It may be the quintessential Singapore dining experience to be tucking into Nepalese chicken dumplings with roasted tomato relish and Sichuan pepper, created by a Pakistani chef who trained in New York. Her restaurant has a Japanese-style counter from which to view the chefs at work, but the decor of geometrical latticework is Islamic and the lotus-like lamps vaguely Chinese. As if to push the cultural collisions to outrageous limits, the restaurant is tucked into a complex that used to be a French Catholic convent.
Singapore's population may be three-quarters Chinese, but this city state's Malay, Indian, European and other influences pervade everything from architecture and vocabulary to cuisine. If you want to enjoy one of its most happy fusions, head to CHIJMES, which made a memorable appearance as a society wedding venue in the 2018 movie Crazy Rich Asians. Fortunately, you don't need the budget of a billionaire to enjoy the glamour.
The movie wedding took place in the chapel at CHIJMES, built in 1904 in hybrid Anglo-French neo-gothic style, and now a national monument. Its entrance is topped by a soaring white spire and flanked by flying buttresses, and the tops of columns erupt in depictions of tropical flowers and birds. White plasterwork contrasts with stained glass that, because it's illuminated from the inside, looks a marvel from CHIJMES' courtyard in the evenings.
CHIJMES (Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus Middle Education School) started when a single building, Caldwell House, was bought by the Catholic church in 1852 for a girls' school and orphanage. New buildings were added up until the 1930s. The awkward CHIJMES acronym was retained when the complex was restored in the 1990s and converted to a retail and food destination. Its cloister-like layout around a central sunken courtyard, where clipped grass contrasts with white marble, gives it the feel of a chic enclave and creates a relaxed indoor-outdoor dining experience.
That relaxed, self-contained feel and evening liveliness provides something of the atmosphere of a hawker centre. It used to be that the hawker centre, where woks flared and diners sweltered as they tucked into traditional local dishes such as chilli crab or laksa, was the definitive Singapore dining experience.
Hawker centres are still great, but CHIJMES is the hawker centre reinvented. Instead of street stalls you'll find informal eateries and pubs that showcase how sophisticated, adventurous and international dining has become in Singapore.
You'll find bars devoted to whiskys or craft beers – one specialises in New Zealand brews – and small restaurants ranging from Mexican and Italian to American and Brazilian. At the back of the complex, a row of tiny Japanese restaurants dishes up ramen noodles, grilled chicken skewers and tonkatsu breaded pork.
In all, there are about 20 venues that get CHIJMES jumping after dark. None require the budget of a crazy rich Asian. The shared dishes at Coriander Leaf, my favourite restaurant here, range from $14 to $25. That's where you get the Nepalese chicken dumplings and the eclectic fusion decor that somehow seems typically Singaporean.
Coriander Leaf's chef-owner Samia Ahad's pan-Asian influences range from Turkey through to Japan by way of Iran, India, Myanmar and Korea. Almost every dish is a sensation on the tongue – after all, Singaporeans are used to big fusion flavours, even in their most traditional dishes.
A watermelon, mint and Turkish cheese salad is rich and sweet with pomegranate molasses. Charcoal-grilled lamb chops are accompanied by pungent harissa, yoghurt and pickled onion. A marinated Thai prawn salad with grated coconut is sour with lime. A signature dish of Pakistani chicken pops with chilli and coriander seeds. It's crazy rich food all right, but only for the taste buds.
Mandarin Oriental Singapore at Marina Bay has an excellent spa, restaurants and a resort-like swimming pool. Rooms from $SG420 a night. See mandarinoriental.com
CHIJMES has abundant restaurant choices and Coriander Leaf is particularly impressive. See corianderleaf.com
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Visit Singapore and Mandarin Oriental Singapore.