A new luxe food trail in Singapore offers glimpses into Singapore’s rich cultural heritage, offering participants a chance to live like a local. Carla Grossetti reports for noodlies, Sydney food blog.
The island of Pulau Ubin is superbly indifferent to the hubbub happening on mainland Singapore. Apart from the occasional self-satisfied honk of a ferry leaving Changi Harbour, this speck of an island is akin to a museum exhibit, a snapshot of a quiet life in Singapore that my MeGuideU host Nancy Tan says is reminiscent of the 1960s.
The island is the first port of call on Far East Hospitality’s new luxe Heritage & Food Trail Package, which is tailored to travellers who want to scratch the surface of the city’s shiny veneer.
Local tour guides are part of the package and, as Tan tells it, Pulau Ubin is a compelling place for locals to come because it’s regarded as the last kampong (village) in Singapore. It’s also popular with day-trippers keen to cycle or walk around the lush sensory trail that was set up for the visually handicapped to smell, taste and touch the plants, herbs, flowers and trees, many of which have are labeled in braille.
The path beyond the pier snakes around the island where we spot mudskippers and monitor lizards, linger over lotus flowers and keep our eyes peeled for the Oriental pied hornbill. For those who want a fix of untamed greenery, Pulau Ubin is it.
After boarding a boat back to the mainland, we make a quick foray into the Changi Village Food Centre, which doles out divine dumplings and nasi goring, before retruning to Village Hotel Changi, my resting place for the night.
On day two of this four-night, five-day package I meet my MeGuideU chaperone, Andrew Ong, for a walking tour around Village Hotel Katong, located near the villages of Joo Chiat and Katong.
British settlement in 1822 divided Singapore into areas marked by ethnic groups and Joo Chiat and Katong are emphatically Peranakan, the term used to describe the descendants of the Chinese traders who stayed in Singapore to marry local women. The vibrant area is famed for its art and architecture, its tiled shop fronts, shuttered windows, colourful facades, ceramics and lovely, spicy laksa.
“The Peranakans said to the Europeans, “We share a similar culture. You should do business with us. You want to buy spices? Oh, but you don’t speak an Asian language?’ Let me help you. They were the middle men in trading and, as a result, they prospered,” she says.
I’m literally given a taste of this unique hybrid culture when I join a queue that moves inch by inch at 328 Katong Laksa, which chef Gordon Ramsay identified as ‘a hawker hero’ on the Hungry GoWhere series and which Lonely Planet named No. 1 out of 550 things to do in Singapore.
“The laska at 328 is a taste of a local delicacy. It is fragrant and colourful and very appetising and famous around the world,” says Ong, who points out the restaurant walls, which are lined with local and international celebrities.
Next on the heritage trail itinerary is Little India, near Far East’s historic Village Hotel Albert Court, where Indian and Peranakan influences are everywhere. While fancy shopping options catering to Prada-toting tourists are sprinkled around Raffles Hotel and Orchard St, Little India exists in a loud, rambunctious parallel universe that is full of colour and just a chappati’s throw from the hotel.
Although it only takes an hour to travel from one end of Singapore to the other, it’s these contrasts that give this small island its special richness. A central courtyard in Little India is a vivid profusion of sights, smells and scenes that have remained the same for decades. Do as the locals do and enjoy a fish head curry at the Banana Leaf Apolo (54 Race Course Rd) or indulge in a top-notch thali from the Albert Café (Level 2, Albert Court Hotel, 180 Albert St, Singapore).
MeGuideU chaperone Bryce Ang steers me around the Indian enclave to tiny shopfronts and in and out of little arcades selling everything from gold bangles to pyramids of colourful spices, fruit and vegetables and garlands of flowers. Where the main busy boulevard of Serangoon Road once bristled with bullocks and livestock, the streets are now swimming with everyone from lycra-clad cyclists to women floating by in saris. Ang also takes me to the Tekka Centre where we sit elbow-to-elbow with locals sipping thimbles of fragrant chai after enjoying the theatre of watching it poured from a great height.
“Singapore is only a small island. It is only one hour’s drive from one end to the other, but there is a lot of cultural diversity. You can go from seeing pot-bellied Buddhas to an elephant-headed God within an hour and that’s pretty special,” says Ang.
The last night of the luxe package is spent at Hotel Amoy, a stunning new(ish) heritage hotel connected to Fuk Tak Chi, Singapore’s first Chinese temple, built in 1824.
Nancy Tan is again my guide and for all the grandeur of the buildings around Hotel Amoy, which spills onto Far East Square, Tan is intent on taking me to see another side to sultry Singapore.
Outside the plush boutique hotel we again see buildings that are poised between two worlds, past and present. While Far East Square once played host to prostitutes, loan sharks, gamblers and opium addicts, it is now a slick courtyard boasting Bohemian bars, colourful cafes and gastro-pubs that have found their groove.
From Far East Square, we walk to Ann Siang Hill, where the sea once lapped the foundations of the 19th century shophouses, all of which have footpaths known as five-footways (referring to their width). “Like much of Singapore, where there was water, there are now buildings and highways. The wealthy Peranakan and Eurasian families who built their waterfront homes lost the seaside frontage when the land was reclaimed,” says Tan.
Bustling Chinatown is also just a few blocks away from the alluring Hotel Amoy. Here, there are innumerable market stalls, massage therapists, tinkers and tailors, shoe shops and shiny souvenirs.
There are also Hindu and Buddhist temples, mosques, synagogues and churches all within walking distance from each other. Two other places that attract devotees on the Secrets of Chinatown tour include the Heng Kee Curry Chicken Noodles eatery in the scuffed-up Hong Lim Food Centre (531A Upper Cross St) and the Wang Lao Wu Chicken King (125 East Coast Road) for its signature dish, Hainanese chicken rice.
While business travellers doing the fly-in fly-out thing might assume Singapore is defined by its iconic structures, awesome infrastructure and status as a comfortable city for a stopover. But what the folks at Far East Hospitality have figured is there are many little nooks dotted around the island that show the city at its best.
Carla Grossetti’s articles have appeared in Good Food, Luxury Travel, Australian Traveller, Escape, The Guardian Travel, delicious. magazine, SBS Feast, Voyeur, Escape, Spa Life, SMH’s Traveller, Out & About with Kids, Stamford Life magazine, CNN Traveler, Going Places, Cuisine and Tiger Tales. She visited Singapore as a guest of Far East Hospitality to write about the “Explore Singapore Heritage and Food Trail”. The luxe package offers guests the chance to experience a one-night stay in four different Far East Hospitality Singapore hotels, and includes limousine transfers and four guided tours. For bookings, visit Far East Hospitality. For more stories with a food and travel focus, follow Carla.