Getting to grips with Singapore's obsession with food

Home to Michelin-starred restaurants and hawker stalls, the island nation is where Asian flavours converge with unique results.Wednesday, 3 April 2019

By Audrey Gillan
Clarke Quay, a hub of nightlife and day trade in Singapore.

“We eat breakfast and talk about what we’re going to have for lunch. And when we have lunch we’re talking about dinner. And by the time dinner has come we’re sorting out the next day’s meal.” As she’s talking, my friend Beverly Chan takes out a packet of tissues and places them on a table outside 88 Hong Kong Roast Meat Specialist — the customary Singaporean way to claim seats — before we join the queue outside the roast meat stall.

Beverly’s voice carries above the sound of wind chimes from the Tibetan temple across the street here in Kallang district. She tells me about Singapore’s obsession with food and how her husband, Lyndsey, thinks nothing of trekking all the way across this small Southeast Asian island city state in search of his favourite flavours.

We return to our table with plates of sio bak (crispy-fried pork belly) and glossy char siew (barbecued pork). The latter makes Lyndsey beam. “This is different from how they do it in Hong Kong,” he says. “Here, they use gula melaka [smoky, caramelised palm sugar] and maltose to sweeten the meat before charring and roasting it. Plus, there’s the chilli sauces — Singaporeans must have chilli. We’re blessed with some of the best food in the world. Our collective cultures are Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian. Because of our location, we’re a real melting pot.”

Located in the Strait of Malacca, the main shipping route between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Singapore has long been a magnet for traders from China, Malaysia, India, Indonesia and Europe. It’s this role as a crossroads of cultures, and thus cooking styles, that make hawker centres (food halls) like this such a joy to explore. The best of them excel at one dish — some accruing stars and Bib Gourmands by the Michelin Guide in acknowledgement of this excellence. As we tuck in, a hawker chef known as Fei Zhai (‘fat boy’) stops to say hello and chat about the food. He’s also travelled 40 minutes just for this char siew. As he walks away with bags filled with his porky bounty, Beverly says, “Good hawkers like that are cash rich. That’s a solid gold watch he’s wearing. They begin early in the morning, around 3am, go to the market and then prep and cook until everything is sold out — sometimes that can be 10am.”

Hokkien prawn noodle dish.

Such is the love of hawker culture (called thus because vendors once sold their wares from street carts before being forced to switch to permanent stalls in food halls, for hygiene reasons) that Singapore’s powers to have nominated it for inclusion on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. With many locals eating most of their meals out, centres act as community dining rooms. And the food is cheap, with dishes rarely costing more than £2. My favourite is the Tiong Bahru market, with stalls downstairs selling fish, meat, vegetables and fruit and a hawker centre upstairs. The added bonus here is that it’s located in a leafy neighbourhood lined with fabulous early 20th-century architecture.

Next, Lyndsey takes me to an out-of-the-way hawker stall, Rahim Muslim Food, set amid a cluster of public housing in the Ang Mo Kio district. We’re here for mee rebus, a gloopy dish of blanched egg noodles in a sauce made from chicken stock, galangal, lemongrass, sweet potatoes, tapioca, curry powder and sugar, topped with a hardboiled egg, spring onion, coriander, fresh green chilli and satay sauce. “It’s spicy, sweet and savoury. Everything about Singapore culture in one dish,” he says. “People will queue for more than an hour for this dish.” 

A stroll through Little India offers an insight into how one dish can speak cultural volumes. Here, where mosques and Hindu and Buddhist temples flank the streets, fish-head curry is a perfect example of how cooking adapts through generations, cultures and appetites. Created in 1949 by an Indian chef (who used fish heads because they were cheap), it employs Indian spices and fresh pineapple for sweetness, it was an instant hit with the local Chinese. 

We later head to the Katong neighbourhood, to call in at ENG’s Char Siew Wantan Mee for its wonton mee — handmade egg noodles tossed in hot pig fat, then placed in a bowl filled with pork stock, soy sauce, Chinese kale, and slices of char siew, boiled pork wontons, pickled green chili and crispy pork fat, served with a broth made from pork and dried scallops. “I’ve ordered an extra portion of deep-fried wontons,” says Lyndsey with glee.

But we need to save room; the area is also home to the famous Katong laksa, a broth made from coconut milk, chilli, dried shrimps and herbs, topped with prawns and noodles. Historic Peranakan shop houses line Katong’s streets, painted in bright colours and decorated with tiles — often featuring art deco-style flowers and motifs — imported by rich merchants. Meaning ‘locally born’ in Malay, Peranakan or Straits Chinese, are of mixed Chinese and Malay/Indonesian heritage; their culture continues to spawn some of Singapore’s most distinctive decor, clothing and, of course, food. 

Hawker stall, Tiong Bahru Market.

At Michelin-starred restaurant Candlenut, I chat to self-taught Peranakan chef Malcolm Lee, who uses recipes he learned from his grandmother for inspiration. “My ah ma just cooked what was available that day and everything was delicious, and so I do the same, changing the menu depending on what’s available at the market,” he says. 

“The idea is to combine local ingredients with Peranakan culture, but do it differently. So, we’d use lamb neck for our satay — which is soft and juicy — rather than, say, fillet, leg or breast. Everything I cook is connected to a story. The combination might not be so traditional, but there’s a story behind it.”

Candlenut’s signature ‘ah-ma-kase’ dinner menu is a refined journey through family, history, culture and local produce. The curry of char siew pork is served on a potato cake with buah keluak, the seed of the kepayang tree — poisonous unless cooked properly. “It tastes almost like chocolate,” Lee tells me.

Singapore’s Michelin-starred restaurant scene is complemented by an equally sophisticated drinks scene. The island currently has five cocktail venues on The World’s 50 Best Bars list. Sitting at number three is Manhattan, a glitzy bar with a negroni-ageing room lined with barrels that can be bought for around £1,700. The negroni I have here is the best I’ve ever tasted. At number eight is Atlas, a grand, art deco-inspired palace that houses the world’s largest collection of gins: over 1,000 types. But my favourite, at number 13, is Native: a little bar where local ingredients such as laksa (a herb) and pandan (a tropical plant) leaf and jackfruit seeds are cherished. “We started the back bar with just 12 bottles,” says founder and mixologist Vijay Mudaliar. “We were learning as we go. We have a fermentation and distillation area upstairs and we’re always developing flavours.”

Native is not alone; Singapore is home to dozens of microbreweries and bars selling craft beers. But for me, it’s hard to beat a Tiger beer — born here back in 1932, it’s up there with the Singapore sling as on of this tiny country’s most far-reaching cultural exports. On my final afternoon — hot and humid — I sit with Lyndsey and Beverly outside a coffee shop in the art deco neighbourhood of Tiong Bahru. The owner brings over a small bucket of ice and urges us to add some to our glasses to “beat the heat” and “enhance the flavour of the beer”. It’s hardly a celebrated craft beer technique, but it is a wonderful last taste of Singapore.

The interior of Atlas bar.

Five Singapore food finds

Singapore chilli crab: Stir-fried crab covered with a sweet-savoury, spicy, tomato-based sauce, often served with steamed or deep-fried mantous (buns).  

Nonya Kueh: These soft, wobbly cakes derive from Peranakan cuisine and are made from eggs, glutinous rice flour, sago, coconut, beans, syrup and pandan leaves.

Hainanese chicken rice: Soft, fluffy rice cooked with chicken stock, garlic, shallots and pandan leaves, accompanied by poached chicken, topped with a soy and sesame oil sauce and served with fiery chilli sauce and fresh, minced ginger. 

Laksa: A spicy, coconut milk-based noodle soup; Singapore’s most famous version is Katong laksa, made with dried shrimp and frequently topped with cockles, prawns and a fishcake.

Popiah: Spring rolls stuffed with shredded lettuce, bean sprouts, braised, julienned turnip, garlic, and Chinese sausage, plus lashings of chilli sauce and sweet bean sauce.

Chilli crab.

A taste of Singapore

Candlenut

Named after a relative of the macadamia, Candlenut showcases refined Peranakan food. The ‘ah-ma-kase’ dinner and lunch menus include such delicacies as blue swimmer crab curried with turmeric, galangal and lime leaf; and snow fungus and osmanthus (a flowering plant) soup, shaved young coconut ice with sago pearls and barley. Set lunch £49 and dinner £71 per person. 

Wok ’n’ Stroll

Embark on a guided exploration of hawker food with Singapore food tour company Wok ’n’ Stroll. Fuel up with a breakfast of kopi (coffee with condensed milk) and chwee kueh (steamed rice cakes topped with preserved turnip and served with sambal chilli sauce). Then head to a local wet market that’s home to Bib Gourmand-awarded stall Tiong Bahru Yi Sheng Fried Hokkien Mee to sample its hokkien mee (a fried noodle dish). The two-three-hour Hawker Discovery tour, including all food and drink, costs around S$100 (£56) per person, guided by Karni Toner, an Israeli cook transplanted to Singapore.

Keng Eng Kee Seafood 

This family-run restaurant specialises in the cuisine of Hainan, a Chinese island province. Dishes include black pepper crab, coffee pork ribs, ginger and onion deer meat, and claypot beancurd sea cucumber. Noisy and fun, chef Wayne Liew has created a hawker centre ambience with table service. From £15 per person for a starter and main course with rice or noodles.

Buah Keluak Ice Cream at Candlenut.

Wexas Travel offers a five-night stay in Singapore from £1,200 per person, based on two sharing. This includes breakfast, private transfers and return flights to Singapore with Qantas from Heathrow.  visitsingapore.com

 

Published in the May 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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