Budget travellers to Singapore head happily to the thousands of hawkers centres in that city-state. Two people can have a filling meal of noodles, soup, Hainanese chicken rice or something called roti pratha, and still have change left over from Singapore $ 5. Hawkers’ centres provide variety. In the interests of fairplay, owners of a centre invite only one vendor selling one particular item. Thus, you’ll get one stall selling congee with a range of accompaniments, one selling Hokkien mee, only one fish head curry and rice person, one nasi Padang place and so on. So deeply have the hawkers penetrated the Singaporean psyche, that two new – okay newish – coffee shops have been modeled on hawkers’ centres, intentionally or otherwise.
At The Line, Shangri La’s all day diner, you may not quite get change back from a fiver, but the concept is the same. The diner walks through the entire place, peeking into the show kitchens. You stop at a counter that interests you, and you fill up your plate. There are separate counters for cold seafood, noodle soup, Italian food, pizzas, Indian tandoori and curries, Malaysian laksa, sushi and desserts: separate ones for western and oriental types of course, with an ice-cream teppanyaki counter for good measure. To call the spread a buffet is like calling champagne a drink, because each station has its own kitchen from where, in many instances, you can put together your own meal. Add the stylish all-white interiors with orange accents, a drop-dead smart crowd and impeccable service, and there’s little wonder that The Line is packed for most of the day.
The Oriental’s Melt is roughly the same concept, though the execution is not as cutting edge as The Line’s. Refurbishment is on the cards, however, so perhaps Newton’s Circus – the most famous hawkers’ centre of them all – will get a complex after all. Where the Oriental scores is on its nouvelle Chinese restaurant, Cherry Garden. This too is a growing trend in Singapore: contemporary décor, recurring motifs – on the carpet, menu cards and platters, and pre-plated food that takes its inspiration from the East and West. Takers for this type of restaurant – and by extension, for this kind of food – are vastly different from traditional families who crowd into the old style of Chinese restaurants inside hotels and out of them. For one thing, the traditional brigade has menus that are identifiably Cantonese, Sichuan or Teochew. Tables are round, and have lazy Susans in the centre, so that dishes can be shared in time-honoured fashion.
The new brigade takes its inspiration from the entire template of Chinese cooking, rather than a single province. In my lunch at Cherry Garden, for example, we started with a Cantonese staple: Superior shark’s fin in shark’s bone soup with mushrooms, and went on to pan-fried lamb chop with black pepper sauce.
Just you wait and see: the next trend in Singapore’s Chinese restaurants will be chefs from the western world cooking Chinese food.
Caption: Singaporeans head for Hainan Island in South China, and complain bitterly that the Hainanese chicken rice there is not a patch on what it is in Singapore.