Eating out and food in Singapore

Ok. Today is a special day. I could write a comment about some Florida idiots who wanted to burn books some consider holy – or the reactions to this. But all these crazies on either side really deserve no further attention. It is time to start writing about Singapore. And what could be more important than religious debates? – Something that is more visible in Singapore than politics. Something that is big story in Singapore. Food.

One of the first things you read in any travel guide about Singapore is its focus on food. Or should I say obsession? Given the lack of what us westerners would regard as classical or traditional culture, this special place Singapore is surely building some of its culture around food. And food comes in many particular ways here. Lesson one: food (like so many other products here) is not big here because it is grown in Singapore but because locals (and probably even more immigrants) have been skilled to make the best of varieties of influence from all around the south east asian region (and beyond). Thanks to these diverse cultural influences food is big here. And it is diverse. You can probably generalise and say that the Singaporean kitchen is composed of the same ethnic influence as its society overall: Chinese, Malaysian and Indian. On top of that you have the hard-to-avoid American kitchen (McDo…) and more and more global and western options – or mixes of all the above.

Lesson two: food is cheap – and delicious. The best place to dive into the Singaporean cuisine is a local food market, or Hawker (see my local one on the picture). These are government-owned (very socialist-a-like) food courts in most residential areas where a diversity of Chinese, Indian and Malaysian shops offer their specialities for 2-4 S$ (1-2 Euro). These shops are run mostly by immigrants who work for 10 hours or more – every day of the week. Besides quick and reasonably good food you can have fresh (!) fruit cocktails for 1.50 S$ (less than a Euro). With these places all over the city, you can really survive with two daily meals there – on 5 Euro a day. But not only these food courts display the traditional ethnic diversity of Singapore, even at my university canteen on Bukit Timah Campus (NUS), you have at least a Chinese and Indian option for food at the same price. I only wonder why no western-style food is sold in the Hawker? Is that because the Hawker managers want to preserve the traditional/founding three ethnic’s food or because westerners do not go to Hawkers because it is too “cheap” for them?

Obviously food is not limited to Hawkers or exclusive restaurants (beyond my budget). Every shopping mall (of which there are too many here already) has either a whole floor or at least parts dedicated to eating. One such excellent eating opportunity (food republic) is in one of the main shopping malls on Orchard Road, the main shopping street. Even there a meal would not cost more than 10 S$ – and the food they keep on display looks just too nice to get away without trying it out! However, a few hundred metres away on the other side of Orchard Road is Taster Food in the basement of the Paragon shopping mall. This place has possibly the best dumplings in town. My lunch of today is on display in the left. Two rounds of dumplings (6 pieces each) plus this fantastic side dish cost me 25 S$. All in all, I feel like I am just starting to appreciate food in Singapore. There are still so many places on the list.

It would all be a little too good if there were not some concerns about food additives and GMOs here. When you arrive here with your innocent European mind, you do not even think about these things. However, certain standards of food quality we seem to have achieved (or do not worry about anymore) either by law or convention in Europe, are simply not universal. The other day, a fellow student scared me by saying that friends of hers who frequently went to Adam’s Food court (next to where we live) lost hair much quicker (due to food additives). Apparently the use of food additives is widely spread in particular in cheaper places like food courts. The other day I had an interesting conversation about this with the manager of the university canteen. He told me that you cannot produce meals of the price range 2-3 S$ at the university without food additives. Buying sauces and spices to create a similar taste effect would bring prices up to 4-5 S$ and the university administration apparently wants to keep prices down to maintain canteen food “affordable” for students (remember we are talking about Singapore students whose parents should on average have equal net incomes as German or British families). However, he said that they are using less food additives than before (whatever that means!). He also mentioned that he recognises that foreign students are quite sensitive on the issue and he would offer pre-ordered food for these (to the higher price). I suggested he might at least inform students about food additives and also enquire about GMO content in his supplies. The fact that this was not even a concern for a canteen manager (let alone all his chefs I talked to) was a little frightening. Let us see what information he has for me next week – and if I can find enough fellow students to change the choice. And after the canteen Adam’s Food court is next on my list. Why eat unhealthy when you  can enjoy the great cuisine with no concerns for your own well-being?

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