Singapore Eats: Discovering One of the World's Great Food Cities
When the food is set in front of you in Singapore — whether it's a paper plate of rice with fried chicken wings and spicy sambal, a bowl of peppery pork rib soup, a gloriously messy dish of black pepper crab, or an elegant presentation of wild coral cod from Tasmania in sweet and sour chili sauce — the first thing you notice is how good it smells. This is food that's intensely aromatic. The scents of spices, broths, seared meat or seafood — the scents of cooking — rise from the table, seducing you before you take a bite. Then you do take a bite, and the second thing you notice is how gloriously, vividly delicious everything is.
You can eat well all over the world today, but if we want to be honest about it, there are only a handful of truly great food cities, which I'd define as places that have a rich cuisine of their own (or several of them) but also a wide range of international offerings, along with a thriving eating and dining scene that ranges from cheap and informal to pricey and refined. New York City is certainly one. Los Angeles. London. Maybe Paris (though it's been on probation lately). Sydney and/or Melbourne. Hong Kong. And right up there with any of them, I'd strongly maintain on the basis of a recent food-filled visit, is the wealthy, famously neat and tidy Southeast Asian city-state of Singapore.
For a city, Singapore is large; for a country, it's small. It covers about 277 square miles (about the area of Brooklyn and Queens combined), most of which is urbanized. Very little is grown or raised here. The major indigenous food production is in fish farms, of which there are currently 126 (117 of them are saltwater, on the coast; the rest are freshwater). A huge range of species is farmed — milk fish, grey mullet, mussels, barramundi ("Asian sea bass"), pompano (golden pomfret), red snapper, golden snapper, trevally, grouper, sea bass, shrimp, mangrove crabs… and in freshwater, tilapia, catfish, carp, and more. Much of this is sold frozen for export, and Singapore's fish markets generally stock a combination of locally farmed fish and imported wild seafood from Australia and other parts of Asia. There is a limited production of chickens and rabbits, and there are a handful of farms, some hydroponic, some on rooftops (Panasonic grows vegetables and herbs in indoor vertical gardens for a local Japanese restaurant at their Singapore plant).
Almost everything that people eat or drink here, however, is imported — even the water, which comes through undersea pipelines from Malaysia across the Johor Strait. That may seem like a limitation in this day of 100-mile menus and locavore dining, but the community is wealthy and ethnically diverse enough to command a sheer breadth, abundance, and quality of foodstuffs that is truly amazing.
The culinary and cultural influences here are, first of all, Chinese, then Malaysian, Indian, and European (British, Dutch, and Portuguese above all). Most definitive of Singapore, however, is the Peranakan population. Also known as Straits Chinese or Baba-Nyonya (from the terms for men and women), these are descendants of the Chinese immigrants who came to what are now Singapore and Malaysia hundreds of years ago and intermarried with local Malays. Peranakan cuisine has its own dishes and traditions and is one of the things that make eating in Singapore so exciting. "People are really serious about food in Singapore," offers Kenneth Lim, a sometime chef and "dining project manager" for the Singapore Tourism Board. "I think the reason everybody gets along so well here — Chinese, Indian, Malay, everybody — is that they all like everybody else's food."
The first thing every savvy visitor learns about Singapore is to eat in the so-called hawker centers. When Singapore was born as an independent nation, exactly 50 years ago, one of the government's initiatives was to group all the city's many street food stands into food courts, where hygiene and sanitation could be controlled. There are somewhere between 150 and 170 of these centers around Singapore today, each one typically holding dozens of individual stands, many of them specializing in a single dish. Some locals go daily and eat the same thing every time — maybe a dish of bak chor mee (sometimes known affectionately as "BCN"), noodles dry-fried in lard, with bits of pork liver and meatballs; or nasi lemak, rice with fried fish or chicken wings and spicy sambal — while others (and plenty of visitors) treat the centers as a kind of grand buffet, going from stand to stand and eating as much as they can manage.
Beyond its wealth of hawker food, some of it unique to Singapore, and other local specialties found in other venues, the city also offers a wide range cuisines from around the world — some first-rate fusion cooking (as at celebrity chef Justin Quek's rooftop Sky on 57), sushi bars of exquisite quality (like the two locations of Shinji by Kanesaka), restaurants run by high-profile British and American chefs (Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Jason Atherton, and Daily Meal Council members Wolfgang Puck, Daniel Boulud, and Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton, among others) as well as by international superstars like Joël Robuchon and Australia's Tetsuya Wakuda and Luke Mangan, and just in general good representations of almost any kind of food you can think of.
On one short stretch of East Coast Road, in the Joo Chiat neighborhood, for instance, you'll find Zaffron Kitchen ("indelibly Indian"), Brotzeit German Bier Bar and Restaurant, Wallet Friendly Authentic Thai Cuisine, Nyonya Delicatessen, Spizza for Friends, and the Fish & Chip Shop, along with any number of Chinese places and open storefronts selling various good things to eat.
On an all too brief visit to Singapore in mid-August, with New York City chef-restaurateur (and avid photographer) Daniel Holzman, whose Meatball Shop has six locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn, we manage to eat a pretty much overwhelming but unfailingly wonderful array of food of every kind.
At the Tiong Bahru market we wander down aisles lined with stands selling tropical fruits (not just the usual ones, but both red and yellow dragonfruit, starfruit, jackfruit, longan, langsat, and duku), free-range Kampung chickens, Indonesian pork (highly regarded here), mosaics of fresh and salted eggs, an ocean's worth of fish from glittering huge grouper to small silvery pomfret, sacks and barrels filled with dried scallops and cuttlefish and abalone — and elaborate paper objects, representing everything from gold bullion to Guinness beer cans to BMWs, to be burned for good fortune.We go upstairs to the food court and, after staking out our table, as is the local custom, with a packet of wet wipes — an essential accoutrement for hawker center eating, much of which is hands-on — work our way from stall to stall choosing pretty much everything we can handle, from chwee kueh to char siew fan to morsels of deep-fried shark.
We go upstairs to the food court and, after staking out our table, as is the local custom, with a packet of wet wipes — an essential accoutrement for hawker center eating, much of which is hands-on — work our way from stall to stall choosing pretty much everything we can handle, from chwee kueh (steamed rice cakes with what you'd swear was an intense meat sauce but is actually made from daikon cooked in dark soy) to char siew fan (roast pork in a sweet soy sauce over rice, with pickled chiles and hot sauce on the side) to morsels of deep-fried shark (and a lot more).
Then, for dessert, we walk across the street to Old Tiong Bahru Bak Kut Teh, where we sit on the sidewalk on red plastic chairs and drink tea and ate the restaurant's namesake bak kut teh, long-cooked pork ribs in a peppery, garlicky broth. On the side, we sample pig's foot cooked with light and dark soy, garlic, five spice powder, and sugar.