Why Your Taste Buds Want You to Go to Singapore
Singaporeans who tell you that eating is their national pastime -- and pretty much everyone will -- are understating the case. Food is nothing short of a national passion here.
You'd be equally obsessed if you lived in this Southeast Asian nation-state, where the cuisine blends the headiest of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Peranakan flavors.
It's little wonder that the world has taken note, from the international food celebs who’ve long made Singaporean food pilgrimages to the venerated Michelin team, who created the country’s first ever guide last year. The 2017 edition lists no fewer than 216 purveyors of deliciousness, from the vendor who sells a $2 chicken rice dish at a hawker center to the restaurant that serves up elevated Peranakan specialties in Zen-chic surroundings.
And locals love the entire spectrum, as you'll quickly gather from the sheer quantity and variety of food sellers on seemingly every street. Picture a Malay satay stall next to an Indian curry vendor who's noshing on Chinese dim sum he just bought from the guy next door -- all across the street from a seafood restaurant serving up savory chili crab.
So what's a visitor to do? Try everything, of course, as I just attempted to do on my own first local foray.
An ambitious mission? Sure. But it was made easier by the fact that all the menus included English (one of the national languages), so I had at least some sense of what I was getting myself into each time I tried a new food, from geoduck (a supersized mollusk) to laksa (a beloved noodle soup).
Here, my delicious findings. Consider them your Singaporean cheat sheet.
Next-Level Street Food
Over the years, traditional Singaporean street food vendors came to be housed in large clusters called hawker centers. The US equivalent would be those lots where all the best food trucks are parked. And as appealing as such concentrated scrumptiousness may be, equally appealing is the average price tag. For example, my breakfast of peanut pancakes, fresh sugar cane juice and onde-onde (poached rice flour dumplings with coconut) set me back all of $3.
The people watching is amazing too: As I discovered when I visited the Maxwell Food Centre -- home to more than 30 stalls -- locals eat most meals at hawker centers. So peak lunch and dinner hours are beyond lively.
Here's what you need to know: Each hawker specializes in one dish -- often a family recipe passed down over the years -- so no two stalls taste the same.
Fine Dining in One-of-a-Kind Places
Awe-struck by the architecture in Singapore, I made a reservation at Spago by Wolfgang Puck, where well-placed tables overlook the iconic infinity pool on top of the Marina Bay Sands, and the bay and gardens below. The must-have menu item here: big eye tuna tartare cones.
Across the water and 70 floors up sits the Michelin-starred JAAN, where chef Kirk Westaway's seasonal European fare -- try one of his smoked organic eggs if you can -- manages to out-dazzle even the Murano chandelier that runs the full length of the ceiling.
For more traditional foods, I went to the National Kitchen. Nodding to the restaurant's setting in the National Gallery (once the City Hall), the revered chef Violet Oon serves up Peranakan staples, but with a modern twist -- the dry laksa being one of the most delicious examples.
Authentic Dishes in Little India
The only difficult decision in Little India was what curry to order. So I ordered up chana masala, butter chicken, paneer makhani and chicken tikka masala (purely in the name of research, people!). But the fish head curry was the standout. Every restaurant prepares it differently, perhaps by adding coconut milk for increased creaminess or tamarind paste for acidity, but no matter the variation, one feature remains constant: a large red snapper head bobbing in a spicy pool. Word is, the cheeks are the most delectable part.
For the most traditional take, check out Banana Leaf Apolo, where your plate is actually a large banana leaf.
$2 Michelin-Starred Chinatown Meals
Colorful rows of traditional shophouses dating back to the 1840s line the busy streets of Chinatown. Vendors also work the local sidewalks, selling everything from dried chilies to dim sum to fried carrot cake.
And as tempting as all of the above may be, hold out for two particular offerings here, if you don't have a bottomless appetite: the Michelin-rated Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle, and Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle. As I learned the hard way, the queue for each starts long before opening time, but the food is worth the wait -- and the cheapest Michelin meal you’ll ever eat: A plate of chicken rice costs $2 and pork noodles start at $6.
24-Hour Food in Geylang District
The Geylang District is a bustling neighborhood with a booming 24-hour dining scene where small, hawker-style food courts abound. Here, I ate dim sum, satay and nasi lemak (coconut milk-cooked rice) from three different shops -- in one night -- with a few breather walks in between.
Two of my favorites, Kwong Satay and Swee Guan Hokkien Mee, are right next door to each other, so I paired chicken and pork satay (plus its sweet pineapple and peanut dipping sauce) with a steaming plate of shrimp-, egg- and calamari-topped noodles.
For dessert, the choice was clear: Rochor Beancurd House, where the specialties include Chinese dough fritters dipped in sweet soy milk.
Epic Food Festivals
Every July, the Singapore Food Festival takes over the island for two weekends with classes, events and pop-up restaurants. On an average day, you can learn to make chili paste at the culinary school At-Sunrice, buy newspaper-wrapped street food for 50 cents a pop, and find sophisticated fusion fare at a pop-up.
Singapore Restaurant Week takes center stage come spring, when Spago by Wolfgang Puck and Forest by Sam Leong, among other amazing restaurants, put together special three-course lunch and dinner menus.
A newer rite of spring is the Singapore Cocktail Festival, when bartenders and mixologists host incredible cocktail tours, workshops and other libation-based fun.
A Booming Cocktail Scene
As the newly inaugurated Cocktail Festival would suggest, the birthplace of the Singapore Sling is still going strong in the drinks department.
I particularly appreciated the local affinity for gin, and loved the yuzu- and chai-infused varieties at Native, an atmospheric, two-story bar in Chinatown. I also marveled at the world's largest collection of gin at the iconic Parkview Square's art deco Atlas Bar.
Trickier to find, are the speakeasies of Chinatown. Keep an eye out for the square and arrow on a white wall just off Ann Siang Road and Club Street, and you should be able to make your way to popular Operation Dagger for its' signature salty cocktail, The Egg. On weekends, this same street becomes pedestrian-only, further fueling the young bar scene.
How to Visit:
Singapore Airlines offers nonstop flights from San Francisco on the new Airbus A350s, which boast the widest business class seats in existence and a remarkably noise-buffering cabin. There are easy one-stop flights from Los Angeles, New York and Houston, too.
True to their Skytrax designation as one of the world's best cabin staffs for 2017, the flight attendants left me wanting for nothing from the chef-curated wine list, the excellent menu offerings, or anything else. Not that I had much time for interaction, what with the 1,000+ choices for on-demand entertainment at every seat.