Let’s be honest Singapore is Canary Wharf (or any other straight roaded business district) with good food. And humidity.
But if I was Singaporean I would be proud, very proud. I would stand up and shout that our food equals anything on the planet and it wouldn’t be on the basis of big name chefs like Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, Tetsuya Wakuda or Guy Savoy* who are depositing 400USD/ 2,500HKD/ 200GBP/ 300SNG a head restaurants in Singapore. Instead, it would be because of what the riot of food capitalism evident in every Hawker centre has produced.
Now, I should disclaim. I was in Singapore for under 36 hours. The picture in the header above gives the hint; I came to Singapore to race in a 150km fixed wheel bike race called the Tour of Singapore 2010. I don’t want to get all Portland-y and bike evangelically here as I am currently nursing the injuries of cycling on Hong Kong’s roads and typing with one crooked hand…. But the reason I love (fixed wheel) bikes is that you can fly to another country, meet people who are passionate and excited about something and “local”. This means you get taken to places you would never find in any guidebook. And finally you can cover some serious distance in a way which you just can’t do by foot or by taxi. And so it was with Singapore.
But I also need to disclaim one further thing. In 36 hours I visited McDonald’s 4 times. Our race started and ended at McDonald’s and there were two pit stops in between. But still I think it says something about Singaporean’s approach to food. McDonald’s is there in levels of saturation I haven’t seen outside the US but it is within a culture that approaches food unpretensiously. And right next door to every McDonald’s is some of the best food on the planet. Whilst McDonald’s might have been used for air conditioning, good loos and drinks the real food was eaten at 2:00am near the end of the race at a Hawker’s centre by the airport.
But back to the Hawker centres. They are nothing architecturally special but they are embedded in the fabric of Singapore. Unlike in Hong Kong with its “Cooked Food Centres” Singapore’s equivalent are right on the street, open to all and driftable into. Inside they are a food and cultural mess. Signs full of colours to lure customers that were never seen on the Earth till the advent of the modern age and the discovery of the word “fluro”. Stall after stall selling food from different regions and cultures, adapted and monetised and here for you to eat.
And this isn’t lowest common denominator food. The successful stands may have garish signs and fluorescent colours but they aren’t relying on trans fatty fats or other chemical discoveries to make you eat it but taste. Food is freshly (be it fried, sliced or grated) made for you for each order at each stall.
And success is brutal here. Some stalls have queues 10 to 20 deep whilst people stand in weather which is so humid you might as well be swimming whilst others look forlorn and unloved. Those are the stalls which will be empty spaces in a month waiting for the next chancer to turn up. And the result is fantabulous fast, cheap, delicious food.
As a food obsessive I managed to fit a couple of “destination” Hawker centres between all the cycling and guided by Lady Iron Chef I found Old Airport Road. This is reckoned to be one of the best in Singapore and it was awe inspiring food wise. It is an undeniably ugly beast to look at as it is made of faded yellowed concrete. However, the stalls inside could be transferred to any city in the world and feature in their top 20 “restaurants” as the food is so immediate, so honest and so good.
Apart from the visits to the Hawker centres one one snack we grabbed at 1:00am near the end of the race stood out. It was something I have never tried before – a murtabak. This apparently originated in South East India but has been taken to heart by Singaporeans and appears to be their equivalent of a kebab. Except this is richly flavoured freshly cooked stuff. As I ate a mutton murtabak between my legs on the street in the rain it was undeniably one of my meals of the year.
So Singapore, this was just a taster, I’ll be back.
* That said have a look at Gourmet Traveller’s site here who recently visited some of those big name chefs. They might be expensive but some of them do look damn good (especially Kenji).
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