With just two full days left on our trip, we had to pack in whatever else we had on our itinerary to be sure we ate, saw and experienced a good balance of what Singapore had to offer. The problem with Singapore, though, is that although it’s an island, it is super diverse. You could spend a whole week hitting the high points in the tourist maps and Zagat guides, but you’d miss most of the real Singapore.
Many Westerners think of Singapore as a Chinese place and expect it to look, sound, smell and taste like China … but it’s not. Remember, it is in Southeast Asia, so closer to Malaysia and Indonesia. Here’s a brief history lesson so you know why things are the way they are: In 1819, British statesman Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore as a trading post of the East India Company; after the company collapsed, the islands were ceded to the United Kingdom, and in 1826, Ireland and became part of its Straits Settlements. During World War II, Singapore was invaded and occupied by Japan. In 1963, Singapore united with other former British territories to form Malaysia, but was expelled in 1965 and has been an independent — and very wealthy — country ever since.
What you find when you visit Singapore is a place that incorporates all of that business sense, organization and OCD-style cleanliness that’s embraced by a wide range of ethnic groups including Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, Indonesian, and more. There is an area called the Arab Quarter that brings the ethnic groups of Arabic nations together. And then there are the Peranakans.
There’s a whole separate race of people borne out of the melting pot there, originally starting with Chinese and Malaysian people due to the Chinese immigrants settling on the Malaysian peninsula. But the immigrants spread to Indonesia and Singapore, and later Chinese men in Melaka fathered children with Javanese, Batak and Balinese slave women. Long story short, they developed their own culture and cuisine, and while us Westerners may not be able to distinguish a Peranakan from other Southeast Asians, they can tell.
A whole museum is dedicated to the Peranakan history and culture to give us a peek at what it means to be a part of this very unique ethnic group. Some look more Chinese, more Malay, more Indian or even Korean, but they recognize the mix in each other that us outsiders wouldn’t be able to identify. I was kind of surprised to find that many of the faces in the old and modern photos looked like everyone in my family. Now I know why they think I’m a Nonya in Malaysia.
I was most touched by a historical poster of a Peranakan Chinese society, where the members were only allowed to wear Chinese or Western clothes, but nothing else signifying their other ethnic backgrounds — with the statement that outer labels should not define who they are inside.
If you go early enough, unlike us, you can get lunch at the Peranakan restaurant next door called True Blue.
So now when you visit the rest of Singapore (or Malaysia), you’ll understand why they look Chinese but aren’t, or have so much British influence. Like at the famous Raffles Hotel, where people pull up in Maseratis and non-guests must enter from the side. It’s a ritzy hotel — named after Sir Stamford Raffles, of course — and is home to the Long Bar, where the Singapore Sling was invented.
Several years ago, I came to this bar with Mari Taketa, Lucy and Elyse Inouye, and Susan Hays. The Singapore Sling cost about $20, so not everyone wanted to get one. But our waitress Davina, a pushy Chinese broad, insisted that everyone at the table had to order a drink or leave. She proceeded to push the most expensive drinks on the menu until I took her photo while she was harassing us.
On this day, the famous cocktail was a little more than $30 (you don’t even get to keep the glass!) and our harried waiter was fine with Doug having a Diet Coke while I just took photos and ate the free peanuts. The drink, by the way, is very sweet and kind of strong, so don’t guzzle it! It’s strong enough for a man, but was invented for women to enjoy, as well.
Side note: at the downstairs bakery I got my first taste of Malaysian kueh (specifically, kueh serimuka), with mochi rice on the bottom and pandan mochi on top. You can get this cheaper in other parts of Singapore, but I wasn’t sure if I would find any before I left. Winna.
If you have time, take a spin around Singapore’s Arab Quarter to see the Sultan Mosque (non-worshippers are not allowed inside), the many Persian rug shops, textile merchants, and restaurants. If you are lucky, you can find a spot that serves pulled coffee or tea.
If you’re looking for a quick coffee or beer, duck into the very colorful but touristy Haji Lane, which looks like a Singaporean version of Pow Wow. The colorful murals are perfect for a quick photo op!
Speaking of photo ops: Again, if you have time, check out the Chijmes. This is a 19th century convent and school that has since been turned into a venue for restaurants and bars. I’m not sure how the former nuns feel about that — but hey! — good for them for finding a way to preserve a gorgeous property.
Along the way, we stopped for a snack: ice cream sandwiches, literally made with bread. Rainbow bread, to be exact. These cost about a dollar and are a great find, because according to @SingaporeanEats, only a few vendors are actually licensed to sell this. The price is right and it’s quite satisfying. From left, corn ice cream and peppermint.
The end of the day was the best! My cousin Celia and her husband Viv picked us up and took us to Robertson Quay — an area with many chic restaurants — and straight to Red House, a popular spot for Singapore’s famous chili crab. There are various restaurants that are famous for this, like Jumbo’s, No Signboard, and a couple of others. I need to emphasize that it’s important to go to one of these restaurants, not a hawker stall, to eat chili crab, or you may be disappointed. Restaurants are a little more expensive, but worth it.
Lobster puffs are like fishcake, but using lobster, breaded and fried in a sesame crust. These are served piping hot with a mayonnaise dipping sauce. Who doesn’t love fried yummies with mayo, right? These are great starters.
It was at this dinner that I realized I had never had razor clams — at least, not in the shell. I had no idea that razor clams were long like this! What an elegant presentation. These were served with rice noodles, garlic and scallions in a light shoyu sauce. These were light but full of flavor, with a nice blend of clam and noodle textures. I had two. Sssh.
You’ve heard of cornflake chicken … well, these are cereal prawns. Many places in Singapore serve this, but I’m not sure how they compare since this was my first time actually eating it! I don’t know why this isn’t in Hawaii, since it seems pretty simple, but so good! I loved the light crunchiness of the cereal, and these were well-seasoned, too.
And then … The moment of truth, the item I’d been waiting for all week! Singaporean chili crab. Every place makes it a little different; some are spicier, some eggier. This one was spicy and a little sweet-sour, a great contrast to the succulent crabmeat inside. I regret not turning the body over to show you the miso, because this crab was full! And no one at the table eats that part of the crab, so I had it all to myself with that chili sauce. I’m drooling again just thinking about it.
For you regular crab eaters, you can also put the gravy in a bowl and sop it up with fried buns. I don’t know why, but it just tastes better if the buns are fried!
Almost as famous: Singapore’s black pepper crab. I am not a huge black pepper fan, but most people love this, so you should order it to find out what the fuss is about. There’s a spiciness and a little citrus note to the flavor, which is done very well at Red House.
If you still have room for dessert, we tried three of the most popular ones: Clockwise from left, mango pudding, chilled mango pomelo with sago, and chilled lime sherbet with lemongrass jelly. Very light and refreshing!
By the way, Robertson Quay (pronounced “key”) is a vibrant area both day and night. Last time we were here, we had a lovely lunch, followed by a walk around the promenade and the Alkaff Bridge, which was colorfully painted by Filipino artist Pacita Abad. I didn’t know until I started writing this blog post, but it’s close to Lau Pa Sat, one of Singapore’s largest and oldest hawker stall areas.
Up next: Getting henna tattoos, and dinner at Ding Dong! (Yes, that’s really the name.)
My final blog in this series will have some travel tips.
To see all photos from this trip, click here.