Nothing quite captures the mix of the old and the new that characterizes Singapore than a bumboat, the city’s traditional ferries, sailing in front of the futuristic towers of the Marina Bay Sands, an entertainment, hotel and shopping complex. On closer inspection you realize that the boat is also a thoroughly modern vessel, filled with sightseeing tourists rather than provisions for ships. This transformation of the humble bumboat encapsulates perfectly Singapore’s metamorphosis from a small port established by the British to expedite trade between India, China and South-East Asia, to a gleaming metropolis that is one of the world’s great cities.
Singapore came into existence in 1819 when the East India Company established a trading post at the mouth of the Malacca Straits through which most shipping between India and China passed. Merchants, sailors and other workers flocked to the rapidly growing town to find work and soon Singapore had a population that was a melange of people from every corner of Asia and Europe. The town was laid out with separate sections for different ethnic and religious groups, and these areas are still preserved as historic neighbourhoods. The largest of these is today known as “Chinatown”, which may otherwise seem a strange name for a small portion of a city in which over three-quarters of the population can trace their origins to China. Chinatown hosts historic Buddhist temples, excellent restaurants and shops, and is at the heart of Chinese New Year celebrations.
Kampong Glam was the area set aside for Muslims, which included Malays, Arabs, Persians and Indians. It is still dominated by the grand Sultan Mosque and the nearby Haji Lane and Arab Street are full of shops offering perfumes and carpets as well as many restaurants serving authentic food.
Little India was the area designated for Indian Hindus, mostly Tamils from the south of India. The area is immediately recognizable from the idol covered facade of the temples, the shops offering gold jewellery and silk sarees, and the restaurants selling dosas and idlis.
The best known architectural feature of old Singapore was the shophouse, with family owned shops on the ground floor and living spaces above them. Large numbers of these have been preserved and renovated. Many of these are now trendy cafes, restaurants and shops and are beautiful places for an evening stroll.
Clarke Quay, which overlooks the Singapore river, is a great place to see old shophouses that have been converted to restaurants and bars. The Quay has a very lively nightlife and you can catch a sightseeing boat that takes you on a tour down the river and into Marina Bay where you see a statue of the Merlion, the symbol of Singapore, spewing water out over the crowds. If you time it right, you can even watch the famous laser show over the water!
But Singapore is not just about history, as you realize when you walk through the Gardens by the Bay, a massive park complex next to Marina Bay. Strange structures, looking like trees from an alien planet, rise above the perfectly manicured lawns of the park. In a giant glass conservatory you can walk through a cloud forest in which waterfalls tumble down from a great height.
Sentosa is an entire resort island, where you can visit an amusement park, relax on a beach, or walk for miles along forest trails. You can easily spend a whole day exploring the island.
Singapore is also famous for shopping, and there is no better place to start than Orchard Road, which is lined for miles with elegant shops and giant malls. You can find all kinds of luxury goods along this road and keen shoppers come from all over Asia, intent on finding the latest in fashion.
People may debate about what is the favourite pastime of Singaporeans: shopping is high on the list, but it is beaten by eating out. Singapore is a foodie’s paradise, where you can find something delicious at every price point. The hawker centres are famous, with dozens of vendors at each location, serving every type of cuisine imaginable. Here you will find shops selling Chinese, India, Malay, Thai, Korean and Japanese food, and probably several dishes that you have never heard of, all reasonably priced and absolutely delicious. Some of the most popular ones worth visiting are Tekka Centre in Little India, Maxwell Road Hawker Center and Lau Pa Sat.
Singapore’s own cuisine is known as Peranakan, or more familiarly Nyonya, food. These were the dishes that evolved in the homes of Nyonyas, a name given to the Chinese merchants who settled in Singapore and married Malay women, creating a unique hybrid culture. For an exquisite Peranakan meal, go to The Peranakan on Orchard Road, where you can order the chef’s tasting menu of all the classics such as beef Rendang, braised chicken with black Keluah nuts, ginger fried rice with lemongrass and more.
One of our favourite restaurants for Chinese food was Din Tai Fung, where we would go anytime we need a quick soup and dumpling fix! Other great places to satisfy your Chinese food cravings are Crystal Jade, Peach Garden, Paradise Dynasty and Imperial Treasure. Most of these restaurants have branches scattered throughout the city as well as in various terminals of Chiangi airport, so you can have fantastic dumplings wherever you happen to be, even if you’re about to board an airplane!
We recently had the amazing opportunity to live in Singapore and become familiar with it during a sabbatical spent at Nanyang University, where we stayed in its verdant green campus for several months. It was a fascinating experience where we had lots of time to explore the different areas of the city, make new friends, and get a flavor of all the cultures that make Singapore special and unique.
At the university we often ate in the many canteens dotted around the campus. These food halls each had about 10-12 hawker stalls serving all kinds of freshly cooked, delicious food at super low prices. After eating here just once, I gave up cooking at home for the duration of our stay!
One of my favourite lunch places was the Sichuan Cuisine stall (in the corner of the above photo), which made the best Mapo Tofu I have ever eaten. The friendly lady at the counter, who spoke very limited English, would see me coming from a distance and shout out my order to her chef at the back - “Mapo tofu, no meat”! We’d hold a ‘conversation’ with smiles, nods and gestures, proving that language is no barrier to friendship (as long as there’s good Mapo tofu!).
This dish is usually served with a heap of white rice that is wonderful for soaking up the sauce. If you wish to add meat, throw in about half a cup of ground pork when you’re frying up the onions and other vegetables and continue cooking until it is done.
Mapo Tofu (No Meat)
1 tbsp each: dark soy sauce, oyster sauce, rice vinegar
1 tsp each: sesame oil, chili bean paste
1/2 tsp each: sugar, cornstarch, hot sauce or sambal
1/4 cup water
2 tbsp oil
2 whole star anise
1/4 tsp lightly crushed Sichuan peppercorn, optional
2 whole dried red chilies, optional
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 inch piece ginger, minced or grated
1/4 cup each, finely chopped: onion, red pepper, shiitake mushrooms, fresh coriander
1 lb (454g) medium firm tofu, cubed into bite sized pieces
2 green onions (scallions), sliced
1 tsp chili oil, optional
Mix together the sauce ingredients in a small bowl and stir well to combine. Set aside for later use in the recipe.
Warm oil in deep wok or skillet over medium high heat.
Add star anise, Sichuan peppercorn and dried red chilies if using.
After 30 sec, add the minced garlic and ginger, saute 30 sec.
Add onions, red peppers, mushrooms and fresh coriander. Saute for 5 min, stirring occasionally until softened.
Add tofu cubes and toss gently to mix with sauteed vegetables.
Give the reserved sauce a quick stir to recombine and pour over tofu mixture in skillet. Add sliced green onions. Stir gently to combine, cook 1 min and transfer to a serving bowl. Sprinkle chili oil over top, if using.