Singapore wasn’t a country I had longed to visit.
Sure, it was on my must-see list — but well below such destinations as New Zealand, Italy, Iceland, even Kaho‘olawe.
But I have had friends who love this island nation, once dismissed as just a stopover to better, more exotic locales in Asia. It’s clean, it’s safe, the public transportation is reliable, there’s tons of shopping.
Lately, though, this global city-state with more than 6 million people has become known for one thing: food. Chili crab, fragrant laska, biryani rice, stir-fried vermicelli — Singapore is one flavor-packed punch to the tastebuds.
And we were going there to find out what the hype was all about.
Three of us — Melissa Chang (@melissa808), Edwina Minglana (@eminglana) and me — hopped on a plane this past weekend, enduring a 10-hour flight to Manila and another 3.5-hour ride to Singapore. (Side note: Avoid Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport.) Our other traveling pal, Dean Mashino (@dkMOMUS), took the route through Japan. Smart.
I was only staying for three full days in the country; the other three were there for a week.
So we had a lot to do in a short amount of time.
After a few hours of sleep, we roused with the sun and wandered the streets around our hotel, which was located near the airport. (We moved later to the Hotel ibis Singapore on Bencoolen, which is walking distance to Little India and Parliament.) Our goal: to find Singaporean coffee and something called kaya toast.
Turns out, the traditional Singaporean breakfast consists of the following: a plate of pandan-scented kaya toast with a soft poached egg topped with a dark shoyu and paired with a strong and sweet cup of fresh coffee.
The toast is really the star of this dish. The bread — it has to be soft! — is slightly toasted with a melting pat of this creamy coconut butter inside. It was completely addictive.
After breakfast, we left the airport area and headed toward town — a 30-minute cab ride — to check into another hotel closer to all the action.
The ibis, which is an affordable chain of hotels, is located within walking distance from major attractions like Little India, the shopping district along Orchard Road, and British-style government buildings. (We liked that it had free unlimited WiFi, too.)
It helped that in the lobby was a 7-Eleven. We went there every morning in search of caffeine and snacks.
We had plans to meet up with our friends Sean and Lena Morris and Nadine Kam of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for lunch in Chinatown. So after a quick ride on the bus — you can purchase MRT cards at 7-Eleven, put money on it, and even use it to pay for goods purchased at that convenience store — we arrived in Chinatown just in time for another round of eating, this time at a hawker centre called the People’s Park Complex.
This was our first experience with a hawker centre, which are essentially food stalls selling inexpensive food crammed into a small space. (Street vendors were banned from the government decades ago.)
Sean quickly ordered the chong qing grilled fish, a grouper that had been grilled and served in a huge pan of spicy chili soup. The fish was grilled in various spices and flavor broths, making it very aromatic and tasty.
Then we wandered around the centre, looking at the various foods and drinks served here.
The hawker centres weren’t what I had expected — though I admit I didn’t do much research prior to arriving in Singapore — but I had visions of the bustling food stands that surrounded Tsukiji Market in Japan or the crowded night markets of Taipei. These food stalls — and granted, we only went to a few — were far more organized and the patrons less frantic. Some stalls obviously catered to the hungry visitors armed with Yelp reviews and guidebooks; others didn’t bother to even post menus in English. It was interesting.
Next, we walked over to Maxwell Food Centre — also in Chinatown — to try the dish I had been most interested in: chicken rice.
This popular dish is adapted from the early Chinese immigrants who came from the Hainan province of southern China. And it’s simple: the chicken is cooking in a thin broth, often flavored with garlic and ginger. That broth is then used to flavor the rice. The dish is served with a hot chili sauce dip — made from freshly minced red chili and garlic — and is often mixed with shoyu and ginger. Chicken rice can be found everywhere in Singapore, from Chinese coffee shops to chain restaurants.
Sounds pretty perfect, doesn’t it?
The Maxwell Food Centre is a converted wet market that has been housing hawker stalls since the 1980s. It offers a wide variety of Singaporean favorites, including Fuzhou fried oyster cake and Ho Kee porridge.
And it’s also the location of Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, one of the most popular places to get the dish in Singapore.
People who had heard I was going to Singapore had told me that chicken rice would change my life. I can’t say that it was a mind-blowing experience, but I enjoyed it, the flavored rice in particular. It was cheap enough — maybe less than $5 USD for this plate — and the flavors were mild and familiar. It’s a dish I would eat regularly if I lived in Singapore, but not one that I would eat every day while on vacation — if that makes any sense.
This “integrated resort” — that means it has a casino, among other things — was developed by Las Vegas Sands and is considered one of the most expensive standalone casino properties in the world.
Open in 2011, it has quickly become an iconic fixture in the Singaporean skyline. It boasts three massive towers with what appears to be a cruise ship spanning the top; 2,561 guest rooms and suites; a 1.3 million square-food convention-exhibition center; a Caesar Palace-like 800,000-square-foot mall; a state-of-the-art museum; two large theaters; seven “celebrity chef” restaurants; two floating Crystal Pavilions; an ice skating rink that we never found; and the world’s largest atrium casino with 500 tables and 1,600 slot machines. It also boasts an amazing infinity swimming pool at the top with unobstructed panoramic views of the city.
But we were just here for drinks and dinner.
CÉ LA VI couldn’t be more different than the food stalls we had been visiting. On the top of this uber-trendy hotel, with an observation deck that only guests can access, this restaurant serves up modern Asian food with an extensive drink menu that makes you feel like you’re in LA, not so much Singapore.
We went with the tasting menu, which featured wok-fried shishito peppers, Irish oysters with ikura and a konbu jelly, pan-fried foie gras and baby squid with a spicy yuzu miso, and wok-fried bok choy topped with parma ham and maple syrup.
I didn’t know what to expect on this trip — and so far, the food has been the highlight. Kaya toast, that thick and sweet Singaporean coffee, the flavorful chicken rice, the small plates of meticulously crafted dishes at the top of a luxe hotel — these were all memorable eating experiences.
And it’s only been one day!
Follow my adventures in #Singapore on Instagram (@catherinetoth), Twitter (@thedailydish) and Facebook (/cattoth) using the hashtags #AlohaSingapore and #CatTravels.