In Singapore, a city devoted to restaurants, every bite opens a window onto an endlessly colorful culture.

By Adam Sachs
September 13, 2011
Credit: Morgan & Owens

“Have you ever tried a Singaporean baguette?” asked the doctor. Before I could answer, he’d run off to find one.

It was nearing midnight but many of the outdoor tables around us at the East Coast Lagoon Food Village were still full. Families lingered over late dinners of sticky-charred skewers of Malay satay and platters of Hokkien mee, fried noodles slicked with prawn broth, brightened by a stir of chili sauce and a last-minute squeeze of sweet calamansi limes. Kids draped their legs over wooden benches and beat the night heat with bowls of cendol, a slushy treat of shaved ice and coconut milk, palm sugar, red beans, and iridescent green jelly noodles colored with pandan leaves.

With the doctor away, I had a moment to consider the relative tranquillity of the scene. Where the hawker stalls and tables ended, the beach began, invisible in the moonless dark. A rumor of a sea breeze moved gently through the palms. The perpetual progress machine of Singapore runs hot and fast. This is not a city that generally encourages quiet reflection. But here at this open-air food court on the shore, the city felt more relaxed, intimate, at ease with itself. Uncles and aunties, as everyone calls the older hawkers, stirred woks, fanned charcoal grills, and pressed juice from sugarcane. Late-arriving night-snackers passed from stand to stand, hunting alone like owls or ordering in packs, piling their empty plates on the tables under lit canopies.

In Singapore, it’s never too late (or too early or too hot or busy or inconvenient or too anything at all) to search for something good to eat. And to earnestly savor it, whether it costs $3 for humble chicken rice at a hawker center like this one, or a hundred times that at one of the high-priced chef-y places of the moment.

The doctor returned. The baguette did not look like a baguette—or like anything a doctor would prescribe. It was charred and eggy, the size of a frisbee and buried beneath a colorful cross-hatching of chili sauce and mayonnaise. “We call it Roti John,” said Dr. Leslie Tay, a jovial family practitioner and ardent hawker-stall enthusiast and food blogger. “One day, the story goes, an ang mos—this is what we call foreign people like you, meaning, literally, ‘red-haired’—asked a Malay vendor to make him some French toast. Somehow he came up with this! It became quite popular and took the name Roti John because it was the roti that John had.”

Tay wrote a book called The End of Char Kway Teow (about a famously artery-antagonizing dish of rice noodles and cockles bathed in pork fat and sweet soy sauce) that celebrates the hawker uncles and aunties he’d come to know while hunting down the best of their offerings for his website. (The difference between a lay practitioner and a doctor food blogger is that a doctor will write, of a dish of stewed pork innards: “Most of the colorectal surgeons I know crave for kway chap after a long day in surgery!”)

“So tell me,” he said, moving on from the bastardized baguette to a plate of bak chor mee (linguine-like egg noodles with minced pork, mushrooms, and black vinegar). “What is your angle?” No angle, I told him. Singapore struck me as a city-state of impressively enthusiastic eaters. My plan was to wander about, sniff around, and taste all that I could—high, low, and everything in between. At this, the doctor seemed to relax visibly. As did nearly everyone else when I told them I was simply here to view the city through its food. They’d loosen their shoulders, smile, and remember another chicken-rice stand I needed to try.

“Asian culture is built around food, but Singapore especially because there’s nothing else to do,” Tay said. “What are you going to do? Go rock climbing?”

Time-zone sleeplessness turned me out early from the aptly named Wanderlust hotel, in Little India. Even at 7 a.m., the temperature differential between inside and out formed a cloud of fog on my camera lens. I walked past ramshackle shop-houses painted pink and yellow and blue, past the halal goat-meat sellers on Buffalo Road and the fragrant garland stalls, past the church with an English- and Tamil-language Festival of Healing in progress (blind eyes see! barren conceive! finances restored!).

Singapore is known as a city of composure, safety; it’s a model of the high-functioning modern economic center. But beneath all that is a kinetic energy that can be seen at places like Tekka Market Food Center, in the low-lying streets where much of the city’s Indian workforce lives. Backed by a Bollywood sound track, maids and mothers are buying the day’s groceries. Spices hang sweet in the air: as you move through the market the aromatics of curry leaf and cardamom mingle with sweet tea and cigarettes, incense, ripening mangoes, and truck exhaust.

I drank iced ginger tea and waited on the corner for a chef named Willin Low to pick me up for the day’s private tutorial in how to eat like a local. Wiry, with a little spike of hair and an easy, affable, let-me-take-you-everywhere warmth, Low is an ideal guide. Like many Singaporeans he’s equally at home with hawker fare and at the globalized brand-name restaurants (Robuchon, Batali, Boulud) that have come to the city with the arrival of luxury hotels and casinos. More important, he’s a pioneer of the middle ground: his restaurant, Wild Rocket, introduced the city to the concept of dressed-up modern Singaporean home-style food, as conceived by a former lawyer who taught himself to cook to fend off homesickness and hunger while at school in London.

Our first stop: Maxwell Road Hawker Center for chicken rice at a stall called Tian Tian. It’s necessary to start with chicken rice because it is the quintessential comfort food of Singapore, humble but exalted—what the unadorned omelette is to the French or the margherita pizza to the Neapolitans. Because it’s so simple (poached and blanched chicken; rice moistened with stock and dark soy sauce; a bowl of broth on the side) there is no room for error and infinite room for debate. “If you ask ten Singaporeans about the best chicken rice you will get ten different answers,” Low said, pleased at the thought. “This is one of the few places in the world where while we’re eating lunch, we are discussing where to go for lunch tomorrow—because we’ve already planned dinner for sure.”

Obviously cities everywhere love their food. What distinguishes Singapore, Low says, is the diversity of cultural (and, by extension, culinary) influence. The population is Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian, new immigrants and old. What makes the place compelling for travelers who like to eat is that notions of authenticity blur and bend in the transforming heat of the melting pot. Take those Hokkien mee: Chinese noodles with a Malay sambal chili sauce and the addition of fried cubes of lard and local limes. “The whole thing is just very Singaporean,” Low says. “We’re a small island and we travel so much, so we’re open to a lot of flavors and receptive to change.” The Singaporization of these flavors leads to compelling local variants. “Look around,” Tay had told me. “You’ll find Chinese crullers dipped in Indonesian peanut sauce and Chinese people doing their own twist on Malay satays. They’ll add five-spice or saffron to the marinade or use pork because they can.”

The Tian Tian chicken rice was soothing, the wobbly, salty meat delicious on its own or dipped in the gingery chili sauce or dark, reduced soy. Having established the base knowledge, Low continued our lessons all over town.

At Candlenut Kitchen, a young chef named Malcolm Lee celebrates the cuisine of his Peranakan (descendants of Malay-Chinese settlers) roots while making it his own. The food is deceptively homey, involving complex techniques and long cooking times. Slow-cooked short ribs are served with buah keluak (an Indonesian nut), the meat of which is ground and reduced to a remarkable sludgy black sauce tasting of coffee, something like a pungent Southeast Asian mole.

We paid a visit to an old-school Fouzhou-Chinese place, called Singapura Seafood Restaurant, on the second floor of a government-housing building. It looked a bit like what “Oriental” banquet restaurants in midsize American cities looked like in the 1970’s. And for Low it conjured the same sort of nostalgia. “This is the kind of restaurant my grandparents would take us to for a treat,” he said. Valerie Tang, the owner, told us her father had opened the restaurant in what had been a “seedy Chinese nightclub” decades ago. The recipes—including an excellent breaded pork liver on baby kale—were her father’s, and, like the no-frills interior, they were worth preserving.

Hawkers used to be as free-range as the chickens they’d serve. “I can still remember them as a kid gathering near my home in the late afternoons,” Low said. “There’d be six pushcarts, with makeshift tables and chairs.” Later, for reasons of hygiene and general oversight, the government moved the individual carts to organized clusters called hawker centers.

At the Singapore Food Trail, a hawker center beneath the Singapore Flyer (a gigantic Ferris wheel similar to London’s dopey Eye) the stalls have been constructed to look like 1960’s pushcarts. Singaporeans come by their fusion food honestly: we ate satay bee hoon, a dish of Chinese rice vermicelli covered in a Malay peanut satay sauce. “I want you to try an oyster omelette,” Low said. “It’s a Hokkien dish, and there are versions in Thailand and Taiwan, but this version is really Singaporean.” A loose scramble of eggs and oysters with a fish sauce and vinegary chili sauce, it was fortifying and salty and good.

And so the lessons continued. We ate more and sweat more and then the world seemed to sweat, too: the bright sky filled with hot afternoon rain. We got back in the car, and Chet Baker sang “Time After Time” (“I always play Chet Baker in the rain,” Low said), and we drove somewhere else and somehow ate more.

By odd coincidence, I was that evening introduced to the daughter of the man who’d made our oyster omelette, a friend of a friend. Pat Law owns a social-marketing company. Her first job was working for the family business. “At the time my dad made duck rice,” she said. “He had a stall at the airport for the staff canteen before there were hawker stands. At 13, I learned to chop the ducks.” “Did you like the smell of it?” I asked. “I liked the smell of my pocket money,” she answered, without hesitation. “I had the oiliest of coins and they smelled like gravy. But duck gave me life.”

One afternoon i found myself transported to the upstairs dining room of Restaurant André, a tiny, serene, white-and-gray cloud of a place, a million miles away from the frenetic world outside. Rather than a traditional menu, chef André Chiang pre-sents diners with his “octa-philosophy,” a series of moods or rubrics (Pure, Memory, Terroir, etc.). That’s probably seven or so more philosophies than I’d like to hear about, but by the time the meal was under way I’d discarded the highbrow reading material and was just enjoying the ride. Born in Taiwan and raised and trained in France, Chiang makes French food with hints of Asian influence: tomato sorbet with cured fluke and black seaweed alongside purple sea-urchin risotto and a tartare of razor clams; a foie gras custard topped with a warm, liquid-y truffle jelly that tasted like an earthy Perigordian chawan mushi.

From restaurants like André and Fifty Three (another well-choreographed, minimally designed, austere dining room, this one from another homegrown chef and lapsed lawyer, Michael Han), I learned that visitors to Singapore needn’t seek out the international Michelin crew from the casino restaurants to have a transportingly good, high-tone meal.

Michael Han has done a stage at Noma and Mugaritz. He tends to his herb plants and edible flowers in the weedy lot next to his restaurant. He takes the whole fine-dining thing seriously. But true to the Singaporean code, he doesn’t discriminate on either end of the culinary spectrum. On his night off from the kitchen he drove me out to the old red-light district of Geylang, and we parked ourselves on red plastic chairs on the sidewalk outside the Sin Huat Eating House. “To be really authentic it has to be just a little bit dirty,” Han said. We went to the kitchen to pick out the crabs we wanted variously barbecued and wok-fried with noodles. A cook reached into a bucket and retrieved a very large bullfrog, British racing green with a slick underbelly and intelligent black eyes. I felt bad for the big guy, but in the spirit of the city, we’d be eating everything that night.

Candlenut Kitchen 25 Neil Rd.; 65/6226-2506; dinner for two $20.

Chomp Chomp Food Center 20 Kensington Rd.

East Coast Lagoon Food Village 1220 East Coast Park Hwy.

Fifty Three 53 Armenian St.; 65/6334-5535; dinner for two $398.

Maxwell Road Hawker Center Maxwell Rd. at Neil Rd.

Restaurant André 41 Bukit Pasoh Rd.; 65/6534-8880; dinner for two $212.

Rochor Original Bean Curd For silky tofu pudding, a Singaporean treat. 2 Short St.; no phone; snacks for two $2.

Singapore Food Trail 30 Raffles Ave.

Singapura Seafood Restaurant 01-31 Selegie Rd.; 65/6336-3255; dinner for two $25.

Sin Huat Eating House 659 Geylang Rd.; 65/6744-9755; dinner for two $67.

Tekka Market Food Center 665 Buffalo Rd.

Tippling Club An inventive food and drink laboratory. 8D Dempsey Rd.; 65/6475-2217; dinner for two $240.

Wild Oats 8 Hougang Ave.; 65/6858-2087; drinks for two $10.

Wild Rocket Hangout Hotel, 10A Upper Wilkie Rd.; 65/6339-9448; dinner for two $91.