Finger licking delights of Singapore

March 28, 2021

A homage to the gastronomical delights of Singapore, the world’s top destination for Pan Asian cuisine

Marina Bay Sands (right) is home to some of the best high end restaurants in Asia. All photos by the author.

Jeevan main aik baar aanaa Singapore, croons Lata in the ’60s hit Bollywood song. As I watched Shammi Kapoor frolic amongst the bevy of Asian beauties, I thought what held true in the ’60s holds true even sixty years later.

Singapore is known better for being the economic miracle of Asia in the twentieth century. A region of just above 700 sq km (slightly smaller than the Pacific Island Kingdom of Tonga) was nothing but a Chinese-majority, mosquito-infested backwater of the Malaysian Federation. In 1965, Singapore was kicked out of the federation. This was not the choice of the Singaporeans as their leader Lee Kwong Yew fought hard against this outcome. At the time Singapore’s GDP per capita was barely $500, below that of Jamaica who also gained independence around the same period. The country had no natural resources and seemingly, no competitive advantage in global trade. Pursuing extraordinary leadership principles Lee Kwong Yew focussed on rule of law, investing in human capital, building world-class infrastructure and opening arms to attract global talent. Today, Singapore is a thriving global economic powerhouse with a GDP per capita of over $60,000 (Jamaica, in contrast, stands at $5,500). Its human development statistics are the envy of the world and its effective response to Covid crisis is a testament to how far this sleepy island has come. It thrives as a regional financial centre, a shipping hub, a popular tourist destination and a budding tech one.

I propose to add to these crowning achievements of Singapore and unilaterally declare it the world’s top destination for Pan Asian cuisine. I know I am not alone in this view.

What follows is my homage to the gastronomical delights of Singapore.

The key to this claim lies in the location and demographics of the country. With six million inhabitants, it is one of the most densely populated countries in the world (number two, in fact). The population is remarkably diverse with strong Chinese, Malay, Indian (mainly Tamil) and colonial European influences. The density ensures active cross-pollination of cultures and practices. This adds to the vibrancy of the local culture and, as a result, also in its food. Expatriates and foreign workers make up almost a third of the population. They hail primarily from neighbouring Asian countries. The country is a stone’s throw from both Malaysia and Indonesia, nations known for their fantastic food. Vietnamese, Korean, Cambodian, Thai and various regional Chinese foods are widely available. I found the rapidly growing influence of Japanese food both surprising and a welcome addition.

To me, Asian food is all about colour, spice, aroma and delectable meat. We find this in all its splendour on the leafy streets of Singapore. The best way to understand the food scene in Singapore would be to stratify the offerings in terms of their economic impact, i.e., damage to the pocket.

As far as the haute cuisine goes, the city boasts a dazzling array. In beautiful, leafy and quaint Dempsey Hill we find Candlenut. It is the only Michelin star restaurant with the local Peranakan menu. The orientation is towards spicier and seafood-based fare. This area, which is a conversion of old British Army barracks into beautiful boutiques and restaurants, also hosts great European options, the Greek Blu Kouzina deserves a mention. So does Jim Thompson, a fantastic Thai, named eponymously after the American who mysteriously disappeared.

The National Kitchen, by celebrity chef Violet Oon, is another high-quality variation of Peranakan cuisine. Set in the beautiful National Gallery building the decor harkens to the elegant art deco influenced colonial era.

The dazzling Marina Bay Sands complex hosts fantastic high-end culinary options. The elegant Mott 32 has fantastic Chinese food. Then there are Lavo (Italian) and Koma (modern Japanese fusion) which offer lavish interiors and breath-taking views of the Singapore skyline. Sabai Thai is another fine dining destination in the bay area.

There would be very few cities outside Japan that have more variety of Japanese cuisine as Singapore does. Although in an unusual location, the Fat Cow is a highly rated wagyu beef and Omakase style dining experience.

On a slightly lower budget, the options get more interesting. Food and ambience both vary by the area. Interesting and boutique restaurants offer diverse international meals. Most of these are housed in beautifully restored colonial buildings. It is immense fun to walk the arcades and to try different spots for their specialities.

To me, Asian food is all about colour, spice, aroma and delectable meat. We find this in all its splendour on the leafy streets of Singapore. The best way to understand the food scene in Singapore would be to stratify the offerings in terms of their economic impact, i.e., damage to the pocket.

Telok Ayer Street and Amoy Street are home to Birds of Feather, Sarnies and the fantastic Carne burgers. Carne is a spanking new entrant to the local scene and is the creation of Argentinian burger guru Mauro Colagreco. This was easily one of the best burgers I ever had. And this is a statement I would not make flippantly.

Duxton Hill is another pretty area with restored architecture dotted with trendy bars, cafes, and quality restaurants. Despite Covid, the evenings were buzzing and wait time was required to find seating in popular joints such as Lucha Loco (Mexican) and Latteria (Italian). With open-air seating and beautiful March weather, it is hard to imagine better places to enjoy food in the company of friends.

I will leave a special mention for Qi: House of Sichuan. A sister restaurant to its vaunted Michelin-starred cousin in Hong Kong, it is located in the financial district and I had my spiciest yet most delicious lunch there.

As we go down the budgetary scale a visit to Little India, ChinaTown and Arab Street is worthwhile. The phrase cultural melting pot comes to life here. From Turkish to Indian to frog’s legs, all is there for the taking. Despite the temptation, I could not bring myself to have a crack at the frog’s legs. I will leave it to the Chinese and the French people.

Indian food in Singapore really means South Indian. While popular, it is not really my cup of tea. A hundred-year-old veteran, MTR, deserves a mention. Queue early to try fresh dosas in a basic set up.

Laksa is another must-try local delicacy. It is a (very) spicy noodle soup, often made with seafood. There are Laksa specialists all over town but 328 Katong Laksa is top of the pile.

I have deliberately ignored the uber-touristy Clarke Quay and Boat Quay. It is impossible to imagine that any visitor to Singapore will be able to avoid a visit there. My focus was to discover and, with the help of seasoned local foodies, to go off the beaten tourist trail.

Piece de resistance I have saved for the last is the mention of unique hawker food culture in Singapore. The city is dotted with hawker centres that are in essence large and very casual food courts. These centres have a collection of small stalls that offer one of the best fresh street food you will find in hygienic surroundings. The quality of food and hygiene is closely monitored and each stall is awarded a grade that must be displayed prominently. The variety of food is mind-boggling. From Chinese to Malay Muslim, you can find it all. Some dishes that really stood out were barbecue stingray, chicken rice, carrot cakes and murtabaks. Everything is freshly cooked and at an incredibly cheap price. A person can have a full meal for less than $5, which is unbelievable given that Singapore is an expensive city. The hawker centres are immensely popular with the locals and stay open till very late, even during Covid times. Famous hawker centres are Lau Pa Sat, Newton Road, Arthur Road and Tiong Bahru. Your visit to Singapore is incomplete unless you have satiated yourself at a hawker centre.

It is important to mention that with a sizeable Muslim population, quality halal food is easily available across Singapore. This is especially true of hawker centres.
If you love food and can handle your spices, then your Asian journey would be incomplete without a gastro stop in Singapore.

The writer is a finance professional based in Dubai. He tweets @travelutionary1

Finger licking delights of Singapore