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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.
To that end, The Old Man (as he’s now known) essentially offered his fellow citizens a grand bargain. If they would let him and his People’s Action Party (PAP) manage the country—making all the big political and economic decisions—he would pull Singapore out of third world poverty and turn it into a rich, well-tooled, modern nation. The vast majority of Singaporeans accepted that tacit offer, and Lee delivered. With unprecedented speed, Singapore went from being a poor British colony to being far richer per capita than the United Kingdom (and, for that matter, Switzerland or the United States). Famously well-run by PAP technocrats—this is one country in which everything works—it has an unmatched education system, glitzy shopping centers that beggar those in L.A. and generous banking secrecy laws that have turned the gated waterfront homes of exclusive Sentosa Island into a billionaires’ enclave.
Naturally, such a bargain had its downside. While it’s easy to laugh at the government’s neat-freak pettiness—public elevators even have urine detectors to capture incontinent malefactors—The Old Man’s authoritarian way of dealing with criticism wasn’t funny at all. Singaporeans knew it, and it had a crushing effect on their media, their artistic community (which lives in fear of censorship or worse), their everyday conversation. When I lived in Singapore, I was constantly shocked that even friends shied away from talking in depth about topics that were routine in America. Although the country is now a lot more liberal than it was even ten years ago (there are now two huge casino complexes), everyone knows that you can get in serious trouble by speaking too freely about politics, religion, media, sex, state investments or the PAP-encouraged wave of immigration.
But one topic has always been safe: food. Not only is eating apolitical, it’s profoundly democratic. Singapore’s great dishes were born on the streets, not in the PAP’s offices. I remember slurping down crab bee hoon, garlicky noodles thick with sweet crab, at Sin Huat, a marvelous seafood place later put on the media map (and, some say, ruined) by Anthony Bourdain. (These days many locals prefer No Signboard Seafood a few blocks down.) Even though Sin Huat is a grungy place next to the rowdy Geylang red-light district, I was startled to see many customers arriving in Mercedes and carrying cold bottles of Sancerre. Then again, I was equally startled to see how, at Newton Food Centre, guys who owned tiny-looking stalls would drive home in Benzes of their own. There’s gold in them thar noodles.
But food’s unifying power does more than link rich and poor. As the cultural lingua franca, it helps bring together the four great ethnic groups—Chinese, Malay, Indian and European—who’ve lived side by side since Sir Stamford Raffles founded this great melting-pot city back in 1819. Anywhere you go, you’ll find an orgy of multicultural eating: Malay women in headscarves chomping halal KFC; Indian families downing the fresh spring roll known as popiah; Chinese dudes devouring Malay rojak, a fruit-and-vegetable salad topped with a funky sweet-spicy dressing laced with prawn paste; heat-stunned Westerners gobbling South Indian roti prata, a flaky griddle-fried pancake so addictive that not a week passes without me grumbling that I can’t get a decent version in Southern California.
If there’s a problem with eating in Singapore, it’s that the sheer profusion of trademark dishes—scores, if not hundreds of them—makes it hard for new arrivals to even know where to begin. Over the years, I’ve learned that many visitors are happiest when they ease into things by eating somewhere they feel comfortable. I invariably recommend the Empire Café at Raffles Hotel, whose cleaned-up versions of local dishes are still scrumptious; the Singapore-specialties lunch menu at Sky on 57 atop the Marina Bay Sands (which offers the city’s most breathtaking views); and any of The Food Republic’s shopping-mall food courts, whose many stands let you sample the panoply of regional fare.
Of course, more adventurous eaters can skip the toe-dipping and just dive headlong into the local food scene. If you’re not afraid of spice, you’ll soon be enjoying dishes that the ubiquitous local restaurant guide, Makansutra (imagine a Zagat written by obsessives), celebrates with the trademark recommendation “Die die must try!” You could spend an entire week eating your way along East Coast Road in the low-slung, laid-back Peranakan neighborhood of Katong—best known for its laksa, a spicy coconut noodle soup that’s an unmissable Singaporean specialty—and never come close to exhausting its culinary riches. The street is a foodie mecca.
It’s one among many. That’s why whenever my wife, Sandi Tan, and I visit her family, we do what all Singaporean expats do on returning home—we carry a voluminous list of the dishes we simply can’t leave without eating. We call it the Powers-Tan Codex. While the list includes several foods I’ve already mentioned, I’d feel remiss if I didn’t add that you haven’t really experienced Singaporean food until you’ve downed an order of fish-head curry at Muthu’s in Little India, had the finger-lickin’-good black-pepper crab along the water at Long Beach Seafood or stopped by Sabar Menanti for beef rendang, a dish so rich, fiery and delicious that when Floyd Cardoz cooked it in the finale of last season’s Top Chef Masters, he ended up winning.
Speaking of top chefs, no matter how tasty a country’s street food may be, sometimes you just want to eat at a stylish place with fine dining and a well-chosen wine list. Naturally, a country so moneyed and food-mad is irresistible to celebrity chefs, including Joël Robuchon, Daniel Boulud, Wolfgang Puck, Guy Savoy and Mario Batali (see “Haute Singapore”), who, like the British East India Company traders who first built the city, keep showing up to establish culinary outposts. On our last trip to Singapore, I kept bumping into people who proudly told me about eating at Waku Ghin, the exclusive new restaurant by famed Sydney chef Tetsuya Wakuda. For local foodies, merely getting in was a kind of rite of passage, as was shuddering about the cost, which starts at around $250 per person.
But Singapore is also bursting with marvelous restaurants whose chefs aren’t famous. They range from showcases for audacious homeboys—Michael Han’s FiftyThree is an avant-garde adventure—to the high-end hotels’ Chinese restaurants, which rank among the world’s best. While I have enjoyed countless tremendous Cantonese meals at the Mandarin Court, where my wife’s family would eat on Sunday nights—the suckling pig is masterfully crispy, the e-fu noodles are sublime—the restaurant I constantly dream of is Min Jiang, whose Beijing duck is better than any I’ve eaten in China, and whose refined Sichuan dishes feel almost platonic. To eat its kung pao chicken is to finally grasp what all those other, lesser versions aspire to be.
Still, if you asked me where in Singapore I’d had my single most refined meal, I’d tell you Iggy’s, an intimate restaurant in the Hilton Hotel whose blend of European, Asian and Australian influences has gotten it ranked as the best restaurant in Asia. Sandi and I were taken there one night by the fine Singaporean actor Lim Kay Tong—he’s essentially his country’s Ian McKellen or Alec Guinness—and his wife, Sylvia Tan, who’s written several splendid books about food. Hugely traveled, they are the most sophisticated eaters I’ve met in the country.
We sat at the chef’s table, and I must confess that I began our meal with a noggin full of prejudice—that “true” Singaporean food comes from the street, that any sort of fusion cuisine is synonymous with deracinated gimmickry and that Asian chefs start tumbling down the slippery slope to perdition the day they discover truffles. I can’t identify the precise moment when I realized these preconceptions were wrong, but it came quickly, somewhere between tasting the amuse-bouche, a wondrous concoction of sea urchin and cauliflower, and the arrival of a white fish carpaccio drizzled with something too complex (or perhaps simple) for my humble palate to figure out.
I must have sighed with pleasure, for with actorly understatement, Lim gave me a tiny glance that said simply, “I told you.”
And so we ate on, course after course, through supremely delicate vegetables, an egg kissed with truffle and an immaculately tender piece of the Wagyu beef that seems ubiquitous at Singapore’s finest tables. By the time we finished the petits fours (exquisite) and had our coffee, I felt the same giddiness that filled me after my first meals at Jean Georges in New York, St. John in London and Tokyo’s great Ginza Sushiko. Die die must try!
“You know, Sandi,” I said during the taxi ride home, “that was amazingly good. But if I could only eat one meal in Singapore, I think I would still choose the street food.”
She gave me the time-honored look of pitying amusement that wives give husbands who are talking nonsense.
“But you’re not going to only eat one meal,” she said, “so you don’t have to choose. You can eat whatever you want.”
Spoken like a true child of The Food Republic.
Haute Singapore Food
A culinary crossroads, Singapore is perhaps best known for its hawker fare. But over the past year and a half, the city-state’s burgeoning fine-dining scene has been grabbing all the attention, with a host of international celebrity chefs establishing outposts at two new casino-driven resorts, Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa. —Christopher P. Hill
Chinois by Susur Lee: Canadian chef Susur Lee was an early arrival at Resorts World Sentosa. His eclectic nouvelle-Chinese creations include braised tiger prawns in chile sauce—a reinvention of Singapore’s beloved national dish, chile crab. At Hotel Michael, Resorts World Sentosa, 26 Sentosa Gateway; 65/6884-7888; chinois.com.sg.
Cut: At this contemporary steakhouse by Wolfgang Puck, warm decor heavy on oak and leather sets the stage for such signature dishes as Kobe-beef short ribs and wood-grilled filet mignon with mac and cheese. At Marina Bay Sands, 10 Bayfront Ave.; 65/6688-8517; marinabaysands.com.
DB Bistro Moderne: Daniel Boulud’s high-caliber interpretations of bistro classics—here prepared by chef Stephane Istel—range from grilled foie gras and duck confit to coq au vin with spaetzle, pearl onions and wild mushrooms. At Marina Bay Sands; 65/6688-8525.
L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon: Like its counterparts around the world, this Atelier is a sleek red-and-black space with counter seating and Robuchon’s menu of small plates (among them, crispy suckling pig and foie gras–stuffed quail). At Hotel Michael, Resorts World Sentosa; 65/6577-7888; rwsentosa.com.
Osteria Mozza: The Singapore incarnation of Mario Batali’s L.A. osteria loses little in translation. Like the original, the action here is centered on a lively mozzarella bar, where the Puglia burrata with leeks and fett’unta is the cheese of choice. At Marina Bay Sands; 65/6688-8868; osteriamozza.com.
Restaurant Guy Savoy: French chef Guy Savoy’s Singapore outpost offers a more casual ambiance than its Michelin three-starred sister in Paris, but with many of the same signature dishes. Standouts include artichoke–and–black truffle soup and crispy sea bass with Swiss chard. At Marina Bay Sands; 65/6688-8513.
Santi: Santi was the late Catalan chef Santi Santamaría’s first foray into Asia. Now overseen by Santamaría’s daughter Regina, the convivial dining room and tapas bar continue to dish out the traditional Iberian flavors made famous at its Spanish forerunners. At Marina Bay Sands; 65/6688-8501.
Sky on 57: Perched on Marina Bay Sands’s rooftop SkyPark, this light-filled restaurant pairs unmatched city views with the elegant “Franco-Asian” food of Singapore-born chef Justin Quek. Start with a tasting platter of foie gras soup dumplings, yuzu-dressed oysters and mushroom cappuccino. At Marina Bay Sands; 65/6688-8857.
Waku Ghin: Sydney-based chef Tetsuya Wakuda’s only restaurant outside Australia is as intimate—there’s room for only 25 diners—as it is pricey, though not without reason: The seasonally changing Euro-Japanese degustation menu employs only top-quality ingredients like Tasmanian abalone and Osetra caviar. At Marina Bay Sands; 65/6688-8507; wakughin.com.
John Powers’s Singapore Address Book
Empire Cafe Raffles Hotel Singapore, 1 Beach Rd.; 65/6412-1816; raffles.com
Fiftythree 53 Armenian St.; 65/6334-5535; fiftythree.com.sg
Iggy’s Hilton Hotel, 581 Orchard Rd.; 65/6732-2234; iggys.com.sg
Komala Vilas Restaurant 76/78 Serangoon Rd.; 65/6293-6980; komalavilas.com.sg
Long Beach Seafood 1018 East Coast Pkwy.; 65/6445-8833; longbeachseafood.com.sg
Mandarin Court Meritus Mandarin Orchard Hotel, 333 Orchard Rd.; 65/6831-6288; meritushotels.com
Maxwell Road Hawker Centre At the corner of South Bridge Rd. and Maxwell Rd.
Min Jiang Goodwood Park Hotel, 22 Scotts Rd.; 65/6730-1704; goodwoodparkhotel.com
Muthu’s Curry 138 Race Course Rd.; 65/6392-1722; muthuscurry.com
Newton Food Centre 500 Clemenceau Ave.
No Signboard Seafood 414 Geylang Rd.; 65/6842-3415; nosignboardseafood.com
Sabar Menanti 48 Kandahar St.; 65/6396-6919; sabarmenanti.com.sg
Sin Huat Seafood 659 Geylang Rd.; 65/6744-9755
The Blue Ginger Restaurant 97 Tanjong Pagar Rd.; 65/6222-3928; theblueginger.com
Toastbox Harbour Front Walk, Vivo City; 65/6272-4434; breadtalk.com