10 Things To Do In Singapore

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.




Comments

  1. Matt says

    Bao, I absolutely cannot wait to come back! Singapore is at the top of my list of places to eat…would you believe I wake up DREAMING of the food there? I am not kidding! What’s this: bbq sambal stingray? Seriously? How did I miss that? And as far as durian, it’s taken me quite some time to appreciate it but now I love it. I had a little bit in Singapore but I want to try all the different varieties now. Better book my plane ticket!

  2. bao says

    matt, bbq sambal stingray is essentially stingray wings slathered with sambal (chilli based sauce), wrapped in banana leaf and bbq-ed over a charcoal fire. it sometimes comes with 2 dipping sauces – more sambal chilli with a squeeze of lime, and a sweet and sour cincalok (fermented little shrimp) sauce. so in essence it’s a sweet, sour, spicy and salty explosion in one mouthful :) gd hawker stalls shd time it well so the flesh is still tender and moist. everyone i know always end up picking the little remnant bits of flesh in between the cartilage (it doesn’t have bones) because the dish always feels so moreish :)

    anyway you probably missed it because there’s just so much to try from across the different cultures! 4 days is definitely not enough. and you already did cover a lot!! did u manage to lay your hands on a copy of the “there’s no carrot on carrot cake” book while you were here? it’s a picture guide of 101 top hawker dishes with a write-up on each dish! tt cld be useful in planning ur next trip itinerary :)

    and as for durian, you have to try the mao shan wang (literal translation is cat mountain king) as that’s the most premium variety. really bittersweet, fragrant, with a complex flavour you can’t really describe…once you go mao shan wang, you will never look back. alternatively you cld also go for mao shan wang icecream (from this local ice cream shop – udders) which is the next best thing and not as hard to appreciate, although the purists wld still prefer the real thing :)

  3. says

    Matt

    Delighted to read that you had a fun gastronomic visit in my completely food-bonkers hometown. Aun and KF Seetoh have done us proud as Singapore food ambassadors yet again I see.

    As exclaimed by many comments here, there’s so much more we Singaporeans would love to show and FEED you! Come back soon — I’ll throw my list of favourite Singapore eats into the ring as well to tempt you http://bit.ly/aPLLf3

    Highlights:
    – Damian D Silva’s prawns and balembeng, grown from his mother’s tree
    – Now that you’ve tried chili crab, you need to try black pepper crab, white pepper crab and salted egg crab
    – Late night roti prata and murtabak
    – Roast meats at Tiong Bahru market
    – Late night beef kway teow, frog congee, dough fritters and soya milk in Geylang

    Love the photos

    Wen

  4. gah!!!! says

    THE BEST (STREET FOOD) FOOD YO!
    No doubt about that!!!!

    And your photos make my country GORGEOUS, the food DELICIOUS, and the people INCREDIBLE.

    Thank you!

  5. Matt says

    That’s because the food, the people, and your entire country are INCREDIBLE!!!!! I cannot wait to get back there!

  6. anna says

    Hi Matt,

    I’m delighted to hear that you had a great time in Singapore! There is so much more to experience, see and do, do come back for another visit!

    Here are some Must-Tries for the next time you set foot on our sunny shores:
    – Char Kuay Teow (a dish of stir fried flat rice noodles, imbued with the smoky aroma of hot flames and sweet dark soy sauce)
    – Chicken Rice
    – Salted egg crab and Crab Bee Hoon (intensely flavourful crab broth served in a claypot, usually with accompanying noodles)
    – You tiao (fried savory chinese pastry)
    – Nasi lemak

    and so much more!

    Cheers!

  7. Corey says

    I enjoyed this post about Singapore and also wanted to point out that I actually like the design and feel of your site. I am applying wordpress as well on my blog but have been looking for a template like this which is much greater than what I’ve. I see the theme is listed about the footer so I will take a greater look at it.

  8. says

    hey i’m from singapore! haha. and wow have you painted the country ever so nicely. i never thought of it that way…whoops.

    oh by the way, it’s “congee”, not conjee. correct me if im wrong.

  9. melz says

    As most of the Singaporean street hawker food/dishes originate and brought over from Malaysia, I would recommend visiting Malaysia as well, particularly Penang Island for the best street hawker food!

  10. Norzela says

    Matt, the foods you mentioned were mostly Chinese. Next time you go, do not miss satay, prata, murtabak, rendang, sambal goreng, the various fried rice, mee siam, mee rebus, mee soto, roti jala, roti boyan, masala dosa, various rojak, nasi ambeng, nasi lemak, nasi briani, otak otak, pisang goreng, cempedak goreng, sweet potato goreng, all the kuihs, chendol, air bandung. Yum!!! Makes me want to fly back home. PS Love yr blog Matt.

  11. Matt says

    You know what? I MUST GO BACK to try those things! And I guess you could tell my guide was Chinese, no? :)

  12. says

    Can you believe I’m right next door (Malaysia) and haven’t been over to experience the amazing food Singapore has to offer? Shame on me. Thanks for this guide, will definitely have to check out the places. Oh and regarding the cookbooks. I’m a total sucker for it too ;) Great post Matt! Check out my blog when you have the time :) xo

  13. says

    Can you believe I’m right next door (Malaysia) and haven’t been over to experience the amazing food Singapore has to offer? Shame on me. Thanks for this guide, will definitely have to check out the places. Oh and regarding the cookbooks. I’m a total sucker for it too Great post Matt! Check out my blog when you have the time xo

  14. Raymond says

    Hi Matt! I happen to chance upon your website. :)

    Anyway, i totally have to agree with your post, but you definitely left out 1 dish that will enrage the mind of Singaporeans. Char Kway Teow is something which you would not want to miss having [sorry, but it's not halal! :( ]

    Oh, speaking of which, there are 4 official lanaguages in Singapore (English, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil). English is the considered the main language due to its use in everyday matters, while Malay is the national language. It shows in our national anthem, which is in Malay! :)

  15. Oink says

    To everyone who gets to read this, DO drop by Jurong Fishery Port if you can! That’s where you’ll find the freshest ingredient you can get here at pretty good price too!

    I’m proud to be a Singaporean and reading this post just made me feel even more thankful to be born in such a yummy island. I’m glad to share this island with everyone out there. Though we might not be the best country in the world, but to me, safe place with good food… Singapore is the best place for me.

  16. Chuck B. says

    The food experience you had in Singapore is pretty much what you could expect for most of Southeast Asia. The freshness, the flavors, the color contrast. The food there makes North American cuisine look kinda boring…after having a dish like Singapore Chili Fried Crab, it’s almost impossible to go back to plain old steamed crab with drawn butter.

  17. Jill says

    loved your suggestions! and the New majestic hotel is definitely an amazing place to stay in. Naumi hotel is fantastic too, if you can afford to pay a little more :)

    if you love good food and would like to see more of Singapore from yesteryears, drop by the Singapore Food Trail! http://www.singaporefoodtrail.com.sg/
    A charming food street, set in the 60s. Not only is the ambience amazing, it also hosts hawkers who have been in business for years. (some have their third generation of grandsons running the business!) Some have even called Singapore Food Trail the place that hosts the crème de la crème of hawker food” After that, you can take the Singapore Flyer, located within the vicinity.
    A definite must visit!

  18. eline says

    You make me HOME SICK! =) You have done a great job of summing up singapore food, and with so much enthusiasm. I have friends here in california who ask me what singapore food is like and that, always stumps me. I don’t know how to describe it. its one of those things u have to experience for yourself. The next time someone asks me about singapore food, i will refer them to your site. and yes i agree that u do have to go back to sg again.. sounds like there are some really good stuff u missed… satay, nasi lemak, briyani, oyster omelette … mmm…

  19. deepti ahuja says

    Wonderful write up! I am planning to visit Singapore soon! I absolutely cannot wait ! Singapore has always been at the top of my list of places to eat. I am sure this trip will be great!

  20. Ping says

    Hi Matt,
    Whenever I can find a snippet of time, I hop over to your blog for the gorgeous pictures and witty writings and I’m glad I found this post, albeit a little late… :) Thank you for such a lovely post on Singapore!!! I am a (sometimes) homesick Singaporean studying in Italy. I absolutely MISS Singapore food even though I am in one of the countries famed for its cuisine…
    I am part of a foodie community in Singapore and perhaps next time you drop by Singapore again, if you like, you could meet up with them or join some of the ‘makan’ (eating in Malay) sessions they organise regularly. The forum is available on this blog which is all about Singapore’s hawker food (and sometimes restaurants, written by a foodie friend of mine): http://ieatishootipost.sg/

  21. Reg says

    Some really good ideas here, thanks! I’m going to Singapore again next month so looking for new and interesting places to see instead of going to the same old places. The cooking class looks the most interesting to me as I love Asian food but its all booked up :( I much prefer these quirky ideas rather than the lonely planet guides. I ended up getting a refund for the book as it was mostly just outdated stats! I’m also using this page: http://www.terminalu.com/travel/singapore-city-guide/ and wikitravel, which has a few other good ideas. I found Moon hotel through the first link, which is where I’ll be staying and looks to be another funky hotel like New Majestic!

  22. says

    I stay in london now, but I grew up in Singapore, and do a singaporean supperclub in london now, great to have found your blog! I can’t believe you missed sambal stingray! That said, get yourself some really good sambal, or make it if you’re hardcore, slather it on some skate wings, wrap in banana leaves and throw on top of the grill. You need to experience it.

    also, have you tried nonya kuehs? the wonderful arrays of colourful, spongy/custardy coconuty petit fours. NOM.

  23. says

    I have been living in Singapore for 3 years already. Now I am really strugling to find some new thing to do. I have seen all the places in SG and the surroundings. It is cool place to live, but the problem is that you get bored after 1 year of living there. That’s why I have initiated weekend trip every week. In this reagion of the World there is reallt many many things to explorer. Even I just discovered a weekend boat party that offers weekend trip to the amazing beaches of Cebu, Philippines. They offer ticket from Singapore to Cebu and party all the weekend on the boat and in the best clubs in Cebu as well. The accommodation is in the 5 stars resorts near the beach. The other activities include sailing, swimming, sunbathing, snorkeling. And the most important many many WHITE SAND beaches. It sounds like a perfect weekend getaway. I will write later my feedback.
    I hope that I was helpful

  24. RJ says

    There’s so much more to do in Singapore other than just the shopping and eating. In fact, just eating everyday is pretty boring. You should try out all the rides, and visit all the secret scenic sites that only some locals know of too (like Sunset way, Yishun dam at night, the toy museum etc)
    I’m trying to collate all the other quirky things to do so that others can see the other side of Singapore beyond the food and shops.

  25. Matt says

    RJ, considering this is a food blog, well, eating every day and visiting a unique location through its food is hardly ever boring. Ever.

  26. Tom says

    Thanks for sharing but I’m confused – you set up #8 and #9 like they are meels worthy of a king and don’t let us know where to go to try them…….? Am i missing something?

  27. Matt says

    They are indeed dishes worthy of a king and so completely Singaporean. In their case it’s not about restaurants but the dish itself. I hope this encourages exploration!

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