Allow me to warn you in advance that I may start waxing poetic during this blog. After a 6 year absence, I’ve just spent 3 days in one of my favorite countries, and the love affair with Singapore has started up all over again. So please forgive me if I start overusing such words as love, awesome, beautiful, spectacular, delicious, perfect, and incredible.
Because, well…Singapore just naturally IS all of those things.
It can’t help itself. We’re talking about an independent country that is actually just a big city on a tiny island at the southern tip of Malaysia. Does 5.5 million people on an island that’s only 276 square miles (half the size of LA or NYC) sound like total and utter chaos to you? If it were anywhere else, it probably would be.
But not Singapore. Singapore is an incredible (overused adjective #1) blend of very different cultures – Chinese, Indian, Malay, and British – that has somehow produced the cleanest, quietest, safest, and most orderly city on the planet. Sound boring or dull? It’s just the opposite. The effortless blend of so many cultures, the unique and impressive feats of architecture, the vibrant colors of perfectly manicured lawns, gardens, and tropical trees, and a mouth-watering array of the freshest, spiciest, most flavorful dishes you’ve ever tasted…
Hey! Put that suitcase down. You can buy your plane ticket and pack your bags AFTER you finish reading this, thank you very much. Besides, I haven’t even told you one of the best parts. Guess what the official language of Singapore is?
Yep. It’s English. Not the broken-sorta-kinda-maybe-a-little English you get in Malaysia or India, but straight up, first language, fluent (British) English. So forget the language barrier, because there is NONE. That makes navigating this little island-city-paradise a total breeze!
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes. Saying how awesome (overused adjective #37) this place is.
Singapore Food Crawl 101
We touched down in Singapore on Friday after a smooth 2-hour flight from Bangkok. Our friend SherMay was there to greet us and escort us to lunch – because, after all, the official pastime of Singapore is EATING. You think Americans eat a lot? Ha! We got nothin’ on the Singaporeans. They eat a minimum of 5 meals a day, not to mention all the snacks in-between. They wander from hawker center to hawker center like devotees making pilgrimages to holy sites, because let’s face it…in Singapore, food IS the national religion.
So we sit down in a blissfully air conditioned restaurant and jump right into the good stuff. SherMay orders a very traditional Singaporean starter called ota, basically a spicy fish “cake” made out of chopped up mackerel and lots of chili. Entrees arrive in the form of char kway teow (thick rice noodles with shrimp, clams, egg, sprouts, scallions, and chili, wok fried until slightly charred) and assam laksa (a spicy, sour fish soup with rice vermicelli). Dessert is cendol, a colorful blend of shaved ice, grass jelly, red beans, assorted fruit, and a generous, heavenly dollop of gula melaka (sweet palm sugar). We waddle out of the restaurant in food-induced comas, stuffed to the gills but already eagerly anticipating our next meals.
By the way, we haven’t even left the AIRPORT yet.
When we do at last venture to the outside world, we’re greeted with a blast of humidity and warm (but not TOO hot) tropical air. At only 2 degrees north of the equator, Singapore is the epitome of endless summer. Currently they’re moving into their rainiest season, which made for some killer thunderstorms and cooler temperatures (translation = 85 instead of 95).
We drive down a gorgeous tree-lined (rain trees, I later learned) road that looks like it belongs in a Disney theme park. Seriously, not a single blade of grass was out of place. To our left was a narrow strip of beach and dozens of enormous cargo ships and, off on the horizon, the Indonesian island of Batam. A short drive took us to our Airbnb accommodation for the weekend, where we dumped our bags and proceeded to head almost immediately to dinner.
Because, you know, it had been about 2 hours since we last ate. That’s like 2 days in Singapore time!
So SherMay and her husband Fred take us to a nearby Chinese restaurant, assuring us that it was more “Singaporean Chinese” than “China Chinese.” This is no small point; the Singaporeans take great pride in their unique and delicious food, as they should!
Over a pot of freshly brewed chrysanthemum tea, we savor course after course of Singaporean specialties – BBQ-honey fried pork, cereal shrimp (as the name suggests, it is shrimp rolled in crushed breakfast cereal and deep fried to a perfect crisp), olive fried rice (had to try that one), ginger-glazed grouper, and broccoli sautéed with fresh lump crab meat.
Dessert was a warm yam paste topped with cashews and sweetened condensed milk – think an Asian version of sweet potato casserole, and you’re on the right track.
The verdict? AMAZING. (Overused adjective #62).
After a night in our Airbnb under neon pink Minion sheets (hey, it’s budget accommodation, okay?) we awaken to a truly awesome thunderstorm. Fred is kind enough to dash over to our building with an umbrella before we journey down the street for breakfast in a VERY local hawker center (translation = I haven’t been stared at that much since India). In case the term is unfamiliar, hawker centers are simply a collection of street food vendors that have been moved into one big area (like an outdoor cafeteria) so that they can be monitored for quality and food safety. Works for me – less walking, better food!
So Fred takes us on the grand culinary tour of Lot 16 Hawker Center, from Singaporean to Indian to Chinese to Muslim Malay. Some of it, like nasi lemak, we know very well from our time in Malaysia. Other dishes, like fried carrot cake, are totally new to us.
Wait a second, did you say…FRIED CARROT CAKE?
Yes, I did, although let me add that it’s not the frosting-covered carrot cake you’re picturing from home. Singaporean fried carrot cake is, in fact, a delectable blend of white carrots (or white radish) and rice flour, pounded into a neat cake-like texture, then wok-fried to a slight char with egg, scallions, and plenty of hot chili.
Sound delicious? IT IS. So much, in fact, that I nearly cried when I couldn’t find it for lunch yesterday.
After breakfast, we bid farewell to Fred and took the train downtown to play tourists for the day. The sights were all wonderfully familiar to us – the jaw-dropping skyline of the business district, the water spewing out of the mouth of the Merlion fountain, the flying “ship” atop Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the colorful, quirky eateries at Clarke Quay, and the nostalgia of the century-old Raffles Hotel, where writers like Ernest Hemingway used to frequent.
(Fun fact: Ever heard of a cocktail called the Singapore Sling? It was invented by a bartender at the Raffles in 1915, back when men hung out at the bar and drank in droves but it was still socially unacceptable for women to consume alcohol in public. The bartender invented a delicious concoction of gin, cherry brandy, Cointreau, fruit juices, and grenadine for the ladies to drink, and because of its bright pink color, everyone just assumed the girls were drinking juice. BRILLIANT.)
Anyway, strolling through the tree-lined streets of Singapore was like visiting an old friend. We were struck all over again by how clean and quiet and orderly it is. There’s no graffiti, no honking horns, no litter, nothing to spoil the perfection of its appearance. With so little land area to work with, the city is almost entirely vertical, with glittering high-rise hotels and office buildings as far as the eye can see. Down below, you can still catch a glimpse of the Singapore of old – a tucked-away Chinese restaurant with bright red lanterns dangling at the entrance, or a long row of joined townhouses with slanted rooves and brightly painted shutters.
It doesn’t matter where you look or which street you turn down. There’s no perfect city on earth, but if there WAS one, it would be Singapore.
We wandered the city streets for hours – snapping pictures, enjoying the views, and grabbing $1 cups of sweet yam and red bean ice cream from a street vendor (because we hadn’t already eaten 4 times that day).
Dinner was at a new upscale hawker center called Glutton’s Bay – appropriate, since Singapore turns you into a glutton as soon as you arrive. Jeremy got a gargantuan portion of Peking duck fried rice (pausing here to allow you to wipe the drool from your screen) while I sampled one of Singapore’s most famous dishes…chili crabs! We’re talking massive Sri Lankan crabs swimming in a pool of tomato-based “gravy” loaded with chili and other delectable spices. Fiery hot, slightly sweet, perfectly savory…in a word, DELICIOUS (overused adjective #88).
In case you haven’t noticed yet, we like the food in Singapore. A LOT. Why there isn’t a Singaporean restaurant on every corner in every city around the globe, I’ll never know. The world is seriously missing out!!
Yesterday we hung out with SherMay and Fred and (you guessed it) ate more food. For breakfast I tried wheat toast with kaya spread (a locally made coconut jam). Then we wandered through a local grocery store for a while before we found a goldmine of imported New Zealand-made Cadbury chocolate, including our two favorite flavors – Mint Bubbly, and Hokey Pokey (crispy butterscotch bits in milk chocolate). We bought embarrassingly large bars for ourselves and will be eating Cadbury for weeks (okay, maybe a few days) to come.
Last night included (shockingly) more culinary exploration. Because of Jeremy’s gluten allergy, we’ve never wandered into any of those steamed bun/dumpling places that are all over Asia. Last night I grabbed a few steamed BBQ pork buns and OH MY…where have they been all my life??
I washed them down with a Malaysian dish of nasi lemak – fragrant pandan rice cooked in coconut milk, topped with fried chicken, fried eggs, peanuts, and a red hot sambal sauce. Taste bud heaven.
Jeremy snagged a dish we’ve been wanting to try for a long time now – black chicken soup! No, it’s not black soup; the CHICKEN is black. The breed is a Chinese silky, and if you look it up, you will see that the chicken’s feathers and skin are naturally ALL BLACK. The Chinese traditionally use it in a “healthy” soup filled with lots of yummy vegetables and herbs.
Verdict? Insanely good. (And yes…black chicken tastes like chicken!)
To sum it all up: We love, love, LOVE Singapore, and it’s always sad when we have to leave. If money were no object, we’d be living there in a heartbeat and I’d need a wheelchair to roll my morbidly obese body from hawker center to hawker center. (Seriously, how do the locals stay so thin? All they do is eat!)
Anyway, I’m rambling. I tend to do that. And if I haven’t convinced you by now that Singapore is an awesome place, then I have failed as a writer. I should just quit and stick to what I’m good at.
Seriously, though, Singapore rocks, and it belongs at the top of the list of any trip through Southeast Asia. It may not be as cheap as its neighbors to the north, but trust me, guys…it’s worth it. Factor a weekend into your budget and go for it. You will most definitely NOT be disappointed.