Celebrating Singapore At 50

First image...
Chinatown's Maxwell Food Centre ...

A Taste Of Singapore

The city-state turned 50 in 2015. When you visit, where should you stay and eat?

... some Singapore street food...
... and grab a sling at Raffles' Long Bar.

By Michael Shapiro
Originally appeared in October 2015 issue of Virtuoso Traveler

“We Asians tend to see food as one of the ways to show our hospitality,” says Leslie Tay, a Singapore-based physician, food blogger, and author of Only the Best!, a popular guide to Singapore’s street food. “That’s why one of the common greetings here is ‘Jia pa buay?’ [Hokkien for ‘Have you eaten yet?’].”

Carlene Yap, a presenter at the city’s recent World Street Food Congress, an annual event featuring dozens of vendors from throughout Asia, goes a step further: “Food in Singapore is a shared language, the universal language of love.”

Though Singapore is small (only 277 square miles, about half the area of Los Angeles), the island city-state off the Malay Peninsula’s southern tip has an insatiable appetite for cross-cultural cuisine. Dining here is part national sport, part religion – regardless of creed, class, or ethnicity, it’s what everyone talks about.

Singapore’s blend of ethnic and culinary heritage is largely Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian, but new culinary influences keep arriving, making the destination a must-visit for epicures. While there’s certainly a lifetime’s bucket list of dishes and drinks to try, from down-to-earth street food to high tea at the regal Raffles Hotel, it’s the spontaneous discoveries that make eating here most enjoyable, such as visiting a hawker court in Changi, a village near the airport, and tasting satay that turns out to be the best you’ve ever had.

To make the most of your time in Singapore – and learn its shared language – be sure to sample the following staples.

Signature Street Food

The best place to try local specialties is at one of Singapore’s thriving hawker centers. In typical fashion, the city banned food vendors from selling on sidewalks years ago and instead invited them to move into food courts, where cleanliness is closely monitored. Wander from one stall to the next, paying about $5 a plate for distinctive dishes such as popiah (a crepe spring roll with hard-boiled egg, tamarind, shrimp, carrots, and lettuce) or Singapore’s famed Hainanese chicken rice.

Pull up a Formica chair and join locals cooling off with a refreshing sugarcane juice, then try a Fuzhou oyster cake or rojak (Malay for “mixture”): a fruit, bread, and cucumber salad that tastes better than it sounds. Singapore is so safe, say some residents, that you can hold your table by leaving your wallet or phone on it, but that’s likely legend, not sage advice.

A top pick is the centrally located Maxwell Food Centre in the heart of Chinatown (1 Kadayanallur Street), with more than 100 stalls. Another is the open-air Tiong Bahru Food Centre (83 Seng Poh Road), located in one of Singapore’s first planned housing developments.  

Tall Tipples

Viewed from above, Singapore looks like a fantasy. The Singapore River is brightened with orange and purple lights shining from bridges and boats, and the Singapore Flyer, a giant Ferris wheel, rotates slowly through the night.

Take in the skyline from a rooftop bar such as 1-Altitude (1 Raffles Place), where Singapore’s young and hip congregate some 60 stories above street level; the views make the $20 cocktails  worth the price.

For a more intimate perspective, visit the bar atop the historic Fullerton Hotel Singapore, which was built in 1928 as the national post office. Called the Lighthouse (1 Fullerton Square), the alfresco bar/restaurant serves Italian cuisine and occupies the location where, in the 1700s, a beacon guided mariners into the city’s port. For a midday pick-me-up, sip an iced tea floated with whole lychee fruits.

Traditional Treats

To get a sense of Singapore’s colonial era, visit the iconic Raffles Hotel. The vintage ceiling fans and live harp music in its Tiffin Room evoke the nineteenth-century ease of the privileged classes. The hotel was built as a ten-room bungalow in 1877; today modern air conditioning keeps the high-ceilinged room cool.

During afternoon high tea, tiered trays with treats such as tuna and smoked salmon sandwiches (crusts removed, of course), mango mousse, and bite-size pistachio tarts complement a buffet with savories, including chicken and seafood dumplings.

Later, stroll over to Raffles’ Long Bar for a Singapore Sling, the city’s renowned drink. Created in 1915, this gin-based cocktail is made with fresh pineapple and lime juices, grenadine, and a splash of Bénédictine. Its creator, bartender Ngiam Tong Boon, gave the Sling a rosy orange hue so it would appeal to ladies, yet the drink isn’t overly sweet. It’s the ideal cooler on a sweltering Singapore afternoon, along with a snack of peanuts from the bar’s burlap sacks – hew to tradition and toss the shells on the floor.

The Toast of Singapore

To eat breakfast like a local, visit a café or hawker center that serves kaya toast. Kaya (which means “rich” in Malay) is a coconut-custard jam that’s spread on toast; kaya toast is then typically served with a soft-boiled egg.

Wash it down with coffee sweetened with condensed milk at Tong Ah Eating House (36 Keong Siak Road), where they roast their coffee beans in butter and sugar. 

Key Things To See In Singapore

Gardens by the Bay: This otherworldly botanic garden of soaring “supertrees” (metal structures covered by live vines), an indoor waterfall, and six-story domes filled with plants from around the world shows Singapore in its best light. Dine atop the tallest of the structures at SuperTree by IndoChine, an elegant Asian fusion restaurant. (18 Marina Gardens Drive)

The Intan: This tiny but celebrated museum celebrates the culture of Peranakans, Malay descendants of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Chinese immigrants. Housed in antique collector (and seventh-generation Peranakan) Alvin Yapp’s home, the collection includes furniture, porcelain, beadwork, embroidery, and jewelry. (69 Joo Chiat Terrace; by appointment only)

Bumboat Tour: Singapore’s answer to the city bus tour is a brisk bumboat ride on the Singapore River, departing from bustling Clarke Quay. In a low-slung boat with a roof for sun protection, see the city’s most graceful bridges and sights such as the Merlion, a half-mermaid, half-lion fountain.

Amenities Virtuoso Advisors Can Secure For You

STAY: Virtuoso has nine properties in Singapore, including The Patina, Capitol Singapore, slated to open this November. Other worthy options include:
  • A slice of The Fullerton Hotel Singapore’s signature kueh lapis cake is icing on any stay at this 400-room hotel in the heart of the Central Business District. Doubles from $280; Virtuoso amenities include breakfast daily and complimentary access to the Straits Club lounge.
  • Wagyu beef is on the grill at Long Bar Steakhouse in the landmark, 103-room Raffles Singapore. Doubles from $650; Virtuoso amenities include a Singapore Sling on arrival and a $100 hotel credit.
SEE: Sample Hainanese chicken rice while touring Singapore’s best food markets with a local guide during a customizable five-day tour from Artisans of Leisure. Departures: Any day through December 31, 2015; from $5,190.

STOPOVER: Two days to nosh around Singapore cap off a 17-day Azamara Club Cruises voyage from Osaka aboard the 686-passenger Azamara Quest. Departure: March 17, 2016; from $3,999.

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