If you’re anything like us, the first thing you do when planning a trip—perhaps even before booking a plane ticket—is figure out where you’re going to eat while you’re there. Museums, sightseeing, and shopping are all well and good, but food is often the main attraction. To make trip planning a little easier, we’ve compiled lists of our can’t-miss spots in some of our favorite places. Below, our chief strategy officer (and resident globe-trotting gourmand) Mitchell Davis shares his top eats in Singapore.
It’s both cliché and accurate to say that Singapore is a crossroads, a true mosaic of cultures—for example, the small city-state has four official languages: Chinese, Malaysian, Tamil, and English. Further adding to its cross-cultural character is the government’s longstanding goal of making Singapore an economic and travel hub for the region and the world.
Never is this cultural collision more evident than when it comes to dining. The array of cuisines available at just about every level, from hawker stall to Michelin star, is dizzying. The top restaurant in Asia, according to Asia’s 50 Best list for 2019, is an elegant French restaurant named Odette run by husband-and-wife team Julian and Agnes Royer. (In 2019 Odette also rose to the 18th spot on the World’s 50 Best list.) A wood-fired grill restaurant named Burnt Ends, run by Australian chef Dave Pynt, made it to 10th place on the Asian list (59th on the World’s). And most other global cuisines, including Basque and Japanese, are equally well represented at sophisticated restaurants, such as Basque Kitchen by Aitor and Esora, respectively
Although I thoroughly enjoyed my meals at each of these very fine restaurants, as this was my first time in Singapore, I made it a point to search out the only cuisine truly unique to the region, known as Peranakan or Nyonya food. Peranakan is Malay for “locally born;” the combination of Malay, Chinese, Indian, and other cultures through marriage and by living in close proximity led to a bona fide cuisine found only in and around Singapore and Penang, Malaysia. Nyonya is Malay for “woman,” and the interchangeability of this term alludes to Peranakan food’s roots in the home cooking traditionally done by women. Due to its distinctiveness and complexity, Peranakan food is getting harder and harder to find in restaurants and in homes—all the more reason to search it out and explore this unique culinary fusion.
Here are a few recommendations:
Block 18A Dempsey Road
Located in the trendy Como Dempsey development—home to an inviting boutique hotel, a local outpost of the high-fashion Dover Street Market, and other luxury lifestyle stores—Candlenut was the first Peranakan restaurant to receive a Michelin star. Chef Malcom Lee’s menu is a journey through the best of Peranakan cooking, elevated at the hand of a gifted chef. Lee takes little credit, instead attributing each dish to a family member. He deflects praise, wishing he cooked as well as they did, though it’s hard to imagine anyone eating such complex and sophisticated food at home. Our lengthy menu allowed us try many local dishes and ingredients, including wing beans (like feathered green beans), blue swimmer crabs (that were curried with turmeric, galangal, and lime leaf), and buah keluak (a black nut that is highly poisonous until it is buried underground to ferment for 40 days, boiled, peeled, and mashed into a paste). Tasted pure, buah keluak has a deep flavor that lies somewhere between unsweetened chocolate, coffee, and baked olives. Lee uses it to flavor and enrich sauces, sambals, fired rice, and even ice cream. Candlenut will be the first restaurant I return to when I find my way back to Singapore.
8 Raffles Avenue, #02-23
Phone: (65) 6223 4098
Labyrinth is located in the multi-use performing arts center and shopping mall officially named the Esplanade, but unofficially and more widely known as the “big durian” for its curved roof of spiky aluminum-clad sun-shades. The name Labyrinth is apt, because it’s tricky to find the restaurant on the second floor of the mall. But once you’re there, banker-turned-chef LG Han is eager and ready to serve you a highly personal and creative cuisine based on Peranakan dishes, flavors, and ingredients. (Han cooked at the Beard Foundation’s annual gala in 2016.) What makes the Michelin-starred experience even more remarkable is that Han has given himself the implausible challenge of serving only ingredients grown locally in Singapore, which I’ll remind you is tropical and roughly two-thirds the size of New York City. This challenge requires Han to have Singapore’s famous botanical gardens grow him special ingredients, like corn—maybe not the best corn you’ve ever tasted, but admirable, nonetheless. For local, sustainable reasons he’s even serving crocodile, a byproduct of a Singapore’s robust crocodile leather industry that hasn’t yet realized the gastronomic value of the meat. Han’s dedication is worth supporting, and it results in a lovely and delicious dining experience.
Keng Eng Kee Seafood
Blk 124 Bukit merah Lane 1, #01-136
Phone (65) 6272 1038
Generations ago, the family behind this local institution immigrated from China’s Hainan Island, opening a series of popular hawker stands until they settled on this pleasant, casual, outdoor restaurant. The atmosphere and the food are delightful. Rougher and more rustic than anything served at Candlenut or Labyrinth, here main ingredients are heavily salted and fried, sauces are sweet and pleasantly gloppy, portions are huge and served family-style, and the resulting meal is messy and fun. Don’t miss the coffee-glazed pork ribs, salted-egg prawns, and crispy butter cereal squid (on the menu as sotong). Aficianados will argue that their classic chili crab is not the best in town—a little too sweet, perhaps, and not as spicy as you might like— but I found it nevertheless a welcome, full-contact addition to the table.
Many proponents of Peranakan food hold that the domestic roots of this unique fusion cooking don’t belong in a plush Michelin environment. For true tastes, you must head to the hawker stalls, they say. Given the wonderful food I had at fancier restaurants, I don’t fully agree. And the distinction got even more difficult to make recently when Michelin gave stars to two beloved hawker stalls. I’d encourage everyone to enjoy the full spectrum of Peranakan dining experiences in Singapore, especially the hawker stalls, which are an integral part of the local culture. According to government data for 2014, there were almost 14,000 hawker stalls in Singapore, most grouped in government-run centers. Most of the recommendations below came from a tour of personal favorites led by the local World’s 50 Best chair Evelyn Chen and her husband Alex, who is the true hawker hunter in the family. I triangulated their recommendations with lists from other friends, as well. Every Singaporean seems to have a favorite stall for every dish. I don’t have much to compare to, but here’s what I liked:
Qi Xiang Cha Shi
Hong Lime Food Centre (shop #01-62)
Block 531A, Upper Cross Street
As good a place as any for a traditional start to your Singapore day. Hot milky kopi (coffee made from beans roasted with margarine and sugar that are ground before being steeped in a sock) accompanies kaya toast (a coconut and pandan jam that’s spread between hot toasted slices of bread with pats of butter—though margarine is more traditional), and a soft-boiled egg. I brought home several different varieties of kaya and now rotate this classic breakfast among my options at home.
Sungei Road Laksa
Jin Shui Koptiam Hawker Centre (shop #01-100)
Block 27, Jalan Berseh
A complex laksa (curried noodle soup), not too rich, cooked in a tilting cauldron heated over a wood fire, a rarity these days. The noodles are bathed in the bubbling broth to heat and infuse them with flavor.
Fried Kway Teow
Amoy Street Food Center (shop #01-01)
7 Maxwell Road, MND Building, Annexe B
Char kway teow is a classic local dish made with flat rice noodles that are fried with egg and tossed with bean sprouts, cockles, and Chinese sausage. A squirt of lime brings out the flavors and cuts through the rich sauce.
Afandi Hawa & Family
Haig Road Food Centre (shop #01-21)
14 Haig Road
A favorite spot for mee rebus, a common dish of ropy wheat noodles in a seafood and mutton sauce thickened with sweet potato and served with hard-cooked egg.
Tian Tain Haianese Chicken Rice
Maxwell Food Centre (shop #01-10/11)
1 Kadayanallur St.
Don’t let the sprawling stall and long line dissuade you from trying this favorite Hainanese chicken and rice. The staff move quickly, and there’s only one thing to order. Chicken and rice is one of the world’s great comfort foods, and beguiles when it’s done right, as it is here.
Haig Road Putu Piring
Haig Road Food Centre (shop #01-07)
14 Haig Road
This fourth-generation business has expanded to six stalls across the city to take advantage of recent popularity of putu piring, a traditional Muslim sweet, and to help keep the tradition alive. Featured in Netflix’s Street Food series, the relatively obscure putu piring is made by steaming a ground rice cake filled with a brown sugar called gula melaka in little metal cups. It’s served warn with salted grated coconut and pandan. Watching the women in the stall make them fresh is meditative.
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