A few months ago I had the pleasure of taking a very quick trip to Singapore. I tried to be punctual in posting but if you’ve been there you’ll understand this: it is a country obsessed with food, layered in such rich cultural dimensions that summing up what they do is quite a challenge. My head is still swirling from the flavors and concept of Singaporean cuisine and when people ask me what my favorite thing was I stop dead in my tracks. It’s quite hard to convey the magnitude of its food. Better to just jump into this mindblowing experience where food and flavors are king. I’ll try to do my best.
I arrived in the middle of the night–3am to be exact. I’m quite good on planes, taking advantage of the down time to rest but what I wasn’t prepared for was the heat. Now I’m a Texas boy from Galveston Island, humidity and heat never phase me. But when you don’t prepare for Mother Nature’s hot wet tongue lapping at the back of your neck in a way only Asia can do it throws you for a loop.
Singapore, nestled at the base of the Malay Peninsula, is a modern country-state located about 85 miles north of the Equator. With Malaysia and Indonesia as neighbors, Singapore has a population of nearly 5 million and is the only Asian country with English as its official language. Those are the easy facts for me to tell you. Next is what makes Singapore so unique: the people. Multicultural and composed of Chinese, Malay, Indian and a variety of everyone else, it’s the makeup that is reflected on the streets and on every plate. It’s incredible.
The cosmopolitan, traditional and first class converge in Singapore, and one only needs to spend a few days hopping around this country to realize this. Glistening skyscrapers dot the sky while swanky stores nestle tree-lined streets, all pristinely maintained and clean, clean, clean. But I didn’t come here to shop. I came here to eat. And I hope you’ll believe me when I say I’ve never eaten so well or consumed so much in 4 days as I did in Singapore. Here are my Ten Things To Do In Singapore.
10. Have Breakfast with KF Seetoh
Singapore’s culinary expert and author KF Seetoh joined me for breakfast where we discussed all things Singapore and this is where I got my crash course on Hawker stands. More on this in a bit. KF is the go-to man when it comes to food in this country. As a former photographer and writer, he’s mapped out food and hawker dining like no one else. He’s been a guide to almost every chef who has visited Singapore and I pinched myself when I found out he’d be joining me for breakfast. Ok, so I realize I was in a very special situation thanks to the Tourism Board and not everyone can have breakfast with him. But you know what’s the next best thing? His Makansutra Singapore guidebooks. Armed with a healthy appetite and one of these books and you’re good to go. But not before finishing that breakfast…
9. Have A Soft Boiled Egg And Kaya Toast For Breakfast Which Will Blow Any Other Breakfast Away Except For Maybe #8
Mr. Seetoh, with his wildly animated persona, insisted that I must try a plain soft boiled egg. Barely cooked, set aside and then dunked in hot water when ordered to finish the cooking process, the egg is cracked into a small saucer and sprinkled with soy sauce and white pepper. What happens next can’t be described: you slurp the silky egg as warm unctuous flavors melt into your mouth and down your throat, the salty and peppery notes highlight what has to be one of life’s most delicious moments. And in an instant it’s gone. This is the dish that KF tells me caused Chef Rick Bayless to freak out over, asking why eggs weren’t eaten this way back in the United States. I was left asking myself the same question. I didn’t want to stop, I had a few until I was warned to save room for the Kaya Toast.
Kaya, a pale-greenish jam of coconut, egg, sugar, and pandan leaf, is a sweet spread that’s layered on top of toast. It is simultaneously familiar and exotic, an ingredient that ought to be on top of the breakfast list no matter where you live. As if my morning couldn’t get any better, KF ordered fried bread that was dunked in egg and topped with copious slices of butter and Kaya. A turbo-charged French toast, served with plenty of Kaya to eat alongside. Quite possibly the most perfect thing I’ve ever tasted.
8. Eat Congee
Conjee, a porridge of rice that’s gone beyond cooked, topped with a variety of shreds of pork, fish, peanuts, green onions and a century egg became my morning ritual (can you have a ritual in only 4 days I wonder?—matt) Amazingly simple in its complexity — or would that be complex in its simplicity? I don’t know. I do know that I would eat this every morning if I had my druthers. Satisfying and to the point. I’ve found good places for Conjee in Los Angeles but it’s not quite the same experience as being in Singapore. Now I can’t wait to return to other parts of Asia and experience conjee all over again.
7. Visit 25 Degrees Celsius Café and Bookstore
While many stop by this gorgeous small café for a bite to eat and coffee or tea I must admit it was the front of the house that did me in. Cookbooks. Gorgeous cookbooks from floor to ceiling. And I’m a sucker for cookbooks. Did I mention cookbooks? I have mad respect for cookbook bookstores, there just aren’t enough out there in this world. 25 Degrees Celcius, 25 Keong Saik Road, +65.6327.8389.
6. Stay at New Majestic Hotel When You Need A Dose Of Chic, Hip and Style
When you are a frequent traveler you experience a wide variety of accommodations. In my travels I try to select the smaller places instead of giant behemoths – they’re easier to navigate, much easier to connect with people and get insider information about the city. However, sometimes the smaller places can lack amenities or features. New Majestic Hotel gets everything right. Located in Singapore’s historic Chinatown, this 30-room hotel features artwork from local artists in each room, but you may just end up spending quite a bit of your time in the lobby that opens up onto the street. Or in New Majestic’s restaurant, headed by Chef Yong Bing Ngen, which features modern Cantonese cuisine in a gorgeous room of various green hues. I think I was equally enamored of the restaurant’s space as I was with the pool, which just happens to be on top of the restaurant. The pool came in quite handy as one of the few ways to cool off and escape the insane humidity between excursions. And for those athletic types, there is a small gym and yes, I did manage to get my running in every morning. How else was I going to keep up my jam-packed eating schedule? 31 Bukit Pasoh Road, 6511 4700
5. Eat Quintessential Singaporean Dishes Several Times
I considered including this twice on the list as I can’t stress this enough. And if you live in a place like I do where it’s next to impossible to get these items then you’ll know why this is important. First, you can’t visit Singapore without having Chili Crab, a dish that consists of crabs in a piquant chili sauce that’s not extremely hot but tangy and sweet. Unfortunately I have no photos to share because I left my camera in my hotel room but I think it worked out for the better: Chili Crab is a deliciously messy affair that must be eaten with fingers.
Next up is Carrot Cake. No, this isn’t your cream cheese topped slice of cake but a dish made of fried daikon cake with preserved radish, eggs, onion and sometimes a dark chili sauce. Unctuous, savory and unique, I’m not sure I’ll ever find something like this in my neck of the woods. You simply must try it.
And do not think of leaving Singapore without a Laksa or two. This coconut-based curry soup is about as perfect as you can get. While there are several varieties and regional differences, the version I had was rich and sweet with thick tender rice noodles. My first slurp of laksa made me realize that heaven can indeed be found inside a bowl.
4. Visit The Markets
You’ll most likely eat more food in Singapore than you’ve enjoyed anywhere else and will find yourself in need of a walk. I highly suggest visiting the markets like Tekka Market and Smith Street Market to absorb the sights and sounds of these bustling shops. Herbs, fruits and vegetables, fish, eels, frogs, curries, fresh coconut, durian, candlenuts, palm sugar, I could go on and on. And if by chance you do get hungry walking the aisles there’s always food right around the corner. This is Singapore, after all.
3. Take A Cooking Class With Ruqxana At Cookery Magic
Iif you’re looking for cooking lessons featuring authentic Asian recipes in a real Singaporean home them you must enroll in a class at Cookery Magic. This was a highlight of my trip, and watching Ruqxana spin around the kitchen preparing food and explaining unique local ingredients created memories I’ll always cherish. For a second I closed my eyes and felt like a child again at my grandmother’s house, the smell of food and sounds of cooking around me as she managed a delicious level of chaos around her. And like all real schools I felt like I got something out of this class with Ruqxana: I learned how to toast Belachan and also how to make Perkedel Ayam. I’ll be blogging about this recipe in a few days, you’ll definitely want to stick around for this one. Visit her website Cookery Magic.
2. Spend Time With The New Guard
Ok, so they’re not so new anymore, but this generation of chefs is doing some amazing things with food. I was fortunate enough to spend time with Janice Wong of 2am dessertbar, Malcolm Lee of Candlenut Kitchen and Willin Low of Wild Rocket during my visit, and while they’re all doing something a bit different from each other I was impressed by the passion and dedication these chefs possessed. Not to mention their ages. Chef Wong’s dessert restaurant is sleek, elegant and accessible, with wine and dessert pairings that wowed me. She lives and breathes food and I was actually a little bit in awe of her presence. Chef Malcolm Lee’s Peranakan restaurant is all heart, focusing on family dishes that are served in a modern, airy environment. What I loved about Chef Lee was that he’s only interested in serving the best Paranakan (the cultural combination of Chinese and Malay) dishes of family heritage and nothing else. To him his vision is singular and unique. And Chef Low of Wild Rocket, a former lawyer who found his way into food, sums up everything I love about chefs. It’s instinctual to him, all very much meant to be. His restaurant was the perfect spot for lunch with its modern takes on traditional Singaporean food, his dish of Laksa Pasta left me obsessed.
1. Experience Hawker Stands, As Many As You Can
Street food enthusiasts, take note: there is no place on the planet that does this better than Singapore. Ok, so Saveur says it’s not exactly on the street (years ago the government moved them quasi-indoors for health and safety reasons), but no matter. What you’ll find are indoor and outdoor stalls upon stalls of food vendors scattered throughout Singapore, creating mind-blowing meals that run the gamut of cuisine from Indian to Malay to Singaporean. It’s more than a destination place, Hawker stands are a way of life for many, a place for inexpensive meals eaten throughout the day. And let me tell you: these people love to eat. You can practically stop any person and ask them about food, their favorite selections and where to go; they’ll all share their favorites. For this I will forever love Singapore.
According to KF Seetoh, Hawker Stands came to be as a way to feed the workforce. They provided sustenance at inexpensive prices, eventually leading the way for a society that heads out to eat more than they stays in to cook. And for this “nation of food lovers” as KF calls it, it makes perfect sense. If I had access to this abundance of food I’d probably never cook either.
And if you are planning on tackling the Hawker centers yourself, bring an empty stomach and a copy of Makansutra, KF’s guide to street food and restaurants of Singapore.
Special thanks to the Singapore Tourism Board, the New Majestic Hotel, Aun Koh and Su-Lyn Tan, Wong Wee Tee and the one and only KF Seetoh. Get your butt to Singapore immediately people. It’s unbelievable.