Singapore: Eat your way around Asia – on one island

Its rich multicultural heritage makes the city-state an exciting destination for a gourmet tour, as Sarah Barrell discovers

It's 10pm on a steamy Singapore evening and I have a date with a chef. I'm early, so I perch on a bar stool in her slick Holland Village establishment and wait. Given the name of the venue – the 2am Dessert Bar – it's no surprise that the bank of deep leather sofas and elegant communal dining tables have yet to be filled. A handful of poised patrons have arranged colt-like limbs over the immaculate white upholstery; nothing here looks like it's ever seen, far less indulged in, a dessert. But this isn't a steamed pudding kind of place.

On arrival, 2am's founding chef, Janice Wong, immediately summons up a sample of sweets: a sculptural chocolate and berry creation that resembles a feather-light volcanic rock; distillations of tropical fruit in jewel-like gelato crowned with "cat's whiskers" flowers. Each tastes even more incredible than it looks, with bursts of flavour and movements of texture that make renegade ingredients such as purple potato, basil and sea grapes sing.

Wong is the epitome of the adventurous, urbane and rootsy Singaporean chef that's changing the way people think about this so-called "sterile" Asian city. Beyond the Singapore Sling cocktail, most visitors don't associate Singapore with gastronomic creativity, despite the fact that this tiny city-state has a rich culinary heritage that draws on the cuisines of its pan-Asian populace. But a new breed of local chef is looking beyond the limits of the traditional hawker food markets or tourist-focused Michelin-starred restaurants.

"Singapore is an island. It imports almost everything," says Janice. "But there's so much we're missing growing on the side of the road or the beach." When she's not scavenging for native weeds and munching on crumbs of soil to help her understand the flavours of her environment, Janice is in her food lab, working with international chefs on scientific techniques. Her current project is to create dishes focused on poisonous local shrubs, the dessert equivalent of puffer-fish sushi.

In true Singapore spirit (many say dining out is a national pastime), I've barely finished dessert and I'm thinking of breakfast. Wong points me to Tiong Bahru Market in the eponymous 1930s residential district of curvaceous Art Deco homes and independent coffee shops. "You have to try the dao suan," she says. So, the next morning, I head to what looks like a multi-storey car park in Tiong Bahru. Despite the clean-up of the hawker markets, I still find this an authentic, smelly, fabulously frenetic place.

I sit at a worn Formica table to eat chwee kueh, glutinous rice cakes topped with preserved radish as oily sweet as caramelised onions. They are stupendously good but maddening to eat with chopsticks. It's like tackling jelly with a stick. Around me, old men suck up noodle soups with Dyson efficiency; mothers feed toddlers noodle trimmings, lovingly cut up with scissors produced from handbags. Faced with dao suan – a divine, sugar-syrup-drenched beany porridge – I'm almost defeated. Especially as it should be eaten with dough fritters. The yin-yang philosophy behind many Chinese-Singaporean dishes says one can't be eaten without its counterpart.

A post-prandial waddle through Chinatown's herbalist shops produces countless yin-yang examples. I take a tentative nibble of a thousand-year-old egg (in fact only days old) and a chewy bite of bak kwa (barbecued dried pork) from venerable supplier Lim Chee Guan. Based around the cuisines of its multicultural inhabitants, including Malay, Chinese and Indian, Singapore is a superb place to eat your way around Asia.

A late lunch at Blue Ginger restaurant introduced me to Peranakan or "Nonya" (grandmother) cuisine. With rich coconut sauces recalling its Malay heritage and the chilli its Chinese roots, time-consuming Peranakan is dying out in restaurants. Blue Ginger remains a Nonya stalwart thanks to a loyal lunching business crowd, food-savvy tourists and the fact that it serves "home cooking" in a sleek setting. Refined plates of traditional staples – kueh pie tee (tiny "top hats" stuffed with egg, prawn, turnip and sweet chilli sauce) and sambal terung goreng (aubergine in a spicy Malay-style sauce) had my palate galloping from China to Indonesia and back. A dessert made from the pungent durian fruit sent my nose somewhere else entirely.

Rejuvenation is the buzzword along the Marina Bay waterfront, where I took my stomach and nose for a post-lunch breather. Here, a forest of cranes fills the skyline. The boat-shaped SkyPark roof terrace of the Marina Bay Sands resort is a relatively recent addition here, lately joined by Daniel Libeskind's "Reflections" skyscrapers and, as of June, the vast Gardens by the Bay, a development of Eden Project-style greenhouses. Here, the Michelin-star-tourism buck is fuelling an influx of celebrity chefs such as Daniel Boulud, Wolfgang Puck and Joël Robuchon. From this shiny new neighbourhood, it's hard to imagine this city as anything other than a playground for international investment.

A final feast that evening at Wild Rocket, headed by innovative Singaporean lawyer-turned-chef Willin Low, reminds me that small and local prevail. Here, in this restaurant addition to a backpackers' hotel, I worked my way through such Mod Sin (Modern Singaporean) dishes as a seafood crustacean oil spaghetti with teeny Sakura shrimp, a Cambodian amok curry with black grouper, and Low's signature laksa pesto tiger prawns – made with coriander, candlenuts and dried shrimps, so good it made me reconsider the Genoese version.

It had nothing whatsoever to do with gluttony and everything to do with how well this blend of Peranakan, Asian and Western cuisine works that I considered squeezing in yet another pud: a Mod Sin panna cotta. Minty green from an infusion of pandan leaf and sitting in a pool of palm sugar, this was a panna cotta like no other. And as with each of the dishes I'd sampled during my belt-busting two-day culinary tour, it was palate-punching proof that Singapore is anything but sterile.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Sarah Barrell travelled with Singapore Airlines (020-8961 6993; which offers return flights to Singapore from £600 from Manchester and £625 from Heathrow.

Staying there

Fort Canning Hotel (0065 6559 6770;, set in the grand old British Far East Command Headquarters, has double rooms from S$350 (£174) B&B.

More information

Singapore Tourism Board:

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, goes back to his family's Sicilian roots in the first 'Godfather' film
Kim Kardashian speaks on the Today show about her step-father's transition
Arts and Entertainment
Kermit and his doppleganger Hyalinobatrachium dianae
Wenger and Mourinho square-up to each other earlier this season
All the action from today's Premier League, including Everton vs Man Utd and Chelsea vs Arsenal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions