Affectionately named the red dot, Singapore is a melting pot. Given its strategic location at the foot of Malaysia, it's long had an eclectic mix of cultures, with the former British Colonial port attracting migrants from China, India, Malaysia, the Middle East and beyond. This convergence has made it one of the most diverse food cities to add to your travel hit list.
The country's strong street food culture is the focus of this year's Singapore Food Festival and the program is taking it (back) to the streets, with restaurant chefs interpreting hawker food favourites.
Flagship event STREAT was similar to our own Good Food Month night noodle markets, with each stall hawking a few dishes. However, STREAT mixed legit hawker stalls alongside restaurant pop-ups. The alfresco event at Clifford Square drew orderly queues, with the waterfront location boasting an Instagrammable Marina Bay Sands backdrop.
Dishes ranged from regional Peranakan appetiser popiah (fresh spring roll loaded with puffed rice, egg, prawns, sprouts and more) to murtabak (similar to roti) stuffed with oozing cheese, onion and tandoori chicken. To drink? Whisky-spiked teh tarik ("pulled" milky tea) on the rocks. The playful cocktail was served traditional kopitiam takeaway style – in a plastic bag – perfect for toting from stall to stall.
STREAT also featured pop-up restaurant Six Hands Dinner, which served a playful hawker-inspired five-course menu ($40). The trio of chefs put a top-end twist on the city's signature dishes, such as a deconstructed satay starter served in a hollowed-out eggshell, the rich peanut and coconut sauce lightened as a foam.
"This is something that brings the history, and also invention, the addictiveness and the soul. The word is soul food, right?" said chef Susur Lee, of TungLok Heen. "I really feel that [the menu] is a good excuse to bring back the romance of Singaporean-style hawker food. It's the history – otherwise if you lose the history, you lose a cuisine."
As for his favourite local dishes, Toronto-based Lee nominated Hainanese chicken rice and ice kachang.
"After you eat spicy food, ice kachang is sort of like, 'I'm OK now', my stomach's completely good – it's like putting out the fire."
For Lee, the colourful iced dessert represents the vibrancy of South-East Asian cultures and is a combination of culinary tradition and fun.
Much like fellow Six Hands collaborator Han Liguang's take on arguably Singapore's signature dish, chilli crab. The Labyrinth restaurant chef's whimsical dish included a beach scene with crumbled fried mantou bun "sand", tempura soft-shell crab and the sauce churned into a chilli ice-cream. A collision between tradition and invention, like the festival, and city, itself.
Street eats get fancy
Missed Six Hands at STREAT? Try the Tippling Club's five-course hawker food inspired menu instead. British expat chef Ryan Clift's (ex-Vue De Monde) dishes will be paired with cocktails – perhaps oyster omelette with lemongrass gimlet (S$259).
Eat cake and celebrate
Singapore's Slow Food movement celebrates rainbow-striped jellies and coconut dusted bites on its Kueh Appreciation Day (July 26). The colourful sweets are said to be the one dish that brings all of the city's ethnicities together. See slowfood.sg
Tea-infused chicken rice
Local tea company TWG is serving a spin on the hawker hall staple, Hainanese chicken rice, infusing the rice with rare yellow tea buds. Try the Singapore Breakfast blend, a mix of green and black tea with Indian spices, a nod to the country's cultural make-up.
Cheap eats at the 50 Cents Fest
If you thought our under $30 reviews were cheap, get a load of this. The Chinatown Food Street (an undercover stretch of eateries in the city's Chinatown precinct) will step back in time to the 1950s/1960s with hawker-style dishes priced from a mere 50¢; July 30-31.
Singapore Food Festival runs from July 15-31, see yoursingapore.com
The writer travelled courtesy of Singapore Tourism Board.