By Liz Campbell
I had my first Singapore Sling when I was just 15. My indulgent Aunt Sally ordered it for me in a restaurant, and I felt very grown up drinking this exotic concoction illegally.
Now, on my first visit to Singapore, I order an authentic Singapore Sling in the Long Bar of Raffles Hotel. It was here that Ngiam Tong Boon first concocted this gin drink in 1915. My 15-year-old self would have been mortified to discover that it was actually created to look like fruit juice, so ladies could drink alcohol without censure. But my modern self rejoices in its history.
Raffles, which opened first in 1887, is still THE luxury hotel in Singapore, named after British statesman Sir Stamford Raffles, who arrived here in 1819 and recognized the potential of the natural harbour.
Singapore was born and became an important port for the British East Asian trade route. I can’t help but wonder what Sir Stamford would have thought of the city today Singapore boasts some of the most innovative architecture in the world: a science centre that looks like a lotus flower; a sports complex in the shape of the country›s favourite fruit – the stinky durian; and the almost ridiculous Marina Bay Sands complex which sports a giant concrete ship sitting across three high rise buildings.
His eponymous hotel’s magnificent colonial facade, dwarfed by the surrounding buildings, is a reminder of the British history of Singapore. Inside, one steps back a century. Elegant suites offer enormous beds and graceful, period furnishings. The reception areas are filled with historic grandeur – marble tile, a sweeping staircase, and a rich red carpet (a fixture from earliest days).
Breakfast at the Tiffin Room is, for me, an effort in self-control – so many choices. And at the iconic Raffles Grill, we indulge in course after course of superbly composed Michelin-starred dishes – foie gras with baby leeks and truffle shavings; wild trout with kale, turnip and Chartreuse sauce. My palate rejoices.
Indeed, Singapore has long been known as the dining capital of Asia. Michelin launched its first guide to Singapore in 2016. In my decades of food writing, few Michelin-starred meals have come my way, but in Singapore, over the course of one week, I had four!
The most extraordinary, if not the most impressive, came from a hawker. Hawkers are street food vendors, though in Singapore, these are often gathered into hawker centres and all are closely monitored for food safety by the government. My meal cost me less than $5, making Hawker Chan›s the only place in the world where one can enjoy Michelin starred food for such a low price. But the addition of a Michelin star usually adds to the price of a meal, and Chan too raised his price – a whole dollar!
Hawker Chan’s now famous chicken and rice has its origins in China. As far back as the 15th century, Chinese traders bought and sold goods around the Straits of Malacca, which include Malaysia and Indonesia. Inevitably, many Chinese men married local Malay women giving rise to a whole new cultural group – Paranakans, often called Baba-Nyonya (Men-Women in Malaysian).
In recent years, Paranakans are taking new pride in their roots. Alvin Lowe is the self-styled curator of The Intan, an authentic Paranakan house filled with his treasures. “When I was young, being only half Chinese bothered me,” he says. “But I got interested in my Paranakan history. I started collecting the artifacts of my culture.”
And when an authentic Paranakan home became available, Lowe moved in and turned a large portion of it into a museum. Dozens of pairs of beautifully decorated slippers, intricately embroidered clothing, delicate pastel-coloured china, ornately carved Chinese Paranakan furniture, and even rows of multi-hued tiffin boxes line every nook, cranny and staircase in this house. Alvin’s descriptions bring it all to life. Unlike most museums, this award-winning one has no regular hours. We made an appointment. Our tour included a cup of tea and some authentic Paranakan biscuits.
The Intan is in the colourful Joo Chiat neighbourhood of Singapore, whose beautifully preserved Paranakan homes have been granted historic designation. The newly constructed Indigo Hotel in this district uses the pastels and colourful tiles typical of Paranakan culture. Indigo has also incorporated and protected the original Jiao Kyat police station, now home to Baba Chews, a restaurant with authentic Singaporean fare.
At Baba Chews, we enjoyed a real Paranakan meal including rendang, a rich and spicy beef stew. Paranakan desserts are legendary and I tried kueh dadar, a crepe with homemade durian mousse and shredded coconut cooked in palm sugar, served with palm sugar ice cream and cendol (little green jelly noodles). It was delicious.
Paranakans often spoke English well as they were business people who worked with the British, even adopting many cultural practices like the knife and fork in place of chopsticks. But at home, pretty pastels dominated the decor and on the dinner table, slow-simmered stews and spicy sambal (hot sauce) replaced roast beef.
Not surprisingly, with the resurgence of Paranakan culture, this cuisine is coming into its own. Michelin even awarded a star to Candlenut, a Paranakan restaurant whose chef/owner, Malcolm Low, shed a European menu to return to the cuisine of his grandmother. He now serves dishes like Buah Keluak – chicken with black candlenut sambal.
In the end, this beautiful little country that seems to be protected from tropical storms, tsunamis, earthquakes, and even political unrest, left me with a sense of unreality.