Singapore is hot. Not just steamy, sweaty, 32-degrees-in-the-shade hot, but gastronomically hot. We've been writing about Singapore food ever since our first satays and steamboats in the 1980s, and recently racked up our 30th visit.
Why? Because the locals are so obsessed with food, we feel right at home. Because there is, literally, food on every corner, from the ultimate chilli crab and wok-charred char kway teow noodles to spicy laksa and fish-head curry. And because this proud young city has its eyes on becoming a global culinary player, having hosted the Michelin Guide since 2016, and the World's 50 Best Restaurants Awards earlier this year.
Now a new generation of hawker-style gastroparks, world-class cocktail bars and young chefs are pulling together everything we love about this crazy rich Asian city – local flavours, small plates, spices and booze – to create a uniquely Singaporean culinary identity that dances under the name Mod Sin. Here's the where and why of what to eat in Singapore right now.
Street food, old and new
Singapore is our nearest, greatest food destination (sorry, New Zealanders). An eight-hour flight from Melbourne or Sydney, and you're slurping noodle soup at a Michelin-starred street stall, or drinking barrel-aged negroni by the rooftop pool of your hotel. Where to start? On the street, of course.
The first stop for any Singapore trip should always be a hawker centre. Suddenly, you're thrown into a lively maelstrom of good smells, sizzles, smoke and spice. It's cash only, fast and furious, and you bag a seat by choping it (leaving a small packet of tissues or hand wipes on an empty table while you go buy your food).
Join the queues at the Michelin-starred Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle in the Chinatown complex, or our all-time favourite Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle, for a big bowl of bak chor mee awash with pork belly, dumplings, mee pok noodles and black vinegar, made to the original recipe that the owner's father, Tang Joon Teo, developed in 1932.
But there's plenty that's fresh on the street, as a new breed of young, hip "hawkerpreneurs" take on the do-not-touch classic dishes of the past and spin them into the future. A Noodle Story food stall rustles up a spicy "Singapore ramen" topped with a soft-cooked onsen egg, at the famous Amoy Street food centre. You can even get nasi lemak, that wondrous comfort-food dish of coconut rice with spicy sambal, curried chicken, peanuts and cucumber, repackaged into edible cubes at Timbre+, a graffiti-splashed gastropark that offers craft beers and live music in outer urban Queenstown. OK, that might be a step too far.
TIP The first place for a foodie hit is the hawker centre. Just practise your choping first.
Where the chefs eat
After Singapore hosted the World's 50 Best Restaurants Awards in June, world-famous chefs such as Mauro Colagreco of France's Mirazur and Andoni Luis Aduriz of Spain's Mugaritz headed out to the hottest places in town.
At times, it felt like every chef in the world was at the counter at Burnt Ends, where Australian jarrah wood fuels the four-tonne, double-oven brick kiln. Perth-born chef David Pynt fell in love with cooking with flame and fire at Spain's famous Asador Etxebarri and opened this sizzling site in 2013. Hottest dishes are suckling pig, Robbins Island rib, and onglet with bone marrow, and the hottest seats (obviously) are at the counter.
The UK's Heston Blumenthal and France's Alain Passard headed straight to Nouri for the border-busting "crossroads cuisine" of Ivan Brehm, former development chef at The Fat Duck. A cerebral mix of ingredients and cultures come together in a five-course tasting menu, each dish integrating and interpreting patterns of migration, trade war and exchange. Daniel Calvert of Hong Kong's Belon stopped by Cloudstreet, drawn by the audible buzz about owner-chef Rishi Naleendra. Born in Sri Lanka, Naleendra worked at Tetsuya's and Yellow in Sydney, before gaining his first Michelin star in Singapore at Cheek by Jowl (now Cheek) in 2016. Plump, warm grilled oysters wrapped in betel leaf with coconut and finger lime enjoyed while propped on the broad bar facing the glowing coals of the grill really feels like the taste of Singapore right now.
Singapore's soul food
Dig deeper and you'll discover the spicy warmth of Peranakan cuisine, a combination of Chinese, Malay and Indonesian flavours, which evolved from the Straits Chinese community. Violet Oon is the unstoppable culinary curator of the National Kitchen by Violet Oon at the National Gallery, where you'll need to book ahead for her classic dishes such as chilli crab, beef rendang, and rojak (fruit and vegetables in a sweet, sour and spicy sauce).
Malcolm Lee elevates his mother's cuisine at the Michelin-starred Candlenut, set within the swanky COMO residential and restaurant precinct on Dempsey Hill. It's a comfortable, wine-friendly place to dip into creamy yellow coconut curry of blue swimmer crab and the best lamb neck satay you're likely to get anywhere.
Another style of cooking close to the heart of every Singaporean, is tze char, or home-style Chinese cooking with Malay and Peranakan influences. At the plastic chair, sit-in or sit-out, Hokkien Chinese diner KEK (Keng Eng Kee), tables are covered with saucy, spicy chilli crab, salted egg prawns, and the signature coffee pork ribs. You queue, you eat, you leave.
There's more to Singapore
It's not widely talked about, but Singapore does great yum cha. Long-term favourites like the Wah Lok in the Carlton Hotel, Lei Gardens in Chijmes, and Hua Ting in the Orchard Hotel are always on our agenda. And we're loving how the classy Yan at the National Gallery builds local flavours into its flawless dim sum by filling buns with chilli crab instead of roast pork and stuffing lotus leaves with Hainan chicken rice. But for an elegant reminder of the heights Cantonese dim sum can achieve, it has to be Madame Fan, the first outpost in south-east Asia for Alan Yau of London's Hakkasan and Yauatcha. Even the chic dining room in the old NCO Club on Beach Road pales beside your new-benchmark har gau, siu mai, mooli puffs and wor tip.
Asia's best French restaurants
Why did a French restaurant, no matter how theatrically white and minimalist, win Asia's Best Restaurant gong? Grumblings aside, when you want the elegance of French gastronomy without the long-haul flight to France, multi-tasking Singapore delivers that, too. French-born chef Julien Royer opened Odette in Singapore's National Gallery in 2015 as a homage to French gastronomy, with Michelin rewarding it with two stars in 2016. Royer gently weaves Asian influences through pigeon with kampot pepper, and line-caught john dory with spear squid and miso caramel, while the Limousin veal sweetbreads with root vegetables and hazelnuts – and the wine list – are unashamedly Gallic.
Singaporeans have always had a soft spot for high-status French cuisine, and the newly restored Raffles Hotel has two three-Michelin starred chefs tucked inside its grand old colonial splendour. Both the Mediterranean-inspired BBR by Alain Ducasse and Anne-Sophie Pic's La Dame de Pic (tasting menus from $200 a head) are perfect for those not going on to Paris.
A spirited bar scene
The local bar scene has gone ballistic, and now holds three of the top 10 spots in the World's 50 Best Bars list. Vijay Mudaliar's innovative Native bar (#13) militantly uses indigenous produce – local turmeric, cinnamon, ants – as flavour notes in its distinctive cocktails (have the mango and rum lassi topped with pistachio foam). Atlas (#8) in Parkview Square has a speakeasy style and a 950-gin collection under its art deco ceilings (try the classic dry martini). And the clubby Manhattan bar (#3) at the Regent Singapore sends out warm finger toasties with cocktails between 5pm and 7pm (high flyers love their Aviation cocktail). Add to your list the excellent Spago Bar atop Marina Bay Sands, and of course, a newly engineered, not-as-sickly-sweet Singapore Sling at The Long Bar at Raffles. Too. Many. Bars.
$ As cute as a butternut pumpkin, the Butternut Tree Hotel on Teck Lim Road is a tiny, well-run hotel in Chinatown. butternuttree.co
$$ A great central location on Telok Ayer Street (close to the Lau Pa Sat hawker centre), The Amoy has charming shophouse heritage features across 37 guestrooms. theamoy.com.sg
$$$ Set on the Marina Bay Waterfront, the Fullerton Bay Hotel is a luxurious combination of history, architecture, stunning views and caring staff. fullertonhotels.com