SINGAPORE IS A TINY COUNTRY WITH A VORACIOUS APPETITE, AS BERNARD O’RIORDAN DISCOVERED.
Singapore: it’s a multi-racial, multi-lingual country of just 5.6 million where religion divides people along ethnic lines. But if there’s one common obsession that brings this tiny city-state together, then it surely must be food.
The prosperous island state affectionately known as “the little red dot” is arguably Asia’s best food destination. It’s a delicious blend of Chinese, Malay, Peranakan, Indian and Western influences.
From Chinatown and Arab Street to Little India and Boat Quay, each neighbourhood has its own unique spices, flavours and smells.
Qantas has reinstated Singapore as a stopover hub.
It’s in these diverse neighbourhoods that you will discover the best of Singapore’s vibrant dining scene, from gourmet chefs cooking up a storm to some of the best street food in Asia.
And now that Qantas has reinstated Singapore as a stopover hub for flights to London, it’s a great chance for more Australians to experience the memorable flavours of Singapore first hand.
Here’s just a little of what you can expect:
Often the most delicious food is found at inexpensive hawker centres, which these days are basically open-air food courts.
Across the city, these legendary food stalls showcase traditional dishes like chilli crab, rice noodles, Hainanese chicken rice, satay sticks, curry debal and even dim sum, with recipes often handed down through the generations.
Chinatown Food Street, which includes 24 hawker stalls under cover on Smith Street in the heart of Chinatown, is as close to hawker heaven as you’ll find. You might pay a little bit more than some other hawker centres in Singapore, but why quibble when you know this is as authentic as it gets.
Open daily from 11am, this is where you’ll find a wide array of mouth-watering classics as well as simple comfort food without breaking the bank.
A big plate of thick rice and egg noodles, known as Char Kway Teow, will set you back just SG$5 at Food Street Fried Kway Teow Mee (Stall No 8), while the juiciest beef, lamb and chicken satay sticks I’ve had were from Old Airport Road Satay Bee Hoon and BBQ Steamboat (Stall No 2).
While you’re in Chinatown, stop by the Maxwell Food Centre which is popular with locals and tourists alike.
For many people, this is the place to indulge in Hainanese Chicken Rice, considered one of Singapore’s national dishes. In Singapore, most food outlets, from hawker stalls to the high-end restaurants, sell Hainanese Chicken Rice.
If you want to try one of the best versions of Hainanese Chicken, look for Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice (Stalls 10 and 11) within the Maxwell Food Centre.
For just SG$3.50 you’ll enjoy the famous poached chicken with a selection of chilli sauces over fluffy white jasmine rice and chicken broth. But be warned, there’s often a long line of hungry customers.
Nearby, Chinatown Complex Market & Food on Smith Street is the largest hawker centre in Singapore with over 260 food stalls, as well as a wet market (fish market) and various small shops.
Satay Street is a ‘must-do’ for first time visitors.
You’ll find all the well-known favourites like chilli crab, BBQ chicken wings and chicken rice, as well as popular local fare like BBQ stingray, frog porridge (congee) and Chai Tau Kway or fried carrot cake (it’s not actually carrot cake as most westerners know it, but rather a savoury dish that uses rice flour and white radish).
Lau Pa Sat, a hawker’s centre in the heart of the financial district at Raffles Quay, is a true Singapore landmark and one of the most architectural impressive.
Here you’ll find more than 200 hawker stalls along eight corridors, all converging into a central atrium. Lau Pa Sat offers an expansive array Chinese, Malay, Indian and western food, as well as Korean, Vietnamese and Japanese.
The prices are also more than reasonable, with many dishes costing no more than SG$5 or SG$6.
Lau Pa Sat can be found on the corner of Boon Tat Street, an easy five-minute stroll from Raffles Place MRT station.
If you visit after 7pm, you can also explore Satay Street outside the centre, which is reminiscent of the city’s old-style street hawkers. Boon Tat Street, also known as Satay Street, closes to traffic each night, as vendors set up tables and chairs in the street.
From 7 p.m. to midnight, you can choose from an array of satay platters for SG$30-40.
In my book, Satay Street is a Singapore ‘must-do’ for first-time visitors, as long as you don’t mind eating off plastic plates and drinking Tiger beer from the bottle while sitting on a stool.
Prices are a little higher than at hawker centres in other parts of the city, with most dishes costing around SG$10.
And if you’re visiting during the Formula 1 Grand Prix in September, you can sample Singapore’s street food culture trackside at Circuit Park.
Circuit Park sits inside the actual race circuit and is home to a wide range of food and beverage options, even if they are on the pricier side.
You’ll find several bars and stalls selling everything from traditional hawker fare to Korean, Thai and Japanese cuisine.
If you’d rather reserve a table, or perhaps you’re in the mood for something a bit fancier than street food, there’s certain to a restaurant in Chinatown that meets your needs.
Award-winning owner and chef Yong Bing Ngen is renowned for his stylish fare at the Majestic Restaurant, including crispy wasabi prawn, pan seared foie gras, peking duck and organic greens.
For delectable seafood creations, Chinatown Seafood Restaurant at 52 Pagoda Street, serves up chilli crab, black pepper crab, and cereal prawns.
If Hong Kong-style dim sum is more your thing, head to 42 Smith Street where you’ll find Tak Po, or head down to Chin Swee Road for dim sum at the Red Star Restaurant, where dated décor and traditional pushcarts are all part of the charm.
Club Street, home to upscale Chinese clubs and associations in the 1800s and 1900s, has several fine western restaurants worth exploring. Try Luke’s Oyster Bar and Chop House (22 Gemmill Lane and other locations) or southern Italian fare at Noti Restaurant and Bar (54 Club St).
Arab Street and Haji Lane
You’ll know you’ve arrived at Arab Street when you see the stunning Masjid Sultan Mosque, with its golden dome hovering on high.
Rather than just one road, Arab Street actually refers to an area that includes Bussorah Street, Haji and Bali Lanes and Muscat Street. Part of the culturally rich Kampong Glam heritage trail, Arab Street — surrounded by brightly coloured fabrics and textiles, hand-knotted Persian rugs and aromatic Arab teas – is Singapore’s Muslim quarter.
Along these colourful streets you’ll find coffee shops boasting the best of Middle Eastern cuisine: kebabs, baklava, and mutarak. Just don’t expect to see the traditional ‘shisha smoking” here: the government banned it last year.
Browsing through the rows of restaurants for one that served something close to traditional Middle Eastern and Turkish food was not easy though.
Eventually we settled on Beirut Grill at 72 Bussorah Street and we weren’t disappointed. The restaurant’s colourful fit out caught our eye initially, but it was the food that won us over.
Beirut Grill serves some of the best hummus, stuffed vine leaves, falafel and homemade pita bread you’ll find.
The mixed grilled meat platter for two – which includes lamb kofta, tikka kebab, shish kebab and rice – was also highly enjoyable. This is the sort of place I’d happily return to.
When you arrive at Little India you could be forgiven for thinking you were in downtown Delhi. Well that might be a slight exaggeration, but the sights, sounds, smells and textures of Indian culture are everywhere.
Entering Little India from Serangoon Road, you are greeted by the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple. It’s the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, it is dedicated to the goddess Kali. Further along you’ll find spice shops, jewellery stores, flower vendors and lots more.
On a previous visit, I stayed in the heart of Little India at the former Grand Chancellor Hotel, and I really got to know this area well. It was quite an adventure trying to decide where to eat because you are simply spoiled for choice at every turn.
Biryani, Samosas, Chapatti and Parathas are all waiting for you along Serangoon Road and the adjacent Racecourse Road which are overflowing with curry houses. But one place that seems to be head and shoulders above the rest is the Banana Leaf Apollo.
Everyone raves about the Banana Leaf Apollo, which made me a little sceptical for some reason. It sounded like another tourist trap at first. But having dined there, I can see why it has been a crowd pleaser since 1974.
It serves traditional North and South Indian meals. And as the name suggests, meals
here are served on banana leaves instead of plates – a tradition all over India. You’re encouraged to eat with your fingers, but fear not, there is cutlery should you prefer.
You’ll actually find one Singapore’s many hawker centres in this neighbourhood also. The Tekka Centre includes a busy wet market, budget knick-knack shops and dirt-cheap tailors, along with a top food centre that includes Indian and Chinese food.
You can buy a very decent bowl of butter chicken for around SG$3, garlic naan for SG$1, or a plate of sambal sotong (spicy, saucy squid) or Indian rojak (a South Asian style salad). For something different, try murtabak, an Indian pancake stuffed with meat, fried and eaten with curry.
While you’re in Little India, check out the 24-hour shopping mall called the Mustafa Centre. Crammed on six floors of this huge 1970’s-style emporium you’ll find an eclectic array of products from jewellery and cosmetics to electronics and luggage.
There’s also a supermarket on the second floor that is fascinating for its range of western and Indian food items.
Orchard Road, a 2.2km boulevard, is probably Asia’s best known and most popular shopping strip.
Orchard Road, named after the nutmeg orchards that once lined the streets in the 1830s, is where you’ll find high-end designer brands like Cartier and Louis Vuitton as well as mainstream fashion staples like H&M and Uniqlo.
And when you need a break from shopping, there’s a wide array of dining options from ramen and sushi to burgers and pasta. And just because it’s Orchard Road doesn’t mean you need to burn a hole in your pocket.
From a selection of Udon and Donburi under SG$14, try Tsuru-Koshi Udon at Ngee Ann City, 391 Orchard Road, or while you’re there check out the Food Village in the basement of Takashimaya department store. They do incredible beer battered fish and chips for under SG$10, as well as Korean, Indian and Thai cuisine.
Maybe it’s time to finally bite the bullet and give Hainanese chicken rice a go? Head to Hainanese Delicacy, on the 5th floor at Far East Plaza, 14 Scotts Road, for chicken that is tender and succulent and prepared without much fuss.
If you crave some tasty Thai, Thai Tantric in Orchard Towers, 400 Orchard Road, is hard to resist, with most dishes priced under SG$10.
If you’re a fan of New York style delicatessens, try the pastrami or bagels at Sacha & Sons, 333A Orchard Road, in the Mandarin Gallery. This is where you’ll also find The Providore and their killer Lobster Mac ‘n’ cheese.
There are many places where you can get a decent meal along Orchard Road. Most of the big shopping malls have food outlets as well as fine dining restaurants.
One of the most popular is the ION Orchard mall – directly above the Orchard Road MTR. It boasts 15 restaurants, cafes & bars, 24 fast food restaurants, and a decent food hall.
Emerald Hill is one of the most colourful neighbourhoods in Singapore and makes an easy detour from the hectic shopping belt of Orchard Road. It’s actually a conservation area now and the restored Peranakan shophouses have become an important part of the city’s nightlife.
With its small, old-world, charming shophouses and cluster of hip bars – including No. 5 Emerald Hill, Que Pasa and Alley Bar – it’s a great place to go to escape the madness of Orchard Road. Most bars open at 5pm.
Who would have thought a former convent and girls school would become a thriving restaurant and bar precinct in the heart of Singapore?
Chijmes (pronounced Chimes) is the second-oldest building in Singapore and was originally the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus. It ceased operating as a convent in 1983 when the Singapore Government acquired the land.
After a massive facelift, the heritage complex – characterised by its distinct neo-classical gothic style – became home to dozens of restaurants, cafes and bars.
The award-winning Coriander Leaf, previously based at Clarke Quay, now calls Chijmes home, as does the Australian-style bistro Dimbulah.
It’s worth visiting Chijmes, at 30 Victoria Street, just to admire the stunning architecture.
If you enjoy dining al fresco, Boat Quay is a popular restaurant and bar precinct overlooking the Singapore River that specialises mainly in seafood.
The only problem is that the area is often spoiled by boozy expats and way-too-pushy restaurateurs haggling for your custom along the waterfront. And who really needs that?
There are numerous restaurants providing alternatives to seafood, including the North Indian restaurant Kinara.
I was disappointed when I discovered that a favourite restaurant here, Absinthe Restaurant Francais, had recently closed. It was the only reason I went anywhere near Boat Quay.
It would be remiss to write about Singapore’s food scene without at least mentioning the iconic Raffles Hotel. The hotel is currently undergoing restoration, but the restaurants and bars are still operating.
The Long Bar at Raffles is the place to come for a Singapore Sling, widely regarded as Singapore’s national drink. But there are 18 restaurants and bars in all, including the fine-dining Raffles Grill, where jackets are required.
You can also enjoy a less formal North Indian buffet in the Tiffin Room, or a Champagne High Tea from 3pm to 5.30pm for SG$80 (it’s about SG$62 without the Champagne, so check the bill).
The High Tea menu includes a classic assortment of finger sandwiches, cakes and scones, as well as a dim sum station.
Raffles is one of several hotels laying out the red carpet for afternoon tea in Singapore. It’s actually a really crowded market with The St Regis, The Ritz Carlton, The Shangri-La, The Westin, The Grand Hyatt and The Fullerton Bay Hotel all hosting High Tea, just to name a few.
But if you want a truly memorable experience, look no further than Anti:dote at the Fairmont Singapore. Rather than serving these tasty morsels on a three-tiered plate, they’re presented in a white-leather jewellery box with drawers.
There are three tea sets to choose from: the Anti:dote Tea Set, the Oriental Tea Set or the Regal Tea Set. Each includes a selection of teas, while only the Regal includes a glass of champagne.
The only real difference is the starter. The Anti:dote Tea Set comes with black truffle scrambled eggs while the Oriental Tea Set includes a selection of Hong Kong-style dim sum.
Each drawer holds a range of desserts, finger sandwiches and sweet and savoury pastries, including Boston lobster roll, ham quiche with black truffle and smoked salmon.
It’s probably the most unique High Tea experience you will have, not just in Singapore, but anywhere in the world.