Singapore's Chinatown. Photo / Getty Images

Where To Eat & Drink In Singapore, From Hawker Fare To Fine-Dining

Getting acquainted with Singapore’s food scene is almost a religious experience, discovers Viva's digital editor Saru Krishnasamy

"In Singapore, food is like a religion,” my dinner companion tells me while I crack into crab legs, metres from the dark waters of the Singapore Strait. 

As I dip a pillowy mantou bun into spicy sauce, I’m inclined to agree. While it sounds like a slogan — a tidy way to bundle up the tiny nation’s complex culinary history — it can easily be taken as truth.

READ: Where To Find The Best Cheap Eats In Tokyo

In Singapore, “Have you eaten?” is interchangeable with “How are you?” when exchanging pleasantries. The ritual of dining out is celebrated, traditional recipes followed devoutly and favourite haunts flocked to like places of worship.

From speedy plates that cost no more than spare change, to the best restaurant in Asia, you can eat as luxe or as lowbrow as you please.

WHERE TO EAT
For the flight:
I start the way I mean to carry on by ordering a prawn laksa, utilising the Singapore Airlines ‘Book the Cook’ service. Business class, first-class and suites are able to pre-book meals from a menu created by the International Culinary Panel (see below). The noodle soup hits all the right notes; it’s just the thing to get in the mood for touching down in the home of hawker food.

(From left) Hokkien prawn mee; Maxwell Food Centre. Photos / Saru Krishnasamy

For hawker food: Street food in Singapore gets Michelin stars, so wherever you go, you’ll eat well. I was eager to live out my own Crazy Rich Asians fantasy, so a visit to Newton Food Centre was mandatory. It’s an open-air hawker market perfect for trying several famous dishes like satay, oyster omelette and prawn mee. Also try: Maxwell Food Centre for Anthony Bourdain-approved Hainanese chicken rice and Tekka Centre for fluffy prata and halal-friendly eats.

(From left) Chilli crab, mantou, egg yolk prawns and deep fried fish; A bib from Jumbo. Photos / Saru Krishnasamy

For seafood: Grab a Grab (Singapore’s version of Uber) and head to East Coast Seafood Centre for a neon-lit table at Jumbo. Strap on a bib and get ordering. Dewy jugs of Tiger are a must, as is the wickedly good chilli crab served with plump mantou. Kai lan adds a virtuous touch of greenery among plates of crunchy baby squid, salted egg yolk prawns and deep-fried whole fish.

Dishes from the degustation at Labyrinth. Photos / Saru Krishansamy

For fine dining: Michelin-star Labyrinth showcases chef LG Han’s contemporary take on traditional cuisine. Local ingredients are celebrated, no mean feat considering densely populated Singapore is roughly the size of Lake Taupo. Look out for experimental dishes like mangrove chicken (aka crocodile). Also try: Odette, the restaurant recently responsible for ending the four-year winning streak of Gaggan in Bangkok as Asia’s Best Restaurant.

(From left) Vegetarian dumplings and prawn xiao long bao; Chefs working at Din Tai Fung. Photos / Saru Krishnasamy

For dumplings: It seems almost criminal to travel overseas to eat at a chain restaurant, but when that establishment is Din Tai Fung, you can be forgiven. This Chinese/Taiwanese eatery is famous for its xiao long bao (soup dumplings) and is so popular you can expect long queues come lunch and dinner time. You can watch the chefs, who are specially trained for months to create these little morsels, at work through the viewing window, a feature in every restaurant.

WHERE TO DRINK
Lushes beware, drinking in Singapore is expensive. Unbeknown to me, alcohol and cigarettes are taxed heavily, so I definitely needed the drink I ordered after seeing the bill. However, Singapore’s bar scene is excellent — there are five bars featured in The World's 50 Best Bars list — so the extra dollars garnished on top of a cocktail seem like a fair price to pay.

(From left) The Gin Tonica from Atlas; The art deco inspired bar. Photos / Saru Krishnasamy / Atlas

For a gin and tonic: G&T cravings can get chronic in tropical climates. Thank god for Atlas, number eight on the World Top 50 Bars list and said to have the world’s biggest gin collection. It’s worth a visit for the interior alone — an art deco masterpiece that’s all velvet, leather and brass. Pause from swooning to sip on a G&T with yuzu tonic, bay leaf, orange and rosemary. Hallelujah.

For a beer: Haji Lane is just the place to sink a few cold beers. This hip neighbourhood is teeming with street art, indie boutiques and Middle Eastern restaurants. Once you’ve explored, cool down by settling at one of the many small bars for icy bottles of beer and people watching.

Raffles Hotel is said to have invented the Singapore sling in 1915. Photos / Saru Krishnasamy

For a Singapore sling: If you go to Singapore and don’t try its eponymous cocktail, did you even go? Try Raffles Hotel, where the gin-based drink is said to have been invented. It’s very touristy but they do one of the best Singapore slings around, plus the bar itself is beautiful.

For coffee: Kopi shops are the perfect place to get your caffeine fix — especially if you like your coffee strong, sweet and cheap. There are literally thousands of these traditional coffee shops across Singapore, serving black coffee with condensed milk and sugar. You’ll also find kopi shops the best place to try kaya toast — thick slices of white bread with a generous wedge of butter and sweet coconut jam — and a soft-boiled egg if you’re feeling game. 

(From left) National Orchid Garden; Gardens By The Bay. Photos / Saru Krishnasamy

WHERE TO WANDER
For nature lovers: Despite its small size, Singapore punches above its weight when it comes to green spaces. Take a stroll through the Botanic Gardens — it’s worth forking out $5 to enter the National Orchid Garden to see hundreds of orchid varieties and exotic flowers. It’s an impressive sight, particularly if you, like me, have a second career as a pot plant serial killer. For next level plant envy, Gardens By The Bay is an awe-inspiring example of how nature can be celebrated within an urban environment. Bring comfy shoes — there are 101 hectares to cover if you choose to visit all three domes.

(From left) Chinatown's Buddha Tooth Relic Temple; Fruit from Tekka Centre in Little India. Photos / Saru Krishnasamy

For architecture buffs: Hop on the MRT and spend the afternoon soaking up the historic suburb of Tiong Bahru. Built as a housing estate in the 1930s, this neighbourhood is famous for its beautiful low-rise art deco buildings — a rare sight in the sleek and shiny Singapore cityscape. Tiong Bahru has also gained a hipster reputation with indie bookshops, street art, record stores and even a boulangerie if you’re feeling peckish.

The art deco neighbourhood of Tiong Bahru. Photos / Saru Krishansamy

For the culturally minded: Singapore’s history as a cultural melting pot has spawned two significant centres — Chinatown and Little India. Both boast temples, colourful shops and lots of great eating opportunities. Skip the tattoo parlours and cheap knickknacks and spend your day searching for authentic popiah (fresh spring rolls) and nonya kueh (glutinous sweet snacks) in Chinatown, and sample spicy vadai, masala dosai and tropical fruit in Little India.

(From left) ICP chef Yoshihiro Murata with his bento box creations; ICP chef Zhu Jun makes dumplings. Photos / Saru Krishnasamy

WORLD GOURMET FORUM
Singapore Airlines was the first airline to offer a choice of drinks and meals to economy class passengers in the 1970s. Things have come a long way since, with the World Gourmet Forum 2019 at the Grand Hyatt providing insight into what it takes to create a restaurant in the sky.

Viva was invited to attend the forum in March, where new in-flight meals and initiatives were revealed. The day was spent meeting chefs, sampling dishes and getting a look at the reality of making up to 80,000 meals a day.

Described as “fine dining at 30,000 feet”, the airline uses the expertise of eight world-renowned chefs to craft its menus. Meals are inspired by the chefs’ cultures and experiences and by destinations — gold leaf-topped dumplings, elaborate Indian thalis and beautiful bento boxes among the showcase of dishes.

In-flight meals on display at the World Gourmet Forum 2019. Photos / Saru Krishnasamy

Lighter, seasonal fare such as watercress salad with smoked trout and marinated free-range chicken with salad are geared towards the health-conscious and those on long-haul flights, as part of the ‘Deliciously Wholesome’ menu.

The luxury offerings are particularly impressive, considering the scale of production, which includes, daily, 110,000 bakery items, 13,000 satay sticks seared on a real fire, and 8000 omelettes, which are all cooked by hand in individual pans.

It’s an incredible operation, one that has to be seen to be believed. A trip to SATS Inflight Catering Centre near Changi Airport offers an eye-opening behind-the-scenes experience.

After being suited and booted with the necessary mask, hairnet, shoe covers and crisp white coat, our group of journalists and bloggers is lead into an air shower chamber to have any trace of the outside world whooshed away by a firm wind.

(From left) The omelette station; SATS director of kitchens Rick Stephen. Photos / Saru Krishnasamy

It’s serious stuff, a different kind of check-in process that makes you realise how something as simple as cooking a meal becomes a science when there are thousands of mouths to feed every day.

Case in point is the altitude simulator — a simple room designed to mimic the conditions in the air. Dishes are heated, meals are tasted and wine is sampled within this small space.

It’s a level of recipe testing most chefs wouldn’t even dream about, but it’s an essential step in ensuring every meal is tested, tweaked and trailed to perfection before it’s added to the in-flight menu.

So what does make a good airplane meal? Off the menu is anything too spicy or deep-fried. These things simply don’t fare well when you’re heating and eating them at 30,000 feet.

Dishes with strong, bold flavours translate the best. In keeping with its roots, Singapore Airlines specialises in authentic Asian dishes.

“Fusion leads to confusion,” says Rick Stephen, director of kitchens at SATS, to our group while we are in the simulator. ICP chefs come from all over the world, including China, Japan and India, using their expertise keep flavours as close to the real deal as possible.

Inside SATS, where 80,000 meals are made daily for Singapore Airlines. Photo / Saru Krishnasamy

Throughout the facility stocks and dressings are made from scratch, fish is filleted by hand and meat is butchered in halal and non-halal rooms.

It’s fascinating to see how every element of this often-demonised cuisine is created, an experience that will make me think twice before my next in-flight meal.

In the final stages of the tour, we witness perfectly weighed ingredients quickly and carefully added to meal trays by hand, adding one last personal touch to the thousands of standardised dishes being created every day.

An imparting bit of wisdom from the experts? Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Keep water close before, during and after your flight — everything from your skin to your tastebuds will be better for it.

• Saru Krishnasamy travelled to Singapore as a guest of Singapore Airlines, which flies direct daily from Auckland to Singapore. Fares start from $1326 return Economy Class and $5126 return Business Class. For more information go to Singaporeair.com

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