Last fall I went to Singapore for its first-ever 24-hour street-food tour. Yes, you read that correctly: several other food journalists and I were invited to ride a bus for 24 hours (without sleeping!) to taste 40 dishes at 33 restaurants and hawker centers all over the tiny island-nation.
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Singapore is considered by culinary adventurers to be the holy land of street food. People on this Southeast Asian island (which is only about half the size of Los Angeles) take food fanaticism to a new level as witnessed at hawker centers all over the country. These are open-air food courts that house restaurants the size of walk-in closets; they serve fresh food, usually to order, for only a couple of bucks per dish.
Vendors at these food courts often specialize in just a few items, or even one, and the selection reflects Singapore's vibrant, unique multicultural makeup. Customers can easily get their hands on Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, Indonesian and Middle Eastern dishes, just to name a few. While dishing up a plate of chicken rice (a key offering at the hawker centers), a vendor will tell you that it's made exactly the way they do it in a small town on Hainan, a Southern Chinese island, and, in the same breath, that it's absolutely the national dish of Singapore. Confusing fusion is rampant.
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My fellow street-food warriors and I boarded the bus at 10:30 a.m. to start our tour. We traversed the island from hawker centers to coffee shops to restaurants and more hawker centers—all with a medical doctor in tow in case there were casualties (no kidding). Overeating and heat exhaustion were the risks here (getting sick from food, unlike in many places in Asia, is rare in Singapore because restaurants and hawker centers are heavily regulated by the government and cleanliness is taken very seriously).
Our first stop was the Golden Mile Food Centre for an eggy carrot pancake (actually made from radish), springy-textured fish balls (think: white-fish meatballs) and pig offal soup, which was quite delicious.
Chey Sua Carrot Cake at the Golden Mile Food Centre in Singapore
Fishball Noodles at the Golden Mile Food Centre in Singapore
In the afternoon and evening, we sampled the island's famous Chicken Rice, as well as Curry Puffs, at the Maxwell Food Centre, then had another island favorite, Chili Crab, at the very fancy Dragon Phoenix Restaurant.
The dishes we tasted in the middle of the night were some of my favorites. At 1 a.m. we waited in line, along with at least a hundred other people, for a noodle dish called Char Kway Teow at the Bedok South Market & Food Centre out near the airport.
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Back downtown we tried Coffee Pork Ribs and Marmite Chicken at Keng Eng Kee Seafood, along with an Assam Fish Curry that inspired my Spicy Tamarind Stewed Fish & Okra recipe (pictured above) for EatingWell magazine. At JB Ah Meng, in the damp back lanes of the red-light district, we ate Crispy Salmon Skins and Flower Clams. Across the road, we watched artisans make Indian Roti Prata bread. All between 2 and 3 in the morning.
Crispy Salmon Skins at JB Ah Meng Seafood
Flower Clams at JB Ah Meng Seafood
A visit to the central vegetable and seafood markets in the early hours of the morning offered a brief respite from eating and a stark reminder that the tiny island of Singapore has no natural resources of its own. Almost all fresh foods arrive by plane or boat every day.
We rode 45 minutes to the northern part of the island where you could see Malaysia across the bridge. A bowl of the famous soup Laksa was eaten as the sun came up. After that there were still two more stops, including a kung fu tea ceremony, before ending at a Halal hawker center where we finished off the day with a spicy Indonesian stew, Beef Rendang.
For a food editor who creates recipes for home cooks, Singapore presents a conundrum. The street-food culture of this frenetic island makes my work obsolete. More than one Singaporean told me that people barely cook at home—it's so easy and cheap to get a delicious fresh meal at a hawker center, why bother?
I'd be worried for the food culture of Singapore because it's usually the home cooks that carry on food traditions, but the hawker centers seem to be fueling plenty of interest in all sorts of dishes. And given the sheer numbers of food stalls, the wide range of offerings and the enthusiasm of both owners and customers, I think it's safe to say that the eating customs of Singapore have a strong, bright future.
Recipe to Try a Home:
Spicy Tamarind Stewed Fish & Okra (pictured above)
After my culinary marathon in Singapore, I got the bug to create this fish stew. This dish, which is inspired by Malaysian assam curry and Indian fish-head curry, showcases how the flavors of the tiny island-nation’s population cross-pollinate seamlessly. Soak up the sauce with rice noodles or brown rice.
Geylang Serai Market in Singapore