A Savoury Stroll Under Neon Lights
Singapore’s food scene comes alive at night. Expect an overload for your tastebuds along Geylang Road. By Christine Chung. Photographs by Rebecca Toh
Geylang Road in central Singapore is synonymous with the night, when a dizzying number of neon street signs power on and large groups crowd tables that spill out onto the footpath. It’s a tasty spot for a nocturnal stroll, to discover vespertine feasts of local specialties, like crab doused in a bracing white-pepper sauce or steamy porridge showcasing marinated frog legs.
“In Singapore, eating is a national pastime,” says Dr Lily Kong, a professor of social sciences at Singapore Management University. “It provides a sense of pride; it is a locus of community.” Hawker centres, or food halls filled with dozens of stalls that peddle affordable and quickly prepared eats, were recognised by UNESCO in 2020 as part of the city-state’s intangible cultural heritage. The cuisine is informed by the country’s dominant ethnic groups — Chinese, Malay, Indian — and many of its famous dishes, such as Hainanese chicken rice, flaunt a blend of multicultural flavours and are claimed as distinctly Singaporean.
The gritty Geylang neighbourhood doesn’t have the gleaming skyscrapers or carefully manicured streets that characterise much of Singapore; it is where the pursuits of sex and food coexist. The road’s even-numbered side streets have legal brothels regulated by the government, while steps away families and tourists meander along the main road to dine on durian, dim sum, kaya toast and achingly sweet coffee, or satay ordered by the dozen. The food here features Chinese, Indonesian or Peranakan (Straits-born Chinese) flavours, representative of the immigrant communities clustered in Geylang, says Cai Yinzhou, a Geylang resident who gives tours of the neighbourhood. “We have pulled from all different parts of the world because we have the diversity of the people who are present here,” Cai says of the origins of the local cuisine.
Sample the bounty of flavours yourself along a 2.5-kilometre stretch of Geylang Road, on an eating-and-walking tour that hits some of the most appetising establishments. You’ll want to start in the early evening, when most stalls at hawker centres are still bustling. Then see where your whims and appetite take you. Your journey can last an hour or six, as skewers and sweets and everything in between will equally entice. Expect only a nominal effect on your wallet (though choice crab dishes will cost a bit more) and make sure to bring Singapore dollars. Finally, as in any major city, keep your wits about you and go with a companion or three if possible.
To start: Nasi padang
Take the metro to the Paya Lebar stop, which deposits you at the Paya Lebar Quarter or PLQ mall, a sprawling complex with a crowded food court on the top floor. East of the mall is technically Geylang Serai, an enclave named after the lemongrass (serai) once cultivated in the area. Walk to Geylang Serai Market and Food Centre, where you’ll want nasi padang, a rice dish of Indonesia served with various side dishes of vegetables and proteins, says K F Seetoh, a Singaporean food journalist, entrepreneur and champion for local hawker food.
Beef rendang, or braised meat cooked in coconut milk and aromatics, is another Indonesian standout here, Seetoh says.
Then, for something sweet, cross the street to the Haig Road Market for putu piring, which are steamed rice cakes studded with gula melaka, or palm sugar, and generous flurries of grated coconut. At Haig Road Putu Piring, the recipe has been honed for more than three decades, with rice cakes upended out of conical moulds and stacked four to a serving, each layer separated by a sheaf of fragrant pandan.
Walk west for durians and crabs
Stroll west of the mall to the establishments that stay open to serve dinner or supper, Singapore’s fourth and most nocturnal meal of the day, the one that usually closes a late night out. Along your way, peruse the ornate second floors of the narrow shophouses, which feature colourful shuttered windows and borders of decorative tiles.
After about 10 minutes, you’ll encounter the open-air stall Durian 36, which sells a wide selection of the notoriously putrid fruit. Prices vary based on flavour and quality, and you’ll soon find that all Singaporeans seem to have an opinion on which durian — described by enthusiasts as tasting of custard and caramel — reigns supreme. Though this store is open 24 hours a day, durian availability depends on the season, generally June through to September. You can also reserve one in advance by messaging the business on WhatsApp. If they’re sold out, try another tropical fruit like a custard apple.
Next, head to JB Ah Meng, a few blocks away, for crab cooked with ginger, green onion and an astonishing amount of white pepper, finished with heaps of coriander. The crab flesh is succulent and the sauce is deeply flavourful. The soundtrack here is a constant din of conversation from large dinner parties and cracking crab legs. (Plastic gloves are available on request.) Another popular dish is the fried bee hoon, a crispy pancake of rice vermicelli noodles cooked in a soy sauce with dried prawns and squid.
Still hungry? Stroll farther for skewers
Just a few minutes away, on Lorong 27A (lorong is the local word for alley or side street), is Kwong Satay, a no-frills stall in a compact open-air food court with eight other vendors. Piping hot and juicy skewers — chicken, pork belly, mutton and pork — are sold in quantities of five, with a minimum order of 10 sticks. They are accompanied by slices of red onion, raw cucumber and a dipping sauce of peanut and lemongrass that can be augmented with pineapple purée, an off-menu add-on.
There’s also a trendy spot for Japanese yakitori two lorongs away that has ceiling fans, a welcome reprieve from Singapore’s stifling heat and humidity. At the Skewer Bar, the crowd leans younger and food requests are submitted via tablets. You can order everything from sweet corn to smelt (small, silvery fish) on a stick. There is a wide selection of beers and spirits.
Across the street, it would be impossible to miss No Signboard Seafood, a misnomer for a restaurant with neon signs screaming its name. Nearly every inch of its interior and exterior surfaces is draped with festive string lights, and the restaurant contains a tiny museum devoted to the establishment’s history. Founded about three decades ago, the business has expanded to multiple locations in Singapore. Its popularity was built on its white-pepper crab dish, but on a recent evening most diners were eating chilli crab, a dish of mud crabs smothered in a sweet and spicy chilli and tomato sauce, laced with beaten egg.
Walk west, where you’ll notice that the last couple of lorongs veer slightly seamier, but some of the most sought-after supper spots in Geylang are concentrated here. Among those completely packed with young revellers late on a recent Friday evening were at least three frog porridge spots, including Geylang Lor 9 Fresh Frog Porridge.
Dim sum for your final meal
Farther down, by the Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway, sits the final destination of this eating and walking tour, Mongkok Dim Sum. Open 24 hours, this restaurant has a menu offering dozens of reliably tasty items, ranging from sweet to savoury, that only cost a few dollars each. There are steamed buns filled with spicy chilli crab, crispy prawn-paste chicken wings and fluffy custard buns, all of which you can wash down with icy-cold sugar cane juice. Place an order by writing down numbered dishes on a paper checklist and expect them to come out hot and fast. The quality of the food and speed of the service at Mongkok Dim Sum makes it an ideal spot to observe supper, because no matter how full you are, there’s always room for an extra meal in Singapore.
GEYLANG ROAD EATING-AND-WALKING TOUR
Time to walk
However long you’d like. Many of the food establishments offer speedy service.
Good for kids
The restaurants and food halls mentioned are all child-friendly.
© The New York Times
This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our ninth edition, Page 154 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “A Savoury Stroll Under Neon Lights”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.