Posts tagged Singapore
Everything You Need To Know About Southeast Asian Street Food, Night Markets, and Hawker Centers

Ivan here.

Jennie and I dedicated the whole month of October 2018 to exploring street food culture in Singapore and Malaysia. We wanted to find out whether we can truly “know” a place and its people by simply walking around and eating our way through it.

Spoiler alert: it’s possible.

 
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Jennie and Ivan’s Singapore & Malaysia Street Food Itinerary


Here was our itinerary: October 1 - 31, 2018


Malaysian food is complex, diverse and criminally underrepresented in North America. It’s the perfect blend of Malay, Chinese and Indian influences. In practice, this means shrimp paste and sambal meets soy sauce and lemongrass, rice steamed with coconut milk dates Indian roti and curry.

 
 
Jennie’s note:  Ivan literally had nasi lemak every opportunity he got. He was obsessed in Singapore and Malaysia.

Jennie’s note: Ivan literally had nasi lemak every opportunity he got. He was obsessed in Singapore and Malaysia.

 

And as someone not prone to hyperbole:

Malaysian nasi lemak might be the most perfect breakfast dish ever invented.


Street Food 101:

How to Find Good Street Food in Southeast Asia


Maybe it’s an inborn talent of the Taiwanese, but for someone who’s not overly fussy about what he eats, I do have a knack for finding good street food. You can chalk this up to the power of deduction.

Because once you’ve eliminated the tourist traps and places that will definitely give you food poisoning, whatever remains, however rundown-looking, must be freaking delicious.

In this post, I’ve compiled a list of 9 general guidelines (not rules) you should stick to when you have a mental list of foods you want to try, but don’t know which vendors to pick. Where online sources are either non-existent or unreliable, and the only thing you can depend on are your senses and instinct.


9 Non-Obvious Tips for Finding Good Street Food in Asia and Southeast Asia


1. Always arrive late to the meal

Street food is an iterative process that gets better as the night goes on. Like a car engine sitting in a winter driveway, vendors need time to warm up. The first couple of batches are just to get themselves in rhythm. Which is why in Taiwan, no self-respecting local arrives at a night market before 7 PM (usually closer to 8).

2. Do a complete walk-through before choosing a stall

Pay attention to what’s going on both behind and in front of the stall: how old are the cooks (i.e. how long have they been doing this)? How fresh are the ingredients? What’s the average age of the customers? Are vendors getting high off their own supply? What are they feeding their own kids? In Penang, Malaysia, in a food court full of exotic seafood and spicy curry broths, I saw a vendor’s kid ignore his smartphone and inhale a plate of chicken wings and plain white rice from a neighboring stall. So that’s what I had for dinner that night. That kid was onto something.

3. Understand queue dynamics: what kind of line is forming?

Conventional wisdom says to go where people (preferably locals) are lining up. Whichever stall has the longest line, must be serving the best food, right?

Not always. Long lines=good food is the kind of lemming-like thinking that leads to the rich getting richer, until one day, global inequality brings about the collapse of our institutions. Somewhere, at the end of a long, random queue, lurks the future Starbucks of street food.

Here’s a real-life example: Jennie and I were in Tokyo for the first week of December. Passing by Shinjuku on a Saturday afternoon, we saw locals lining up around the block for, get this, Taiwanese bubble tea.

Turns out the Kaohsiung-based franchise Gong Cha recently opened their first stores in Japan. As a Taiwanese, is Gong Cha the best bubble tea ever? Not even close. But it’s definitely the most expensive and trendy. Another example: tourists queuing in front of Ichiran Ramen (ubiquitous across Japan; basically the Mcdonalds of ramen) as if its famous tonkotsu broth offered the elixir to everlasting life.

Editor’s Note: To be fair, Ichiran Ramen is decent (in spite of hype) and the dining concept is pretty unique. But the Fukuoka chain has been around in its current form since the early 90s. When Jennie and I were last in Japan ten years ago, nobody cared about Ichiran. The only thing that’s really changed is the size of the company’s marketing budget.


4. Pay attention to old people

This tip works especially well at lunchtime and in the mid-afternoons. Prime old people hangout times.  When you’re faced with the prospect of choosing between hundreds of food stalls selling the same items, you can’t go wrong gravitating towards groups of old men (“uncles”) or women (“aunties”) clustered around that one stall drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.  

The same logic applies for the people behind the counter. You’re looking for older vendors with a no-nonsense, take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Avoid bored-looking teenagers and twenty-somethings behind the wok. That’s just slave labor dressed up as filial piety.

5. The more gimmicks the food has, the more disappointing it will be

Gimmicks: your food wouldn’t need them if it was anything to write home about. Delicious food, by definition, should speak for itself. It doesn’t get improved with sparklers, or if it’s shrunk down into kawaii (Japanese for cute) mini-sizes, or if it’s cut into the shape of Hello Kitty. Pretty much any optimization for Instagram is guaranteed to make zero difference to the actual quality of the food - but a noticeable difference to the price.   

6.  A steaming pot of broth right out front is usually a good sign

Any food that’s cooked in front of you and not carried in from the back is generally a good sign. But something old that’s already boiling in a cauldron out front is even better. Lao tang tou, or “old soup broth,” where fresh ingredients are added daily but the soup is never changed for decades, is history you can actually taste.  

7. If a vendor has more than 1-2 specialty dishes on the menu, they don’t understand what the word specialty means

Fat menus lead to thin wallets and disappointing meals. This holds especially true for street food and small vendors, where you know they don’t employ a staff of two dozen specialists in the kitchen. Having more than two specialty dishes means you’re trying to be everything to everyone. Nine times out of ten, you’ve already failed.

8. Avoid the aggressive or over-friendly salesman

A salesman is only as good as the product he or she sells. But the better the product, the more it should sell itself. Especially when it comes to food, where you (typically) don’t need an instruction manual. Therefore, the very presence of an overly friendly salesman is a sign that the food should be avoided.

9. Be careful when choosing “well-rated” and decorated establishment

Say I’m the owner of a hawker center stall in Singapore. I’ve been working at my craft for half a century, sweating away in the equatorial heat. One day, a critic from an unnamed French tire company rides in on his horse to review my life’s work. Based on...what? Do I go into their factories to grade the quality of their tires? Do I look like I’m baking baguettes here?

Now I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Michelin Man is an untrustworthy fraud. If anything, he looks like someone who would know all the good places to eat. What I am saying is that in the world of night markets and food stalls, “prestige” is often not based on the most up-to-date information. Quality and standards in the food world are fickle and subject to change. Margins are low, competition is fierce, and customers are always seeking newer thrills (further reading: how much does it cost to run a hawker stall in Singapore?).

International fame also tends to skew your incentives.  When most of your clientele becomes one-time customers (i.e. tourists), instead of people from the block you have to pass by on the street every day, would anyone notice if you raised the prices and cut some corners?

And if someone did notice, would it be your problem?



5 Reasons to Visit Singapore (That Have Nothing to Do With Crazy Rich Asians)

Ivan here.

Singapore was the first country on our RTW trip.

When Jennie and I told people we were staying in Singapore for a week, the first thing they asked was, “Why? A week is too long for Singapore.” Then the follow-up question: “is it because you saw Crazy Rich Asians?”

No, we still haven’t seen Crazy Rich Asians.

 
Crazy Rich Asians Source:  EW.com

Crazy Rich Asians
Source: EW.com

 

Whether a movie boasts an all Asian-American cast or an all Somali-American cast is beside the point. In the final evaluation, Crazy Rich Asians just isn’t the kind of movie I’d go out of my way to see. Then again, I’m also the kind of asshole who resents being told what I should see based solely on what I look like. It’s almost as if the studio is saying, “This movie’s Asian. You’re Asian. What’s the problem here? Where’s my money?”

Don’t sell me on something being Asian or (insert minority identity), and therefore, groundbreaking and significant by default.

Instead, sell me on the actual work being groundbreaking and significant.


The First Stop on our RTW Trip:

Why We Traveled to Singapore


The iconic Marina Bay Sands building at night. Singapore is much more than meets the eye.

The iconic Marina Bay Sands building at night.
Singapore is much more than meets the eye.

Jennie and I had a very practical reason for why we wanted to spend a week in Singapore:

We’re looking for the next city to live in once our RTW trip is over. And Singapore is on our list.

On paper, Singapore checks a lot of our boxes:

  • It’s a financial services hub with a growing technology and cybersecurity industry.

  • Singaporeans are well-educated, speak multiple languages and have an entrepreneurial spirit.

We also got the sense that Singaporeans actually felt the rest of the world had something to offer them. That different countries, cultures and ethnicities could *gasp* learn from each other and get along.

I know, truly groundbreaking stuff.


5 Reasons Why You Should Visit Singapore Now


1. You can have a good time on almost any budget

Singapore enjoys a higher standard of living than most cities in the world, with a GDP per capita ($55,235) that’s slightly higher than the U.S ($53,128). That said, you arguably get much more for your money relative to other places. You notice this right away as you land in Changi Airport, rated the world’s best airport by Skytrax. Immigration was a breeze and the subway (MRT) to the city center took 40 minutes and cost less than $2 USD. The public transportation system is so efficient that we never had to take a taxi or Grab (Singapore’s Uber equivalent) during our entire week-long stay.

The only thing that could break your budget is accommodation. Jennie and I were lucky in that a friend let us use his apartment while he was away on sabbatical, but it’s possible on the low end to get a dorm bed for $15-20 USD a night or a private room for around $50-60 USD a night.

Outside of rent, there’s a wide range of things you can experience on any budget. Hawker centre meals cost $3-5 USD each. If you want to live the expat lifestyle during your stay, you can - for a price. Free tours are available in different neighborhoods across the city and local meetups and the dating scene (so we hear) is quite active and diverse.  

Jennie’s Note: We highly, HIGHLY recommend Monster Tour and their free walking tours. They are truly high quality and filled with a lot of personality.

If I could describe Singapore in one word for visitors it would be: seamless. Everything about Singapore is perfectly held together and without you knowing it, there were years of thoughtful planning behind it.

2. Singaporeans are great conversationalists, ambitious, career-driven, and that’s stimulating

One of the things you hear often about Singapore is the idea of the city-state being a “meritocracy.” This means that from a young age, the education system segregates students based on test scores into different “streams,” leading to intense competition and an overemphasis on study.

Predictably, this has had negative consequences, including mental health issues and growing inequality between different “streams” of students. But what the visitor actually experiences are well-educated, highly ambitious people who are knowledgeable about the world around them. Combine that with a dry sense of humor and their own brand of English (Singlish), and it’s almost impossible to have a dull conversation.

3. Foodie and hawker center culture is king in Singapore

Singaporeans live to eat - and the options in the city are limitless. A quick Google search will turn up hundreds of Singaporean food blogs dedicated to a specific niche. Everything else a visitor does in Singapore can be considered filler for the next meal.

This is a true food haven for people who want great quality food at an affordable price point. There are few places in the world that can match Singapore’s quality. More on this in an upcoming post about Singapore’s hawker centre food culture next week.

4. Exploring different neighborhoods and public spaces

Arguably, outside of the famous Supertree Grove at Gardens by the Bay (arrive well after dark), the other “tourist attractions” in Singapore are pretty sanitized and unimpressive. The appeal of the city is actually in picking one or two neighborhoods to explore for the day, choosing a few local food spots and just lounging at a cafe from midday to mid-afternoon to escape the oppressive heat. Then as night falls, join a group of locals for conversation and drinks.

This might not sound like a fun, action-packed way to spend a trip, but as two type A personalities, Jennie and I never felt close to being bored during our one week stay.

5. Singapore has modern conveniences and infrastructure that actually works

If you’re unfamiliar with Singapore’s history, you should know one thing: Singapore became an independent country in 1965; it’s a little more than 50 years old.  

Whatever the downsides of Singapore’s government (and there are downsides), it just feels refreshing to step off a plane and arrive in a city where public infrastructure actually works the way it’s supposed to. To experience even the semblance of competence and streamlined government was a huge revelation to us, and raises some questions about the American model.


5 Places in Singapore We Recommend


1. Our favorite Singaporean hawker centers & stalls

A delicious meal from A Noodle Story

A delicious meal from A Noodle Story

Learning how to order coffee at a Singapore kopitiam. Lime juice and barley drink from any drink stall.  A Noodle Story in Amoy Street Food Centre, Hong Lim Centre near Chinatown, wan tan mee at Old Airport Road Hawker Centre, and satay skewers with Tiger beer (satay stalls No. 7 and 8) outside Lau Pa Sat food court were some of our favorite food experiences. More details in a coming post.


2. Tiong Bahru neighborhood

Singapore’s hipster neighborhood. Highlights include lunch at Loo’s Hainanese Curry Rice and BooksActually, a vintage and independent bookstore store that publishes local Singaporean writers. It opened my eyes to a talented and hugely underrated Southeast Asian literary scene.

3. Bugis & Kampong Glam neighborhood

A Thursday evening starting with craft beers at Good Luck Beerhouse on Haji Lane ($18 USD), dinner at Michelin-starred Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle ($16), followed by a Korean movie (Burning) based on a Haruki Murakami short story at the The Projector ($20) - barely scratches the surface of a night out in Singapore after a long day of work.

Check out this guide from Click Network and a Singaporean local. It was actually really helpful when we planned for this neighborhood!

4. Geylang Serai district after dark

Red light district of Singapore. Grungy shophouses and late night eateries with plastic chairs and outdoor seating - all under the glare of fluorescent lights and electric ceiling fans. Cheap, delicious food, beer, and people watching in a “seedy” part of town, in a country with one of the lowest crime rates in the world.  

5. Little India

We joined a free walking tour with Monster Day Tours to get more context and local recommendations on Little India (they do tours all across the city. You should tip the guide afterwards). It was also an opportunity for us to chat with other visitors over some roti canai.


3 Places in Singapore We Avoided


Singapore Orchard Road - all high end shopping.

Singapore Orchard Road - all high end shopping.

1. Orchard Road

Orchard Road is Singapore’s 2.2 km stretch of shopping malls. Unfortunately, we can’t (and don’t) really shop because we have to fit everything we own inside two 40L backpacks. So for us, malls are only good for two things: air conditioning and clean bathrooms.

2. Marina Bay Sands

Marina Bay Sands (or MBS as locals call it) is owned by Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands Corp. Mr. Adelson is known for other tasteful establishments like The Venetian in Las Vegas and an entire strip of casinos in Macau. MBS provides the essential service of redistributing wealth from the bottom 99% to the top 1%, as well as populating Instagram with infinity pool shots which, by some miracle, manages to crop out the other 976 people in the pool trying to take the exact same photo.

Singapore Universal Studios

Singapore Universal Studios

3. Sentosa Island & Universal Studios

Sentosa contains two of our least favorite activities: paying a lot of money to wait in line for a two minute ride - and being anywhere in the vicinity of a casino.

Look forward to our full travel guide to Singapore over the next couple of weeks. We’ll update the link here as well once it’s live.