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Wednesday, 7 August 2013

The London Foodie Goes to Singapore

Among the most cosmopolitan countries in the world, and with some of the best food I've ever eaten, Singapore is a place I never tire of returning to.  The blend of Malay, Chinese, Indian and British cultures, architecture and food make this small island a fascinating place to be.

Singapore has all the comforts of a first-world nation, along with a wonderful tropical climate (the weather is nearly always 30C and sunny!), and cuisine ranging from very affordable street food to fine-dining restaurants.  Whenever in Singapore, I love visiting some of the hundreds of hawker centres (food courts) dotted around town. A favourite of mine is the Maxwell Road Hawker Centre in Chinatown which has over 100 stalls.

Maxwell Road Hawker Centre
Singaporeans will travel far and wide to go to certain stalls (or restaurants) that serve a particular dish, each restaurant being highly specialised in one dish. It is not uncommon for local travel and food guides to list dishes followed by restaurants that serve them rather than giving a more conventional listing by either location or cuisine. Some must-try items at Maxwell Road Hawker Centre include Hainanese  chicken rice from Tian Tian stall 10/11, the traditional congee with pork and century egg from Zhen Zhen Porridge stall, and the popular char kway teow from the Marina South Delicious Food stall.

Zhen Zhen Porridge Stall - unfortunately closed on my last visit!

Year of the Snake
Singapore is also where I get my fix of Nonya cooking particularly around Katong and Joo Chiat areas, the stronghold of Peranakans in the island. Peranakans were originally the descendants of inter-racial marriages between Chinese men and Malay women and their cuisine was known as Nonya. It is a gutsy and rich cuisine, colourful and full of flavour with plenty of coconut milk, spices, lemongrass and belachan (shrimp paste). To learn more about Nonya cuisine, click here or if you are planning to go to Singapore, I strongly recommend a visit to the Peranakan Museum.

One of the three main transport hubs in Asia, along with Hong Kong and Bangkok, Singapore is also a good base from which to explore the region.  Singapore Airlines is one of the best Asian airlines, and is surprisingly good value if you plan to travel to other countries in Asia. Whenever I get a flight with Singapore Airlines, I make sure to book at least a few days for a stopover. My latest visit was however a short 48 hour stopover during Chinese New Year, and was a good opportunity to catch up with my Singaporean friends over some great food.

Where to Stay

The Shangri-La Hotel is something of an institution in Singapore.  The first hotel ever built under the Shangri-La brand, it was opened in 1971 only 6 years after Singapore was made independent from Malaysia. Several Singaporean friends told me that the hotel played a big part in their family history, many having fond memories of the hotel as a place for which they would dress up (as children, and later with partners and perhaps their own children) to attend parties, weddings, New Year celebrations and other special events.

The Tower Wing, completed in 1971, was designed to cater for the influx of international business leaders who were visiting the young city-state during its development as a world trading and financial centre. Later in 1978, the Garden Wing opened its doors to couples and families on vacation offering them a 5-star "resort" experience. The very luxurious Valley Wing was added in 1985, catering for visiting heads of state, captains of industry and those individuals with deep enough pockets to afford it. The hotel now has a total of 750 rooms.

The Garden Wing underwent an extensive 9-month refurbishment in 2012 and that is where we stayed. Our room was very spacious, with a private balcony overlooking the gardens and large swimming pool. It was comfortable and elegant, with wood flooring, beautifully designed furniture, and a generously proportioned bathroom with separate bath and shower, as well as free Wifi and cable TV.

Elegant room we stayed in at Garden Wing

We enjoyed wandering through the acres of landscaped gardens, as well as the Garden Atrium with cascading waterfalls among a spectacular array of palms, ferns, orchids and other colourful tropical  plants.

Just beyond the Atrium is a large swimming pool around which nestle a number of sun loungers and umbrellas, as well as the Waterline Cafe and Line restaurant.

The hotel has excellent exercise facilities, including four tennis courts (two with artificial grass, two having all weather surfaces), a three-hole pitch-and-putt golf course, and a large and well equipped Health Club with jacuzzi, and dry and steam saunas. For the less energetic, there is also the Shangri-La's own brand Chi Spa, with 6 single treatment rooms and 3 couple rooms.

The largest hotel gym I have ever seen

Gorgeous Atrium outside bedrooms in Garden Wing
We had very good breakfasts at the Waterline Cafe, with a range of Singaporean and Western cooked options, as well as a buffet-style selection of pastries, cut tropical fruit, yoghurt, cereals, muesli, juices and tea or coffee.

Breakfast time!
Apart from the Waterline Cafe, the Shangri-La Hotel also has The Line, offering local and international cuisine from 16 different kitchen stations on a fixed price, buffet basis, the Nadaman Japanese Restaurant, and the Shang Palace Cantonese restaurant.  There is also the BLU bar on the 24th floor, for panoramic views of the city which unfortunately we only discovered after leaving the hotel.

Beautiful and generous breakfast buffet at Shangri-La Singapore

Breakfast, encore!
Having stayed at the sister Shangri-La Hotel in Penang, Malaysia, the wonderful Rasa Sayang, (see review here), I was pleased to find that the standards were equally high at one of the most established and revered hotels in Singapore. We had a wonderful stay and I would love to return one day.  
Where to Eat

Ah Hoi's Kitchen

Ah Hoi's Kitchen was highly recommended to us, and was our first stop for lunch after arriving in Singapore.  It is a restaurant serving Singaporean hawker-style dishes, on the roof-top of a shopping mall linked to Trader's Hotel. We had an excellent lunch there, enjoying some of the city's most popular dishes.

Ah Hoi following a very busy lunch service

We kicked off with Crispy Fried Baby Squid (£5). This was superb - the squid being crunchy on the outside, yet still meltingly tender inside, in a deliciously flavoured sweet pineapple sauce.

Next, we opted for Stir-fried Shimeji Mushrooms, on home-made tofu with crispy conpoy or dried scallops (£8). The little beancurd towers were wonderful - again crispy outside, and like soft butter inside, with a delicious flavour of the sea from the scallops.

I've had many Char Kway Teows in my time, but the chef's Black Pepper Kway Teow with Seafood (£8) was really something else. The chef kindly came to talk to me, and told me that this was a largely forgotten Singaporean classic he was trying to revive. It was a delicious dish, and one of the highlights of the lunch.

Inevitably we had Chilli Crab (£16), which was packed with flavour, made from a generously succulent specimen of crab.  Being very messy to eat, the waiter thoughtfully tied bibs around our necks before we started, as well as providing lime-infused finger bowls and copious wet wipes to clean up afterwards. I thought the Indonesian crab we ate was very generous in meat, but even bigger meatier ones from Sri Lanka are available on the menu at £36.  To accompany the crab, we had Fried Mantou at £1 for 2 - little semi-sweet light, fluffy buns ideal for soaking up the delicious chilli sauce.

To finish, we had desserts of Yam Paste (£4), Durian Chendol (£4) and Fried Nian Gao (sweet potato and yam, £8). These were good, although the last is only available at Chinese New Year. To drink, we had Calamansi Juice (a type of lime) at £3 per glass - crisp and very refreshing.

For anyone who would like to sample a range of authentic hawker-style Singaporean dishes in a little more style and comfort than is on offer in hawker centres, I would strongly recommend Ah Hoi's Kitchen.

High Tea at The Rose Veranda, Shangri-La Hotel

The Rose Veranda is on the Mezzanine floor of the Tower Wing, and is an elegant setting for high tea between midday and 6pm. This is a favourite place for local Singaporeans meeting friends for a catch up, for the numerous expat wives doing lunch, or for visitors like ourselves who want a place to relax after exploring the city, with tea, cake and savoury bites without being rushed to finish and move on.

There were over 100 teas on offer from a menu broken down into black, blue, white and fruit categories. There was a generous buffet for hot Asian and Western starters and mains, a large selection of salads, a cheese trolley, a sushi counter, and an impressive patisserie station with the most delectable cakes, ice cream, scones, and many different types of desserts.

We had a fantastic leisurely lunch at The Rose Veranda. I thought this was a really good option for whiling away a few hours in style and comfort, eating as and when desired, and for around £20 per person, very good value for money too.

Hawker Centre - Smith Street Food Market, 1st floor, above China Town Visitor Centre

For our last evening in Singapore, we joined a groups of local friends including Tiffany and Ellen, owners of the lovely Rasa Sayang restaurant in London, Emily and a couple of other friends from my time at Cordon Bleu, and headed off to the hawker centre at the Smith Street Food Market in the heart of China Town.

Ellen is on a mission to find us some good stuff!
Having secured a couple of tables big enough for all of us, we were guided by Ellen around the many stalls finding those that served the dishes we wanted. We had a large variety of dishes over the course of the evening. Joining orderly queues to make the purchases and watching the preparation was all part of the fun.

Tiffany queuing up for some New Year Salad!
New Year Salad on the make
Some of my favourites, mostly at prices from £2 to £5 were stir fried carrot cake, oyster omelette and New Year Salad (deep fried crispy wonton skins, shredded carrot and lettuce, chillies, peanuts, crispy shallots, raw fish and lime).
Oyster Omelette

Stir-Fried Carrot Cake
Traditionally this salad is tossed by all the diners together, while uttering auspicious phrases about the coming year - 'I will win the lottery', 'I will make my fortune', 'I will meet my wife' etc. We joined in with gusto!

Leaving it to the pros

"I will win the lottery!!!!"
We also had a lovely Char Kway Teow, and Otak Otak, a Nonya classic made from a cake of fish fillets and spices, wrapped up in a banana leaf and grilled. We ended the evening, perhaps unwisely, with a couple of large Baron beers each (8.5% alcohol), but slept soundly prior to our early morning departure back to London.

Otak Otak

Char Kway Teow

Ice Kacang!
What to Do

Singapore is a world city, with all the sophisticated variety of entertainment that this implies. There is something for everyone, and apart from countless shopping malls on Orchard Road, some of my favourite places to wander are Chinatown, the Padang - north of the Singapore River - the centre of the Colonial District around The Raffles Hotel, and the Peranakan Museum (which explains a lot of the background to Nonya cuisine, one of my favourites).

The Pernakans - Image Courtesy of the Peranakan Museum

It's also a great place to do a cooking course, and I really enjoyed the three classes, (Singaporean street food, Nonya cuisine and Indochina cooking) I did at Cookery Magic on one of my earlier visits.  Ruqxana is a genuine and passionate individual I was lucky enough to meet a few years ago before I decided to quit investment banking and move into food, a decision that she made herself 10 years ago. You can read more about Ruqxana Vasanwala and her classes here.

Image Courtesy of The Traveller's Lunchbox

Walking along the Singapore River is always a pleasure, or stopping at one of the many bars at Clarke Quay for a chilled glass of wine or beer. I also like to stroll through Fort Canning Park and the Singapore Botanical Gardens. A visit to Little India and its ornate Hindu temples is a must. The Arab Quarter with its thousands of colourful shops selling anything from bags to carpets, shoes and leather goods is also worth a look.

There is so much more to do and see in Singapore, the list is endless. For more information about Singapore, visit the Singapore Tourism Board website here.

Travel Essentials

We flew with Singapore Airlines from London Heathrow for £630 return, flying into Bali and returning from Singapore, which was only £5 more than a standard return flight to Singapore.

Shangri-La Hotel
Orange Grove Road
Singapore 258350

The room rate for the Garden Wing Deluxe Pool View room we stayed in starts from £280 per night. 

High Tea at The Rose Veranda is available Monday to Friday from noon til 6pm weekdays, and has two sittings at weekends during the same hours.  It costs around £20 per person for unlimited tea (from a choice of 128 blends), buffet hot Singaporean and western dishes, cakes and desserts. 

Ah Hoi's Kitchen
Top Floor of Trader's Hotel
1A Cuscaden Road
Singapore 249716

Smith Street Hawker Centre
1st Floor, Chinatown Complex 
above Chinatown Visitor Centre

Interesting article from Serious Eats - "A Beginner's Guide to Singapore Hawker Centres"

List of 8 Top Hawker Food Centres in Singapore compiled by the city's taxi drivers

Peranakan Museum
39 Armenian Street
Singapore 179941

Cookery Magic
117 Fidelio Street
Singapore 458492
Tel: +65 63489667
Mobile: +65 96656831


  1. Beautiful photos! The food looks delicious - I'm especially intrigued by the desserts!

  2. Loved reading this as Singapore is one of my favourite cities in the world! Like you we try to spend a couple of days at least when flying through. The only difference s that we always stay in small, boutique hotel (last time in fact in keon Saik road, loooove it!). Great shots, bring back so many memories


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