On the Culture Front: Eating My Way Through Singapore

The first thing I ever heard about Singapore was that they cane people for vandalism. I was a young child, and the case of Michael Fey was all over the news. It was also known as the land where gum chewing was forbidden. What a strange distant land I thought. Fast-forward about fifteen years, and I'm interviewing Anthony Bourdain. I ask him if he has a favorite airport, and he immediately blurts out Singapore and adds that the island city-state is one of the best places to eat in the world.

A couple years later when a friend invited me to join her, I excitedly said yes. It's weird to get excited about an airport until you've been to Changi. Not only is there a movie theater, butterfly garden and swimming pool but there's even a free city tour. This is a place that warrants more than a layover though.

The breadth of food is staggering and really available at any budget. Some of the best food can be had at what they call hawker stands (think food trucks but impossibly cleaner) where a couple bucks buys a heaping plate of chicken rice. This seemingly simple dish is thoroughly tender and topped with a hot pepper sauce to make the flavors pop. In large centers like Lavender Food Square, Tiong Bahru and Maxwell hawker centers, its easy to spot the best stands by the massive lines that flow from them. Adventurous choices are usually rewarded. Koh Brother Pig's Organ Soup in Tiong Bahru has just enough of a gamey funk while Zhen Zhen Porridge in Maxwell is addictively silky.

For a slightly more upmarket sit-down meal Banana Leaf Apolo serves an exceptional and exceptionally large fish head curry, eyeballs included. It's considered an honor to be offered an eyeball here, at least according to our local guide. Large sea creatures are done exceptionally well here. Giant crabs doused in chili sauce are a specialty here and the aptly named Jumbo is a particularly popular spot to get them. Located in a harbor that that reminded me of the South Street Seaport, these larger-than-life crustaceans are served family style and have just enough heat to keep things interesting, especially given the humidity hovers near 100%.

Around the corner and up a hidden staircase, Ah Sam Cold Drink Stall is a speakeasy treasure. There's no menu but the friendly bartenders have a knack for making fine cocktails with any spirit of your choice. It's like Milk and Honey before anyone found out about it. Outside a sign reads, "man fatally stabbed during drunken dispute" with a stick figure illustration to hammer home the point.

If the whole island feels a bit like a rainforest, the Singapore Zoo is its heart with over 2800 animals and the first to have a free-range orangutan habitat. As luck would have it, there's a fine dining spot, Pollen, located inside the flower dome. What I had was a blur, but it was delicious and in the molecular gastronomy realm. Think foam and sophisticated plating. What I'll remember most is the recently erected park, Gardens By the Bay, which seamlessly melds nature with engineering. Several "trees" tower over the space and allow visitors to ascend to the top for truly spectacular views. It also provides a respite between meals.

The grandest of those was the epic tasting menu at The Tippling Club. More than individual dishes, the menu was a continual expression of the boundless creativity of British-born chef Ryan Clift. As the dishes veered into double digits and our bar stools began to feel less transient and more like final resting places, a wave of satisfaction washed over me.

Fifteen minutes from Singapore is the man-made Sentosa Island and features its own Universal Studios, yes, that one. It's as you would expect save for the supersized Fernando Botero sculpture of Adam and Eve in the lobby of the Hotel Michael. Also of note (though it probably won't enhance your understanding of this great city-state), the Transformers ride at Universal is exhilarating.

Back on the mainland, I discovered that Peranakan food (a combination of Chinese, Indian and Malaysian ingredients) is delicious at Candlenut, a dimly lit spot. The flavors are richly nuanced and the frequently changing menu is inspired by chef/owner Malcolm Lee's childhood memories of cooking with his mother. I washed our feast down with a local craft brew from Jungle Beer called Singlish Ale. On the side of the bottle was the phrase "so shiok!" which is the Singapore way of conveying pure happiness.