A Culinary Tour of Singapore

Take a closer look at Singapore's ethnic areas: their history, their culture and their cuisine.

Take a closer look at Singapore’s ethnic areas: their history, their culture and their cuisine.

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Singapore is an incredibly diverse city with a population that draws its inhabitants from all over the globe. Consequently, it has a rich and varied culinary scene.

There are some truly incredible eateries in this city and the sheer range means that even if you’re here for several weeks, you could dine on a different cuisine every night: not to mention the city has restaurants to suit every budget, whether you fancy trying out celebrity chef establishments or street food or anything in between.

For this culinary exploration of the city, we’ve decided to break it down into different ethnicities and their cuisines but to do this, first we need to understand a bit about the creation of different ethnic urban spaces in Singapore. In 1822, the British government that presided over Singapore drew up the Jackson Plan (also known as the Raffles Plan) which laid out guidelines for a strict structuring of a new, thriving colonial city, which has been founded a few years prior, in 1819. In these proposals there was a conscious effort to create ethnic sub-zones in the city; at the time there were four divisions: the European mercantile area, an area for those of Chinese decent, one for those of Indian descent and one for the Muslim population, which consisted primarily of those of Malay and Arab ethnicity.

Today ethnic segregation has been largely abandoned and the city is one of true multiculturalism where people from all over the world live side by side. However, many of the areas in the Raffles Plan remain in some way preserved, the rich heritage still visible in the establishments – and the food – that can be found there. Below we will take a look at three of the best known ethnic areas of the city; Arab Street, Chinatown and Little India.

Arab Street

Singapore’s Arab quarter is largely referred to simply as Arab Street but it actually extends further to include Haji Lane, Bali Lane, the Sultan Mosque and its surrounding streets. Visually this is an area that is typified by its art and architecture: a series of small lanes with buildings that appear to be leaning onto one another, pressing into the street, all filled with a rainbow of colours that appear almost to pour out of them.

You can barely move for art here; street art adorns many of the buildings, which have brightly coloured shutters, window panes and feature walls. Within these buildings, which contain mostly shops, cafes and restaurants, you can glimpse fantastic interior decoration: colourful furniture, large potted plants that spill out onto street, shops selling patterned fabrics, clothing and ornate jewellery. The area really offers a visual feast, as well as an edible one, and is worth a visit for that alone. Don’t forget to explore the Sultan Mosque as well, which is an impressive building to behold.

If you are going to visit Arab Street, we recommend that you include at least one meal in this area. There is a lot to be said for going in the evening when the whole place comes alive with coloured lanterns and live music performances make for a truly magical atmosphere, however, a lunchtime stop also has its own charms. Take a seat either tucked away into one of the many small (and not-so small) cafes and restaurants that line these side streets, or take a seat outside at one of the tables that fill the busy side-walks and give the area a jolly alfresco atmosphere. The food itself is primarily Lebanese, Turkish, Moroccan and Mediterranean; expect lots of couscous, kebabs, falafel and hummus.

China Town

Singapore’s China Town, known as Niu che shui in Mandarin, has many attractions to offer visitors: its temples (including the oldest shrine in Singapore – the Sri Mariamman Temple), its street markets, the Red Dot design museum, and of course, its food. There is a lot to take in here, and visitors will be drawn in by the atmosphere: the intriguing architecture, which is a unique combination of Baroque and Victorian styles, the smells, the sounds and the rich culture that seems to be bursting forth from every corner, proudly effusing the area’s heritage.

During Singapore’s colonial era this area was originally the place where many Chinese immigrants chose to settle. There are plenty of restaurants worth visiting in this area, but for an experience that is distinct to this space head to Chinatown’s Food Street, located within the Street Market, with its authentic, cheap, local bites.

Food Street is a street lined with food stalls and restaurants on either side. The road is busy with tables and chairs and covered by a large glass roof, making for a vibrant atmosphere. For first time visitors it can be a bit overwhelming with so much choice but a few of the must try dishes include satay sticks of beef, pork or chicken, kway teow (a thick, fried noodle dish) and roast duck served in a sticky, sweet sauce. The taste (and the price) will leave you wanting to come back time and again!

Little India

Little India first developed as an area with many ethnic Tamils, and although the area also houses people of different ethnic backgrounds, there remains a large focus in the area on retaining its cultural heritage and as such it is still the site of many Tamil commercial centres. In this area visitors will find various places of worship (for many different religions), as well as a variety of businesses: second-hand shops, electrical suppliers, hardware shops, and many more.

The most interesting establishments are the groceries, the traditional spice grinders and clothing stalls. Walk along these streets and immerse yourself in the smells of Indian incense sticks burning, marvel at the various coloured sarees and traditional clothings hanging from rails outside shop doors, or get lost in the intricacies of ornate jewellery, reams of fabric or colourful architecture with sculpted archways and fantastic peacock-shaped lights.

For food, head to the food malls, where little independent stalls line the edge of a communal seated area, offering all kinds of Indian delicacies, from breads such as naan, chapati and roti, to tandoori chicken, biryani curries and sweets such as gulab juman (fried khoya cooked with sugar syrup and saffron – delicious). Banana leaf curry is also a must try and for this you must go to the more established dining areas. A fresh banana leaf is placed on the table in front of you and loaded up with rice and vegetarian side-dishes, which are generally topped up throughout the meal, as much as you wish, for no extra charge.  You then choose one or two main curry dishes to go with these sides. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous then you can eat with your hands, if not cutlery is readily available.

A few Extras

Now we’re sure your mouth is watering after reading all of the above, but perhaps you’re still a bit daunted about where to begin on a tour of Singapore’s food? Read on for a few extra suggestions of places to eat.

  • If you are looking for banana leaf in Little India go to the Banana Leaf Apolo restaurant, 1-32 Little India Arcade, on Serangoon Road. The curries here are delicious and there is a lot of variety on offer depending on your preferences. We recommend the prawn and mango curry – it is particularly rich and offers a unique flavour.
  • In the Arab Street area you must check out the Kampong Glam Cafe. Located on the corners of Bussorah and Baghdad Streets, this eatery offers diners primarily Malay, Indonesian and Singaporean dishes within a bustling establishment that is always busy. We highly recommend the roti kirai and mee rebus.
  • We’ve not discussed the options for Western food in the above article but if you fancy a Western style brunch in a picturesque little cafe set in lush garden surroundings, go to P.S. Cafe on Harding Street. It is a bit difficult to find, so make sure you check a map before you leave. The food is very good, including some delicious deserts, the staff are great and the views are lovely.
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