If you watched my Singapore vlog and Snapchats, then it may have seemed like I was just eating all of the time. You wouldn’t be far wrong. Even though my general knowledge was lacking, I knew that I was bound to find some decent grub in this part of Asia and I was prepared to eat plenty of it (for research purposes obvs). It also helps that eating out is seen as a national pastime here. With other countries in this part of the world, you tend to have a vague idea of the kinds of dishes you’ll find, but what makes Singapore special is the unique mix of Chinese, Indian and Malay cultures (plus a thriving community of expats from all over). Anything is possible, you’ll find completely baffling names and concepts (carrot cake is not what you think it is) and there’s something to suit every budget. By the end of the week I was trying to fit in as many meals as possible (this can also be done at Changi airport, which has the best food court ever) and plotting a return visit that revolves around stuffing my face. This post is a bit of a starting point really, just in case you’re as clueless as I was and have a bit of an adventurous palette.
Tiong Bahru Food Centre
Firstly, let me introduce the hawker centre concept. The street food setups that you see in other parts of the world don’t exist here, since food hygiene is heavily regulated by the government and nothing can be cooked outside. Instead, you’ll find these open air centres everywhere with people from all walks of life. They’re not the fanciest looking places but when most dishes come in at a few dollars each and stalls have to display their cleanliness ratings clearly, you can be assured that you’re in good hands. I visited Tiong Bahru Food Centre on a Monday just after the lunchtime rush, a few vendors were closed but there were still plenty to choose from. It’s perfectly acceptable to have a few dishes to yourself since portions can be small (I went for Wanton Noodle, Duck Rice and a Malay noodle dish) or you can go even crazier and share with a friend. Perfect if your eyes are bigger than your belly and you just want to try everything. One thing to note, is that they rarely give out tissues when you eat. I learnt this the hard way (there is probably hot sauce ON my bag) so make sure you bring a pack wherever you go and some hand-sanitizer for good measure. You can also use them to reserve an empty table, it makes no sense at first, but you’ll start seeing them everywhere and wish that it worked in every life situation.
Peranakan cuisine is also something you have to try whilst in Singapore. I mentioned the architecture earlier, but the term itself is actually pretty unique and refers to a community of locally born descendants of mixed parentage. In food terms, it’s often a combination of Chinese and Malay recipes with a localised twist due to the ingredients used. Recipes are kept secret and passed down the generations, so restaurants like Blue Ginger do a great job of keeping all of this alive, with cosy décor and plenty of explanations on the menu. There’s so much going on in terms of flavour too, we tried the Beef Rendang, Otak Otak (an Indonesian fish paste wrapped in a banana leaf) and the Udang Masak Assam Gulai (prawns in a tamarind and lemongrass gravy). Every element just works so well together and it’s pretty amazing that the result of all this migration has led to some pretty interesting concoctions that you can’t get elsewhere. Unlimited rice is also a thing here, so remember to pace yourself.
Charlie and I both had Momma Kong’s on our lists after a quick Google search of places you have to visit. Chilli crab is apparently the thing to eat when in Singapore and this is probably the most hipster-friendly setting to do it in (prices are more comparable to London when you veer away from the hawker centres but it’s still a good deal). It’s definitely a messy affair (so don’t wear your best white top like I did), but luckily the staff are pretty attentive, supplying bibs on demand and wet wipes for the inevitable sauce explosion. We shared a set menu which consisted of two large crabs (they were like the gift that keeps on giving), grilled squid, Shanghai greens and a mixture of Mantou (we didn’t know at the time but apparently it’s a steamed bread common in Northern China). Probably not the best idea after this kind of lunch, but it was a great way to try a cross-section of dishes that borrow elements from across Asia. Remember, this was all for research purposes…
Sometimes, you just wake up and fancy dim sum for breakfast. After trying out Din Tai Fung for dinner one evening (it’s a chain that’s been awarded a Michelin Star), I wanted to try and find a decent independent even closer to my hotel and stumbled across Tak Po, because Google. It’s cheap and cheerful (my six dishes came in at around £11) and always busy thanks to the central Chinatown location. If you fancy some dim sum with even more flair, then Tim Ho Wan is another Michelin star-worthy chain, that you’ll actually be able to afford. Singapore’s nice like that.
This is another one of those hawker centres but with a Little India twist. They serve as multi-functional hubs within the community really, you can buy inexpensive sarees, watches and fresh produce in Tekka Centre but the freshly cooked (and inexpensive) Indian food is probably the main attraction. We visited during a busy lunchtime and the amount of choice is a little overwhelming. Sometimes you recognise things by name, but they end up looking and tasting completely different (I’m looking at you Mango Lassi) and it really makes you think about what happens to various cuisines by the time they make it to the UK. The Biryani, for example, was pretty different to anything I’d tried in London complete with an egg on the side but that’s the beauty of it all. It’s best to use these centres as a discovery tool, you can be certain that everything is safe to eat thanks to the ratings system and everyone speaks English, so you can check about any dietary requirements (I spotted plenty of vegetarian stalls).
Since I thought that including ten places in this post may be slight overkill, I’ve decided to split the guide up and I’ll have another one coming in a few weeks. Much of these discoveries came as a result of being a guest of the Singapore Tourist Board, but I’d definitely recommend a quick Google or even Instagram image search to find even more places (Charlie used her trusty guide books and had no complaints). One of the best thing about social media is that people will leave comments with suggestions or you can just search the geotags beforehand to work out any places of interest. Does anyone else have random screenshots of places on their phone? Join the club…