The Best of Singapore's Food Scene
From street vendors to fine dining, this straitlaced city lets loose through its fiery, flavorful foods.
The first time I visited Singapore, back in the late 1980s, I immediately wanted to leave. I’d come expecting the teeming, slightly dodgy Asian crossroads I’d read about in vintage travel memoirs and in Paul Theroux’s terrific novel Saint Jack. What I found—or thought I found—was a boringly generic modern city, muggy as a steam bath, overgrown with chilly shopping malls and run by a nanny government eager to wipe out all signs of the freewheeling wildness that had once made Singapore synonymous with exotic excitement.
The next day, I was out walking in Chinatown and stopped at the Maxwell Road Hawker Centre, a market renowned for its food stalls. The place was jammed with locals talking, laughing and gorging on heaping plates of food. Consulting my guidebook (I was a novice back then), I ordered a helping of char kway teow, a lard-fried noodle dish laced with eggs, Chinese sausage, shrimp, cockles and bean sprouts, and doused with dark soy sauce and chiles. It looked lethally rich, but when I took my first bite, I began to laugh. It wasn’t just good, it was so staggeringly tasty that as soon as I finished, I went to another stall and ordered Hainanese chicken rice, a dish that sounds primitive—boiled chicken with fragrantly oily rice served with sweet black and hot red sauces—and found it even more delicious than the noodles. I spent the rest of my trip packing away street food, which exploded with a spiciness the rest of the culture seemed eager to repress.
Back in L.A., I told a food critic friend that I’d been surprised at how well one could eat in Singapore. “Surprised?” he said, eyes narrowing in disapproval. “It’s only the best eating city in the world.”
Naturally, I assumed he was exaggerating (critics do that), but as it happened, life let me put his claim to the test. Not only did I wind up marrying a Singaporean woman, I actually moved there for a time as Southeast Asian correspondent for Gourmet. Over the years I’ve eaten my way around the island, trying and loving almost everything: the barbecued skate wing at Newton Food Centre, the magical bhatura (a bread resembling a puffy UFO) at Komala Vilas in Little India, the sweet coconut-egg jam known as kaya at ToastBox, and The Blue Ginger’s ayam buah keluak, a chicken specialty of the fusion (Chinese-Malay) Peranakan culture, anchored by an Indonesian swamp nut whose ground black meat explodes with the deep, rich loaminess of a truffle.
While I wouldn’t insist that this makes Singapore the world’s best eating city (New York, L.A. and London aren’t exactly wastelands), there is one thing I can say with absolute confidence: No country anywhere is more obsessed with food. Whether chatting over beer or gushing online—Singaporeans are insanely ambitious food bloggers—the locals treat eating as their national pastime. They discuss char kway teow as feverishly as Americans do LeBron James or Sarah Palin; they debate the relative merits of chicken rice shops with the pedantic glee of teenagers arguing the relative coolness of X-Men and The Dark Knight. From dinky roadside food stalls to adventurous Western-fusion restaurants in luxury hotels, eating is the country’s passion, its fetish, the soul of its culture. Put simply, Singapore is The Food Republic.
This isn’t altogether accidental. Ever since it became fully independent in 1965, Singapore has been the brainchild of its founding father and longtime prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew (his son Lee Hsien Loong is the current PM). Not only is Lee one of the keenest political minds of the past hundred years, he has a sense of order that makes Martha Stewart look like Zach Galifianakis. A modern-day Prospero, Lee set about conjuring up a clean, safe, prosperous Singapore that would be more like Switzerland than its actual neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia.