Singapore - Something for Everyone, Even if You're Gluten-Free!
Singapore had been on my bucket list for ages (most of Asia, actually). When my husband had a business meeting in Singapore, I wasted no time booking my flight from the business trip I was on in Europe to meet up with him and take advantage of a free hotel room!
Sumatra was experiencing terrible fires at that time and a lot of the smoke was carried on the winds to Singapore. That is why most of my photos appear cloudy or dreary. The smoky air did not keep us from getting out and exploring the city... especially the food!
Singapore is the 5th safest city in the world. Easy to see why when the punishment for most crimes is caning or death. It is also a city that is easy to explore by foot. We stayed at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront right on the Singapore River and took advantage of the riverfront walkways that run all the way to the marina (and the Marina Bay Sands hotel that most people associate with the Singapore skyline).
While the towering skyscrapers might be the first thing that come to mind when picturing Singapore, it's the old streets and buildings that really give the city its character. What's awesome is that the two can exist side by side. One minute you're walking through modern banking towers. Then, you turn a corner in you are surrounded by rustic two-story restaurants and local shops.
If you want to see the city from a different perspective, take a ride on a river boat! The boats depart all along the Singapore River. Trips last about 20-30 minutes.
Another place I highly recommend checking out is the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The park is a 160-year old tropical garden and can be accessed via the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. Basic entry to the park is free and there are lots of pathways and exhibits you can see. If you do not want to walk, you can take a guided shuttle tour for a fee. I do recommend paying extra to take the elevator up to the treetops to experience the breathtaking views of the park, the city, and the towering Marina Bay Sands Hotel! (We wanted to go up to the hotel pool, but it was Grand Prix weekend while we were there so it was closed to the public... and just a basic, small hotel room was $1000USD+. I'll pass, thank you. lol)
OK, now let's get to the food! To be honest, I thought it was going to be easier to ensure I was ordering gluten-free, soy-free dishes. Yes, I am aware that many countries in Asia use a lot of soy sauce; however, it was more of an issue based on where in the city I was. On the northern side of the Singapore River, especially in the Clarke Quay area, there are tones of streets lined with restaurants advertising local dishes. However, most of those restaurants are chains rather than home cooking... or Hooters. Oh, and a simple glass of champagne is about $20!
Now, venture to the southern side of the river and, behold, HAWKER CENTERS! The hawker centers are all over Singapore. Some are small and spotless. Others are huge, loud, and hot. No matter which type you wander into, you can be guaranteed of one thing. The food is amazing!! Oh, and cheap!
We ended up having lunch at a hawker center every day. I love broth-based soups and fell in love with a beef "parts" and rice noodle cauldron. My husband went nuts (ok, so did I) over a rich mutton and rice bowl. Deep sauce without flour?... sign me up!! Spicy chicken soup, tripe congee, fish balls (which taste like scallops), chicken rice-vermicelli soup... OMG! I really wanted to try the whole cooked fish that many people were sharing, but I was almost 100% certain that one was made with soy sauce.
You can definitely get turned around and dizzy taking in all of the mouth-watering options so sometimes it's best to just pick a stall, order your food, find a seat and dig in. A quick word on ordering food at the hawker centers. The pace moves fairly quickly so, instead of jumping in line and figuring out what you'd like to order at the register, I suggest stepping out of the way, observing, and gathering your thoughts (and your money) first.
When you do get to the head of the line, place your order succinctly and have your cash ready to go. Do not ask for a list of ingredients or ask for substitutions! (If I don't know what is in a dish, I simply Google it and either order it if it's safe or pick something else if it isn't). After you order and pay, move to the side, pick up a tray and utensils, and wait for your food to be handed to you. Once you have your food, find and empty spot at a table and dig in! It is perfectly acceptable to sit down with strangers at a table and you do not have to request permission... think cafeteria seating.
One thing to note is that, even though some of the hawker centers might seem less than spotless, all of the stalls are strictly inspected by the government. Even the ingredient sources that the vendors order their supplies from are regulated. Each stall displays its inspection rating.
The second foodie destination I HIGHLY recommend is the Little India neighborhood. If you are gluten-free, soy-free, and dairy-free, imagine going into any restaurant on the street and being able to order almost anything on the menu without substitutions! I was in heaven. Even the flat-bread papadum bread on every table is gluten-free. Your food is served on banana leaves (disposable plates) and each entree is accompanied by rice, spicy stewed eggplant, and some cooling, marinated veggies. On this visit, we also tried the special fish skewers... and were not disappointed.
One must-try dish is "fish head curry"... a local specialty. Despite the name, the dish is not fishy at all. The flavors are more like the deepest, most developed spicy red chowder. It definitely packs some heat, but that is offset by the rice just enough to make you want to keep digging in for more. I wish we'd had a microwave in our hotel room so I could reheat the yummy leftovers for breakfast!
Even leaving Singapore is an experience. My flight home left at 1am, but there was no shortage of entertainment in the airport. Check out this video clip. It was taken from my seat on the second floor of the airport lounge. Looks like a play or something from It's A Small World at Disney, doesn't it? It's a hologram! A beautiful 3-D musical projected onto a flat screen. What a beautiful send off. Singapore, I will be back!