How one can Fake You’re in Singapore Tonight
While your travel plans may be put on hold, you can pretend you’re somewhere new for the night. Home Around the World invites you to channel the spirit of a new place each week with recommendations on how to explore the culture from the comfort of your home.
It took me over a dozen visits to Singapore to fall in love with her. But when I did that, I found it difficult. As a teenager living in Jakarta, Indonesia – just under two hours away by direct flight – I looked at Singapore’s shiny veneer and dismissed the whole place as flat and materialistic. It was a big mall, I thought, with too many rules and too little character. But then, when I kept coming back, I purposely suppressed my prejudices and noticed other things. I quickly realized how much I had missed.
There are pastel-colored shophouses from the 19th century tucked away in neat rows between gleaming apartment buildings. As I crossed the city-state – simply thanks to a well-oiled public transit system – I was obsessed with the open-air hawker centers, formalized street food markets where you can have the best meal of your life for a few dollars. I was amazed at the diversity of the city, where ethnicities – Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and more – overlap in everyday life. I was intrigued by Singapore’s famous, if sometimes oversimplified, story of how a fishing village turned into a global metropolis.
And now, like anyone else who has had the pleasure of digging into a plate of chilli crabs or spending a mild afternoon watching container ships float just offshore, I miss it. Fortunately, with a little work in the kitchen, a handful of books, and some TV time, there are ways to make you feel like you are in the Lion City for a night.
Fix a drink
The Singapore cocktail scene has come a long way since the invention of the Singapore Sling at the famous Raffles Hotel over a hundred years ago – even if the guidebooks that still encourage visitors to bet $ 20 on a mediocre cocktail suggest something else. Instead, try your hand at the imaginative creations of Singapore’s more contemporary mixologists. Sasha Wijidessa, the former bar manager at Operation Dagger, an award-winning Singapore speakeasy, now lives in Copenhagen and often turns to one of her inventions, the Annin Nai, when she wants a taste of her home. It’s a combination of almond milk, dried osmanthus flowers, and spirits inspired by almond jelly, a dessert she ate as a child. “Making and drinking this drink fills me with nostalgia,” said Ms. Wijidessa.
Be your own street vendor
OK OK; We’re not going to suggest that you can restore generations of gastronomic knowledge by following a recipe. But it’s possible to at least channel the culinary spirit of a city where people show their loyalty to street vendors selling chicken rice and bak kut teh (a revitalizing pork rib soup) like other sports teams might do. For something relatively simple, New York Times Cooking recommends Mee Goreng or fried noodles. If you’re feeling ambitious, there’s this braised duck. Be warned: just reading the prescription will result in salivation.
Dr. Leslie Tay, the Singaporean food blogger behind the popular ieatishootipost, says you couldn’t talk about Singapore’s syncretic cuisine without mentioning pandan, a fragrant plant that grows across Southeast Asia. “It’s our equivalent of the vanilla pod,” said Dr. Tay. “The aroma of Pandan gives most of our desserts here a subtle but distinctive scent.” The most requested recipe on his blog, he told me, is his carefully researched formula for pandan chiffon cake, a light and fluffy dessert. To get it right, Dr. Tay old recipe books and spoke to countless chefs and bakers in Singapore. He says he finally made it on his 30th attempt.
Or just feast on behalf of yourself
You’ll forgive me for saying the obvious, but anyone who wants to experience what it is like to fall in love with Singapore’s flavors as an outsider has to start with the Lion City superfan, Anthony Bourdain. The chef who became a globetrotter returned to Singapore many, many times before passing away in 2018. In a 2008 episode of “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” one can see how he truly grasps the city’s appeal when he learns that eating in Singapore is a national pastime. “This, if you like food,” said Mr. Bourdain as he tried one of the endless hawker dishes, “could be the best place in the world.”
For a glimpse into the city’s culinary heritage, watch the Singapore episode of Street Food: Asia on Netflix. Infused with delicious footage of street vendors, the show takes a look at the lives of the street vendors themselves as they work to keep family secrets that are in danger of disappearing as younger generations move away from the street vendors’ trade.
See the city in the film
Mike Hale, a television critic for The Times, recommends the film “Ramen Shop” by Singaporean director Eric Khoo, who switches from television to film – but stays with the meal for a moment. In the film, a young man goes looking for a family recipe. Along the way, the film examines the close links between identity and cuisine and the history of the Japanese occupation of Singapore during World War II. In the end, however, according to reviewer Ben Kenigsberg, the main thing is good cooking: “It just demands your appetite.”
It’s impossible to talk about Singapore’s role in the film without mentioning “Crazy Rich Asians,” the blockbuster portrayal of Singapore’s 1 percent based on the novel by Kevin Kwan. While the movie is entertaining, it doesn’t exactly capture life in Singapore for most people. For this, Mr. Hale refers to “Ilo Ilo”, a winner from Cannes on a small budget, who tells the story of a middle-class Singaporean family and the Filipino housekeeper who worked for them during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Sui-Lee Wee, a New York Times China correspondent and a native of Singapore who now lives there, agrees that film can be one of the best ways to channel the spirit of the city.
“I’ve lived 10 years away from Singapore and Singaporean films keep bringing me home,” she said. “I love the 1990s because they remind me of my childhood Singapore.” Together with “Ilo Ilo” she recommends “Shirkers”, the true story of a woman’s hunt for lost footage.
Learn the (real) Singapore history
Part of the attraction of spending time in Singapore, be it physical or vicarious, is gaining a nuanced understanding of the city-state’s history. That means going beyond the established “Singapore Story”, which paints a rosy picture of unrestrained capitalism. Sonny Lie’s breathtaking comic “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” is a good introduction to all of the other forces – geography, colonialism, one-party rule – that played a role in Singapore’s meteoric rise. It follows the story of a fictional cartoonist, Charlie Chan Hock Chye, from colonial times to the present, which is a far more complex origin story for the independent nation than the government’s longstanding narrative. Mr. Liew, a writer and cartoonist, skillfully alternates between artistic styles, each paying homage to a different comic book legend. It offers deceptively complex political analysis, unexplored footage of history, and transporting snapshots of the city over the centuries. The scenes jump off the side and it will feel like you are traveling not only across continents but across decades too.
Take a virtual tour
There’s no better way to keep yourself in sync with the pulse of a city than on a long walk. For the next best thing, try a virtual tour like the one run every Friday by PS Yeo of the Everyday Tour Company. While her city tour is loosely based on “Crazy Rich Asians,” Ms. Yeo says you don’t have to be (or even have seen) the film to appreciate Singapore’s sights.
Ms. Yeo told me that the participants of some of her tours are one step higher, like ordering in a Kopi, a hearty roasted coffee that is mixed with condensed milk. Or if that’s not available, she recommends making something at home, like her own satay recipe. It really keeps coming back to dining in Singapore.