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In Singapore, It’s not unheard of to grab five or six small meals a day, not to mention the occasional irresistible snack. And since this island city-state at the Southern tip of the Malaysian archipelago is a sizzling wok of diverse cultures - from Malay, Indonesian and Chinese, to Indian, Arabic and European - there’s a staggering variety of cuisines on offer.
That Singapore has restaurants to make the world of fine dining to sit up and take notice is no surprise. On February 25, it plays host to the inaugural Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards at the Marina Bay Sands resort. But the essence of Singapore’s love affair with food can be found on every street corner, in cosy family restaurants and covered hawker centres, vibrant market places and buzzing ethnic neighbourhoods. Join us on a tasting tour of one of the world’s most exciting food destinations.
Street food has long been the dominant feature of Singapore’s food scene. Where once there were roadside stalls and hand-pushed carts all over the city, today they congregate in covered hawker centres. These no-frills cathedrals of street food can be crowded, hot, steamy and chaotic, but they’re clean, cheap and perfectly capture the spirit of dining Singaporean style.
Perhaps the most evocative of all is Lau Pa Sat (18 Raffles Quay, +65 1800 226 6121) - a Victorian construction under an ornate clock tower dating back to the nineteenth century - where the satay and BBQ stingray come highly recommended.
If you’re a fan of Chinese food, head for the Chinatown Complex (Smith Street) for chicken rice for S$2, or Maxwell Food Centre (1 Kadayanallur Street) for hundreds of Cantonese stalls. Pull up a plastic stool and start eating.
They might be deluged with puddles of water, but Singapore’s wet markets are well worth a trawl. Not only will you see a dizzying spread of fresh produce, from rambutan and mangosteen, to monstrous geoduck clams and live frogs, but they are cheaper than supermarkets and ideal for grabbing a few pieces of fresh fruit (beware the notorious Durian fruit: it tastes great but smells so bad it’s banned on public transport and in most hotels).
The wet market at the Chinatown Complex is crammed with exotic ingredients, and Little India’s Tekka Centre wet market on Serangoon Road is a great place to try the extra-spicy Indian version of bee hoon (fried vermicelli noodles).
Malaysians say they invented it. But Singaporeans swear that the famous chilli crab was created by their very own Madam Cher Yam Tian back in 1950. The riotously messy dish of mud crab smothered in fiery-sweet tomato-chilli sauce has become a mainstay of the Singaporean menu, and can be found in restaurants all over town.
The East Coast Seafood Centre (1206 East Coast Parkway, Tel. +65 6442 3435) has a number of crab outlets across three blocks, including Jumbo Seafood (www.jumboseafood.com.sg, Tel. +65 6442 3435); while No Signboard Seafood (Geylang Road, Tel. +65 6842 3415) is a popular choice in the colourful Geylang red light district.
From high tea to Chinese tea
Singapore’s colonial past can be glimpsed through its relationship with tea. Since the days of British rule, high tea has been permanently etched upon the city’s culinary psyche. Society folk liked nothing more than a piping hot cup of tea (with milk and sugar, naturally), with sandwiches and scones with jam, and many of Singapore’s top hotels have continued the tradition.
The most famous is Raffles Hotel (1 Beach Road, Tel. +65 6337 1886), where the Tiffin Room offers all the trappings of high tea with the added bonus of a curry buffet. But it isn’t just the British who enjoy a cuppa - tea also plays a huge part in Chinese culture.
Whether it’s green tea, black tea or oolong, you can appreciate the Chinese ritual of tea drinking at Tea Chapter (9-11 Neill Road, Tel. +65 6226 1175), or Yixing Xuan Teahouse (30 Tanjong Pagar Rd, Tel. +65 6224 6961).
Little India, big flavours
Leave your Indian-food preconceptions at the door of Banana Leaf Apollo (56-58 Racecourse Road, Tel. +65 6293 8682) one of Little India’s best-known independent restaurants.
The south Indian fish head curry is tastier than it sounds, it’s served on a fresh green banana leaf and you’re welcome to dig in with your right hand. The charming yet basic family-run joint is one of many Indian, Nepalese and Sri Lankan restaurants in a lively neighbourhood strewn with bustling markets and ornate temples.