Non-traditional nouvelle cuisine in a Singapore restaurant. Photo by Daniel Nash II.
Why is Singaporean food so interesting and popular?
Singapore's cuisine is moulded by the great ethnic variety of this city-state. With a local racial mixture ranging from Malay, Chinese, Indonesian, Indian and English to Portuguese, along with lesser influences from Asian countries such as Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Philippines, the diversity of food styles and tastes is enormous.
For people who like eating and appreciate different foodstuffs, Singapore offers a superb range of hawkers' stalls and restaurants though the cooking may not quite reach the heights of other countries in Southeast Asia that specialise in just the one type of food.
Chefs in a restaurant busily making dumplings.
Chinese cuisine from spicy Szechuan to the fresh seafood of Hainan is naturally popular but so is Indian, Indonesian and Peranakan (basically a fusion of Malay, Chinese and Indian influences) food. Black pepper crab and chilli crab are renowned dishes, each with their devotees, but be prepared for some mess. If you are willing to splash out on something delicious but hideously expensive, and don't mind your carbon footprint, try the so called live air flown Canadian geoduck (a saltwater clam).
Outside the hotels, eateries are often clustered together - for instance, there is good seafood in the East Coast Park, variety in the Dempsey wining and dining enclave, diverse offerings from Mexican through Lebanese to Indo-Chinese in Holland Village, and ubiquitous hawkers' stalls in a number of locations such as the Maxwell Food Centre.
There are also celebrity chef restaurants with eye watering prices (S$ 400 for a single dinner without drinks) around a balcony overlooking the gaming floors of the enormous casino in the Marina Bay Sands complex. The younger crowd hang out in Clarke Quay and Boat Quay where eateries and bars are more informal and less expensive.
The rule of thumb is that Chinese food is better in Hong Kong than in Singapore whilst the reverse applies for French and Italian fare. That said, venues in both places can be spectacular (Sky on 57 at the top of the Marina Bay Sands hotel comes to mind – go for the set lunch – as does Halia in the Botanic Gardens).
Giant pepper crabs. Next, Things to do in Singapore.
European food seems to be more in demand in Singapore than in Hong Kong given the relatively large expatriate community and constant influx of visitors. The fine dining restaurants on the balcony above the Marina Bay Sands casino in Singapore are Western whilst Hong Kong boasts the first Chinese restaurant in the world to be awarded three Michelin stars – the Lung King Heen in the Four Seasons hotel. For a cheaper experience try Tim Ho Wan, meaning Add Good Luck, which is headed by a former dim sum chef from the Four Seasons. The dining room is tiny, and the queues are huge but the food has been Michelin starred and comes at rock bottom prices.
Probably your best bet, if you’re seeking something that is still authentic in Singapore is the Little India area which retains both a certain charm and a certain grubbiness with food that is easy on the palate and the pocket.
Real Cantonese cooking thrives on the ingredients readily available in the Hong Kong street markets whether from stalls just selling live crabs or cutting up whole pigs. Super fresh ingredients and a huge range of seasonal produce from China make for sensational tastes. The other dimension that comes into play is that Singapore is almost too squeaky clean and flavour is lost in the war against bacteria. In the open plan kitchens now popular you are never quite sure if you’re in an operating theatre or an eatery.
By Daniel Nash II