The Republic of Singapore is a city, a country and an island off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. Because it’s only 85 miles north of equator, it’s almost always hot- sometimes wet and hot, but definitely hot.
Modern Singapore has experienced an extraordinary transformation from its original founding as a trading post of the East India Company by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. Occupied first by the British, then the Japanese in WWII, back to the British after the war, it became internally governing in 1959. In 1963 it united with two other British territories to form Malaysia, then separated in 1965 to become a fully independent state. In the almost five decades since, Singapore has emerged as one of the world’s richest countries. It is the fourth-leading financial hub, the second largest gambling market, and the third largest oil-refining center.
Its five million inhabitants are among the most literate people in the world. Most are of Chinese, Malay, or Indian descent. English is readily spoken although Chinese, Malay and Tamil are also considered official languages. And while this small country is filled with amazing skyscrapers and high-rise condos, almost half of the land is covered by greenery – lovely parks and botanical gardens. Because it’s so expensive to have a car there ($60,000 just for a ten year permit to own a car!!), there is a fantastic public metro system, so getting around town is not only easy, but also inexpensive.
We had traveled to Singapore thirty years ago and though the country appeared modern then relative to China and even Hong Kong, the change today is remarkable.
What hadn’t changed for us was our memory of the incredible food.
If you’ve heard that food is a national obsession in Singapore, it’s absolutely true. We saw few overweight Singaporeans (at least compared to the US. Yet, it seemed as though everyone there is constantly eating – or if not eating, talking about where or what they’re going to be eating.
Singapore’s tourism board promotes the cuisine as a major attraction alongside shopping and the hype is well deserved. No matter where we ate – at a hawker stall, a mall food court, an outdoor family-style restaurant, or a fancy bistro, the food was outstanding.
Like the population itself, the food in Singapore is a product of diverse cultures living in close proximity – Malay, Chinese, Indonesian, Indian, Peranakan (descendants of late 15th and 16th-century Chinese immigrants to the Indonesian archipelago during the Colonial era), Middle Eastern, Thai and even Western (especially English and Portuguese).
Thanks to Anthony Boudain whose TV show “Layover in Singapore” aired just before we left for our trip, we landed in the city with a long list of his food recommendations and the determination to try as many as possible. Luckily, Deb’s brother, who now lives and works in Singapore, was just as enthusiastic as Boudain and did everything he could to make sure we achieved our goal.
Much of the best (and least expensive) food can be found in the many hawker centers. Sometime in the 1990’s the government cracked down on street food, regulating the quality and moving everyone indoors, under air-conditioned food courts. Here are just some of the highlights of our two day eating fest with some photos above:
Day 1: Little India
– Kaya toast-thin slices of warm toast slathered with butter and kaya, a sweet coconut custard jam. Locals often have this for breakfast along with two soft-boiled eggs with soy sauce and pepper and a cup of coffee
-Milk sweets or Mithai (I found pistachio to be the best)- a type of colorful confectionery that made with sugar, milk, flour and condensed milk, and cooked by frying. In the Eastern part of India, milk is a staple, and most sweets from this region are based on milk products.
-Lunch at Anjappar, a Cettinand restaurant (NOTE: food from region 500 km south of Chennai, capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu)
–Byriani chicken- Byriani is a one-dish, highly seasoned rice based meal consisting of layering cooked basmati rice and meat in a casserole baked in an oven
–Naan (with garlic and butter)-flat bread cooked in tandoor oven
–Papadum ( a crisp, delicious Indian flatbread / cracker / wafer)
We missed the Pongal festival celebrated for four days in January. In South India, especially in Tamil Nadu, The Indian version of Thanksgiving, Pongal signals the end of the traditional farming season. Entire villages gather for a community feast to share their crops, and to thank the Sun God, the Earth and the cattle for a bountiful harvest. In fact, Pongal comes from the word ‘ponga’, which means boil or boil over. In a non-farming country like Singapore, Pongal marks the start of the auspicious month of Thai, a time where Tamil Indians give thanks for the blessings of the past year. The term Pongal also refers to the sweetened rice porridge that is normally cooked on Pongal day. This Pongal rice has an important meaning to the Indian community. If it boils well, the family can look forward to happiness and blessings, and a good year ahead.
That evening at the huge outdoor Jumbo Seafood Restaurant, we ate:
– Chlil crab-hard shell crabs cooked in a thick tomato and chilli-based gravy.
Day 2: we visited Wisma Atria,. Located at the heart of Orchard Road, it is one of the city’s most popular shopping strips. Besides the 100 different specialty shops, the Food Republic offers wide variety of cuisine at more than 25 stalls.
Here we tried what is often called Singapore’s national dish: chicken rice. It sounds rather pedestrian, but it is incredibly delicious. The chicken is steamed or boiled and served atop fragrant oily rice, with sliced cucumber as the token vegetable. I am told that variants include roasted chicken or soy sauce chicken. Depending on one’s taste, the flavor can be enhanced by dipping the chicken into various sauces such as premium dark soy sauce, chili with garlic, and pounded ginger
We also tried the wonton which in Cantonese, means “swallowing of cloud”. Apparently most Singaporeans prefer the dry version of the thin egg noodles, although we ate them in a chicken soup.
Despite being stuffed, my brother insisted we eat some roti prata. This dish comes from Northern India and is prepared by flipping the dough into a large thin layer before folding the outside edges inwards. The dough is then heated on a hot plate. Flavorings or toppings, if ordered, can be added either before or after it is flipped, depending on the flavorings or the desired outcome. The ’tissue’ and ‘paper’ variants are pan-fried with butter, rolled into a cone shape and sprinkled with sugar. We had egg and cheese and onion prata- outstanding!
At the top of the spectacular Marina Bay Sands casino building we watched the day end – had drinks, appetizers and an amazing view of the city and the huge infinity swimming pool
In the downstairs luxury dining atrium, we had dinner at Chef Daniel Boulud’s elegant DB Bistro where I especially enjoyed the squash and pomegranate soup
After 2 days of non-stop eating, we headed for Thailand, our next stop on our SE Asia tour. Our appetites sated, we left with a renewed appreciation for the amazing cuisine in Singapore – still wondering how so many stay thin!