SINGAPORE — As a popular tourist destination and a place with a high-income and multicultural local population, Singapore is a particularly fertile place for dining. The British magazine Restaurant recently published its list of “Asia’s 50 best restaurants,” and eight Singapore establishments made the list. 

Singapore is a place where people are much more open-minded about diversity of food and taste, which means foreign chefs love to work here.

For example, sixth-ranked Restaurant André was short-listed for a second straight year. Located in Niu-Che-Shui, Singapore’s Chinatown, it’s a haute-cuisine French restaurant with Taiwanese chef André Chiang. To highlight its French cachet, the restaurant is home to an olive tree transported all the way from France.

Two other French restaurants on the list include Les Amis and Jaanand another called Igg’s offers primarily Eurasian fusion food. The only Chinese restaurant on the list, Imperial Treasure Super Peking Duck, came in at No. 40. 

Tippling Club, a restaurant co-owned by Australian artist and mixologist Matt Bax and British chef Ryan Clift, claims No. 23 on the list, its first recognition by the magazine. 

What is Singaporean food?

Because of the diversity in Singapore, so-called Singaporean food is a complex and ambiguous concept

Sam Leong, who owns Forest restaurant on Sentosa Island, takes a particularly bold and innovative approach to Asian cuisine. As a Malaysia-born Chinese, his mentor was his father, a celebrity chef known as the “shark fin king.” Though he learned very solid Chinese cooking skills, Sam doesn’t adhere rigidly to Chinese culinary ingredients and cooking methods.

To bring a richer flavor to dishes such as traditional porridge, Sam adds quinoa, a South American grain that has become a trendy super food in recent years. He also adds barley and chicken broth. When it’s finally topped with tiger prawn and scallops, an exquisite and contemporary Chinese dish is created.

“Singapore is a very peculiar place,” he says. “Almost nothing is grown locally. But one can find absolutely any food ingredient. The diners have very diverse tastes. Malay, Chinese, Indian, Western…. When they all converge, it makes up the Singapore flavor.”

Of course, not everybody shares Sam’s enthusiasm about reinventing Chinese food. Chua Lam, a famous columnist and food critic, regrets the disappearing traditional Singaporean dishes. “It’s a shame that a lot of Singaporean gourmet dishes are dying out one by one just like endangered species,” he says. Whether it’s prawn noodle soup or pork offal soup, none of these traditional snacks tastes the same anymore. 

The snack culture

Have the rise of fine dining and nouvelle cuisine, not to mention chefs’ motivation for innovative cooking, triggered a decline in Singapore’s marketplace snacks? It’s perhaps an issue to be discussed in a larger sociological context. After all, in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan where the Chinese diaspora also makes up the majority of the population, fine dining and bustling hawker snacks continue to coexist.

Singapore has a strict and efficient municipal management. Unlike in other southeastern Asian countries, food stalls are rarely scattered by the roadside. Snacks are to be eaten in government-managed hawker centers. Food is diverse, and hygiene is meticulously guaranteed. But on this topic, neighboring Malaysians cannot help but show their contempt. Without the bustling noise and lively color, where’s the fun in eating at a street stall?

“For a place where, individually, everybody aspires to become middle class and collectively make their country a modern place, a traditional hawker who prepares food at three or four o’clock in the morning so as to start shouting at noon around the street corner to sell them is a nightmare that belongs in the past,” says Leung Man-Tao, a Hong Kong writer. “It is definitely to be eliminated. Too bad that Chua Lam can no longer find the taste he remembered from his childhood, but that shows Singapore’s progress and success.”