At the southern tip of the Thai/Malaysian peninsula lies the 400-square-mile island of Singapore—a diminutive country with a reputation as an economic and culinary giant. Lying along the sea lanes between China and India, Singapore was historically a spot where trader vessels docked and pirate ships lurked, awaiting plunder. As a result of centuries of spice and cultural trade, lively Singapore combines exotic cooking traditions from India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and China.
When I visited Singapore, my first foray into Asia, I was dazzled by its multi-ethnic food. The magic of Singapore cuisine—whether it’s Indian curry or Indonesian satay—lies in its tropical herbs and fruits. I’ve never before tasted so many unusual flavors in one place. Though much of Singapore is a sleek, modern city, there are still old-world enclaves filled with the aroma of spices, incense, and flowers. Little India, Arab Street, and Chinatown are home to colorful Hindu, Moslem, Taoist, and Buddhist temples; piquant Indian, Chinese, and Malaysian foods; and bustling herb and food markets.
Singapore’s history has always been linked to spices. Indian and Chinese trading was already underway all along the Malaysian peninsula by the fifth century a.d. The Chinese were keen to buy Singapore’s aromatic woods; its tropical forests were a rich source of medicinal camphor. Even today, camphor makes the island famous, as it’s a primary ingredient in a popular Singapore export: the topical analgesic called Tiger Balm. In the nineteenth century, the island was scattered with spice plantations that produced pepper, nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon. Many of these spices found their way across the world to Singapore’s colonial ruler, the British Empire.
Singapore’s ethnic enclaves
Singapore’s three main ethnic inhabitants—Indian, Malay, and Chinese—all have their herbal traditions. In Little India, shops sell colorful saris and display barrels and bags of cumin, coriander, curry, and other spices. Hindu fortune tellers wait on sidewalks with their parrots who choose the card that foretells your future. And outside the many Hindu temples, vendors thread fragrant flowers such as jasmine into elaborate garlands to give to the gods. Inside the temples, offerings of the garlands, plates filled with spices, pomelos (related to grapefruits), pineapples, and bananas surround the feet of the many deities. With these food gifts, worshippers plead their case to the gods.
Elsewhere in the city, the two traditional centers for the Malay and Arabic Muslim communities are both named for herbs. Geylang Serai, where the streets are lined with traditional Malay bungalows, was named after the area’s ubiquitous lemongrass (called serai in Malay). Arab Street, also called Kampong Glam, is named for gelam, a native, eucalyptus-like tree known as paper bark to the British. Its extracted essential oil, cajeput, is still added to salves to soothe chest congestion.
In Kampong Glam, you’ll find the Sultan Mosque and a cluster of shops selling textiles, batik, sarongs, rugs, and woven rattan and pandan goods. Another specialty of the area is Malaysian essential oil perfumes including jasmine, sandalwood, basil, and honeysuckle.
Chinatown’s medicinal herbs
Since the majority of Singapore’s population is ethnic Chinese, its Chinatown is a cultural hub. Here you can sip chrysanthemum or green tea and watch scenes from a Chinese opera. Or you can browse the medicinal shops selling all types of traditional Chinese medicines—herbs, ginseng root, dried mushrooms, dried sea horses, and tonic tea mixtures.
Culinary and medicinal herbal traditions truly merge in Singapore’s Chinese restaurants. On any given day, these Chinese herb pharmacies/dining rooms do brisk business serving hungry diners as well as locals who drop by to purchase medicinal herbs that their ancestors used thousands of years ago. The Imperial Herbal Restaurant on Seah Street is filled with scores of packed tables, but the main attraction is its extensive herbal pharmacy—a wall of drawers labeled in Chinese characters according to their contents. Standing behind the counter, Chinese herbalist and physician Li Lian Xing measures out herbs, which he crushes to a coarse powder in his mortar. He collects another dozen herbs—including long, dried slices of astragalus and licorice roots, desiccated ling-zhi (reishi) mushrooms, and dried bamboo leaves—and wraps them in bright pink paper, then hands them to a young man to take home to cook into soup. Then Li joins a couple at their table, chats, takes their pulse, and makes his diagnosis. He also tells them what to order for dinner.
When it’s my turn, Li takes my pulse and looks at my tongue. He tells the restaurant’s manager, who translates into English, that my blood circulation is weak, that my yang is too strong in relation to yin, and that to balance it, I need to eat cooling, moist foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Shortly after, my dinner arrives. My appetizer is a concoction of fried egg whites with dried scallops and an herb called ladybell root, which the menu informs me promotes production of body fluids. Then I have a silky tofu dish and braised eggplant with pine nuts, which the menu deems a cool-energy food. It informs me that pine nuts retard aging and moisturize the lungs. It’s all quite tasty—and though it could be my imagination, I feel healthier.
The other exotic dishes listed on the menu are intriguing. One house specialty is called Monk Jumps Over the Wall with Cordyceps—a fortifying soup made with cordyceps mushrooms (Cordyceps sinensis)—which nourishes both yin and yang—along with shark’s fin, abalone, and dried scallops. Another dish, Imperial Chicken with Eight Precious Herbs, is a formula for improving blood and energy.
Not every Singaporean meal is a foray into herbal medicine—there’s plenty of food whose spicy flavors you can simply enjoy. In addition to scores of fine gourmet restaurants, you can visit hawker stands—tiny mom-and-pop food stands that serve authentic homemade dishes for only a couple of dollars. You can sample the flavors of some of Singapore’s national dishes: laksa (spicy coconut noodle soup), poh piah (spring rolls), nasi goreng (fried coconut rice), and roti john (Indian flat bread with egg and chilies).
No trip to Singapore is complete without a visit to one of the wet markets—a bustling collection of booths selling spices, fresh produce, tropical fruits, and fresh meats. Here cooks come daily to get the freshest ingredients—lotus roots still covered with mud, Chinese gourds, spiky durian fruit, eggs, green chilis, red chilis, and greens called kai lan or kang-kung. There’s also the dizzying spectacle of Chinese cooking delicacies: live frogs, eels, chicken feet, and pig’s intestines. Squeamish visitors can skirt the meat and seafood sections, sticking to the fruit and vegetable aisles.
If you want to taste the riches of the East, Singapore is the place to come. In one marvelous city, you can feast on the flavors of Chinese, Indian, and Malaysian/Thai food. Each meal on this spicy island is a cultural—and herbal—adventure.