Singapore, an unexpected stop on our Southeast Asian itinerary thanks to a cheap flight from there to India. Our culinary expectations for this small city-state were low, particularly in the wake of our street food experiences in Thailand and Malaysia. Yet in the three days before our flight to India, it seemed like all we did was eat.
Despite our original prejudice against street food stalls organized in indoor food courts, we have to admit that Singapore has done them well. Theirs feature a pleasant social mix, including business people in suits, construction workers and everyone in between. The prices are also surprisingly reasonable — roughly $3 for a typical dish.
And the taste? Terrific.
Singapore owes the breadth of its cuisine to its ethnic Malaysian, Indonesian and Chinese influences.
Note: Indian food is not represented here because India followed Singapore on our travel trajectory and we figured we would save our appetites for the subcontinent. Indian food enthusiasts, please be patient. Your time is coming.
In the meantime, here's the very tippy tip of the tasty culinary iceberg that is Singapore cuisine.
Hainanese Chicken Rice
At first glance, a simple dish: rice cooked in chicken broth and slices of chicken (roasted or steamed) served with cucumbers, herbs, hot sauce, sweet soy sauce and a small bowl of light chicken stock. The resulting array of flavors is complex and delicious. We’ve dreamed of this dish on many a night ever since. Where we ate it: At the large hawker center between Waterloo and Bugis Streets.
We devoured lotsa laksa in Malaysia. But that didn't stop us from following a woman in Singapore slurping a bowl next to us. A rich, coconut milk soup outfitted with noodles, shrimp, tender chicken, tofu, mussels, and chili sauce. Singaporean laksa gives its laksa counterparts in Malaysia a run for their street food money. Where we ate it: Cahaya Muslim Restaurant on fifth floor of the Far East Plaza on Scott Street.
Mee Hoon Kueh
Hand-made noodles, tender chicken, greens, mushrooms, dried fish, and chili sauce. This is not your average Chinese noodle dish. Like so many dishes in Singapore, its taste takes you beyond its appearance. Where we ate it: Cahaya Muslim Restaurant on fifth floor of the Far East Plaza on Scott Street.
Fresh bean sprouts, noodles, vegetables, and prawns – all tucked in a thin hand-made wheat flour skin lined with hot and sweet sauce. Think Chinese burrito. Where we ate it: Food court of Singapore's Sim Lim Plaza.
Another plain-looking dish with a surprising taste. The combination of coconut rice, fried egg, peanut sauce, cucumbers, sambal (paste made from chilies, dried shrimp and spices) and fried fish exceeded our expectations. Where we ate it: Food court of Singapore's Sim Lim Plaza.
When the owner of Cahaya Muslim Restaurant witnessed us ravenously devour our first two courses – laksa and mee huon kueh – he offered us a small plate of home made fried wantons. The difference with his wantons, he explained, was that they were filled with fresh vegetables – carrots and turnips – instead of meat. Vegetarians rejoice! Served with a plummy-looking sweet sauce. Scrumptious. Where we ate it: Cahaya Muslim Restaurant on fifth floor of the Far East Plaza on Scott Street.
Yong Tau Foo
Affectionately known as mix-and-match soup, its simplicity is its secret. Choose your steaming broth and a combination of ingredients including greens, tofu, fish balls, meat slices, vegetables, and wantons. Everything is cut into bite-sized pieces. So its all perfectly cooked when it hits the steaming broth. It's also easy to eat with chopsticks. You'll find this in almost any food court in the city.
Lightly stir-fried broccoli greens, chunks of tender fish cooked with ginger and herbs, and ground meat flavored with star anise and other spices. Another absolutely superb meal in Singapore for under $4. Where we ate it: Maxwell Food Court, stall 01-98.
Be sure to pick up the Singapore Tourism Board's 70-page booklet entitled Makan Delights, which describes Singapore’s culinary specialties and where to find them. There’s even a metro map color-coded by food precincts.
Now there's a city that takes its food seriously!
Singapore Travel Information: Where to Stay
Where to stay: Compared to its counterparts in Southeast Asia, Singapore features accommodation that is incredibly expensive. We stayed at Garden Guesthouse across from the Botanical Gardens – $40 for a double room. This was the cheapest non-dormitory room we could find. Wifi was included. Contact information: 10 Taman Serasi #01-10, [email protected].