The smells are exotic and pungent, the names are unpronounceable and often barely hint at the ingredients, the excitement is tingling and the relief is genuine. Our taste buds have arrived in South East Asia and immediately we find ourselves hunting down and partaking in one of Singapore’s favourite habits – eating from cheap hawker stall food courts. With the second habit involving shopping in vast, ice cooled malls, and travellers’ economics being what they are, not to mention our so far undernourished desperation to fall in love with the food we find on our journeys, the hawkers were always going to be our first stop.

Being accustomed to London eating and 21st century British food in general, we now realise that at home we’ve taken the delights of multicultural cuisine for granted. The lack of diversity and depth of flavour in the majority of the South American eating experience left us down and craving the contrasts, spice, textures and variety to which we’ve become accustomed. Time after time we were left disappointed and it was only on a handful of occasions (generally trumpeted on here) that we could say we’d discovered anything close to a culinary high point. The vast supply of excellent Australian produce meant a speedy return to good eating, but mostly of food we were aware of and at prices that made the eyes water more than the mouths. So to find exoticism, aroma, and belting flavour in the inexpensive Singapore dishes, not to mention the sense of collective pleasure in eating, made our first steps into South East Asian food a particularly uplifting experience.

Hawker food used to essentially mean cheap fast food on the street. In modern pristine Singapore however, where even the smallest amount of littering constitutes a crime worthy of a severe punishment, and hygiene standards are upheld vigorously, hawker stalls come lined up side by side in large food courts. Here, locals and tourists alike can mix and match food styles representative of the diverse ethnic mix of this tiny wealthy country. Delicious noodle soups were our lunchtime dish of choice. Made fresh in front of your eyes in seconds, hiding a delicate dumpling and topped with delicate slices of fresh fish and sprinkles of dried anchovies, you can choose the chilli rating yourself by adding dashes of a variety of hot sauces. Filling, quick and super-cheap, in the middle of the day these felt deluxe after three months of ham and cheese lunchtimes. Not a chip in sight.

Culinary temptations at food courts could sometimes provide too much choice though. Our second visit saw our decisions over what to eat lurching from Chinese, Indonesian, Malay, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Indian. We finally settled on the latter but we could have taken a map of the surrounding continent and used a blindfold and a pin and we probably wouldn’t have been disappointed.

The multicultural food represents a multicultural city. There are Bollywood clubs and Hindu temples in Little India, medicine shops and Buddhism in Chinatown and a plummy English accent on the underground metro. All of this is wrapped in a blanket of wealth and a seemingly insatiable appetite for consumerism, as the giant malls bridge the districts.

In Chinatown, between meals, we spent an interesting hour at a large Buddhist temple, watching the monks lead worship and visiting relics and more. Seemingly typical of modern Singapore, the Temple was a multi-story affair, with a plush lift to carry you as far as the pretty roof garden, and CCTV to keep an eye on proceedings. It sometimes felt more like a conference centre than a holy place, but when the incense began to burn and the monks sang and chanted their prayers, we soon realised that this was a new cultural experience for us.

The ease with which Singapore seems to switch from the old the new, and the enormity of its recent development can clearly be seen in its quite awesome CBD and Quays area. The gleaming towers of commerce seem to be in macho competition to be either the tallest or the most futuristic. The inevitable shopping malls and hotels that squeeze the last of the remaining space compete for icy coolness and exclusivity. Nevertheless the architecture is wonderful and the area around the Quays was a pleasure to wonder round. In between upwards gawps at space-aged structures and envious glances into fine hotels, we saw laser shows across the Quays and listened to a jazz gig for free in the warm night. With a cheap meal to keep us going, who said Singapore needs to be expensive?

Our final day’s free wanderings were made somewhat trickier by our first taste of truly tropical rain. Thunder exploded overhead for some time, and our plans of roaming from hawker centre to interesting neighbourhood were supplemented instead with a trip to one of the most enormous department stores that can possibly be in existence. We got lost somewhere between electric toothbrushes and peanut wafers. When we finally found our way out, I briefly considered entering politics, just for the job title…

That evening, despite the rain, we headed to the last of Singapore’s free modern wonders, the shopper’s place of worship, Orchard Road. Whilst the Christmas lights were impressive (Helen had earlier mentioned that they should be aware that she, who has turned on Accrington’s festive display in the past and had years of experience at Blackpool, is a “Christmas lights connoisseur”) the displays of affluence and shopping addiction on Orchard Road will not be our lasting memory of Singapore. Instead we will certainly remember how our mouths watered and our eyes lit up at the array of taste sensations on offer for prices we could happily stomach.

One Comment to “Singapore”

  • Photographs are fantastic, really enjoying the journey.