Singapore: The great taste of a cultural melting pot

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Nowhere does food quite like Singapore, from tiny hawker stalls to international fine dining. James Palmer takes a bite from the city-state

Every morning at 6am, Murah Mansyah and his sister Devi raise the shutters of their stall at the Tekka hawker centre in Singapore's Little India district to serve up a mouthwatering selection of Malay and Indonesian specialities. According to my guide, Winnie Ubbink, their little shop is a popular place for breakfast. She recommended starting the day with a fiery bowl of lontong (rice cakes) in a broth of coconut milk, chopped red chillies, cabbage, potatoes and a boiled egg. Nothing gets the heart pumping like a mountain of chopped chilli first thing in the morning and at S$3 (£1.30) it seemed like a delicious steal – but breakfast didn't end there.

Either side of the Mansyahs' "Devi" stall were rows of Northern and Southern Indian outlets from which Winnie returned bearing roti prata (a flat bread with a fried egg inside – a Singaporean derivative of the Pakistani and Indian paratha, served with a curry dipping sauce); dhosa (black lentil flour pancakes accompanied by lentil curry and coconut chutney dips) and two glasses of hot, sweet tea.

You swiftly learn that a visit to Singapore is a series of feasts punctuated by short, sharp bursts of sightseeing to burn off enough calories to make room for the next meal. Food is so important to Singaporeans that, in the island's many languages and dialects, they've replaced the greeting "how are you?" with the more specific "have you eaten?"

To give my tastebuds a brief rest, I immersed my other senses in the exotic aromas, colours and clamour of Little India's Serangoon Road, where Hindi pop songs blast out from shop-fronts selling everything from saris to sweets. This is the place to come for vegetarian restaurants, too, while stalls festooned with flower garlands compete for attention with henna tattoo stores, jewellery shops and fortune-telling parrots.

Across the Rochor Canal, the golden dome of the Sultan Mosque rises over the Arab quarter. In Arab Street, carpet sellers display their wares in neatly rolled bundles propped up in open-fronted colonial-era shops. Basketware, leather goods and jewellery were out in abundance, but the best place for some timely Christmas shopping was the Mustafa Centre, a maze-like multi-storey emporium rammed to the rafters with everything from high definition televisions to jars of Tiger Balm at knock-down prices.

Shopping is a national pastime almost on a par with eating in Singapore. However, my spending spree was thankfully curtailed by an appointment to try the fish head curry at Little India's Banana Leaf Apolo restaurant, which has been serving up the disembodied heads of red snappers since 1974. The head arrives complete with eyeballs in a hot curry sauce with rice, served on a banana leaf rather than a plate and is traditionally scooped up in your fingers – although knives and forks are provided. I was expecting something fiddly and soggy but instead was rewarded with succulent, firm white meat and a rich curry sauce that turned my finger nails yellow with turmeric.

"Food is one of the main things that keeps our different ethnic groups connected," said Winnie.

If anywhere lives up to the cliché of "cultural melting pot", it is Singapore, where immigrants from around the world arrived in droves after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles set up a free trading post there in 1819. Raffles oversaw the demarcation lines drawn up for the ethnic areas: the area south of the Singapore River became Chinatown; a swamp at the mouth of the river was reclaimed for the commercial district, where the gleaming modern business district has arisen; Muslims were settled in Kampong Glam, originally the site of a Malay village, named after the gelam tree which grew in the area; and across the canal was Little India.

Today, Chinese chefs, including James Ho at the excellent My Humble House restaurant on the Esplanade, experiment with condiments and ingredients such as mango chutney, deep-fried curry leaves, and Japanese kurobuta pork, while a Tamil chef at a hawker centre might serve a fried noodle dish.

Assimilation hasn't always been peaceful: in the 1960s race riots erupted between the predominantly Muslim Malay and the southern Chinese, the largest immigrant community. More recently, in the interests of cultural harmony, there has been a renaissance of the Peranakan culture, the descendants of 15th- and 16th-century Chinese immigrants who intermarried with the Malay people and differentiated themselves from later waves of migrants from China with their unique language, art, food and dress.

At the forefront of this cultural revival is the Peranakan museum, recently opened in Armenian Street. One of the few surviving Peranakan traditions is the closest thing Singapore has to an indigenous cuisine: Nonya, a hybrid of Chinese and Malay food. Nonya was a term used to describe Peranakan women and their considerable homemaking abilities. Aside from being dab hands with a needle and thread (the embroidered robes and jewellery on display at the museum are dazzlingly intricate), the Nonya created an early form of fusion cooking – blending Chinese and Malay ingredients to delicious effect.

Chicken, fish and seafood form the backbone of Nonya cuisine, along with pork, cooked in rich curries made from rice flour and coconut cream. One of the most popular dishes is laksa – seafood and noodles in a spicy coconut soup, which I slurped down one lunchtime at the Straits Kitchen on the ground floor of the Grand Hyatt Hotel. The Straits Kitchen specialises in buffet lunches with most of Singapore's culinary styles represented, including Nonya.

Other popular dishes here include Hainanese chicken rice (steamed chicken, chicken soup and rice cooked in chicken stock) and rojak (a raw turnip, pineapple, tofu, torch ginger, guava and apple salad sprinkled with nuts, covered in an intense sweet and sour sauce).

Winnie remembered hawker salesmen coming to her childhood home selling rojak, which they wrapped up in the large leaves of the simpoh air tree – she pointed out the tree on a hike along a newly opened walkway linking the city's substantial green spaces known as the Southern Ridges. Hawkers were moved off the streets in the 1960s and into the modern food courts that are now dotted around the city – most atmospheric of which is Lau Pa Sat Festival market on Raffles Quay, an octagonal Victorian pavilion with towering white wrought iron arches.

Although most Singaporeans prefer to eat cheaply and cheerfully in the hawker centres, there is an abundance of fine dining opportunities in the city. Claymore Hill, off the main shopping strip of Orchard Road, has a number of high-end restaurants, including Les Amis, where Austrian chef Armin Leitgeb – an alumnus of several Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe and the US – creates his menus to include the best local, seasonal ingredients. His lobster pasta with Japanese shrimps and black Perigord truffles was a harmonious blend of geography and flavours that could only be achieved somewhere like Singapore.

The Fullerton, where I stayed, is a grand, Doric-columned building, that was a post office in the colonial era. It also offers a fine-dining experience at its top-storey Italian restaurant with roof terrace, The Lighthouse, run by Italian chef Diego Martinelli. Here the view provides plenty of architectural clues to the high esteem with which food is held in Singapore.

To the left are the four upturned chopsticks of the Civilian War Memorial, each symbolising one of the city's four main ethnic groups – Chinese, Malay, Indian and "Others". These 61-metre high utensils commemorate the tens of thousands of civilians massacred under Japanese occupation during the Second World War. To the right of the war memorial are the spiky metallic shells of the Esplanade concert hall, modelled on what Singaporeans refer to as the "king of fruit", the durian.

I tried my first durian at a fruit stall in the Geylang district east of the city centre. They come in varying degrees of potency – the strongest given the designations "D24 Super" and "Mountain King". Biting into the creamy yellow flesh of a D24 revealed notes of custard, vanilla, mango and strong hints of onion and garlic. I was grateful that after taking on the "king of fruits" it is customary to kiss the "queen" – the refreshing mangosteen.

Singapore's signature dish is chilli crab. One of the best crab restaurants is at Long Beach Seafood at East Coast Parkway. I marginally preferred the drier, fragrant black pepper crab to the rich red sauce of the chilli crab – and it was less messy, too, as fingers are the only way of breaking into the hard-shell crustaceans. Fortunately for any visitors who are just stopping off in Singapore for a few hours in transit, Long Beach is just a 10-minute taxi ride away from Changi airport. Just remember to wash your hands before you get back on the plane, and see if you can wangle an upgrade: you may well need the extra belly space.

Travel essentials: Singapore

Getting there

* The writer travelled with Singapore Airlines (020-8750 2708; singaporeair.com), which flies from Heathrow and Manchester.

* BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Qantas (0845 774 7767; qantas.co.uk) also fly from Heathrow. Regional departures are available via the Middle East with carriers such as Etihad (0800 731 9384; etihadairways.com) and Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com).

Staying there

* The Fullerton Hotel, 1 Fullerton Square, Singapore (00 65 6733 8388; fullertonhotel.com). Doubles from S$422 (£185).

Visiting there

* Peranakan Museum, 39 Armenian Street (00 65 6332 7591; peranakanmuseum.sg). Open Monday, 1pm-7pm; Tuesday-Sunday, 9.30am-7pm; admission S$6 (£2.70).

Eating & drinking there

* Tekka Food Centre, Block 665 Buffalo Road, Little India. Open 6am-2pm for breakfast

* Banana Leaf Apolo, 56-58 Race Course Road (0065 62938682; thebananaleafapolo.com).

* My Humble House, Esplanade Mall, 8 Raffles Avenue (00 65 6423 1881; myhumblehouse.com. sg).

* Straits Kitchen, Grand Hyatt Singapore, 10 Scotts Road (00 65 6738 1234; singapore.grand.hyatt. com).

* Les Amis, 1 Scotts Road, Shaw Centre (00 65 6733 2225; lesamis.com.sg).

* The Lighthouse, Fullerton Hotel, 1 Fullerton Square (00 65 6733 8388; fullertonhotel.com).

* Long Beach Seafood, 1018 East Coast Parkway (00 65 6445 8833; longbeachseafood.com.sg).

More information

* Singapore Tourism Board: 020-7484 2710; visitsingapore.com

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