To many Westerners, dipping toast with sweet jam into salty, soft-boiled eggs can come as a culture shock, but it’s a uniquely tasty, albeit calorific, way to kick off your day. A kaya toast set – bread toasted over a grill, loaded with pandan jam and thick slices of cold butter and served with a side of soft-boiled eggs covered in dark soy sauce and white pepper – can be enjoyed at a range of chains like Ya Kun Kaya Toast or the venerable Killiney Road Kopitiam, or you can get this local breakfast staple at any hawker centre.
The dish is said to have come from the many Hainanese that worked on the British ships docked in Singapore in its early years, who then paired toast and jam with their own local flavours once back on land. The result is an amazing culinary mash-up. There is a ritualistic element to the eating of this humble brekky as you combine the various flavours the way you like them and, when you add the theatre that is Singaporean coffee made with the famous “coffee sock”, you have a cracking morning meal.
This dish may be less well known than Singapore chilli crab, but it packs a bigger punch when it comes to flavour and can be enjoyed more often as it is not as expensive as its lauded counterpart. The curry has its origins in Kerala, India, and is one of the best examples of how a traditional dish has been changed to reflect the Lion City’s melting pot, and has then gone on to become the norm. Samy’s restaurant in Little India claims to be the first to add the head of a snapper to its traditional curries but fish head curry can be had all over Singapore, though Ocean Fish Head, opposite the Amoy Street hawker centre and XO restaurant on Balestier Road, are two of the best.
It’s all about the sauce and half the fun is finding one that suits your tastes, whether it is a creamy gravy with coconut milk or the more sour “assam” curry that uses tamarind. As for the fish head, this has long been a staple of Chinese cooking and was introduced to the curry to please Chinese customers. The soft flesh around the cheeks is succulent and soaks up the sauce – but the real hardcore enthusiasts say the snapper’s eye is the best part.
The durian, a prickly, pungent Asian fruit delicacy, gets a bad rap from the uninitiated, but it is a very pervasive ingredient of Singaporean life. Whether it is smelling the pungent aroma of durian as you cycle past the heavily laden fruit stalls in heartland suburbs like Geylang, grabbing a durian-flavoured ice-cream sandwich from an old uncle among the crowds on Orchard Road, or admiring the Theatres By the Bay at Esplanade – whose architecture is based on the spiky fruit – you can’t deny the durian’s impact on Singaporean culture.
It’s the smell of the “king of fruits” that inspires the signs banning it from public transport, but, once you get past the strong odour, it has a wonderfully light, creamy centre and there are many varieties to choose from. Get chatting with your durian seller and learn about the popular mao shan wangvariety from Malaysia, said to have a peculiarly bitter sweet taste and one that is very popular with those in the know, or the D13 – a bright orange option that is recommended for the durian novice due to its more restrained flavour. Or just stick to the ice-cream sandwich, because ice-cream makes everything taste better.
The streets of Singapore literally heat up during this annual festival, which falls around August each year, as local residents burn offerings to appease ancestral spirits. According to Chinese folklore, during Hungry Ghost Month the gates of the underworld open up and the souls of the dead get a leave pass to roam around the streets of the Earth. And they are hungry for all the earthly pleasures they left behind, so the best way to keep the spirits happy is to give them offerings.
These can be burnt, which has many main streets in the heartlands cloaked in smoke during certain times of the month, or just left out for the ghosts – that’s why you will see mandarins, incense and special muffin-like Chinese cakes decorating the sidewalks of Singapore. But don’t take any of these offerings away with you, or it
is said the ghost will follow you home! One of the focal points for this month-long festival is the huge Shuang Lin Monastery, a sprawling Buddhist temple in Toa Payoh. At the entrance are two huge kilns where paper offerings such as money, and even iPads, are incinerated for those in the afterlife. Also keep a lookout for the pop-up getai stages, which feature boisterous, traditional singing and performances for the duration of the Hungry Ghost Festival. Just don’t sit in the front row as this is reserved for the spectral special guests.
The back lanes of Little India are crammed to bursting with stalls selling strings of ornate lights, festive toys for the kids and artists offering mehndi, the traditional, and wonderfully intricate, henna hand tattoos. Deepavali translates as “rows of lights” and Hindus believe it represents the triumph of good over evil, or light winning out over the darkness.
Falling around the last quarter of the year, this is the best time for visitors to head down to Little India, where the streets light up with extravagant decorations strung across the street, and come dusk the temples in the area are packed with worshippers and tourists keen to get involved at this festive time.
Grab an Indian meal at one of the many restaurants lining the main street, slip into the Tekka Centre for a snack of murtabak(fried bread with stuffing), or take part in the street parade or the annual ceremony to switch on the street decorations. There is also a heritage and craft exhibition in the area to coincide with the festivities.
The English may be big fans of the orderly queue, but the Singaporeans are the masters, elevating the humble queue to a national art form. And it's a boon for visitors too because you don’t need a guide to find the best street eats – just head to your nearest hawker centre and take a look around for the longest line of hungry people who are willing to wait for the best.
It’s a bonus if you get a bit of theatrics with your wait, such as the blanched-to-order prawns at Ah Hui Big Prawn Noodle at Balestier market, which are plunged into a huge vat of bubbling broth, or the lightning fast handiwork that goes into make the traditional Indian flatbread prata(Indian pancake) at the Tekka Centre in Little India. But, mostly, the reward for all your patience will be the best hawker food Singapore has to offer.
Even Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is not one to cut the queue and social media was ablaze last year when the PM stood patiently in line at Redhill Food Centre for half an hour to buy some fried chicken from a well-known stall. He later became a meme about queuing to celebrate the nation’s favourite pastime.
This harvest festival, which is held around August or September each year, pays tribute to the legendary Chang Er, the wife of a vicious ancient ruler who gave her life so that his cruel reign would come to an end, and celebrates Singapore’s Chinese roots. For her sacrifice, Chang Er was transported to the moon, where she still resides, and at this time of year local lantern parades are held, the idea being that Chang Er can see the mass lighting of lanterns and know that we appreciate her giving her life many centuries ago.
The moon is also reflected in the mooncakes that are given around this time. Mooncakes are traditionally a small, round pastry with a filling of red bean or lotus seed paste as well as the yolk of a salted duck egg, but, in recent times, they have expanded to include a wide range of flavours – there are even mooncakes made by French chocolatiers. Pop-up stalls selling the little round cakes and a huge array of decorative paper lanterns usually herald the start of the mid-autumn festivities, but the real fun to be had is at one of the many local lantern parades, which often includes live music and food stalls.
An unexpected diversion when navigating the bustling street of Singapore’s Chinatown, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum is housed in the traditional architecture of Chinese Buddhist temples and has a wealth of treasures inside as you explore such evocatively named exhibitions as the Mountain Gate and the Hundred Dragons Hall.
The showpiece is what is reputed to be one of the Buddha’s very own teeth. The holy incisor is housed in a stupa weighing 3.5 tonnes and is composed of 320 kilograms of gold. It’s a dazzling display, but head up to the roof of this ornate building for a hidden treat.
On the roof there is a charming secret garden where a huge prayer wheel – which rings a bell as you turn the giant wheel around, a big hit with the kids – sits in the centre of an intimate flower garden. The garden is reached via four corner stairwells, each watched over by one of the Four Buddhas of the Cardinal Points.
It’s a surprisingly peaceful getaway in one of the busiest parts of town, but dress respectfully as it is an active temple and you will be denied entry if you are baring too much flesh to combat the tropical heat – or you can borrow a robe.
In a modern metropolis quickly being overrun by concrete and steel, the city-state’s intricate web of “park connectors” linking Singapore’s green spaces via walkways and cycleways may well be one of the city’s best-kept secrets.
If you spy the letters “PCN” painted on a walkway, you can be assured your walk will end up in one of the city’s prized parks or green spaces such as Bukit Timah or the spacious MacRitchie Reservoir. As a visiting cyclist, you can use the park connectors as a way to avoid biking on the road, a far more enjoyable way to get around than battling the city’s busy streets.
The idea behind the park connectors, which are run as part of Singapore’s National Park Board, was first mooted in 1991 and the first PCN, the Kallang Park Connector, was implemented in 1995.
Park connectors are Singapore’s lush private pathways, often running along tranquil sections of the river or other waterways packed full of joggers, kids learning to cycle or scooter, or people walking their dogs. To get a feel for the PCN, visitors can download the NParks app for their phone or grab a PCN map from the National Park website, nparks.gov.sg.
Stand beneath a flooded Amazonian river as you watch a mother dugong put a protective arm around her newborn calf, stand a few metres from giant pandas Kai Kai and Jia Jia as they enjoy lolling lazily in their cool forest habitat, or take the Amazon River Quest, a fun family boat ride past flocks of flamingoes and other forest creatures. The Wildlife Reserves Singapore's latest river-themed attraction is a small but well-stocked tour of the river systems of the world featuring all of the above plus crocodiles, schools of giant South American arapaima and some cheeky squirrel monkeys in a free-range enclosure where it is not a good idea to take open packets of food.
Opened in 2014, the River Safari cost upwards of $160 million to build and resides between its popular sister attractions the Night Safari and the Singapore Zoo and, as the smallest of the three attractions, it is the best choice for the time-poor traveller.
Take the kids for a panda-shaped bao(steamed bun) in the Mama Panda Kitchen – the custard and chocolate, both of which are a huge hit – while adults can have dumplings and noodles that rival the famous hawker fare.