SINGAPORE -- It is hard not to feel redundant writing about food here.
Everyone is a critic when it comes to food, or ''makan," in Singapore. In this city-state of 4 million people, food permeates everything, and in the quirkiest ways. Several of my friends have cell phone numbers for their durian dealers (multiple sources being necessary because of the many varieties of this fruit). Taxi drivers are regularly consulted by The Straits Times for their food recommendations. Even the very French chef Christophe Megel of the Ritz-Carlton Millenia bicycles more than 45 minutes to buy ''roti prata" for a dollar a pop on his day off. He orders three of these fried, phyllo-like pancakes to start and cuts no corners on the fish curry for dipping.
Singaporean cooking is a thoroughly popular art. In fact, this may be the world's first culinary democracy, a culture of taste by and for the people. Just miles away in Malaysia, ethnic influence is compartmentalized -- Chinese here and Indian there, Malay like this and European like that -- with roots intact back to Canton or Madras. Not so in this city-state. Here it is normal to eat something British (pork chops with Hainanese gravy and a whack of chili) or Indian (fish-head curry) or Indonesian (beef rendang spiced to Chinese tastes) that can be found nowhere else.
''It is all about a mix of ethnic groups and products," Megel says of the local palate. ''Here the question is always 'What's next?' And all that matters is flavor."
I remember the first time local friends took me eating -- first to the Formica-clad yet homey Amoy Street Food Centre for ''char kway teow," greasy, toothsome noodles and pork cracklings stained black with soy and char. Then near Bedok Camp for ''cheng tng," literally, iced soup, made with dried longan, mango, and palm sugar. I remember it distinctly: cool and sugary-comforting, as if the best ice creams of my summers past had been cobbled together in a bowl. After midnight to Havelock Road where, post-Velvet Underground (a club where Keith Haring paintings hang on the walls and lithe Chinese sweat and groove away on the dance floor), we sat on a concrete deck, fellow diners wearing everything from tuxes to tees, and slurped ''bak kut teh." The savory meatiness, scorching peppercorn heat, and clear broth of this pork bone soup can revive any martini-weary palate, and this version (the one in Malaysia is thicker, more herbal) is found only in Singapore.
It was then that it struck me: When convened around food and drink, my Singaporean friends transformed. And so did -- though admittedly bland in other ways -- Singapore.
I'm a big believer in trial by fire when traveling, and so my first afternoon in town I call up K.F. Seetoh. He is a photographer by trade and a food nut by birth. He is also the founder of the manual to match Singapore's national obsession: a spiffy guidebook called ''Makansutra,whose top rating for food is ''Die, Die Must Try!" With respect due to Zagat and Michelin, this may be, in concept, the purest form of food reference the world has ever known. Almost 1,000 dishes are listed in alphabetical order along with all their best single-venue sources. While ''Makansutra" focuses on the hard-to-find venues, it sees no difference between white-tablecloth destinations and grumpy Hokkien uncles who push fish ball noodles two hours a day. To be fair, it also has slid in quality as Seetoh's celebrity has grown in recent years (writing and photos getting worse, ad tie-ins holding clear weight, but the spirit still there).
Seetoh is a tornado of energy. He picks me up in an SUV and then careers around what seems like the entire island pointing out in-the-know places for Malay curries (Geylang Serai) or teochew porridge (Tiong Bahru Market).
To really hang with Seetoh -- and many Singaporeans -- one has to at least try to embrace Singlish, the local dialect stew of stunted English dosed with Cantonese and Malay superlatives. It's full of character and actually a blast when you get the hang of it (to start, slur words together and add ''wah" or ''lah" for emphasis). Apparently, the government disdains the working-class nature of the Singlish patois, yet Seetoh speaks it in enthusiastic bursts, and he has drawn much fame for doing so on his weekly TV food show, also called ''Makansutra." Today, he's going on about a recent makan discovery.
''You should see what they do," he says, referring to clay pot frogs legs, while nearly grazing a sidewalk. ''Take 'em right out back and slaughter them then and there, lah. Cook them up in a dark sauce. Fresher than fresh! I took a two-star Michelin chef for them and he cried, man!"
Seetoh stops the car and shoots off into the Chinatown Complex, an aging building with slowly whooshing fans and cracked ceilings yellowed by smoke. Dodging wok-carrying cooks, we secure a table marked NUMBER 126 in raised plastic lettering. Seetoh soon alights with Styrofoam bowls cradling an innocuously clear liquid and five egg-shaped dumplings. These, he explains, are ''ah bohling," dumplings fashioned out of glutinous rice and stuffed with things like sesame and red bean.
I spoon one dumpling at a time and, as instructed, take it whole. It oozes vanilla and nutty, roasted richness. Seetoh shows me a trick to bite half the little pouch of dough and yet simultaneously seal it so one does not lose the filling. The broth trails ginger and pandan zing, but it is the roasted headiness of sesame and peanuts that lingers.
If Seetoh is Singapore's mealtime Everyman, Devagi Sanmugam is the sub-continental specialist. She is known as the Spice Queen for her Madras-style cookery and frequent TV appearances. A Singaporean by birth, she started out selling curry powders from one of the many storefronts in Little India. Early one morning, we meet over steaming chai at Ananda Bhavan, a cheery teashop on Serangoon Road.
''I grew up very poor and so I would make things like 'mee goreng' [a noodle dish] with spaghetti, and 'chapatis' [Indian flat bread] with cornmeal," Sanmugam says as she rips and curry-dips and munches on ''dosai," a crepe-like pancake. ''These are combinations that could only happen in Singapore."
Traipsing through Little India minutes after we've met, Sanmugam buys gooey sweets made in a busy shop with drab green decor and shops vigorously, as if we are readying for a holiday meal.
''Their [yellow] color is auspicious," she says as I chew the sweets. ''Semolina, milk, and rosewater. Very northern Indian."
That same night I meet friends at Sin Huat Eating House, . It is an unassuming open-air shop in the red light district of Geylang. This is a Malay-dominated part of town cluttered with low-lying homes and noodle shops that spill out onto the street with shirtless men, boisterous families, and a jumble of off-duty streetwalkers and hip students. Almost every neon-lighted storefront proffers some kind of nourishment: clay pot rice, satay, and the noodle dishes ''laksa" and ''mee rebus." Sin Huat, with its faded-lime-colored walls, Formica tables, and plastic stools, is barely distinguishable from its neighbors on Lorong Road, but any taxi driver worth his salt can find it. Its signature dish of crab bee hoon has become iconic.
Danny, the owner, shuffles about in rubber boots and cooks seafood with the same minimalist ideology and market-fresh fanaticism that chefs preach from million-dollar kitchens (or nowadays, their plush offices) in New York. He makes homemade soya, concocts a different chili sauce for each dish, and flies his Sri Lankan king crabs in same-day.
''Seafood needs nothing but steaming and garlic, maybe a simple sauce," he tells me. Crayfish are served with a monsoon of black pepper; whole red snapper trails a garlicky perfume that turns heads; and the king crabs, strewn with bee hoon noodles the color of roe, outshine their reputation.
Hawker centers, ethnic markets, coffee shops, the reinstated Smith Street food stalls in Chinatown -- given that food is available 24/7 for a few ''dollars Sing," making it as a restaurant here isn't easy. Still, Singapore has in recent years fostered what is arguably (in numbers, for sure) the best dining scene in Asia. It has a true boutique dining movement, where seat counts are small and chefs can obsess over the details. This not only provides a fine counterpoint to the frenzied food scene, but a sophisticated adjunct that might very well spawn one of Asia's first ''great" homegrown chefs -- or maybe even a new style of contemporary cooking.
For now, it's full of enough small wonders to make choosing difficult. At Duxton Hill, amid candlelit calm and cobbled colonial-style streets, you find a small wonder of a restaurant dubbed BROTH. The space is cheery, even homey, with cookbooks propped on wooden shelves. Former protege of Australian cook-author Maggie Beer, chef-owner Steven Hansen cooks in an urban bistro vein. His food is ingredient-based and lovely: salads of rocket, walnuts, and Roquefort; pan-fried foie gras with Shiraz sauce; lamb loin served happily pink in a garden of tarragon, parsley, thyme, Kenya beans, and mint sauce.
Fetching with its near-black wooden tables and vintage lamps is Ember in Chinatown's cheap-chic Hotel 1929. Chef Sebastian Ng and his wife, Sabrina, run the restaurant with a lovable mix of urbanity and family-style charm. His cooking incorporates pan-Asian flavors, but also has a steady-handed way about it that is staunchly French. Twenty-four-hour marinated Chilean sea bass bathes in a ginger-perfumed soya broth. Bitter greens play point-counterpoint to lamb shank, tender enough to eat with a spoon, in a fabulous salad. Ng also makes perhaps the most decadent melting chocolate cake around.
Saint Pierre the Restaurant, obscurely stashed in the Central Mall, operates under the same small-is-beautiful philosophy. Its clean-lined interior is all cool tones of mineral and white with swatches of fabric to soften the minimalism and the highly orchestrated service of Malaysian-born Edina Hong.Her husband, chef Emmanuel Stroobant, is one of Asia's most dexterous talents (and a matinee idol with his platinum-blond good looks). Stroobant's fare mixes French and Japanese sensibilities delivered with incredible precision. The local love of the decadent shows up in a separate menu of foie gras dishes, six to eight daily from the classic pan-fried foie gras with caramelized green apples and old port to a grilled dish with home-made vanilla vinegar-infused rhubarb marmalade, fresh oba leaf, dry martini emulsion, and black olives.
Among the new stars on a block of colonial shophouses known as Tanjong Pagar is an understated yet glamorous trattoria: Oso. The tiny, wheat-hued restaurant and the contemporary Northern Italian, if slightly Mediterranean, food served here all unfold beautifully on a nightly basis. The co-owners, general manager Stephane Colleoni and chef Diego Chiarini, do what my favorite golfer (when I was a caddy) called ham-and-egging. Colleoni is a suave, silk-smooth host with the perfect handshake and his own line of Milan-style dress shirts. Chiarini has crafted the rare menu that both comforts and challenges with plates earthy (roast eggs in an iron skillet with black truffle vinaigrette), classic (bistecca fiorentina with melted scamorza cheese), and contemporary (tuna with orange skin confit).
The mix is very modern Singapore, and yet, with the help of my Malay-Indian-Chinese friend, I managed a roti prata tip from our waiter. Indeed, there is no avoiding satisfaction in the culinary republic of Singapore.
Rob McKeown is a freelance writer based in Asia.