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Singapore: If I was Singaporean I would…

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.

One of my four McDonald's visits

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.

A successful fish head curry hawker stall at Old Airport Road

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.

Freshly made rojak from Old Airport Road hawker centre

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.

I suspect this stall was saying - "Londoner you are not worthy to eat such food"

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.

Murtabak from a random place by the military firing range in the North of Singapore

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.

Murtabak on the floor - one of my meals of the year (100km odd in)

So Singapore, this was just a taster, I’ll be back.

obligatory shot of obligatory visit to Raffles Hotel's Long Bar with obligatory peanuts

* 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).

PS we’ve just started a Facebook page so click here and like it if you want to stay up to date that way.

PPS thanks to the Tour of Singapore 2010 guys and the Flwrider crew for the cycling. It was immense.

22 Comments

  1. Great post… I love the spirit :)

  2. Kay

    I can really feel your enthusiasm and glad you enjoyed your first murtabak! If you plan on heading to Singapore again, do stop by Kuala Lumpur or even Penang which I think will have you eating even more!

    • I really really want to go to Penang now. I just need to pick the absolute lowest time of the year temp wise – prob a balmy 25 degrees – and do a proper tour around for a week or two. I’ve also heard that the trekking is amazing.

  3. I love murtabak. On my last visit to Singapore, I made my excuses and left early from the pub to pick up some murtabak on the way to the airport.

    • Why don’t we have it in England? I just don’t understand. It is pretty much the ultimate dirty comfort food. But really good.

  4. Lovely post Tom! I ADORE martabak, although I’ve mostly had it in the Middle East (as well as Indonesia), where it’s also very popular. I like it filled with minced lamb, parsley and egg, or bananas – perfect street food!

    • I feel pretty sad to have only discovered it at this stage in life. As all these trips to different countries show me – I know absolutely nothing and there is so much more to learn and eat!

  5. Hurrah! This post made me so happy. And so proud. And so hungry.

    And welcome to the wonderful world of murtabak. :-)

  6. Glad you enjoy’d Singapore, for the food it is the best in Asia, maybe the World…..

  7. Hi there,

    Nice post!

    Singapore food is among the world’s best in terms of value and taste for sure. Every time I pay for a meal in London, it still hurts just a little.

    However, much as I hate to say this, if you liked (loved) Singapore food, try the food in Penang. It is out of this world.

  8. Yvonne

    HILARIOUS post TOm!! “Singapore is Canary Wharf with good food”- That totally cracked me up. So true though. I am NOT missing EAT or PRET or WASABI or……..

    Glad u love the food here….as always :D
    My mom’s from Penang and like they say….u just HAVE TO EAT YOUR WAY Through that place. Thankfully, there are lovelier beaches there for u to run off the extra calories…only if necessary.

    Put it this way, Penang was / and still is the only place where I happily ate a bowl of fresh chendol from the ROADSIDE STALL BY THE ROADSIDE. ‘NUff said.
    HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

    • I was a bit worried the reference to Canary Wharf might be taken in the wrong way but thankfully people seem to like it. I think it is hard, or you would be mad, not to love the food. It is epically good. And the throwing together of all cultures has done wonderful thing.

      I didn’t even realise what chendol was till I wikipedia’d it. But I’ve tried it (not in Sing) and loved it.

      Happy holidays as well!

  9. Hey Tom, can’t agree more about Singapore being compared to Canary Wharf. Lol.

    Murtabak’s one of my must-eat list whenever I’m back home. I’ll just hop into a cab and head towards Jalan Kayu for a quick fix – one murtabak and an egg prata, and wash them down with a teh tarik (condensed milk tea). Desperately trying to relive my army days when a small convoy of army vehicles will head towards Jalan Kayu just to pick up murtabaks and pratas. Some even say that police vehicles turn their sirens on sometimes to clear the way so that they can get to their lunch there faster. :)

    That said, while I still look forward to every visit back home, I can’t help but notice the copious amount of MSG used in Singapore’s hawker centres. I don’t know about you but I feel really thirsty after a bowl of minced meat noodles or even chicken rice. Might be the fact that the MSG has cleansed out of my system after spending some time in London.

    Been to Penang before the tsunami a couple of years ago. Boy, it was fabulous. My favourite? The ‘luk luk’, where you select either a meat of veg skewered on a thin wooden stick and immerse that in a pot of boiling water. It’ll be cooked in a couple of minutes and it’ll be consumed on the spot. Pay for that and move on. Neat, isn’t it?

    Anyway, here’s wishing you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!

    • Once again glad comparing Sing to Canary Wharf isn’t offensive! It was meant lovingly as a contrast between the brilliant food and the any business city anywhere surroundings!

      I love the murtabak stories. Unfortunately my childhood in London didn’t involve such things but just led to a never ending love of trips to out of the way fry up cafes which sometimes have speckled histories.

      Penang sounds like the future of all food. I am going to go and try that. I love all street food and luk luk sounds like a really clever addition. Like healthy tempura.

      Happy holidays as well!

  10. wl

    definitely you have to go back ! the longer I am away from singapore, the more I realize I miss hawker centre food. I never used to make much of it when I grew up yet nowadays whenever I’m back home, I divide my time preciously between mom’s homecooked meals and the hawker centre.
    oh and if you manage to find murtabak in HK, be sure to write about it. I will be on the lookout myself, though not exactly hopeful…

    • I have heard rumours you can get them in Chungking (I have no idea how to actually spell that) Mansions. I shall investigate!

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