I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit that my 24 hours in Singapore were mainly spent eating. But who knew there was so much amazing and cheap vegetarian Indian food in Singapore? Given the country’s reputation as being the ‘Switzerland of Asia’ I honestly thought I would spend the entirety of my visit peering hungrily through restaurant windows. From what I’d heard, Singapore is so expensive I figured there was no way I’d be able to afford one meal on my backpacker’s budget, let alone four. (That’s right, I ate four meals in one day.)
If you haven’t noticed already, my travel plans have been a bit spontaneous as of late. I suppose that’s a big perk of living in Southeast Asia. So it’s only fitting that I decided to take my first ever trip to Singapore on less than 24-hour’s notice. As I laid out in a previous post, I’m required to leave Indonesia every 60 days. And after living in Jakarta for nearly four months, I was due for another visa run. I was over the moon when I found out that Aaron had been given a day off of work. So instead of flying solo, like I did on my first visa run to Penang, this time Aaron would be keeping me company.
While I’ve traveled extensively in Southeast Asia, the tiny island nation of Singapore has always managed to elude me. Actually, I’ve always purposefully avoided it. To be honest I’ve never heard good things about the city. The words “sterile” and “boring” are commonly used to describe Singapore. But what really discouraged me from visiting was the cost. It’s no secret that Singapore is expensive compared to other Southeast Asian countries. And while I managed to live it up backpacking around Southeast Asia on $40 a day, that budget didn’t seem like it would cut it in Singapore.
A quick visa run seemed like the perfect opportunity to visit the city. And considering my current employment woes, I’m not sure I could have afforded to stay for more than a day. After snagging a couple last-minute roundtrip tickets from Jakarta to Singapore for $80, Aaron and I were on our way.
After eating nothing but a measly bowl of cereal that morning and tasteless sandwich during the plane flight, Aaron and I arrived in Singapore with growling stomachs. Thankfully one of the only budget areas to stay in Singapore just so happens to be in the city’s Little India. I’m a huge fan of Indian food, not only because it’s incredibly vegetarian-friendly but it’s downright delicious. And since there happens to be a serious lack of Indian food in Jakarta, we could not have been more pleased to be based in Little India.
Like any budget traveler my first instinct was to bypass the pricey restaurants and go straight to Singapore’s famous hawker stalls. So we entered the first hawker center we came across and we immediately felt like two kids in a candy store. While there was a plethora of Malay and Chinese stands, we couldn’t resist the temptation of the first Indian food stall we spotted.
I managed to claim an empty table while Aaron placed our order. He came back balancing plates of garlic naan, palak paneer (pureed spinach with hunks of cheese curd), yellow biryani, and a tall can of Tiger beer. We savored every bite of our meal, while watching all the chaos going on around us. I was actually pleasantly surprised by the price. While it wasn’t dirt cheap, like food stalls in Penang or Thailand, all of this food set us back $12 SGD ($9 USD), which was far less expensive than I’d anticipated.
We spent the rest of the evening walking around Little India, passing by colorful temples and marveling at the sheer amount of people out in the streets. I am pleased to report that I didn’t find Singapore to be boring or sterile at all, at least when it comes to Little India. This part of the city oozes character, color and chaos and I loved it.
After wandering around, Aaron and I quickly decided it was time for round two. So we headed back to our now familiar stomping ground – our beloved hawker center. We intended to order a different type of cuisine, but once again, we gravitated toward the Indian stalls.
In an effort to mix things up we went to a different stand and ordered an onion dosai and a ghee (butter) dosai. A dosai is a paper thin crepe that is filled with anything from spiced potatoes to paneer (cheese curd) to sautéed vegetables. I was all ready to dig into this beautiful creation when the cook brought over a canister filled with three homemade sauces. I asked him to explain what they were: there was a creamy coconut chutney, sambar (a lentil and tamarind stew) and I forgot what the last one was called but it was equally as delicious at the other two.
Sated, Aaron and I walked back to our hotel. On the way we spotted quite a few pure-vegetarian Indian restaurants and immediately cursed ourselves for not seeing them sooner. We made a mental note of where they were located and quickly agreed that instead of eating a breakfast of fruit or eggs and toast, we would instead feast on Indian food.
And that’s exactly what we did. The next morning we got up and made a beeline straight for Komala Vilas Restaurant in Little India. Aaron ordered the Chappati Set, which came with chappati (similar to naan), vegetable curry, dhal (a lentil soup) and raita (a jalapeno-infused yogurt sauce). Overwhelmed at the sheer selection, I got flustered and pointed at random at the Tomato Uthappam, which I’d never heard of before. It turns out it’s a fluffy version of a dosai, that was baked with tomatoes and cilantro. I ripped it apart and dipped each piece into the three savory gravies that had been ladled onto my plate. It’s spongy texture made it the perfect tool for soaking up the maximum amount of sauce. Have I mentioned that uthappam is my new favorite food? Because it is.
It is kind of awkward that my entire time in Singapore was spent on a neverending quest for food. And while I did pass through Haji Lane, glimpse the famous Marina Bay Sands Hotel, and stroll down Orchard Road, these things took side stage. I do, however, promise to get to them in another post.
One of my main goals in Singapore was to locate a grocery store that sold authentic Kraft Mac & Cheese. It sounds absurd, but anyone who’s ever lived or traveled abroad for an extended period of time will understand my seemingly odd behavior. When I first moved to Jakarta, I compiled a list of hard-to-find items that I wish I would have packed and brought with me. And Kraft Mac & Cheese is one of those things. So when I entered a random grocery store off of Singapore’s ritzy Orchard Road, I literally squealed by joy when I spotted Three Cheese Macaroni & Cheese (my second favorite kind behind the thick & creamy variety). I bought eight boxes.
After a successful shopping outing on Orchard Road, learning to navigate the city’s MRT, and glimpsing the iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel, we had time for one last meal. Still full from our huge breakfast I said I would skip out one this one. Who was I kidding?
Aaron was determined to take me to Indian Palace, a hawker stall he’d visited during a previous trip to Singapore. It is located at the Newton Food Center. This particular hawker center is one of the most famous in Singapore, which makes it a slight tourist trap. I was immediately put off by the prices, which were two to three times more than Little India’s hawker stalls. I insisted that I didn’t want anything, partially because I wasn’t hunger and partly because I’m cheap. But of course, Aaron ordered for two: aloo palak (potatoes cooked with a thick spinach gravy) and kadai vegetable curry (a curry with tomato, onion and eggplant), complete with sides of rice, garlic naan and plain naan.
How could I resist? Despite my lack of appetite I ate half. This meal might have set us back a $21 SGD (about $16 USD), but it is seriously one of the best Indian meals I’ve ever had.
I don’t think I’ve ever visited a new country and had my entire visit revolve solely around food. But, I have to say, it’s a pretty good way to travel. After eating four meals in 24 hours, my biggest regret was not sampling any of the samosas or other friend goodies I saw for sale all over Little India. Oh ,well. All the more reason to go back.
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Have you ever eaten your way through a foreign city? What is the best food you’ve ever sampled in another country?