Singapore, A Tiny Nation with an Outsized Passion for Great Food
Posted by Mary-Frances Walsh
Posted in: Tauck’s Travelogue
Tags: Asia, Food
Not unlike the profusion of cuisines to choose from in the USA, where dining out can mean Italian, Mexican, Mongolian or Greek… eating out in Singapore means choosing from a South East Asia culinary bazaar with an Eastern twist: Chinese, Malaysian, Indonesian, Indian, Peranakan, Thai, Vietnamese and more.
To understand its food, it’s helpful to know a little about the history of this tiny nation. Until the British established a trading post here in 1819, Singapore was an isolated island just off the southern tip of the Malaysian Peninsula. Sir Stamford Raffles, a merchant of the British East India Company, was appointed as the island’s first governor. He declared Singapore a free port with no tax on trade and spurred development of its ports to be of unparalleled service to world shipping.
Raffles' vision was an apt one, for growth flourished. Malaysian, Indonesian and Indian immigrants poured in, first as laborers on the island’s rubber plantations and later at its increasingly busy port. Traders from China and India followed, eager for business opportunities. Nearly two centuries later, Singapore is a hopping island with a record of tremendous economic growth.
British rule lasted until 1963; for much of that time Singapore’s ethnic groups were kept apart in separate residential areas – as were their kitchens. And while the country’s distinctive ethnic neighborhoods (Little India, Chinatown and the Arab Street district) remain a part of its unique character, Singapore’s foods have since evolved to offer a pan-Asian feast of ethnic flavors. You’ll find them proudly celebrated today in cookbooks, food blogs and apps – and above all, as a routine expectation of daily island life.
To taste some of Singapore’s best, you need look no further than its famed Hawker Centres. These semi-open-air food courts feature rows of small food stands that offer freshly prepared foods from the cultures that make up this tiny nation. Hawker Centres offer a chance to take part in authentic Singapore, a country that loves to eat – and eat out.
At a Hawker Centre you’ll watch chefs preparing their specialties; savor the scents of garlic, pepper, lemon grass, curry and ginger; and experience food prepared on the spot in conditions kept famously clean by strict government inspections. It’s inexpensive and especially fun at night, when the crowds are out and the best of food stalls are certain to be open.
The food of Singapore can be found in food courts all over the island, but among the best-known are Newton Circus (near Orchard Road) and Lau Pa Sat (in Chinatown) – favorites of locals and tourists alike, where you’re sure to find some of Singapore’s favorite delicacies. To name a just a few:
- Chai Tai Kway (Carrot Cake) – shredded daikon radish steamed with rice flour, fried with egg, and garnished with spring onion and fresh coriander
- Char Kway Teow (Stir Fried Rice Noodles) – silky noodles and crunchy fresh bean sprouts, along with prawns, shrimp and/or Chinese sausage, and chives
- Chili Crab – cooked with ginger, garlic, fermented black beans and a savory tomato sauce; flavorful but not terribly spicy-hot despite its name
- Hainanese Chicken Rice – a simple but stunning dish of poached chicken and chicken-flavored steamed rice, served with dark soy, chili and ginger sauces, and sliced cucumber
- Roti Prata (Flat Bread) – a light pancake-like flat bread, stretched and flipped like pizza dough in the making, and meant to be eaten after dunking in dhal or curry
- Fish Head Curry – red snapper (the head, of course) cooked in a spicy curry with vegetables, which… if you can get used to looking at something you’re eating in the eye, is heavenly tender
- Laksa – an iconic Peranakan dish with chili, coriander, turmeric, garlic, lemon grass thickened with coconut milk – served with prawns, noodles and puffed tofu cubes
- Satay – marinated, skewered chicken, beef, lamb or pork, grilled over charcoal embers served with a thick sweet-hot peanut sauce
Give them a try and you just might find yourself saying, shiok! (shee-oak), a Singaporean phrase – in no particular language – that conveys the feeling of sheer pleasure!