Local knowledge … Audra Morrice at Bugis Markets in Singapore.”Food is the Singapore culture so it’s a good place to start to get to know about the country,” ex-Masterchef contestant Audra Morrice tells me.
On a recent trip to Singapore the foodie, who grew up in the city-state and now lives in Sydney, showed me her favourite places to eat while introducing me to the place.
One of my first lessons about the country and its food was to not try to label everything into neat packages because they don’t always fit into just one category.
Like Singapore, which is not only a country but a city, its food is also many things.
With so many Asian influences, eaters should forget about putting foods into certain categories, like sweet or savoury, or even breakfast or lunch.
In Singapore, food is served and eaten all day long and can sometimes be a combination of flavours that are not commonly used in European-style cooking.
On a warm afternoon stroll, a stop for a refreshing sweet treat proved this point.
Audra suggested we get an ice kachang or a cendol.
These are two similar desserts with the main ingredients of shaved ice, coconut milk, green jelly noodles, pandan flavouring and palm sugar.
Other topping options include rice, red beans and creamed corn.
It is not only the food that should not be labelled quickly without a second thought; Singapore is a very multicultural city.
As a child growing up in Singapore, when Audra was asked about her background, people expected her to tell them where her dad was from, instead she was always sure to tell them “my mum is Chinese and my father is Indian.”
She is very proud of her heritage, a heritage which has only made her knowledge for food richer.
Singapore’s Little India gives Morrice a chance to immerse herself in the culture she has inherited from her father’s side of the family.
The Indian influence on Singapore started as far back as the 14th Century when the then city of Singapura was a trading post, welcoming vessels from a number of countries including India.
Today almost 10 per cent of the Singaporean population is of Indian origin.
One of Audra’s favourite places to eat in Little India is Madras New Woodlands Restaurant.
A glass case of brightly coloured waxy looking desserts welcomes patrons upon arrival.
I made a quick trip to the hand basin in between ordering and the food arriving on our table; this is necessary because the south Indian vegetarian dishes are served in the traditional way, without any utensils.
Using my hands I got to feel how soft and sponge-like the idlis (little savoury cakes made from ground rice) felt on my fingers.
I was able to tear open the poori and watch the steam come out of the expanded bread before dipping it into the tasty chickpea masala it was served alongside.
On a wander around Little India after lunch there is plenty to see.
There are women sitting around a friend in a small arcade as she gets henna painted onto her skin in a decorative pattern, shops appear to sparkle with all of the shiny bangles on display and the smell of flowers waft from stalls with brightly coloured floral garlands hanging down.
Singapore’s geographic position means it has a very cosmopolitan vibe.
It is nestled between Malaysia and Indonesia with the South China Sea to its north-east and the Indian Ocean to the south-west with its international airport: Changi, acting as a major aviation hub in the area.
Singapore is open to a number of global influences and in a past life was under British rule as a colony of the Crown.
Evidence of this colonial past can be seen in the architecture and the large white, double story buildings with high ceilings dotted throughout different neighbourhoods.
European trends can be seen in some of the city’s dining establishments.
An afternoon stop at Café Symmetry had me thinking back to a recent trip to Berlin and the trendy yet laid back cafes nestled within local neighbourhoods, offering not only a great place for a morning brunch with family but also a good choice for drinks with friends in the late afternoon.
In trendy Ann Siang Road, Lolla provided Mediterranean type dining with tapas style dishes perfect for sharing.
Audra recommended the place after a visit with her husband last time she was in Singapore.
My favourite dish on our visit was the char grilled paprika octopus which was braised and then grilled and served with the kalamansi lime.
I was also happily surprised to enjoy dishes which I had been a little cautious about ordering including a sea urchin pudding and braised beef tripe in a tasty marinade with a crispy edge.
Like almost three quarters of the Singaporean population, Audra’s mother comes from a Chinese background.
Singapore has kept a lot of the Chinese culture including its food.
While there are plenty of Chinese dishes on offer here, there was one dish that was continuously mentioned throughout our trip.
I got to try Hainan chicken rice, the dish Audra tells me is “almost a staple dish” in Singapore at Boon Tong Kee, a restaurant in River Valley.
The restaurant is one of seven in a chain of the local eateries which grew out of humble beginnings in a small stall in Chinatown.
The dish is lightly seasoned boiled chicken, served at room temperature alongside rice cooked in a chicken stock.
Boiling the meat makes the flesh very silky and moist and combining it with the flavoured rice and some chilli sauce, pulls it all together.
It is no flavour sensation but when something simple is done well, it does not have to be anything fancy to be appreciated.
The nearest country to Singapore is Malaysia, where about 13 per cent of Singaporeans are originally from.
At one point Singapore was part of Malaysia and Malay food features prominently on local menus.
A common dish is satay; skewers of grilled meat cooked over charcoals and served alongside peanut sauce, with raw onions and cucumber.
In Singapore, like Penang, Malacca and Indonesia, early Chinese immigrants have inter-married with the local Malays to form a new distinct culture known as Peranakan and referred to by locals as “nonya.”
These people also have their own style of food.
Their creative cuisine infused with delicate flavours uses Malay and Indonesian spices with the ingredients and cooking techniques of the Chinese.
Audra took me to Chin Mee Chin Confectionary to try a peranakan style breakfast of kaya toast.
As I drank my coffee, or ‘kopi’ as the locals call it; sweet coffee made with condensed milk, I was able to watch all the activity in the kitchen at the back of the eating area.
The traditional coffee shop, known locally as a kopi tiam was a long narrow hollowed out space, with tiles on the floor and halfway up the walls.
The staff were busy, trying to get food out as quickly as possible, with people waiting out front for seats to become available.
My kopi was served in a basic white mug and the food being prepared was coming out on orange plastic plates.
Plates of pastries and silver bowls full of boiled eggs in their shells were arriving at other tables before the runny eggs were cracked open and eaten with soy sauce.
When my kaya toast arrived, it looked a little like hot cross buns cut open.
The warm slightly toasted bread was topped with a thick spread made from eggs sugar, coconut milk and pandan preserves- with a dollop of butter on top.
It was a perfect accompaniment to my morning coffee.
While I was not won over by it, a story about Singapore food would not be complete without a mention of the stinky fruit banned on public transport in the country.
If you’ve travelled anywhere in south east Asia you’ve probably seen, or heard of durian, I have no doubt you would have smelled it.
Going by the wretched smell that the fruit gives off you would avoid the stuff (like I had always done) – but you can’t judge it until you try it.
I tried the bitter tasting fruit and later I gave durian puffs a go; all I can say is that I won’t be giving durian a third try.
If I could go back to only one of the places that Audra took me to it would have to be the hawkers markets.
Chinese, Malay, Indian and Peranakan dishes are all available at affordable prices in relaxed settings.
These markets, which are a collection of individual stalls are dotted throughout Singapore and vary in size.
They are usually open air structures with a roof over top and plenty of basic seating.
While hawkers markets might look a little like what we know as a food hall, there are some differences.
Forget the idea of food left in bains-marie, generally dishes served at hawkers stalls are made fresh.
Each stall usually offers only a handful of different dishes that they specialise in.
The markets are more organised than in the past, each stall is even rated for cleanliness on an annual basis by local authorities and labelled with an A, B, C or D accordingly.
With a group of friends, Audra and I headed to Adam Road Hawkers Centre for dinner.
Singaporeans eat many of their meals out and this centre was buzzing with people.
Orders are taken at the individual stalls and some of them deliver the food to your table, others you have to collect the food yourself.
We had satay, a plate of sambal clams, a sambal stingray dish, an Indian migoreng, oyster omelette and rojak which is a fruit and vegetable dish civered in roasted peanuts and spicy fermented prawn paste sauce.
Another dish we ate was carrot cake, despite its name, it is nothing like the carrot cake with cream cheese icing.
The local favourite is made of cubes of steamed rice flour and white radish, fried in egg and garnished with spring onions, seasoned with sweet black sauce or molasses, I could not get enough of this one.
Drinks and a number of dishes to share cost a little more than $S62, about $53, not bad for some of the tastiest food I’ve eaten.
Audra said she spent many late nights eating here with friends when she was in her early 20s and I can see how these rich, flavoursome, savoury dishes could be just the thing to hit the spot after a night out and a few drinks.
When it was time for Audra and I to say our goodbyes I felt more than comfortable to venture out and order for myself.
Like travelling, the more places you go, the more places there are that you want to go, our food journey through Singapore just made me keen to go and try even more food.
Audra put it well, “food is what makes people comfortable, if you know where to go to find food you can explore from there,” she said.
THREE MORE PLACES TO EAT WITH A VIEW
On Sentosa Island, a place full of attractions including a water park and Universal Studios, the SEA Aquarium offers patrons an underwater eating experience with no towel required. Ocean Restaurant serves its customers dishes created by Singapore’s own Iron Chef in full view of the world’s largest aquarium.
For those who don’t mind tall buildings, Kudeta restaurant provides modern Asian dining on the rooftop of the Marina Bay Sands resort. The resort is made up of three towers 57 floors up.
As part of Singapore’s newest attraction, Gardens by the Bay which is a modern take on botanical gardens, Pollen restuarant serves its customers surrounded by greenery. The restaurant is within the Flower Dome, which replicates the cool-dry climate of Mediterranean regions.
Singapore Airlines has multiple direct daily flights from Sydney, Melbourne and Perth to Singapore with connections to other international destinations including Asia and Europe. See singaporeair爱上海同城论坛m, phone 13 10 11.
Singapore may promote itself by saying “get lost and find the real Singapore” but with the easy-to-use Mass Rapid Transit network, known by locals as the MRT, it would be pretty difficult to get seriously lost.
SEE + DO
The Singapore Tourism Board has launched a Singapore Celebrity Concierge travel service, which will give travellers the chance to get insider tips on the island-city. Audra Morrice, Tetsuya Wakuda, Tom Williams and Antonia Kidman will provide their own insider tips on the island-city. Visit SingaporeCelebrityConcierge爱上海同城论坛m.au