The perfect trip: Singapore and Malaysia
Set in the fertile hills of the Cameron Highlands, Boh is the largest tea plantation in Malaysia. (Pete Seaward)
From cookery lessons and feasting to jungle walks and high tea, capture the very best of Singapore and Malaysia.
Singapore: Best for food
Chef Ruqxana Vasanwala holds a banana leaf that's almost as tall as herself. This, she explains to the class at her Cookery Magic school, will be an integral part of the first dish, otak-otak. Made with fresh fish, onions, eggs, and a vast array of herbs and spices, the spicy fish pâté is popular in both Singapore and Malaysia. And that enormous leaf? It's cut into strips and used to wrap the mixture for grilling, but is not eaten.
Ruqxana (or Ruq) teaches her culinary secrets in her colonial-era home in Joo Chiat. The quiet neighbourhood in east Singapore has an abundance of excellent restaurants serving authentic local cuisine. Today's students - a young French couple and two New Zealand women - hope to glean a few recipes to wow friends back home. Ruq specialises in the dishes most loved in Singapore - dishes that, rather like the city, incorporate elements from all over Southeast Asia. Mee goreng (fried noodles), the next dish on the syllabus, illustrates the city's food heritage perfectly. 'Mee goreng is a great example of a Singaporean dish because of its many influences,' says Ruq. 'Brought to Singapore by Chinese immigrants, it was changed by Indians using Malaysian ingredients into a dish that would hardly be recognisable in China.'
Like Singapore itself, mee goreng is simple at first glance, but is ultimately multilayered. Among the 25 or so items that go into Ruq's dish are local chillies, garlic, mustard greens, bean sprouts and limes. While both students and teacher work with the same ingredients, no one finished version of mee goreng tastes quite like another. As chefs throughout the city-state have done for decades, so the class today take this classic dish and personalise and localise it, in keeping with the spirit of Singapore. The Lion City's secret to culinary success and, indeed, its whole way of life, has always been to adopt, adapt and improve.
Crowded, noisy and filled with the aroma from scores of miniature kitchens, each with its own chef: these are Singapore's hawker centres. On a per-bite basis, Singaporeans eat the majority of their meals right here.
In the heart of the financial district, the massive Lau Pa Sat complex has close to a hundred stalls, serving foods from all nations. After dark, locals out for a night on the town mix with visitors drawn by the smoke wafting from the dozen-plus satay grills lining the complex's western edge.
Further out of town is the East Coast Hawker Centre. This beachside outdoor food market hums as nighthawks gather to feast with a view over the water, where the lights of cargo ships (and further south, Indonesia) can be readily seen.
Every hawker centre has one or more stalls serving Hainan chicken rice, a dish dear to the Singaporean heart. But, according to local consensus, one in particular is a must-visit: an unpretentious stall called Tian Tian, in the very workingclass Maxwell Road Hawker Centre on the outskirts of Chinatown.
Whatever hawker centre you visit, to enjoy the best food find the stall with the longest queue - and join it. In Singapore, the best meals often have the longest wait.
- Cookery Magic holds classes in Singaporean cuisine (£55; cookerymagic.com).
- Betel Box offers food-related walking tours every Thursday evening (betelbox.com).
Where to eat
If you tire of hawker centres, the excellent PS Cafe serves European-style dishes in a tree-filled corner of Dempsey Village (from £7; pscafe.sg).
Where to stay
Located on a quiet street in the Chinatown district, the beautiful New Majestic Hotel has 30 rooms, each individually designed by emerging Singaporean artists. Alive with murals, paintings and sculptures, the New Majestic provides a unique experience (from £130; newmajestichotel.com).
Cameron Highlands: Best for tea