Months before I came to Singapore, before I even knew I was going to Singapore, I realized that I was going there for two very important things. Beyond the sights and the attractions, I was there for the food and the people. Perhaps due to its geographic location—right at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, right when ships from the Strait of Malacca enter into the real "far east," they must first come to Singapore. Thus, this tiny port city grew to be the meeting point for many Asian cultures, particularly Indian, Chinese and Malay. And with each of these rich cultures come food, glorious food.
It’s a pity really. Many pass off Singapore to be an expensive city, a city where you catch flights, a sterile and plastic city. And as the adages go, it’s the amusement park with the seat at the United Nations, the Disneyland with death penalty. Really, few people take that extra effort to peel off its layers and see it for what it is—Southeast Asia’s true melting pot of cuisine and people. That is what Singapore has come to mean for me. Singapore is not Singapore without the people and the food.
Luckily, due to the country’s more relaxed immigrant laws and its growing need for talents, a lot of Filipinos have gone to Singapore for work. I say that’s lucky because I now know a handful of people who are now living and working there. And it was through them that I truly got to know Singapore and Singaporean cuisine better. Hopefully, as a way to pay my gratitude forward, the information here reaches other travelers wanting, needing a guide on some of Singapore’s good eats.
1. Lau Pa Sat
Part of reason why deciding to go to Singapore was quite easy for me was due to the amount of hostel costs I was to save by staying there. Why? Because three lovely ladies, one of whom was a former co-worker from back home, accepted me into their flat and had me basically surf their couch for a couple of nights. I really could not ask for anything better.
But then it got better! On my first night with them, they took me to a bustling night food market called Telok Ayer Market, colloquially referred to as Lau Pa Sat. To get there, we simply got to Raffles Place Station and walked along Robinson Road until we reached the area. And believe me, you’ll know once you’re there. It is the only place alive at night in that quiet business district. The interesting architecture will surprise you as well. It has this old iron steampunk-esque architecture open on all eight sides. I had been in Singapore for about 24 hours then and it was the first time I truly felt something authentic.
The girls treated me to some real Singaporean food staples. We had char kway teow (the famous stir-fried rice noodles), some dimsum, grilled chicken wings, and of course, satay. Everything and I mean everything was good. I particularly liked the satay. But again, I would definitely eat it not with the peanut sauce that usually comes along with it, but with vinegar or some sort of souring agent. Hey, I’m Filipino. All the same, I thank my beautiful hosts for the whole experience.
Old friends from back home and I were meeting at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands on my second day in the island. One was there on a one-week vacation, the other’s there for full-time work. I still find it funny that not a few years ago, we were setting meet-ups at the fast-food joint at the neighborhood shopping center. We have come a long, long way indeed.
So off we go to one of Singapore’s many food courts, Makansutra, located across Marina Bay Sands and by the Esplanade. There were quite a lot of people there. What’s even more surprising was that as soon as we sat down on one table, I suddenly realized that I understood the conversations of the people on the three tables surrounding us. They were all Filipinos! Apparently, many Pinoy expats, mostly family-oriented ones, like the night life here. I get why. The place is not as posh and pretentious as, I suppose, many of Singapore’s real night-life bars. But that's just me.
We ordered fried rice mixed in with bit-size veggies and meat, and oyster omelette, both Singapore staples. Both very good. What I liked more, I think, was the dessert. We had ais kachang! It’s a mix of beans and fruits and other tropical sweets topped with shaved ice and coconut milk. It reminded me of something very similar from back home: halo-halo. I was so excited I was not able to take a photo of it. It was really perfect for the warm night ahead.
3. Amoy Food Center
I guess I should have specified earlier that all the food centers we visited were called hawker centers. What are hawker centers? Well, clean, orderly Singapore did not want any street food vendors littering its streets. Thus, what they did was to collect all these vendors and put them in one place. Thus born the Singapore hawker center—a collection of food stalls serving all kinds of dishes, from Malay to Chinese to Indian, etc. The best part of it, they’re cheap! Six SGDs would afford you one full meal. That’s cheap. Well, by Singapore standards, they are.
A friend from college, Pat, who now works there as a business reporter took me to perhaps the busiest hawker center in the island during lunch time—Amoy Food Center. It’s right at the heart of the business district between Tanjong Pagar station and Raffles Place station. So most of the people working at the nearby offices fill the food center to the brim. Better secure seats and tables once you find some empty.
Basically, the process goes this way. (1) You choose the food stall you are going to buy food from. Pat and I decided to go Malay for lunch that day. And as Pat says, always choose the place where the line is the longest, because the food there is most probably very good. (2) Specify if your order is makan (for here) or bungkus (to go/take out). (3) You choose which foods you like. They place them on your plate. (4) You pay and you sit down to eat. Simple. Quite the contrary to the food that we ate that day. We had beef randang! Slow-cooked beef casserole in thick brown sauce. Most probably not a simple dish to do. So yeah, definitely the best food I ate in all of Singapore.
I think Singapore proves that travel doesn’t have to be about the places you visit. It can also be about the people who are there and what they have to offer you. In this case, food. If you got connections, I say go for it and utilize those connections to your advantage. They will certainly make your trip a more rewarding and delicious experience.
Have you also come to realize that travel isn't always about the places, that they can also be about people and most especially, food, glorious food?
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