This essay was published in the Manila Standard Today on 17 February 2012.
Singapore is a super city like no other. From its humble beginnings as a tiny Malay fishing village, this highly progressive, technologically advanced and infamously law-abiding Southeast Asian nation has prospered into a booming megalopolis almost overnight. Known primarily for it’s shipping, banking and high-end retail industries, Singapore has surpassed even the most developed of countries in terms of sustainable economic growth. As a result, a great number of Chinese, Malay, Indian, European and more recently, Filipino migrants and hoards of tourists alike have flocked to its man-made shores. Yet, despite the city’s charm, its collection of concrete monoliths and its notoriety for erecting a mall around every corner, your main purpose of travel to Singapore should not be to go shopping or sightseeing. You come to Singapore to eat.
Revealed only recently to the outside world through the magic of television and the Internet, Singaporean food culture is unmatched in terms of quality, variety and creativity. Iconic dishes such as chicken rice, fish head curry and Singaporean noodles are results of a mélange of ethnicities, each with their own gastronomic tradition. Needless to say, the food is unimaginably good, whether it be served at one of the many fine dining establishments or carelessly consumed at a makeshift table inside a random hawker center. To the locals, more important than where you eat is what you eat and in Singapore you eat a lot.
If there were one mortal sin in the Singaporean food bible, it would be to miss out on their National dish – chicken rice. This deceivingly simple meal of broth, perfectly boiled chicken, and white rice cooked in stock with the optional greens on the side contains layer upon layer of complex flavours. On its own, it tastes amazing. Dressed in the accompanying ginger, chili and black sauces, the feast becomes even more fragrant and intense.
Similar in preparation and equally delicious is the pork rib herbal tea soup or Bak Kut Teh. Chunky cuts of bone-in pork are cooked tender alongside the pig’s chitterlings and various other organs to produce a deep and savoury stock. Eaten with plain rice and braised vegetables, it is comfort food at its finest.
Fish head curry, on the other hand, is a literal melting pot. A monstrous head of Ikan Merah (Red Snapper) stewed in an Indian-style curry with tomato, eggplant and okra is unique, Singaporean fare. The Snapper’s flesh is succulent and sweet, the eyes a delicacy. The thick, dark curry strikes a definitive balance between tamarind, heat and spice, allowing the fish to retain its natural flavour.
Even Xiaolongbao, the most coveted of Chinese buns, can be found in Singapore. Not unlike Hakaw or Wantons, these soup-filled “dumplings” are a dim sum rarity outside of Eastern China. Notably, it is the novelty of its consumption –sucking out the hot soup before devouring the bun– that has popularized these bites. Delicate, pork-filled and divine, its preparation is both an intricate and wearing task, undertaken only by the most skillful of cooks.
Still, there is more. Shui Kueh is steamed rice cakes baptized in preserved radish and chili. Briyani, an elaborately spiced, saffron and basmati rice with your choice of chicken, mutton or fish is a must in Little India or Arab Street. Singaporean chili crab, flattened Kaya toast, ethereal Roti Prata and a few, delectably sweet Klepon (rice balls) and Kueh Kosui (tapioca cakes) both rolled in coconut or maybe some frozen mango pudding for dessert.
These treats aside, no other Singaporean dish can ever compare with a large, steaming bowl of Laksa. Considered authentic Peranakan cuisine (a marriage of Chinese and Malay influences) with a myriad of variations, this fiery, curry noodle soup, heavily laden with a barrage of ingredients is a personal favorite. Bean curd puffs, fish sticks, shrimp, cockles and thick rice noodles all coalesce amidst a luscious, coconut-infused broth. Though it may look filling, the curry is light and satisfying, ideal for breakfast in the sweltering Singapore heat. Bliss in a bowl.
To wash it all down, nothing beats a freshly made cup of kopi. Unbeknownst to most foreigners, Southeast Asians are conspicuous consumers and at one point, major exporters of superior blend coffee. Brewed over a charcoal grill in a hefty silver pot, reminiscent of a garden watering can, the kopi is strained numerous times through a stocking and then served. Full-bodied, robust and viscid, this potent elixir is not for the fainthearted. Traditionally served with sweetened, condensed milk, kopi is, without exception, the fitting end to yet another exquisite Singaporean meal.
Given the boundless culinary treasures Singapore has to offer, it is easy to lose yourself in all things appetizing. Happiness, it seems, can be found in the most basic of human experiences. Whether it may be a simmering bowl of Bak Kut Teh, crisp, deep-fried, golden brown strips of doughy youtiao or simple, plain white rice, there is no denying the soulful qualities of genuinely good food. Nevertheless, in Singapore, there is no such thing as a single, perfect meal. Rather, every meal you have will be nothing less than perfect. ✌