Eating is a sport in Singapore, a place of unusually informed diners who take great pride in the melting-pot cuisine of their homeland. Howie Kahn reveals why the city-state, and its insatiable residents, keep drawing him back for one more meal.

By Howie Kahn
June 11, 2015
Credit: Darren Soh

We were four courses into dinner in the private room of Shinji by Kanesaka, an omakase restaurant in the arcade behind the stately hotel Raffles Singapore. Already we’d been served bioluminescent squid; hirame, conjugally wrapped around morsels of uni; and glass fish, tiny and transparent except for the blacks of their eyes. Now it was time for the abalone, which had been soaking up mirin, soy, and bonito broth vapors for the past five hours. As our host, Chris Lee, a 45-year-old local designer wearing a Kanye West–style man-skirt, lifted the first mollusk to his mouth, he asked the table, “Is it male or female?” He chewed ruminatively, then answered his own question. “Male. Texturally, it’s more dense, more like the sea. It’s more comprehensive.”

“You have to chew it twice as long as other foods,” chimed in Henry Hariyono, 43, the general manager of Artisan Cellars, a dealer of rare wines. “But it’s twice as rewarding.”

As the meal progressed, Lee, Hariyono, and Teng Wen Wee, a 33-year-old restaurateur, competed to drop the most food knowledge. They debated the merits of bafun uni (richer) versus murasaki uni (sweeter). They informed me that our squid, flown in from the Toyama prefecture of Japan, is in season for only three weeks. When the sushi courses began coming over the counter, the chef—Shunsuke Kikuchi, one of founder Shinji Kanesaka’s protégés—sent out multiple cuts of otoro, or tuna belly, each sliced through with a $3,000 knife. “The middle cut,” Hariyono said, “should look like the first day of snow.”

Though this epic feast (stats: 17 courses, eight bottles of wine) was especially decadent, it was also characteristic of the way devotion and scholarship amplify the pleasures of food in this cuisine-obsessed 5.5 million-person city-state. Eating here also means constantly talking about eating—passionately, proudly, and knowledgeably. Ask any Singaporean stranger—cabdriver, store clerk, bank teller—about where and what they most like to eat, and you are likely to end up with a friend for life. Foodie-ism is a national religion, and the melting-pot dining culture, with its innovative, critically hailed restaurants and habit-forming street food, undercuts the notion that Singapore is, as some call it, “Singa-bore”—a hypersanitized snooze fest long on global financial services and short on fun. For a culinary adventurer like me, the place is irresistible. Darren Soh

I started eating before I’d even left Singapore Changi Airport. Minutes after deplaning, just past midnight on a balmy, tropical evening, I headed to the Killiney Kopitiam kiosk to marvel at the simple, craveable wonder of kaya toast. Killiney, which opened in 1919 and became a chain in 1993, browns its toast evenly on a grill, then slathers it in butter and kaya, a sticky-sweet coconut jam. The bread is then assembled like a sandwich and served alongside soft-boiled eggs in a small ceramic bowl, the yolks serving as a dip. I was jet-lagged and needed a shower, but couldn’t help downing a second order while catching up on Hariyono’s Instagram feed, which featured glossy, alluring, Helmut Newton–style close-ups of local dishes. At home in New York, these images had only provoked wistful fantasy. But now I was back for my third visit in a year (that’s about 144 hours of transit time and more than 60,000 air miles, all told) for around-the-table camaraderie and around-the-clock caloric indulgence with my newfound comrades in food.

The next day didn’t really get going until I was served a fish head. Specifically, a king-fish head, prepared by David Pynt at his restaurant, Burnt Ends. After a restorative morning round of more kaya toast at my hotel, I found myself sitting at a long, boomerang-shaped bar watching Pynt cook on the other side. Sporting a dark, burly beard and a leather apron that resembled body armor, the 31-year-old Australian worked the three elevation grills and the four-ton brick, steel, and concrete oven he built himself, which stands over six feet tall and reaches a temperature of more than 1700 degrees. “I just call it my baby,” Pynt said.

For the next several hours he worked his creation with paternal tenderness, manipulating fire to get all the delicate bits of meat cooked and smoked just right for me and my dining companion—Loh Lik Peng, the co-owner and one of Singapore’s most prominent restaurateurs. Lee had told me that Loh possessed a tremendous appetite, something Loh immediately confirmed: “I ordered half a baby goat last time I was here,” he said. This time we started with smaller cuts of meat and seafood—quail with salsa verde and aioli; marron, a freshwater Australian crayfish, sprinkled with capers and parsley; lamb loin with carrots.

Then came the fish head. Enormous, spade-shaped, and thatched with swaths of lemongrass and a mortar of miso, the dish was the embodiment of the country’s eclectic taste in food. Cooked by a progressive Aussie, it combined Chinese, Malaysian, and South Indian culinary techniques that were in play here long before Singapore became a sovereign nation half a century ago. We ate with our hands. Eventually, Loh brought part of the skeleton to his lips, corn-on-the-cob-style. “I’m eating the brain and the eye,” he said with a grin. “Who says Singapore is so clean?” Pynt laughed, plating a series of smoked ice creams and pastries. “It’s all pleasure here,” he said as Bob Dylan crooned over the restaurant speakers: your next meallllll. Darren Soh Darren Soh

A few hours later, Hariyono texted to tell me it was dinnertime. We met at Izy, a bustling izakaya in Chinatown that his company has a minority stake in. An IT professional turned wine savant, he was wearing hip, frameless glasses and a woven porkpie hat. Understanding I had come from a big lunch, he recommended a bottle of champagne as a digestive aid. “Champagne really works well with everything,” he said, “including a full stomach.” The bartender filled our glasses with a 2008 Chartogne-Taillet and set them on colorful coasters printed with a kaleidoscopic blossom of samurais, luchadores, cigarettes, soda bottles, and tattooed arms holding swords. A mural in the same maximalist, pop-iconographic style was on the back wall. The dishes, from a menu that executive chef Kazumasa Yazawa devised in consultation with Japanese star Yoshihiro Narisawa, were more restrained. “This is Narisawa’s influence right here,” Hariyono said as he plucked a lobster claw from beneath a small mound of wasabi sprouts, okra, and kai-lan flower, one of our 12 courses. “You can taste the green, still alive. But what’s more amazing is that Yazawa used local vegetables, which is unheard of here.”

Farm-to-table eating isn’t yet a driving force in Singapore the way it is in the West, but its slow emergence shows a desire to stretch the boundaries of menu-making and cooking. It also underscores Singapore’s growing pride in both its homegrown products and its local kitchen talent. At the just-opened Sorrel, for example, instead of importing a foreign chef, as is the common practice, Loh Lik Peng turned over the reins to a pair of talented young Singaporeans: Johnston Teo, 24, and Alex Phan, 27.

For the first time, Singaporean style sensibilities are being exported, too: Loh has opened hotels and restaurants in London, Shanghai, and Hong Kong; this month he opens his latest property, the Old Clare Hotel, in Sydney. Lee has commissions throughout Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North America. All of this industry was sensationalized by Kevin Kwan in his international best seller, Crazy Rich Asians, which is being turned into a movie by a producer of The Hunger Games.

“People follow passion here and the rest of the world is responding,” Hariyono said before suggesting an excessive (but not unexpected) nightcap. We walked around the corner to Luke’s Oyster Bar & Chop House, an elegant, low-lit, New England–style place whose chef Travis Masiero hails from Boston. Singapore may be finding its own voice, but it’s also still a place where tried-and-true dining concepts from around the world are executed to perfection. “When people like food this much,” Masiero told me, “it makes cooking classics from anywhere a lot of fun.”

Teng Wen Wee’s new restaurant, the Black Swan, is another irresistible foreign import. It serves timeless bistro fare, from beef tartare to oysters, in a beautifully renovated three-story Deco building, ormerly a bank, tucked among the skyscrapers of the Central Business District. “Burnt Ends is also like that,” Masiero said. “It’s an Australian concept made better here. And Shinji by Kanesaka. Every time I go in there, I think, Man, this is the best omakase in the world.” He set a tin of caviar and a couple of mother-of-pearl spoons on the bar. “Just go for it,” he said, looking in my direction. "Finish it."

By the time I met Cynthia Chua, the following morning, time as I knew it had collapsed, the hours, minutes, and seconds replaced by a looping circuit of big meals, small meals, and snacks. In other words, “you feel like a local,” suggested the diminutive 42-year-old restaurateur. She piloted me through the village-like enclave of Tiong Bahru in her chocolate-colored Porsche convertible. “Everybody wants to live in this neighborhood,” she said. In part, that’s because of its distinctly desirable 80-year-old Deco housing blocks, which look like they could have been airlifted in from Miami. But it’s also because this is the area where Singapore’s diverse traditions mix so thrillingly with a sense of cutting-edge entrepreneurship. Four of the nearly 20 restaurants and coffee shops Chua owns in Singapore are here.

As the afternoon passed, she shared her future ambitions: an artisanal butcher shop, a charcuterie, a rooftop farm. (She has since opened two urban farms.) At Tiong Bahru Bakery, one of her first investments, we sampled salted-caramel pastries known as kouign amann and smoked-salmon sandwiches on supple squid-ink buns. “I want to curate entire streets,” Chua said. This is a long-standing impulse in Singapore, epitomized by the centralized hawker centers that were set up for street vendors in 1971. At their best, these clean, orderly rows of stalls feel like personal invitations into the homes of aunties and uncles who want to serve you delicious family recipes. There’s concern about the long-term survival of these businesses, since young Singaporean culinary entrepreneurs seem inclined to aim for higher profit margins than two-dollar chicken dishes—no matter how sublime—can provide. Darren Soh Darren Soh

As we sat in Tiong Bahru’s own hawker center eating jian bo shui kueh—tiny steamed rice cakes with radish chili and shallots, sold four for a dollar—Chua explained how she matches buildings with big ideas. Recently, in a duplex on nearby Martin Road, she launched Common Man Coffee Roasters, a third-wave espresso joint with a stellar menu of comfort foods, and Bochinche, a clubby meat-and-cocktail-driven Argentinean-inspired establishment. “Every time I stand in front of a vacant shop here,” she said, “people think I’m taking it.”

On my last day, Hariyono and I visited a food stall on a working-class street in the area of Jalan Besar to load up on laksa, a silky, briny noodle soup beloved by locals. Then, already full, I met Chua at Tippling Club, another of her restaurants, for a 22-course send-off dinner prepared by the 36-year-old British chef, Ryan Clift. Chua lured Clift to Singapore in 2008, promising him his dream kitchen. “Once I get somebody here,” she said, “they stay.” When I had last visited, the restaurant was operating in a former army barracks, but it was now located in an elegant, central, two-story shop-house.

Working fast in the bright, open kitchen, the chef sent out courses in sealed jars, test tubes, and pill bottles, but they were anything but clinical. Clift lives to misdirect and surprise. Traditional chicken curry came in a combination of white crisps—like small packing peanuts—and flavored foam. Sweet bell peppers had become carbonized lumps. Clift had tenderized the Wagyu beef by placing slices between kombu leaves and zapping them with sound waves. Small bites carried huge flavors. Large ones were unexpectedly subtle. All was engineered to provoke excitement through complexities that weren’t obvious to the eye. The meal represented the ambitions of Clift’s adopted country well, and he knew it. “Things have been bubbling up around here for a long time,” he told me. “But now Singapore is finally hot. Singapore is boiling.”

As I headed back to the airport for my 4 a.m. flight, I began scrolling hungrily through Hariyono’s Instagram again. There were cuts of fish I hadn’t tasted; chili-spiked breakfast noodles I hadn’t slurped; plate-crowded tables my friends had not yet suggested we visit. There would be a last snack of sweet kaya toast in the airport followed by a long flight home, and eventually, a return ticket to book.