Singapore is also known as the Lion City.
Story and Photos by Luc Gougeon
I must blame the writer and chef Anthony Bourdain for introducing me to the gluttony hell that is Singapore. A while ago, I watched an episode of No Reservations shot in Singapore and I just knew I would wind up there one day. Living in Japan just made this foodie dream easier.
If you need a break from Japan and you love food, then Singapore is the place for you. How could Singapore be described? Well… think about your typical super mall in America, multiply this by a thousand, coat it with several layers of luxury, throw in some amazing colonial architecture and you’ve got a pretty good image of Singapore.
Singapore is a tiny island/city-state just south of Malaysia, around a seven-hour flight from Japan. Being so close to the equator, the island has never experienced temperatures colder than 23०C (73०F), so if you need to chase the chill from your bones during the cold Japanese winter, it’s the place to go.
When you approach Singapore from the air, you cannot fail to notice the impressive density of this modern metropolis and the incredible number of cargo ships and super tankers off shore. Singapore’s airport is modern and conveniently connected to the center of the city by the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit). A quick, simple and inexpensive metro system covers the whole island. To give you an idea of Singapore’s size, a bus ride on the North-South Expressway is a mere 45 minutes — it’s that small!
Singapore has earned a reputation as one of the cleanest and safest places in the world, and I must confirm it’s spotless. Littering, chewing gum, eating or smoking in public is punishable by a pretty hefty fine. While I was there, a man was arrested for purse snatching and got slapped with seven years in prison and a caning. With punishments this harsh, travelers can feel safe! (Be warned, Singapore will enforce the death penalty for possession of drugs, including traces of drugs in your blood!)
This old British colony is inhabited by three major ethnic groups: Chinese, Indians and Malays. Fortunately, English is the common language spoken by everybody on the island, and all signs are written in English. In truth, the spoken language is actually Singlish, a local form of Creole English, but it’s easy to understand once you get used to it. If the lack of proper English bookstores in Japan has driven you crazy, you will rejoice at the sight of gigantic bookstores like Borders, Page One and Kinokuniya.
Let’s get down to the serious business now: the food!
The ethnic diversity I mentioned before is the secret behind the Singaporean cult for food. Where else could you find the best of Indian, Malaysian and Chinese food? Food is everywhere in Singapore and the quality and diversity is enough to make your head spin. You will find nearly any kind of food from pretty much anywhere in the world, including okonomiyaki and Ippudo ramen. A visit to the grocery store almost made me cry. The store had 90 percent of the food I could find back home and all the exotic stuff I could dream of.
The Maxwell Food Centre, a well-known hawker center
Singapore is famous for its hawker centers, which are the epitome of a food court. These food courts are operated under extremely strict rules of hygiene imposed by the government, so diners there eat food from some of the cleanest kitchens in the world. Eating in a hawker center is simple. Find a table, remember the number, go order, pay and the food will be brought to your table. A rule of thumb is to find the longest possible line and just wait; if there is a line in Singapore, there is a legendary eatery behind it. I visited Maxwell Food Centre, one of the most famous hawker centers, and the lacquered pork and duck I ate there was perfect. There are hawker centers everywhere, so just pick one and explore. It’s easy, all the menus are written in English and people in line are happy to share their passion for the local cuisine.
If you need help to navigate this foodie paradise, I strongly suggest you acquire the Makansutra guide to street food upon your arrival in Singapore. Using this guide, you can search for the best meal of your life by geographic location, or simply peruse all the different options included in the section devoted to international food. It’s also got a traditional Singapore food dictionary, which is helpful. Reading the dictionary never made your mouth water so much.
To-die-for chicken rice
Let’s conclude this foodie confession with two dishes you must eat before you die. The first is the famous Hainan chicken rice, probably the favorite dish of local Singaporeans. The chicken is boiled and served with rice cooked in chicken stock, and the combination is simply mind blowing. I paid a small fortune, around $20, for a portion at the Meritus Mandarin Chatterbox located in a four-star hotel on Orchard Road and it was worth every penny. The Chatterbox is famous for its quality and the attention paid to create the perfect chicken rice. It’s expensive, but worth it.
Chili crab. Don’t miss it.
The second “must try” is the chili crab. Chili crab ain’t the cheapest fare in town, but the sweet and spicy sauce is addictive. It’s the messiest meal I’ve ever eaten in my life and it was served with freshly baked balls of bread to soak up the sauce. I ate mine at No Signboard Seafood on the roof of the Vivo shopping center right next to the mind blowing food court.
Now that I’m back in Japan, I often think about going back to Singapore for a $20 chicken rice, and I sincerely hope all of you will have a chance to visit this crazy foodie paradise.
And for your viewing pleasure, here is a video of the aforementioned Anthony Bourdain sampling Singapore’s cuisine: