No discussion of Singapore would be complete without talking about the food. As diverse as the people themselves, the food in Singapore is a vast array of Indian, Malaysian, Indonesian, and Chinese cuisine, with a sprinkling of colonial England. Coconuts, curries, spicy rice dishes, duck, satay, fish ball noodles and fresh fruits are just a small taste of what you will find.
Yes, there are the world-class restaurants featuring cuisine from all over the map (in fact, I had one of the best interior Mexican meals I’ve ever had while there). But one of the best ways to eat is in the hawker stalls — in an effort to clean up the city, former street carts were moved from the streets to be housed in large, covered, open-air markets. My office in Singapore is nearby one of the best, Maxwell Hawker Center. Here you can find virtually any variety of Southeast Asian food and most meals average $3 (about $2 USD). A full plate of fresh vegetables, rice or noodles and choice of meat cooked to order in front of you. Malaysian one day, Chinese the next. Fish head curry, steamed dumplings, pad thai and samosas all under one roof.
I must admit that I have the annoying habit of being reluctant to try a city’s Signature Dish when I touch ground. Blame growing up in a tourist town and wanting to blend in wherever I am, convinced that the locals eat something else much more delicious. But the truth is that clam chowder, steamed lobster and fried clams are in fact delicious and that is why people swarm my hometown in the summer. This affliction is often at my peril. It took me three years and twenty five days to succumb to beignets and café au lait at Café du Monde in New Orleans because that’s where all the tourists go. But do you know why all the tourists go there? Because beignets and café au lait at Café du Monde are delicious.
It only took me one week to answer the question “Have you had chicken rice yet?” with a resounding, enthusiastic yes. It then became my meal of choice for the entire week that followed, quickly developing a system of ordering that would rival Sally Albright. “I’d like the roasted chicken rice, breast meat only please, extra spicy sauce on the side, and two servings of white ginger sauce. On the side.” Keep in mind, this is all they serve at Chicken Rice stalls. And do keep in mind, it is delicious. Especially with two ginger sauces.
Another favorite was Laksa, a Singaporean dish that is part Malaysian and part Thai in origin: noodles, vegetables and fish or tofu in a spicy coconut curry broth. At many laksa stands, you choose the contents of your curry. My favorite concoction was a marvelous laksa lemak with white fish, tofu, okra and bok choy.
And then there’s the fruit. After a spicy meal or to refresh during a particularly sweltering afternoon, most food halls have a variety of fresh fruit stands. Fresh lychee drink, aloe-lime juice and papaya smoothies became my afternoon standbys. Cases are filled with freshly cut slices of watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple, papaya and jackfuit — the vendors will cut your selection into bite-size pieces and put it in a to-go bag on ice.
Now I’m hungry.