Eating My Way Through Singapore
January 1, 1970
by Patricia Somera
My trip to Singapore was a welcome break from the craziness that is work. Armed with an appetite for adventure and an agenda that involves eating all the good stuff, I made my way to the city-state via a 3-hour plane ride from Manila.
First order of business: I checked in at Shophouse, an indie boutique hostel just a couple of blocks away from Arab Street. Shophouse is one of those cheap but really nice hostels that has been mushrooming around Southeast Asia since God knows when. Albeit more expensive than some of the hostels in neighboring countries like Thailand and Vietnam (hey this is Singapore we’re talking about), Shophouse is a pretty decent place to spend a few days in especially for backpackers and people traveling on a limited budget. Case in point: Staying in a 12-female dorm room will set you back at around 22SGD/night.
The next 4 days were spent admiring the Singapore skyline, exploring ethnic areas, and hopping from one hawker center to another.
I’m a sucker for cities with impressive skylines, and with Singapore holding the title as one of the world’s largest financial center, its skyscrapers certainly did not disappoint. As dramatic as it sounds, seeing the well-lit multi-storied buildings that compete for skyline supremacy have inspired me to continue chasing after my dreams no matter how impossible they seem. Just look at Singapore – the tiny city-state that was once a humble Malay fishing village is now one of the richest nations in the world.
As I was walking around the neighborhood where my hostel is located, I stumbled upon Haji lane. If you have a knack for buying cute stuff and photographing street art, Haji lane is the place to be. The straight block is filled with (1) indie boutiques that sell everything from clothes to old records, books, and jewelries, (2) cozy bars (3) cafes that double as lifestyle retail stores, and (4) graffitis that can easily make your Instagram page look cool. Haji lane is a great alternative from shopping malls where you can easily spend a good hour or two in. Just don’t forget to bring lots of cash.
Cultural Variety in Arab Street, Little India, and Chinatown
Cultural variety is what gives Singapore its unique character, and this is best illustrated through three separate ethnic neighborhoods which allow you to experience the culture of 3 major races –the Malaysians, the Chinese, and the Indians – in a single nation. You can shop for textiles, indulge in middle-eastern food, and be awed at the sight of the Sultan Mosque in Arab Street. You can savor authentic Indian fare, see women in saris and men in robes, and admire the interior of Hindu temples in Little India. You can shop for souvenirs, enter the gates of Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, stare at colorful shophouses, and be amazed by the intricate details of Sri Mariamman temple in Chinatown. Three neighborhoods with different architecture, energy, atmosphere, smell, food, customs, places of worship, and faces. It’s pretty amazing to see humans from different races and cultures thrive in a single city-state.
Singapore Hawker Centers – Foodie Theme Park
“One can’t hardly be blamed for seeing Singapore as like a foodie theme park.” Truth be told, Anthony Bourdain saying those words in his first Layover episode in Singapore was enough reason for me to grab the cheapest flight to the Lion City. I’m a self-confessed gastrotraveller. I travel to eat. And boy did I (binge) eat.
I leaped from one hawker center to another hoping to find the best of the best. Hawker centers are basically open air food courts where you can find local dishes from many lands – Chinese, Malay, Indian. The amount of food stalls serving an assortment of dishes overwhelmed me so I made sure to have a mental list of top things to eat before I go ballistic.
In Lau Pa Sat, located just right smack in the middle of the financial district, I stuffed myself silly with 26 glorious sticks of chicken, beef, and mutton satay. A Tiger beer in one hand, a stick in the other. I ate each stick like it’s my last meal.
The next day, I had a savory roti prata and teh tarik in Tekka Centre for breakfast, an unassuming biryani and chicken masala in Banana Leaf Apollo restaurant for lunch, and a soul-enlightening bowl of bah kuh teh in Singapore food trail hawker centre for dinner. Everything was unpretentiously prepared yet intensely flavored.
The eating never stopped. I had a comforting plate of Nam Sing Hokkien Fried Mee in Old Airport Road Food Centre – the noodles and beehon were perfectly cooked and the prawns tasted of what it should: prawns. The group of brothers running the stall did a great job in turning a humble noodle dish into a wonderful one.
Best Hainanese Chicken Rice in Singapore
In Maxwell food centre located in Chinatown, I had Hainanese chicken rice, the de facto national dish of Singapore. Tian tian Hainanese chicken, declared by Anthony Bourdain as the nation’s best Hainanese chicken rice, was pretty darn amazing. You can easily recognize the stall by the long queues of hungry people wanting to have the best. The fragrant rice was flawlessly cooked and the chicken was so tender that I could have easily eaten 2 plates if only I was hungrier. It’s good. It’s simple. It’s comforting.
As a punishment for eating too much good food, I decided to spend the next few hours walking down the streets of Chinatown. The heat almost killed me, so I hopped on the metro to my next destination – the Food Opera at Ion Orchard.
It is in this food court situated inside a high-end mall where I had the best Laksa ever – yes, even better than the one I had in Kuala Lumpur. The coconut based curry soup was extremely spicy, the rice noodles were cooked to perfection, and the shrimps and slices of fish cake was remarkably fresh. I finished the meal happily, ready to face the next few days with gusto and pride.
Ultra modern and Flavorful
Singapore is one of the most ultra-modern and flavorful countries that I’ve been to. Yes, it’s too orderly, but isn’t that a good thing? Coming from someone who has spent a number of years dealing with the chaos in Manila, a quick trip to Singapore was exactly what I needed. The airport is the best one I’ve seen, the variety of food is amazing, the streets are unbelievably clean, and the metro is so efficient – Know what? I ain’t complaining. I was just ridiculously happy to be in Singapore – binge-eating yummy food, soaking up the diversity of neighborhoods, wandering the streets, and taking photographs of high rise buildings all beautifully lit up at night.