Photo by Edwin A. Franken
Food, like shopping, is always held up as a great passion of the people of Singapore.
“It’s definitely not a myth,” says young food writer Charleen Natalie Neo, whose Gninethree blog takes the reader on a mazy journey through the island’s bakeries and hidden mealtime finds. The blog’s name comes from Genesis 9:3 (“Every living thing that moves will be yours to eat, no less than the foliage of the plants. I give you everything.”), which seems a fairly apt call to arms for a nation with a serious chow-down obsession.
“We don’t just eat to live, we live to eat,” she says. “Eating and enjoying good food is what identifies us as Singaporean. The most popular dishes all have a mix of Peranakan, Chinese, Malay and Indian influences, so food is probably the clearest reflection of our multiculturalism.” And if she had to choose one place to eat? One last dish? She would head directly to the roadside Maxwell Food Centre, she says, and join the line at the Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice stall. “It always has a queue, regardless of the time of day.”
Celebrity chefs now flit around Singapore’s dining scene like so many delicate butterflies, and the island officially has four restaurants in the world’s top 100, which is pretty impressive for the second smallest country in Asia. But again, where food is concerned, the earthiest rewards for the average visitor tend to appear well away from the pricey upmarket joints.
The Maxwell Food Centre, in common with many of the island’s hawker spots, draws in endless waves of diners to sit at basic communal tables, crack open cold drinks and indulge in affordable, cooked-to-order dishes. Barbecued stingray stalls stand next to those selling Indian roti or chili-basted satay kebabs. Stir-fried noodle strips are dished up opposite places serving pork rib soup or Sumatran beef rendang. Choosing what to order can actually become quite challenging.
One evening I eat at a smart waterfront restaurant overlooking Boat Quay and the Singapore River. The view is great – a gently flowing waterway, a few traditional shophouses, a soaring cliff of Blade Runner skyscrapers – and the atmosphere is soothing, but the food and the service are average.
The next lunchtime, for a fraction of the price, I treat myself to a series of wildly moreish dishes at a hawker center near the heart of town, surrounded by dozens of people snapping apart disposable chopsticks and doing exactly the same; a communal slurping and gobbling fills the air. I know which meal I enjoy more. Refinement be damned.
Could you use some help planning your Singapore trip? Meet Theo – he's more than happy to share his recommendations with you!