Food, Singapore's National Obsession

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Food, Singapore's National Obsession
It’s no secret: Singaporeans love food. To eat like a local, head to a hawker center and identify a traditional dish that strikes your fancy. Whether you gravitate toward markets or celebrity chefs’ tables, you’re bound to enjoy a culinary adventure.

With additional copy by Heidi Sarna.
By Arwen Joyce, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Jen Murphy
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    Casual Dining, Singapore-Style
    You’ll find the best fast food in Singapore at hawker centers. In these Southeast Asian food meccas, standards for cleanliness and quality are high, and prices are low. The bigger markets boast more than 50 stalls selling everything from curries and dosa to dumplings and pig organ soup. Maxwell Food Centre and Lau Pa Sat are central, popular options. The experience is entirely self-service, so during busy periods claim a table by leaving a packet of tissues on it before you order.
    Photo by Jen Murphy
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    Wander the Wet Markets
    Colorful morning markets are located near housing estates, often just below the neighborhood hawker center. Dubbed “wet markets,” they are sprayed and scrubbed clean once the day’s goods are sold. You’ll see fresh meat, fish, dairy, vegetables, fruit, and flowers, but go early before the heat sets in. Compared to grocery stores, wet markets’ prices can’t be beat; however, they’re not always marked, and you may encounter language barriers (many vendors only speak Hokkien or Mandarin). In most cases, you can just point at what you want and hand the seller a couple of Singaporean dollars to do the trick. Good options include the Tiong Bahru Market and the Tekka Centre in Little India.
    Photo by Flash Parker
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    Unusual Sweets and Snacks
    It’s not always love at first taste when Westerners sample Singaporean desserts and snacks, which tend to be extremely sweet. But these treats do offer interesting flavor and texture combinations, such as the afternoon treat cendol: sweet corn, red beans, coconut milk, and electric-green jelly noodles served with shaved ice. For a midmorning snack, try kaya toast, a local favorite. Kaya, an egg and coconut jam, is spread on toast and topped with a pat of butter. It’s usually eaten with a cup of hot kopi, local coffee with a spoonful of sweetened condensed milk. When you need to cool down, take a cue from the kids and grab a large cup of bubble tea, which is milky iced tea with chewy tapioca pearls.
    Photo by Arwen Joyce
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    Romantic Wining and Dining
    In Singapore, love is in the air: Many young people live with their parents, so courting is all about being out on the town. For a grand, romantic gesture, sweep your partner off his or her feet (literally) with a four-course Sky Dining experience on the Singapore Flyer or Singapore Cable Car. The meal comes with your own butler and views of the dramatic, twinkling skyline. For a low-key date night, opt for sharing plates and Spanish wine at one of the many excellent tapas restaurants in town, such as Sabio on Duxton Hill or Esquina in Tanjong Pagar. The adventurous should embark on a unique sensory experience at Nox – Dine in the Dark, where—you guessed it—the meal is served in a pitch-black room.
    Photo by Warren Goldswain/age fotostock
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    Big Names and Hungry Young Chefs
    The culinary evolution—nay, revolution—in Singapore over the past decade has seen a tremendous increase in the diversity and quality of fine-dining restaurants. Celebrity chefs from around the world have brought their Michelin stars, TV personalities, and inimitable styles to Singapore’s shores. For the highest concentration of big names in one place, head to celebrity chef restaurants at Marina Bay Sands. Ambitious young chefs are also making a name for themselves in Singapore. Taiwanese chef André Chiang’s exquisite degustation menu at Restaurant André, an intimate spot in Chinatown, pushes the boundaries of sophistication and often tops the list of the best restaurants in Singapore.
    Photo by Jen Murphy
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    The Best Outdoor Dining
    Whether it’s on a rooftop, by the water, or in a local hawker center, dining outdoors is one of the perks of a city with balmy temperatures year round. Check out Privé on Keppel Island and snag a table on its large outdoor patio, near a marina of bobbing yachts. Club Street in Chinatown draws an after-work expat crowd and offers alfresco dining, as well as rooftop bars. Try Ô Batignolles Wine Bar & French Bistrot for a sidewalk bite or Screening Room’s open roof for drinks and snacks. Leafy green settings make PS.Cafe in Dempsey Hill and Nosh in Rochester Park great choices for a lazy outdoor Sunday brunch. These foodie destinations’ jungle backdrops alone are worth a trip to the western side of the island.
    Photo by Urs Flueeler/age fotostock
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    Spice Things Up in Little India
    South Indian cuisine is king in Singapore’s Little India, although North Indian curries are gaining ground. The hawker center at Tekka Centre has a variety of cheap Singaporean Indian dishes. Try roti prata (flaky bread cooked on a hot griddle), murtabak (roti prata stuffed with meat or cheese), or tissue prata (crispy-thin roti prata covered with honey). Ananda Bhavan is the place for a quick and delicious dosa, a crispy pancake served with a spicy curry sauce. Anjappar is a homely chain specializing in Chettinad cuisine. If you’re craving rich curries, try Lagnaa Barefoot Dining on Upper Dickson Road. Diners relax on floor cushions upstairs and test their mettle against the spice challenge downstairs.
    Photo by Desiree Koh
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    Soup Dumplings and Suckling Pig
    Almost 75 percent of Singapore’s population is of Chinese descent, so Chinese food is a major player in the culinary scene. You’ll have no trouble finding everything from Szechuan dishes, with their distinctively numbing black peppercorns, to Hong Kong-style dim sum and Taiwanese xiaolongbao (soup dumplings)—try them at the renowned Din Tai Fung. In addition, almost every family gathering is occasion enough for a full-on Chinese feast. For the real deal, book a table at Asia Grand on North Bridge Road and order the Peking duck and roast suckling pig in advance. Other dishes can be ordered à la carte. Chinatown’s charming Yum Cha serves a trolley cart dim sum brunch on the weekend.
    Photo by Jen Murphy
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    Try the Peranakans’ Fusion Cuisine
    The Peranakans, a people unique to Singapore and its Straits neighbors, developed a fusion cuisine that combines Chinese ingredients with Malay spices and cooking techniques. The tangy and aromatic dishes often incorporate ingredients unfamiliar to the Western palate, such as galangal (a root similar to ginger), candlenuts, and jicama. A frequent accompaniment is cincaluk, a pungent condiment made from ground shrimp, lime juice, and chilies. After going through the Peranakan Museum, swing by next door to True Blue Cuisine for authentic dishes in a shophouse decorated with Peranakan antiques.
    Photo by Arwen Joyce
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    Family-Style and Buffet Brunch
    Singapore has embraced brunch in a big way. One option—found at most major hotels—is a lavish, all-you-can-eat brunch with freely flowing champagne. Prices and selection will vary slightly among them. The Marina Mandarin has a pool-bar with lounge chairs, which is a convenient spot for a nap after you’ve stuffed yourself on its family-style brunch service. Capella on Sentosa Island is worth the trip for its gorgeous dessert spread alone. Senso on Club Street offers a high-end hotel brunch in a scaled-down courtyard setting. And there are no eggs here: just hearty Italian options and plenty of prosecco. Pasta and main courses are served family-style, while appetizers and desserts are set on a buffet.
    Photo by age fotostock