Seriously, if you can’t find something to nom on in Singapore, you probably shouldn’t leave your house. We are somewhat adventurous eaters with a few broad restrictions:
- no raw onions
- no fish or seafood
- no raw, unseasoned tomatoes
…but they didn’t slow us down one bit. The food in Singapore was one of our favorite aspects of the whole trip.
Kopi and Kaya Toast
Kopi is coffee — but maybe not what you expect. We found it to be rich and perfectly sweetened (without being overly so) and lovely. We dug a little deeper (thanks YouTube) into the Singaporean coffee culture and found this video:
Note the mingling of the languages — love that!
We snagged a coffee and tried some kaya toast at a Toast Box restaurant in Bugis Junction early in our trip and that quickly became a ritual for each subsequent morning.
Toast and coffee or tea is a big deal in Singapore. Wikipedia informs us that that is thanks in part to the British breakfast culture. The local spin: kaya. Think lemon curd, but with coconut milk instead of lemon as the primary flavoring ingredient. You can make it yourself quite easily with a recipe such as this one (and that was breakfast today, which turned out lovely). We got palm sugar and pandan leaves at our local Asian market. Everything else is easily available.
There are several different kinds of kaya toast — thick toast is shown at the left, but you can also get two thinner slices of toast slathered with kaya and a generous pat of butter between them. Other sauces, such as peanut, are also available. At the same restaurant we also tried a curry chicken and rice dish for breakfast once at the same restaurant, which was lovely.
We tried out Ming Chung restaurant at our vacation apartment landlady’s recommendation. It was just around the corner and had outdoor seating and friendly staff. Actually kind of too helpful: we sort of got railroaded into a couple dishes the hostess suggested. They were good, but we felt kind of pressured upon arrival. We both would have appreciated a little more time to peruse the menu, even if we probably would have ended up ordering what she suggested. Just about the only dish completely devoid of sea creatures they had on offer was the mixed stir-fried vegetables. So this is not the place for you if you are vegan or vegetarian in the stricter sense.
Of course this is not the only Chinese restaurant in Singapore1 — Singapore is dominated by various Chinese diaspora ethnicities, and as such there are plenty of Chinese restaurants. But this is one of the few that we tried. We found it quite difficult to turn down the Indian food, given its prevalence there and relative rarity here.
Oh, Singapore. Thank you for your Indian food. We found it nearly everywhere, at every hawker centre, and especially in the Tekka Center in Little India. Chana masala, palak paneer, glorious garlic naan — all our favorites were there, but enhanced: we still can’t really say how authentic this incarnation of Indian food was, compared to India, but holy smokes, did it ever satisfy. It wasn’t overly hot, but the spiciness had a definite richness of flavor to it which we haven’t found elsewhere. Yet. 2
As a parting treat while we were hanging around the airport, waiting for our 23:55 flight to begin boarding, Sarah spied Ananda Bhavan: a vegetarian (and partially vegan) restaurant in Terminal2 open 24 hours. When we rolled up, it had a line out the door — a very good sign. We had wonderfully spicy chana masala and paneer tikka masala, garlic naan, and a Kashmiri pulau, tea and a small bottle of water for about S$25 — at the airport!
Surprisingly, we didn’t get all that much Malaysian food while in Singapore. The draw of the Indian was just too strong. But I did try a nasi lemak for breakfast on Christmas morning at Ah Teng’s Bakery at the Raffles hotel. It was interesting: spicy peanut sauce, crispy tiny anchovies, creamy coconut rice surrounding a couple of seasoned fish heads for flavor, and all of that wrapped up in a banana leaf. Now that we have discovered we can get pandan leaves, 3 maybe we’ll try making it ourselves, sans tête du poisson.
Tulang Merah was the prettiest-looking dish at a hawker center we stumbled upon. I was feeling adventurous and walked up and ordered it before asking what it is. Turns out: it’s mutton-marrow stew. The broth is bright red (looks like blood, but it’s not) — I gather that tulang means “mutton” and merah means “red” — and rich and warmly spiced. It’s served in a very shallow bowl and you should get some bread to sop it up. There’s not a lot of meat on the mutton bones, but that’s not the point. The point is the marrow inside them.
We try to always hit a supermarket when we visit a new place. There was a 24-hour Sheng Siong supermarket in the basement of a hawker center and office building around the corner from us where we
- stocked up on bottled water,
- marveled at the Asian products on offer, and
- skeptically scoped out ostensibly Western products
Plenty of items looked kind of familiar, but just a little “off.” We even trekked out to Orchard Rd for a Marks & Spencer ready-to-eat lunch and were sorely disappointed to find their food section only had not-ready-to-eat stuff. But at least there were shortbread cookies.
Around the water cooler we’d heard that Singapore was “quite expensive.” I suppose that’s true for the restaurants in the fancy shopping districts, but certainly not in the hawker centers. We walked past a brotzeit several times on our through the city and were surprised to see they have Thurn & Taxis Roggen4 on offer (among many other German beers). However, the prices were pretty distasteful: S$15.50 (that’s about 9€!) for a beer you can here in a restaurant for less than 3€. We saw plenty of similar European-themed restaurants aimed at those with the disposable cash to be shopping those areas and didn’t try any of them — our hawker centers and neighborhood restaurants kept us well-fed.
U.S. Fast Food
We were surprised to see not only the usual suspects like McDonald’s and Burger King, but also some long-lost (to us) venues like Wendy’s and (gasp!) Long John Silver’s and Popeye’s. That was weird. If you’re awake and ravenous and moving around Bugis in the wee hours of Christmas morning like I was (thanks, jet lag), then a Sausage McMuffin and Egg might be the way to go. Side note: the sausage tasted slightly different. I suspect it was turkey-based instead of pork, which would make sense given the sizeable Muslim component of Singaporean society.
If you’re headed to Singapore, rest assured you’ll find plenty of tasty variety. If you’re stuck in Singapore on a layover, see if you can stretch it out and venture out into the city for a meal. Or if nothing else, try Ananda Bhavan in Terminal 2 outside of the security zone.