Fried carrot cake - hot and spicy comfort food at its best - from Bukit Timah Hawkers Market, Singapore
What was ostensibly a break on the long-haul journey between Melbourne and Frankfurt turned out to be the greatest mini-break in years. I’d planned a stopover in Singapore last month to catch up with another ex-London Rollergirl, Ecchi Killer, now living in the island city-state, but could never have imagined how much eating, shopping and sweating was possible in three days. The beauty of Singapore is that it’s a melting pot of cultures, and a model exponent of globalisation – all that’s good (and bad) about the West encroaching on the East, all wrapped up in a mostly clean, happy, shiny package. You’ll see those completely unremarkable mall regulars from around the globe – Aussie sewing shop Spotlight, American eatery Applebees, and British institution Marks and Spencers – sitting side-by-side and somehow looking classier and more sophisticated than you ever remembered them in their home nations. I found my favourite M&S knickers with a 20% discount, and they were gift wrapped in tissue paper like in a high-end department store. It's safe to say I never received that level of service at the Brixton outpost.
By and large, the city centre is safe to the point of being ridiculous – would you leave your iPad on an outdoor café table to reserve it, while you went inside to order? However, despite the international perception that the Government keeps a firm control on the media and an even tighter rule over its citizens – we’ve all heard the warnings about chewing gum and spitting in public – pockets of society, especially online communities, are pretty progressive and certainly have a global outlook. Drawing on the ever-reliable evidence of roller derby statistics – wanna learn about a city? Go talk to some rollergirls! – it’s interesting to note that Singapore’s Chilli Padi Rollergirls boasts the highest proportion of locals of any Asian league – most leagues in these parts are dominated by Western expats. So if the locals dig roller derby, it must be a pretty cool place, right?
Eat like your life depends on it
If your idea of foodie heaven is being spoilt for choice, eating with the locals, and challenging your tastebuds with dishes where you’ve no clue as to the ingredients or cooking process, then Singapore is the place for you. The fact that its history comes from the combination of Chinese, Indonesian and Malay cultures gives some indication of the mouth-wateringly diverse options. A hawkers market is kind of like an open-air food court of carts and huts where locals eat morning, noon and night. If you’re looking for quintessential Singaporean dishes, bypass the city centre and go somewhere suburban like the Bikut Timah Hawkers Market, where you’ll find the most authentic tastes and cheapest prices.
Furnished with Ecchi Killer's map of the neighbourhood's non-touristy attractions, I was ready to take on Singapore
My innocent chat with Terry from the laksa stall about “asian hot” versus “Western hot” – he was hesitant to give me extra chilli with my order – quickly evolved into a private tour of the hawkers market, and clear instructions on what dishes to try to get a true taste of Singapore. He’s been honing his laksa recipe for years – “every bowl is made by hand with love and passion” – and his two stalls (stall #02-194 in Bukit Timah hawker centre, and #02-194 at Chinatown Complex at 335 Smith Street) are regularly listed amongst the city’s best. His recipe is a world away from the greasy heartburn-in-a-bowl laksas that prompt lifetime aversions to coconut cream. We’re talking rice noodles in a delicate, spicy gravy as opposed to coconut soup, studded with prawns and cockles, and free of corner-cutting ingredients like MSG, sugar, evaporated milk, pork and lard.
Terry Katong serves up some of Singapore's most renowned laksa
Fried carrot cake, or Chai Tau Kway, was next on the menu (Seng Kee, stall #2182, see photo at top). This is in no way related to the sweet dessert; it’s a bubble and squeak-type dish of gelatinous rice cake cubes, egg, radish and chilli. I can’t think of a more effective comfort food (read: hangover cure) – it’s dangerously moreish, and packed with starch, grease, salt and heat.
On Terry Katong’s recommendation, we headed to Chinatown to sample chilli crab (or, if you can find it, black pepper or salted egg crab): “The food’s not good there, but it’s good for people like you,” was Terry's earnest advice. Crabs tend to start around $25-30 and go up to $40, depending on their size; $25 bought a completely indulgent meal for one, with no need for sides, other than a bowl of rice on the plate to soak up the sauce (normal people would probably split a crab between two, but who wants to share when you’re on holidays?). Ours was sweet, sticky, salty, packed with heat and succulent white flesh, and easily the tastiest crustacean ever sampled.
Aftermath of chilli crab in typical Smith Street restaurant (yep - forgot the name) in Singapore's Chinatown
Sample city for opportunistic foodies
Everyone knows Friday mornings are the internationally designated time for free samples in supermarkets. Not so in Singapore. In the lead up to Chinese new year, you can fill your belly to bursting point any time of the day just by wandering through a supermarket, where you’ll be plied with generous-sized samples (we’re talking entire cookies, not just crumbly portions). Chinatown at nightfall takes this to another level, with stallholders haranguing shoppers with all manner of cookies, sweets, and dried fruit nuts in the hope of making some sales.
Chinatown’s also worth a wander if you’re looking for locally-made clothes that look remarkably similar to hideously overpriced European designer threads. You could pay $1500 for a HervéLéger bandage dress on Net-a-porter, or you could pay $145 for a no-name body-con dress to which noone at your cousin’s wedding will know the difference (we’re not talking about vinyl-masquerading-as-leather handbags; there’s literally no difference between the fabric and construction of these frocks).
Explore the jungle 12km from the city
Travel by bus around the island and, once you’re off the freeways and away from the ‘downtown’ area, Singapore’s past life as an island jungle is still abundantly obvious. Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is the biggest patch of unadulterated, protected rainforest in Singapore and, while fairly small by Australian standards – measuring 1.64 square kilometres – it includes some extremely hilly hiking trails, and is home to more flora and fauna than you could poke a stick at (most notably, giant trees, tonnes of macaques, and creepy chirping insects).
Once inside under the rainforest canopy, Singapore’s humidity becomes much more bearable – dare we say almost refreshing – but don’t be alarmed if you can wring the sweat out of your shirt after an hour or so. Legend has it that the Bukit Timah Monkey Man – a Singaporean yeti, if you will – resides in the park, which no doubt keeps many locals from exploring the park after dark.
Tame and tourist-friendly macaques chilling outside Bukit Timah Nature Reserve