When I started to tell people that I was moving to Singapore, the most overwhelming response I got from those who had visited was “The food is incredible/awesome/fantastic/the best in the world!”. So naturally when I arrived my expectations were pretty high. At this point I should explain that I am 1. a foodie therefore obsessed not only by what I consume but also by what others are eating, 2. a cook (just an extension of point 1 really!) and 3. a vegetarian. These 3 factors make me a pretty awkward guest in any part of the world but I was assured that Singapore caters for all.
They were not wrong. Here you can eat cheap or you can eat expensive, without many of the middle-of-the-road, gastropub price, restaurants available. There are hundreds of food outlets here – Singaporeans love their food, it’s practically a religion here, and everyone talks about it constantly. The expensive restaurants are gorgeous – beautifully decorated rooms with artfully placed food, elaborate dishes with elegant, elitist ingredients (anyone for truffles?) and over priced wine. The cheaper eateries are, perhaps unsurprisingly, hugely varied with the price being the least variable element.
Most cheap eats are to be gained at hawker centres, food courts and kopitiams (coffee shops). Hawker centres are a collection of stalls selling food or drink (rarely both from one) and operate a free for all seating area. As a result, a group of 4 can go out and all eat cuisines from different corners of Asia – Hokkien, Chinese, Malaysian, Indonesian, etc. Most stalls are Chinese in orgin and offer fairly similiar dishes yet some will have queues of 10-12 people next to a stall with no-one. In Singapore, the busy restaurant theory always applies; they queue because it’s the best. It makes sense to follow suit as you are usually rewarded by something delicious at the end.
There are few Westerners to be found in the hawker centres I’ve visited. Perhaps because there is such a vast array of options with a coffee shop every 100 yards trying to shove sandwiches, soup and cakes down you, on top of plenty of Subways and Burger Kings to tempt you with food you understand (I begrudge paying 5 pounds for a sandwich but I could be just stingy). This means there is no need to go to the hawker centre but by god it is worth it! It’s so much cheaper and the food standard is normally pretty good, and in some cases – fantastic!
Some stalls offer just vegetarian food but the signage is pretty limited, and decreases as you get further away from the CBD (Central Business District) as most is in Chinese. Its pretty much a case of point and hope but I have been slightly reticient about trying the “mock meat” on offer. You can order mock prawn, mock duck, mock chicken, etc but it just seems wrong to me. I’m sure I’ll get my head around it soon but for now I’m sticking to veggies and tofu!
- Check out the crockery!
Most dishes are served in orange plastic bowls with cutlery to match (even bright orange plastic chopsticks!) or even directly spooned onto the tray at some Indian stalls, with nothing but a sheet of paper to protect from the much used tray underneath. You have to leave your hygiene worries at home, for this reason and just go with it. Most will have a washing area for you to wash your hands before and after eating should you be so inclined (or so messy an eater that it’s necessary!). Watching the Indians eat one-handed with no utensils is a sport in itself and so in trying to emulate their fluid dexterity, I ended up with unsightly, curry-stained fingernails which lasted the rest of the day. A rather unattractive look which cheap soap wouldn’t budge!
So I mentioned that this is food on the cheap. You would be hard pushed to spend more than SGD $6 on a hawker meal (roughly 3 pounds) which is hearty, delicious and filling, but you can get a tray of Indian food for just $2, if you shop around. I’ll be talking more about the options available as I experiment more, and obviously taking many more foodie photos. Although going veggie in hawker places is easy, it can be tricky in restaurants so I’ve made the decision to try and incorporate more prawns, white fish and scallops into my diet to make it easier (and keep it interesting!). The satay below was mushroom but looked like meat, had the texture of meat and tasted like meat and my brain couldn’t cope!
I won't be having this again - it felt like eating cow!
A hawker tip for newbies – save your seat before you order by placing a pack of tissues on the table/stool. And remember where you put it! Sharing tables is also fine.