Despite Singapore's cultural mélange, the overall mood of the city can seem rather sedate. The remedy? Start eating.
It's no secret that the window into Singapore's soul is actually the mouth. Heralded as Asia's "Food Republic," the city-state's location at the tip of the Malay Peninsula has afforded it a rather stupendous melting pot of Chinese, Malay, Indian and European flavors. The result is a local food scene so compelling that bold-name chefs (Robuchon, Boulud) and devout foodies arrive en masse, salivating for Singaporean signatures like fried Hokkien prawn noodles. Despite Singapore's longstanding culinary focus — city founder Sir Stamford Raffles planted his world-famous spice and herb garden back in 1822 — recognition for the city's epicurean prowess feels rather current. And though gleaming, chef-led outposts like Tetsuya Wakuda's Waku Ghin will likely draw the Michelin Guide crowd, it's the prospect of wading through Singapore's hawker food stalls that has people crisscrossing the city in hungry pursuit. Although taxis and the metro is relatively easy, staying somewhere central is key. Options like the modern, 40-room Naumi, which provides an eye-catching home base with ample space and a dedicated butler service that ensures you're never totally on your own.
One major upside to Singapore's slightly Orwellian style of governance is that the city's 109 hawker stall centers are exceedingly well regulated, ensuring that vendors have hygienic stalls with access to clean water — plus there's a visible grade system denoting the stall's cleanliness. And with 15,000 stalls in total, it's best to have a few must-try dishes and their top spots already earmarked. We suggest beginning with the traditional dockworker's breakfast of bak kut teh, a meat-bone tea, which is served Teochew-style (peppery) at the famed Outram Park Ya Hua Rou Gu Cha in the Tanjong Pagar Complex. Be sure to grab a you tiao (fried dough cruller) for requisite dipping. Next on the list is Singapore's veritable national dish: chicken rice. It originally hails from the Hainan province of China, yet its popularity has prompted secret family recipes and an unspoken domestic competition among stall vendors. A particularly tender version can be found at Dong Feng Fa Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice in the Ghim Moh Food Centre.
Moving on, it wouldn't be Asia without a beloved pork staple. In Singapore it's a tie between char siu (barbecued pork), best found at Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint (who fastidiously omit the food coloring and MSG), and the banana-leaf nonya bak chang (pork dumplings), whose sixty-year old version at Kim Choo Kueh Chang is worth the pilgrimage. After the meat comes the fish — or, in Singapore, their heads. Fish head curry (mercifully tastier than it sounds) is a favorite of the hawkers, combining fiery Indian chili spices and tamarind to offer a remarkable sweet and sour aftertaste. Try it at the award-winning Banana Leaf Apolo, which holds the Singaporean record for the largest serving of fish head curry in one location. And finally there are the noodles: specifically lor mee, a uniquely Singaporean noodle dish of wide egg noodles topped with fishcake and pork. At Lor Mee 178 in the Tiong Bahru Market and Food Centre they don't claim (as so many others do) to have invented the dish, but simply focus on improving the tradition by adding crispy shark fritters and a drizzle of black vinegar and chili sauce.
Should a full day of gorging and traversing the city in search of local culinary delights have you craving a bit of the familiar, feel no shame kicking back at the glamorous Fullerton Bay Hotel's rooftop boîte, Lantern Bar, where expert cocktails, exceptional skyline views and perfectly executed American-style bar fare (crispy truffle fries and juicy mini Wagyu beef burgers) provide a surefire tonic. Either way, the route to Singapore's heart is through the stomach.