Eating the island Don’t be surprised if a local comes up to you in Singapore and says ‘‘Chia pabway?’’ (‘‘Have you eaten?’’) instead of ‘‘hello‘’; eating is Singapore’s national hobby. The hawker centres, food courts and restaurants of Singapore are the island nation’s nerve centres, humming with the insatiable appetites of locals who can be spotted eating whenever and wherever. There’s no shortage of restaurants, but locals swear by the hawker centres at which you can enjoy, in completely hygienic surroundings, street food rich with culinary influences from China, India, Malaysia and Indonesia. Most hawker centres offer similar fare, but the range in their menus will set a foodie’s heart aflutter.
Start with a cup of kopi O (traditional black coffee), thick and potent enough to make sleep impossible for hours. Add a kaya toast – toast spread with a sweet, coconut-infused jam – and some runny, soft-boiled eggs (with a dash of soya sauce) to your order. If you prefer tea, teh tarik (‘pulled tea’ in Malay) is for you. Sweetened with condensed milk, it is ‘pulled’ between two vessels to make it a frothy first cousin of our chai.
The best way to see this small country is to eat your way through it. Work up an appetite by ambling through Chinatown, making a stop at the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple (00-65-6220-0220; btrts.org.sg; 288, South Bridge Rd; 7am – 7pm) and struggling with the irony of buying ‘not made in China’ trinkets. Then, head to Holland Village XO Fish Head Bee Hun Restaurant for some XO Fish Head Bee Hoon. The aroma of chilli and garlic in the soup will make your nose twitch with anticipation. There’s familiar garlic, chilli, coconut and the distinctive flavours that come from using the fish head, but then comes the signature ingredient: French XO. The cognac adds an unexpected but delicious twang and releases a little more heat from the spices.
Keep eating… If you ever want to see the mild-mannered Singaporeans get into an argument, ask them where to get the best chicken rice, Singapore’s unofficial national dish. Try a spoonful and you’ll see why it inspires such passions. White rice, cooked in chicken stock, chicken fat, garlic and sesame – this is a fragrant combination in which the garlic’s pungency goes perfectly with the boiled chicken. The sharp accents of an aromatic chilli dipping sauce add just the right splash of drama to the dish.
Another outstanding hawker creation is spicy chilli crab. No matter how fastidious the Singaporeans, for this dish they’ll get their hands dirty. It’s not the most inspiring of images: a crab lolling about in a thick, red sauce of tomatoes, chillies, onions, vinegar and scallions. But imagine your teeth attacking the shell, the crack of success and then the warm, flavourful meat in your mouth, followed by the teasing fire of the sauce and a mouthful of rice. It’s love at first bite, crustacean style.
In this country of migrants, many dishes fuse flavours from different cultures. Like the Peranakan (Chinese-Malay) laksa. Sweet coconut milk tangles with fish, prawns, noodles and spices to make a red broth that will leave you sweating even as you slurp up every last drop. If the heat gets too much for you, get some ice kacang (shaved ice) at Mei Heong Yuen Dessert on Temple Street. This Taiwanese dessert is a mini mountain of ice flakes, which comes in a variety of flavours – a dessert and palate-cleanser all rolled into one.
There’s a joke going around that the kitchens in Singaporean homes are spotless because they’re never used. Considering the eating-out spread on offer, that generalisation is probably very close to the truth.
Changi Airport (changi airport.com). Air India, IndiGo, Singapore Airlines, Jet Airways, Thai Airways, Tiger Airways and Emirates fly to Singapore from major Indian cities (return fares from ` 22,000).
Public transport is excellent: the MRT (metro) is efficient and inexpensive (smrt.com.sg). Tickets between most stations are available from ` 55. If you plan to stay for a week, get an MRT card (works on buses too; adult standard cards from ` 530) for up to 30 per cent discounts on tickets and considerably less hassle. It’s easy to take a cab from
a taxi stand if needed. The flag-down fare is ` 135; you won’t cross ` 450 often (though a cab to the airport is about ` 950). Avoid using cabs during rush hour when surcharges and extras pile up.
Apply for a tourist visa to Singapore through an authorised visa agent. It takes about one working day and costs ` 1,320 plus ` 300 service charge (mfa.gov.sg/newdelhi).
Where to stay
Hotel Re!: This modern retro-themed boutique hotel, inspired by the 1960s and ‘70s, makes for a fun and comfy stay. It has LCD TVs, wi-fi and luxe bathrooms (00-65-6827-8288; hotelre.com.sg, firstname.lastname@example.org; 175A, Chin Swee Rd; from ` 6,900).
Gallery Hotel: This comfortable stay option has rooms that are small in size but big on style (00-65-6849-8686; galleryhotel.com.sg, email@example.com; 1, Nanson Rd at Robertson Quay; from ` 9,700).
Pan Pacific Singapore: This luxury hotel with award-winning restaurants enjoys an enviable location overlooking Marina Bay, best appreciated from its recently-refurbished Harbour View rooms. The buffet breakfast with live counters at The Edge restaurant is also worth visiting for (00-65-6336-8111; panpacific.com; firstname.lastname@example.org; 7, Raffles Boulevard, Marina Square; from ` 15,000).
Where to eat
Ya Kun Kaya Toast: 00-65-6438-3638; 18, China St, 01-01; 7.30am – 6.30pm Mon – Fri; 8.30am – 5pm Sat – Sun; set breakfast of coffee, two soft-boiled eggs and two slices kaya toast with butter: ` 200
Lao Pa Sat Hawker Centre: 00-65-6220-2138; laupasat.biz; 18, Raffles Quay, Lau Pa Sat Festival Market; although the entire place is open 24 x 7, the stalls are operated by individual operators and timings vary
Holland Village XO Fish Head Bee Hun Restaurant (for fish head curry soup): 00-65-622-733-45; 15/ 17, Smith St; 12pm – 2pm, 5pm – 10pm; from ` 310
5 Star (for chicken rice): 00-65-6344-5911; fivestarchickenrice.com; 191/ 193, East Coast Rd; 9am – 3am; ` 200
Jumbo Seafood (for chilli crab): 00-65-6532-3435; jumboseafood.com.sg; 30, Merchant
Rd, 01-01/ 02, Riverside Point; lunch: 12pm – 3pm, dinner: 6pm – 12am; cooked crab is sold by size: from ` 2,300/ kg
328 Katong Laksa (for laksa): 00-65-9021-2389; 216, East Coast Rd; 8am – 10pm; ` 175 for a medium bowl of laksa
Mei Heong Yuen Dessert (for shaved ice): 00-65-6221- 1156; 63-67, Temple St; 10.30am – 10pm; from ` 220
What to pack
An adventurous appetite, antacids and an umbrella
Take home a bit of Peranakan culture from Kim Choo; on the menu are jars of kaya (coconut-egg jam), laksa paste, and chilli or black pepper crab mix (00-65-6741-2125; kimchoo.com; III, East Coast Rd; ` 100 for a small jar of kaya, ` 300 for chilli crab mix).
Clean loo guide
Most hawker centres, restaurants and hotels in Singapore have clean loos.
Singapore has an extremely low crime rate and is very safe. Eateries in Singapore maintain high standards of hygiene and are graded according to it.
Singapore General Hospital is well-equipped (00-65-6321-4311; sgh.com.sg; Outram Rd).
Good to know
- Even if it is a short trip, take overseas insurance as medical care in Singapore is very expensive.
- Make sure you tell the vendor about any dietary restrictions or allergies you have – chilli, shrimp and other seafood form a part of most dishes.
- Singapore Tourism Board’s website has tonnes of useful information to plan your trip (yoursingapore.com).
- High Commission of India in Singapore: Tel: 00-65-6737-6777, Fax: 00-65-6732-6909; hcisingapore.gov.in, hcoffice@hcisingapore. org; 31, Grange Rd; 9am – 5.30pm Mon – Fri