Singapore Stories and Tips

Savoring Singapore

Lan Zhao La Mian Photo, Singapore, Asia

If there's one thing that definitely isn't "Asia light" about Singapore, it's Singaporean cuisine. Singaporean cuisine is among the most interesting in the world; it's definitely my favorite cuisine. Whatever you say about how "contrived" Singapore is, you definitely cannot say that about Singaporean cuisine.

This is all thanks to the of Singapore's population. Different regional cuisines from China, India, and the Malayan peninsula have combined over a century to produce some of the most amazing flavors.

If you want truly authentic Singaporean cuisine, the best places to eat are hawker centres (sometimes called "food centres") and "coffee shops."

Hawker centres were built because the government, at some point, decided to ban street hawkers from selling food in carts on the street. Instead, they insisted that these street hawkers band together and sell their food in proper structures, with plumbing, tables and stools. Unlike many other cities, then, you will not, therefore, find "street food" being sold on sidewalks in Singapore; rather, "street food" is found in the dozens of hawker centres around the metropolis.

These hawker centres know no class boundaries: almost ALL Singapore residents, rich or poor, eat at hawker centres. The same hawker centres where old retirees eat, one leg propped up on the bench, are also the places where business executives in neckties and powersuits come for lunch. And the food, of course, is cheap: SGD 2 to SGD 5 buys you a satisfying meal.

The other place to find authentic Singaporean cuisine is the "coffee shop." No, these are not European cafes; rather, a "coffee shop" is a restaurant on the ground floor of a building--usually an old shophouse building--with no walls or doors separating establishment from the sidewalk. The chairs and tables, then, are in the open air, and they spill out onto the sidewalk.

Hawker centres and coffee shops are not for the prissy traveler. Strict government standards ensure that the food is clean, but some tourists might be turned off by the cheap plastic plates and cups, the sometimes-muddy floors, the lack of air-conditioning, and the noise and chaos of it all.

The faint-stomached traveler, then, might prefer to go to the hundreds of restaurants in the city that boast of selling Singaporean fare. These are the restaurants with porcelain plates, printed menus, and waiters to bring you your food. Food prices are correspondingly more expensive, of course.

And *what* is there to eat? The gastronomical spectrum of Singaporean food is too large to enumerate. My own personal favorites include Hainanese chicken rice ($2.50, and available at any hawker centre in the city), Nyonyang-style fishhead curry (more difficult to come by, this is available at "barbeque seafood" stalls and restaurants, which are often only open for dinner), chili crab (also available at searood restaurants and at some hawker centre stalls), fried baby sotong (squid), and roti prata (Indian flatbread that also has a Malaysian counterpart, roti canai). Other classics include nasi lemak (Malaysia's "national dish": rice steamed in coconut water), char kway teow (a Chinese-Malay noodles dish), mi goreng (another Chinese-Malay noodles dish).

What you *shouldn't* do, however, is to limit yourself to the Ministry of Tourism brochures that tells you where to eat. Sure, there are some good eateries in these brochures, but my best gastronomic experiences in Singapore have been in places not listed in any tourist brochure.

Some people say you can see everything there is to see in Singapore in a day or two. I'm not sure if that's true. I am sure, though, that an entire MONTH in Singapore is not enough to experience all the food wonders it has to offer.

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