was definitely feeling off when I landed in Singapore early in the morning. While checking into my hotel at 7 a.m. (7 p.m. for my internal clock), I was thrilled to learn of ParkRoyal on Pickering's delicious breakfast buffet. I find it dull when hotels only serve Western fare, and Park Royal serves an amazing Asian-style breakfast with rice-based dishes with soy sauce, chicken, and more. I was starving and craving dinner, so the savory breakfast buffet hit the spot.
The next day, well-fed, well-rested, and slowly adjusting to the time change, I was treated to a traditional Singapore breakfast at Heap Seng Leong Kopitiam (Blk 10 North Bridge Rd., #01-5109). I had kaya toast (toast with a coconut jam and butter I have yet to find in the US) served with a soft-boiled egg, soy sauce, a dash of pepper, and kopi (Singaporean coffee with sweetened condensed milk). The owner came out in his striped PJs and I got the sense that he treated the restaurant like a live-work space. The old grungy coffee shop still uses an abacus with patrons that have probably been spending their morning there for the last 30 years. It was so simple, so shiok. The meal reminded me of my childhood, which provided immense pleasure. Soft-boiled eggs and coffee sweetened with condensed milk was my grandmother's favorite.
2. Embracing the Food Fusion
Singapore's culture is a fusion of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian (from Colonial British times); naturally, there is a lot of cusine crossover. Peranakan food is Singapore's oldest fusion cuisine originated by the descendants of the Straits-born Chinese traders and migrant merchants who intermarried with local Malays in the 15th–17th centuries. It's a delicious blend of Chinese ingredients with spices and cooking techniques of the Malay/Indonesian variety. I was treated to a chef's tasting at Candlenut, a chic and modern-looking place serving homestyle fare. Chef Malcolm Lee executes his mother's kitchen staples, and I could taste the love in every bite. Kueh pie tee / buah keluak, a signature dish of Indonesian black nuts soaked for five days to make an earthy, aromatic gravy blended with rempah paste, lemongrass, candlenuts, and other local ingredients, is unlike anything I have ever tasted. Shiok.
I chose the wonderfully restored old shop house The Blue Ginger on my final evening because I knew I wanted my last taste of Singapore to be Peranakan food. I crave it still and am searching for a variation of the buah keluak over wok-fried tiger prawns back in NYC.
3. Wearing a Bib
Chili crab is one of Singapore's national dishes. Jumbo Seafood was packed when I visited and it was great to look around and see Singaporean families participating in what seemed to be a traditional Sunday lunch. Eating chili crab is pretty messy, a delightful and visceral experience of food discovery. All pretenses are gone when you put on the plastic bib and dig in. The mud-crabs, stir-fried in a thick and savory chili and tomato-based sauce, are meant to be eaten by hand. Sop up the excess crab meat and sauce with an order of deep-fried buns. You might forget you are in polite company and lick your fingers. It's that damn good.
4. Loving the Durian
Another rite of passage for Singaporeans, albeit a polarizing one, is eating a durian fruit. With a belly full of chili crab, I decided to partake in another Sunday tradition among local families, by heading to the fruit stands that line Singapore's red light district. Nicknamed the "king of fruits," the durian is banned from a lot of public transportation and hotels because of its pungent odor. Many people are absolutely revolted by it, calling the stench reminiscent of garbage, rotten onions, vomit, or any other vile thing they can think of. But others find it quite sweet and pleasant. I shooed flies away as I put on the plastic gloves provided by the vendor, and you know what? I loved it! To me, the durian tasted like warm mango with a custardy texture. I finished mine and watched as an older woman used her emptied durian shell as a water gourd. I felt like I joined a very elite club.
5. Doubling-Down on Crab Bee Hoon
Sin Huat Seafood Restaurant (659/661 Geylang Rd.) draws people from across the globe despite having no frills, no written menu, and no air conditioning. Avoid the intense Singapore heat and humidity during the day and go for dinner. Chef Danny Lee doesn't seem to care whether you are there or not (despite his reputation, I actually found him quite pleasant), but his signature crab noodle dish, crab bee hoon is calling your name. It's hard to tell where the crab meat ends and the noodles begin, and it's excellent. (And pricey: a meal here can easily cost US$100.)
6. Handling the Hawkers
You can't go to Singapore without visiting hawker centers — open-air food malls with inventive and inexpensive food. Every Singaporean has their favorite, but I went to the somewhat polished Makansutra Gluttons Bay to chat with owner and local culinary guru KF Seetoh.
Now one of the wealthiest nations in the world, Seetoh reminded me that Singapore was once a "stressful, migrant society. When these men came here, they didn't bring their wives with them. This was El Dorado." Craving for the tastes of home and heritage can help explain the astronomical number of street vendors in the 1950s on an island slightly bigger than Manhattan. Seetoh is making it his mission to put Singaporean food traditions on the map. Members of the younger generation are not interested in taking over family businesses, so many food stalls are fading out as the population ages.
With Seetoh's guidance, I tried the quintessential hawker center experience for myself at Maxwell Road Hawker Centre (1 Kadayanallur St.) in the heart of Chinatown. Shiok was the first thing that came to mind when I tasted the mouthwateringly good namesake dish at Hong Xiang Hainanese Chicken Rice. The chicken was so tender it melted in my mouth. I slurped on fish head soup from Fish Head Bee Hon. I ate rojak, a delicious salad medley in a savory sweet black sauce topped with peanuts from Rojak, Popiah & Cockle. And I washed it all down with sugar cane water. For desert, I had ais kechang, shaved ice with sweet toppings like red beans, sweet corn, and evaporated milk.
7. Exploring Little India
My first meal out in Singapore was lunch at The Banana Leaf Apolo. The meal was sensational, but it was the fragrances wafting through Little India that allowed me to lead with my nose. Traces of yesteryear remain in the narrow streets and alleyways, like fortune-tellers and their parrots, flower vendors selling garlands of jasmine, and roasted nuts sellers with pushcarts.
7. Tasting Beyond Michelin-Star Dim Sum
It was not the best dim sum I've ever had, but I went really went wild for the glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaves and the steamed cabbage. I had been eating so much rich food lacking in vegetables that when I got to Tim Ho Wan my body was begging for greens. The restaurant has a T.G.I. Friday's-like atmosphere, which is interesting considering its Michelin star! But the average meal costs less than US$20 per person.
8. Digging Into Modern Singapore
Wild Rocket is located on a hilltop in Edith Park, a Zen garden away from the hustle and bustle of cosmopolitan Singapore. Well-traveled former lawyer and chef/owner Willin Low brings the homemade flavors of his childhood into a refined dining room setting. The pomelo salad with tiger prawns and frozen coconut dressing was the best salad I've ever encountered.
9. Getting Molecular with Gastronomy
Singapore is an international city that attracts expats from all over the world. While I marveled at traditional Singaporean cuisine, I also had mind-blowing culinary experiences at contemporary restaurants serving Western fare. Chef Ryan Cliff's Tippling Club pushed my taste buds and senses with ingredients in unexpected shapes and textures and combinations (for example, the margarita-flavored beef tendon looks like a light and airy chip). Sitting at the bar of the open kitchen, I delighted in watching what looked like a science experiment. Splurge on the lunchtime tasting menu like the young, chic Singaporeans do.
10. Feeling International
Recently opened in the historical Chijmes building, Whitegrass showcases modern Australian cuisine with Asian ingredients. Absolutely a destination restaurant in the city. Hello, butter-poached quail.