‘Let’s Makan’! Singapore
Photograpy: Yean Har Tan
When you are in Singapore, the good old ‘variety is the spice of life’ motto acquires a whole new depth, because, believe me, Singaporeans know better than anyone what variety is and what spices do to your food. In this remarkable multi-racial city you can sample all of Asia’s many cuisines, and may well start to believe that food is not food unless it has lemongrass or chilies in it.
When you come to Singapore, don’t expect to do a lot of sightseeing or beach-combing. Granted, the city’s mix of colonial and ultra-modern architecture is unique, and there are a couple of artificial beaches on reclaimed land, including the one that is teeming with tourists on Sentosa Island. But Singapore is not to be confused with Paris or Mauritius – this place is all about eating and shopping, and these two favorite local pastimes will always remain the ‘City of Lion’s’ main attraction. Singapore’s ‘hawker centers’ – pavilions where all street vendors are concentrated – are unique formations arising from Singaporeans’ obsessive cleanliness and need to organize chaotic street vendors into an orderly and manageable structure, offering a very exciting alternative to formal restaurants and shopping centers.
While Singaporeans are eating, they are already planning their next meal. No wonder that ‘Let’s Makan!’ (‘makan’ is the Malay word for ‘eat’) is the new Singaporean Tourism Board slogan, promoting the top 10 most popular dishes in a campaign that is supposed to make them cult dishes the world over, just like the Thai Tom Yam or Japanese Sushi.
Top on the Tourism Board’s list, as well as my ‘independent’ list, are Chili Crab and Black Pepper Crab, which is pretty unique. What you read is what you get: it’s an enormous crab (big enough for 2 people to share) drenched in delicious chili or black pepper sauce, best eaten with your hands. I also recommend Hainanese Chicken Rice, a dish of steamed rice and barbequed or steamed chicken, to Singaporeans this is what fish and chips are to the British. The secret here is the chicken stock in which the rice is cooked, and every cook guards this secret very closely. Satay are small, bite-sized pieces of chicken or meat, marinated in a sweet and spicy sauce, served on skewers with a thick peanut sauce. They are both delicious and fun to eat. Heaven for finger food lovers!
Notwithstanding the amazing amount of restaurants, food courts and hawker centers all around town, Singaporeans still manage to find time and will to cook at home, and to aid them in their endeavors are countless culinary shows on ‘Arts Channel’, whose prime time is dedicated to the local art of mixing herbs, spices, and rolling fish balls.
You are in for a real treat if you are in town during the Chinese New Year. The Chinatown area and all shopping malls around town are packed with shoppers picking up all the essentials for their family gatherings during the period, while stage shows are put on at night. One show you just can’t miss is the traditional Lion Dance, a slick performance that was put on this year several days in a row at around 9 p.m. on Orchard Road, in front of Ngee Ann City. The Singaporeans take lion dancing seriously, and have a national contest, performers are graceful and precise.
If you are invited to a corporate or family CNY party, make sure you know what to bring. Your best bet would be 8 mandarin oranges in a cute red (the color of CNY) box. 8 is a lucky number for the Chinese, and it means wealth. The essential CNY shopping list also includes Bak-kwa – thin slices of sweet spiced meat or chicken char-grilled to the point where they are quite crispy but still juicy, Chinese tea, and dry snacks.
Other important Chinese New Year attributes you should know about are Hong Bao – little red envelopes with money, to be given by married relatives to unmarried members of their clan, or by bosses to their employees; and gambling or playing board games on New Year’s day with your Chinese friends or colleagues (so, make sure you have a lot of small change on you when accepting the invitation to play “mahjong”).
Chinese New Year is a time for traditions and superstitions: such as wearing red clothes for luck and prosperity, cleaning the house and hiding the brooms afterwards, not using knives on New Year Day, paying all debts before the New Year, etc. While many people of Chinese ancestry today may not believe in them, these traditions and customs are still practiced and kept to preserve old values and continuity.
It is a well-known fact that Singapore is one of the safest countries in the world, with a low rate of violent crimes. However, you may find local legislation aimed at maintaining a selfdisciplined society too strict, and if you do not pay attention, you may end up in trouble.
The most common punishment for breaking the law is a large monetary fine (from SGD $120 — US $73 - for not fastening your seat belt to SGD $1000 — US $613 – for smoking in a public place), resulting in a local pun ‘Singapore is a fine city’. Some other forms of punishment include caning (unlawful overstay in Singapore for over ninety days, hijacking, rioting, attempt to murder, sodomy, robbery), corrective work order (spitting or littering in public areas), and the death penalty (drug trafficking or first degree murder). As a result of taking drug enforcement so seriously, Singapore has one of the highest execution rates in the world. Not surprisingly, this leads many people to believe that The Lion has two faces – friendly and threatening. I think this dichotomy was best described by the science fiction writer William Gibson in ‘Wired’ magazine – ‘Singapore is Disneyland with the death penalty’.
Even though breaking the law is not an option, making fun of it is always amusing, and there are a few popular websites dedicated to ‘wacky Singapore laws’, with entries like: oral sex is illegal unless it is used as foreplay in a heterosexual act, walking around your home nude is prohibited because it is considered pornographic (I wonder how these rules are enforced), failure to flush a public toilet after use results in a SGD 500 fine, sale of chewing gum is prohibited (but it is no longer illegal to chew gum, provided that you do not spit it out in the street - which is littering and is heavily fined).
However, as I previously mentioned, Singapore is a selfdisciplined society, meaning that enforcement seems to be voluntary. In the month that I’ve already spent here, I haven’t seen a single police car or heard a police siren. I saw a couple of people throw a cigarette butt on a lawn and live to tell the story, and I’ve parked illegally overnight and did not get fined (but don’t try this one – I actually once saw grave men in black walking from car to car with little handheld devices and checking whether the cars belong there). The sterile look of the whole country led me to believe that people here indeed abide by the law.
Even though Singapore is a truly Asian city, where many races and cultures cohabit peacefully, it still reminds me of Switzerland: the city is very clean and orderly, it’s a very efficiently governed state, visitors feel safe here, inhabitants seem filthy-rich and speak such good English, it’s almost annoying! In fact locals speak mostly English to each other, which led to the creation of a local brand of English, called Singlish.
Singlish is rich in Hokkien, Malay and Mandarin infusion, and is influenced by the Singaporeans’ unique understanding of English phraseology. The first step you need to take to start speaking like a local is to remember to add the word ‘la’ at the end of most of your sentences, for emphasis. You may also want to train to pronounce the typical local exclamation: Aiyo! which can be ‘Ouch!’, ‘Wow!’, or ‘Oops!’ depending on the context. If your taxi driver just missed the turn you need and you want him to reverse, you should say it like the locals: Gostun! which is a locally-transcribed ‘Go stern!’. Blur in Singlish means ‘dumb’, and action is often used as a verb, to denote ‘show off’.
Shopping is the only activity that can rival eating as a national pastime in Singapore. Singaporeans love to browse the stores, and with the highest per capita income in Asia they can definitely afford it as a recreation. The best place for shopping is unquestionably Orchard Road: this area features at least a dozen multi-storey shopping malls, both elitist (like the Paragon, that carries mostly chic designer brands) and allpurpose type (like the Wisma Atria, that features all of the most popular stores in Singapore). There is a large sale during Christmas and Chinese New Year season, and another mouthwatering one, that even has an official name –‘The Great Singapore Sale’ - in June.
Black Pepper Crab
And if, after all this eating, shopping and learning new fun ways of speaking English, you still think you haven’t got your money’s worth in Singapore, you may proceed to try out the Night Safari, Botanical gardens, take a river cruise down the Singapore river, and finally spend a day on Sentosa Island — swimming, sun-bathing, chasing monkeys and peacocks and watching dolphin shows.
How to get there:
Expect to spend a total of around 14 hours in the air and at least $750. All major airlines have a flight from Moscow that would connect you with Singapore via Europe, but prices may vary dramatically, depending on the airline, the time of year, and duration of your stay. Some European airlines like KLM or Air France might have really good deals occasionally. I also discovered that the cheapest options year round would be Qatar Airways - via Doha, Emirates – via Dubai, and Turkish Airlines – via Istanbul. Singapore Airlines promised to introduce flights from Moscow in March. Basically, your choice of airline will depend on the day you want to travel, and the convenience of the connection.
Where To Stay:
Raffles The Plaza
5 Star / 769 rooms Rate: Standard SGD 457.00 1 Beach Road, www.raffleshotel.com
Ritz Carlton Millenia
5 Star / 610 rooms Rate: Deluxe SGD 343.90 / Premier Suite SGD 498.90 7 Raffles Avenue, www.ritzcarlton.com/hotels/singapore
5 Star / 477 rooms Rate: Deluxe City SGD 302.15 / Deluxe Ocean SGD 360.15 5 Raffles Avenue, Marina Square, www.mandarinoriental.com/singapore
Boutique Hotel Rate: SGD 295 and more, depending on the room 76 Robertson Quay, www.galleryhotel.com.sg/,
Singapore Dining Picks:
Raffles Grill (French), Raffles Hotel Lobby, 1 Beach Road, www.raffleshotel.com. This place features Michelin Star-quality food and service and one of the most complete wine lists in Singapore.
Indochine (Indochinese), 49B Club Street, www.indochine.com.sg. Stylish silk-cushioned interior, featuring the cuisine of Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.
Crystal Jade Golden Palace (Cantonese), 391 Orchard Road, #04-19 Ngee Ann City. Great place for Dim Sum, countless noodle dishes, terrific soups and Cantonese BBQ.
The Equinox (Asian and Western), 2 Stamford Road, Raffles City, 70th Floor Equinox Complex, www.equinoxcomplex.com. This bar on the 70th floor of the “Swissotel” offers a breathtaking view of Singapore. Food is nothing to write home about, but this is the ultimate place for surveying the City of Lion, while sipping a Lychee Martini .
Original Sin (Mediterranean Vegetarian), Block 43, #01-62 Jalan Merah Saga, Holland Village, www.originalsin. com.sg. Vegetarian can be delicious, and the Bertocchi sisters and gang can prove it to you!
Jumbo Seafood (Seafood), Blk 1206 East Coast Parkway #01-07/08, East Coast Seafood Centre, www.jumboseafood.com.sg. The ultimate fresh seafood in Singapore – go there for your Chili Crab!