To know a city, sometimes you have to nibble your way through it, writes Shandelle Battersby.
It’s no secret that one of the best ways to get acquainted with a city is by eating its food, but in a melting-pot city like Singapore where many cultures collide, it’s hard to know where to begin.
Its famous hawker centre food courts are a great starting point, but they can be an overwhelming riot of people, noise and exotic smells offering dozens of unfamiliar options. So much to eat, so little time; the pressure to order right is almost too much to bear.
One way to take the guesswork out of an unfamiliar city so famous for its culinary scene is with a walking food tour – that way you’re guaranteed good eats, and you’ll learn something about your destination too.
Wok ‘n’ Stroll offers a range of tours that explore Singapore’s vibrant ethnic quarters and which can drill down into specific cuisines or themes too. I’m interested in the colourful storytelling murals lining the inner city streets so sign up for Street Art and Food (S$110pp, three to four hours), which promises to tell Singapore stories in amongst curated food stops.
Our group of three (each tour has a maximum of eight people) meets our excellent guide, Natalie Chai, outside the Tekka Market in Little India, one of Singapore’s most well-known hawker centres, which is also home to a popular wet market and shops.
As we make our way to its entrance, past streetside vendors selling fragrant herbs and spices and piles of fruit and vegetables, she tells us the Singapore Government has deliberately allowed Little India to remain a little more gritty and authentic than many other parts of Singapore and how its sights, sounds and smells will challenge all of our five senses.
At the modest Tekka Centre, Natalie sets about ordering us breakfast while we sip at a delicious pulled tea, or teh tarik, a strong black tea made with condensed milk. Breakfast arrives all at once: a spicy Malay/Chinese mee siam (a mix of Thai rice noodles cooked in a prawn-based sauce with chilli and sour notes too) and idli (savoury fermented rice cakes) and dosa (fermented pancakes made from rice and lentil batter) with a range of sauces and vadai (Indian lentil doughnuts) to finish. We all share the food, trying a few mouthfuls of each – exactly the way I like to eat.
Out into the back streets of Little India we go, stopping by a flower stall so a man with lightning-quick fingers can whip us each up a beautiful garland made from orange chrysanthemums while we peer through the doorways of some of the ornate gold jewellery stores and elaborate tailor shops common in the area.
Everywhere we turn there is art, a major focus for the government in recent times to add heart and soul to the country’s cultural landscape. Natalie points out the work by artists such as Yip Yew Chong, who references the country’s history and harmonious immigrant population with his murals depicting Singapore life centred around food, trade and past-times. Little India is one of several areas where street art is encouraged; others include Kampong Glam, Tiong Bahru, the National Youth Council in Toa Payoh and a wall at The Substation in the Civic District. In 2015, the Government also commissioned 50 city murals to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence.
While rules have relaxed somewhat since American teenager Michael Fay was caned for spraypainting cars and stealing road cones there in 1984, street art and graffiti in Singapore is still fairly restricted and mostly comprises commissioned pieces on sanctioned walls.
After an hour or so of pleasant meandering, we jump in a Grab rideshare car and head over to Arab St in the Malay-Muslim ethnic quarter of Kampong Glam, one of the areas that has become particularly known for its street art scene. First, though, we call into Zam Zam, which has been serving up its speciality murtabak (fried pancakes, usually stuffed with meat, cheese, onion, garlic and egg) since 1908.
We sat upstairs with the locals on their lunch break and feasted on a simple and reasonably priced lunch of chicken murtabak, a tender lamb biryani, nasi goreng ikan bilis (fried rice with anchovies) and chicken mee goreng (fried noodles, Malay style), washed down with a katira, a tasty Middle Eastern drink made from tree sap and condensed milk.
Sitting just north of the Singapore River, Kampong Glam has a completely different feel to Little India. With a high hipster quotient, its narrow streets and laneways are lined with restored historic shophouses filled with interesting clothing boutiques, textile stores,
galleries, cafes and bars. This is also where you’ll find the beautiful Sultan Mosque or Masjid Sultan, the most important site for the country’s Muslim population and an Instagram magnet, thanks to its stunning onion-shaped golden domes.
Fittingly, our last stop of the tour is at Haji Lane, the most famous laneway in all of Singapore, known the world over for its colourful murals, vintage shopping and cool eateries. We were here for art of a different kind though, coffee art at Selfie Coffee, a cafe that creates a photo of you with vegetable oils on a bed of cream atop your drink.
We’d started off the day in traditional Singapore learning about some of the culture and cuisine contributed by its melting-pot population and now we were finishing it firmly in modern times.