Don’t let Singapore’s small dimensions fool you: In spite of being less than 300 square miles in area — about half the size of Los Angeles — the city-country is definitely among the more varied and interesting places in the world.
Ethnically, Singapore is a mix of Chinese, Malay, and Tamil people, with a healthy number of foreign expats thrown in for good measure. Not surprisingly, the country’s four official languages are Mandarin, Bahaha Malaysia, Tamil and English, although the latter of these without a doubt the most commonly spoken.
The eclectic mix of cultures that comprise Singapore has resulted in an equally diverse national culinary palate, to the point where some of it’s downright weird. Whether you’re looking for a meal that’s incredibly satisfying or incredibly strange, a fitting food destiny awaits you somewhere in Singapore.
I arrived in Singapore late in the evening, my flight from Kuala Lumpur delayed several hours from its scheduled midday departure. After meeting up with Kenneth, who was my roommate in Shanghai, at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Resort, the two of us set out in search of some grub.
When I saw the sign above the place Kenneth had taken us to eat, I was perplexed. “I don’t want to eat dessert,” I said. “Why are you taking me to a place that sells carrot cake?”
We walked inside the enclosure and he directed my attention to the illustrated placard that hung above the only open food stand, which depicted a suspicious (albeit delicious) looking stir-fry. “Does this look like dessert to you?”
As it turns out, Singaporean “carrot cake” involves a different root vegetable, namely daikon. An adaptation of a traditional Chinese breakfast, carrot cake begins when radishes are fashioned into a “cake” which is then cut into pieces and sautéed with eggs, garlic and a satisfying combination of savory and spicy sauces that are about as far from sweet as you can get.
Carrot cake is available at most food markets in Singapore, day or night, so no matter where you are in the country and at what time of day, there isn’t an excuse not to try it.
When she heard I’d be visiting Singapore, my Aunt Karen had one recommendation for me above all. “If you eat only one thing when you’re in Singapore,” she said, “Eat laksa.”
Ever the good nephew, I wasted no time in finding my first helping of laksa, which I enjoyed at a mall food court after taking a morning stroll around Singapore harbor with Kenneth. And yes, I did say “food court” — after you visit a couple of them in Asia, your perception of the term will change forever.
In any case, laksa is a Singaporean specialty that is both Chinese and Malay in origin, perhaps the most delicious result of Chinese immigration into Southeast Asia over the past several centuries. Several different varieties of laksa exist, although the one you’re most likely to enjoy in Singapore falls into the category broadly referred to as “Curry Laksa.”
The laksa I enjoyed was was a curry laksa known as “katong laska,” a Singaporean variant of laksa lemak, a fish-based laksa made with coconut milk. Flavorwise it’s similar to Thai Red Curry, although I would venture to say that katong laksa is slightly sweeter. It’s also easier to eat that most other noodle dishes in Southeast Asia: Its noodles are cut before cooking, which allows you to enjoy the dish easily using only a spoon.
As is the case with carrot cake you can find laksa almost everywhere you go in Singapore that sells food. If you don’t see it on the menu at a place after you’ve sat down to eat, however, just ask the waiter if he can recommend anywhere nearby that serves it.
Ice Cream “Sandwiches”
Kenneth and I spent the remainder of Saturday literally running all over Singapore, so when he asked me if I’d like to have an ice cream sandwich, I had no choice but to say “Yes.” I was a bit thrown for a loop, however, when he asked me which flavor I preferred.
“You mean they have different flavors here?”
He nodded. “Yeah. You can have yam, mint chocolate, vanilla — anything you want.”
After choosing mint chocolate, I watched in eager anticipation as the ice cream seller opened his cart to pull out what I assumed would be a run-of-the-mill ice cream sandwich with pastel green filling. Imagine my horror he pulled out a loaf of white bread and a rectangular block of ice cream!
Thankfully, the sandwich wasn’t bad — I was actually craving another one almost immediately after I finished the first one. White bread is too lacking in flavor of any kind to interfere with the sweetness of the ice cream, but becomes gooey and delightful as soon as the ice cream begins melting into it.
Ice cream sandwich sellers are all literally over Singapore’s during the day. I enjoyed mine near the Singapore Esplanade, but you can find them in several parts of town, including along Orchard Road and in the city’s downtown area.
“Rojak,” Kenneth explained to me as we sat down to enjoy a strange-looking plate of food he brought to the table with him, “is not only the name of this salad we’re about to enjoy, but also a term used to describe Singapore — both are potpourris of just about everything.”
I’m not going to lie: The complex flavor of rojak, derived no doubt from its curious combination of prawn paste, tamarind sauce and chili powder, wasn’t enough to win me over on the first try. I did my best to enjoy the succulent cucumber, pineapple, mango and other fresh ingredients that makes up a dish I’m hesitant to refer to as a salad — it’s served warm and completely slathered in sauce.
Unfortunately for me, rojak is the last meal I’ve eaten in Singapore as of yet, so I haven’t gotten the opportunity to give it another go. I do hope to return to Singapore in the near future, so I’ll definitely by trying a second helping of rojak before I dive into all the other amazing food I’ve yet to try.