‘Things I ATE in Singapore,’ the orange lettering on the postcard announced. Underneath, dishes had been sketched in blue and orange with their names curled around them in complicated script. There was durian, famous for its repugnant smell and banned on Singapore’s public transport – though sufficiently loved to be the nickname of the Esplanade performing arts centre, a landmark whose silver spiked domes are said to resemble Singapore’s national fruit.
Then there was satay, a Malay and Indonesian dish – meat skewered in kebab fashion with a little pot of spicy peanut sauce next to it. Another sketch depicted chilli crab, a signature dish of Singapore made from mud crabs stir-fried in a thick tomato and chilli sauce. And there were a further nine dishes, as yet unknown to me, but clearly deemed worth sharing with the world.
Having just arrived, I had left my suitcase at the recently opened Six Senses Duxton, housed in a beautifully restored line of heritage trading houses. The postcard was the first thing I saw in the bookshop across the road in Tanjong Pagar, evidence that I had come to the right city – food-obsessed Singapore, where even stalls selling street food were awarded stars in Michelin’s first Singapore guide in 2016.
The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony was held in June this year.
Why all this culinary diversity and cocktail creativity?
Positioned at the crossroads of South East Asia, Singapore has taken all the different ethnic threads that have converged here over the years and woven them into a rich national tapestry.
Street food is a good place to start – and proof that eating well in Singapore can be done cheaply. Stalls that were originally on the streets were moved by the government into air-conditioned ‘hawker centres’ in the Seventies.
Michelin-starred stalls sell chicken rice and noodles with meat for the astonishing sum of just two Singapore dollars (about Dh5), but I wanted to sample food from the one remaining street market.
Lau Pa Sat dates from the 19th century and, despite restorations and relocations, has retained its elegant Victorian columns and arches. On my first morning I was pulled in all directions by smells savoury and sweet (especially that of laksa – noodles with prawns in a coconut broth, which I tried later at 328 Katong Laksa). In the end I was won over by the tempting aroma of fresh roti prata, a traditional breakfast dish of Indian flatbread with curry, typically accompanied by teh tarik – ‘pulled’ tea which is poured from cup to cup and flavoured with ginger and condensed milk.
Also popular for breakfast is kaya, a sweet jam made from eggs, coconut milk and sugar, infused with the fragrant pandan leaf. It is used as a filling in fresh white rolls, often grilled over charcoal.
You might think that the hawker food markets (open 24 hours a day) and the fine dining scene are two separate worlds, but they interact in a way that is crucial to Singapore’s culinary success. ‘Three or four times a week we go out as a team and chat over supper once the service is finished,’ said Steven Mason, general manager at Odette, one of Singapore’s acclaimed restaurants.
Odette – an essay in elegant femininity, with dishes that dazzle and dangling decor that dances on the brisk breeze of the service – is the leader of the 39-strong Michelin pack in Singapore. It is ranked No 1 in the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants listing and No 28 in the World’s 50 Best. Among its specialities are Hokkaido uni – a dish of spot prawn tartare, mussel cloud and Royal Schrenski caviar – and pigeon ‘beak to tail’ served with Jerusalem artichoke, Kampot pepper and black garlic. Both were exquisite representations of classic French cooking with Asian accents, a style perfected by French chef and co-owner Julien Royer, who told me how inspiring it is to work in Singapore right now, thanks to ‘deliveries every day from Japan, Australia and New Zealand, and four times a week from Europe’.
Similarly inspirational is Singaporean chef Malcolm Lee at Candlenut, the world’s first Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant. Peranakan is the name given to the early immigrants from the Straits who settled in Singapore. ‘Peranakan cuisine is an amalgamation of the ethnic cultures of the Chinese, Malays and Indonesians,’ Lee told me over a velvety rich dish of braised chicken with buah keluak (a raw seed, cured, which is a key ingredient in his kitchen) and black nut sambal.
Other places to check out: Janice Wong’s for desserts and chocolates. Also the signature dish of chef Jason Tan at his Corner House restaurant.
For info: visitsingapore.com.
The Sunday Telegraph