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Faraway, so close - your guide to travelling abroad without leaving home
01. NORTH AMERICA
While the United States and Canada jointly add up to North America, it’s always been the US that has dominated in terms of pop culture, food and lifestyle. Celine Dion, Justin Bieber and Ryan Reynolds may be some of Canada’s best known exports but you’d hardly realise that given their huge American platforms. While Canada enjoys a higher profile now thanks to Justin Trudeau and an emphasis on inclusivity (plus some really good seafood and pork that’s available in Singapore), American food and culture are a lot easier to find in Singapore.
Look no further than Hard Rock Cafe, a long-standing American music-themed eatery that's an unabashed tribute to the country's culture and a place that American expats head to for music memorabilia and staple foods like double-decker cheeseburgers and milkshakes. And while Shake Shack burgers seem to be drawing lines of Singaporean fans, Five Guys seems to be the go-to place for fluffy buns and juicy meat patties that are customised for you upon order, while you’re free to grab handfuls of peanuts to munch on while you wait for your order.
Good ol’ American hospitality can be found at Wolfgang Puck’s Cut, says its executive chef Greg Bess, who serves up solid USDA Prime cuts at the Michelin-starred steakhouse in Marina Bay Sands. You don’t just get steaks but comfort food such as rotisserie chicken, cream spinach, macaroni and cheese and lots of rock ‘n roll music. On his days off, Chef Bess likes to go to Luke’s Oyster Bar for a taste of home, or hosting a barbecue at home with friends.
For more calorie-rich options - think gut-busting milkshakes, buttermilk fried chicken and grits - there’s Black Tap and Yardbird, with their crazy ice cream concoctions, lobster mac & cheese and other edible reminders of the U.S of A. – JE
02. LATIN AMERICA
Home to 625 million inhabitants, Latin American culture is often characterised by the warmth and friendliness of its people, and its exuberant, colourful and sensual culture.
One of the adorable quirks of Hispanic people is their obsession with the telenovela, an outlandish type of soap opera packed with deceit, romance, murder and incest.
For a taste of it, check out Netflix’s series La Casa de las Flores (The House of Flowers), a terrific black comedy about a dysfunctional upper-class family who made their wealth from selling flowers.
Complement your Netflix binge with Hispanic literature, famous for a genre called magical realism, in which the ordinary lives of adult characters are struck by instances of the fantastic and surreal. The genre’s most famous proponent is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose extraordinary epic One Hundred Years Of Solitude (1967) has enchanted one generation of readers after another. Other great magical realists include Jose Luis Borges (Labyrinths), Isabel Allende (The House Of Spirits), Julio Cortazar (Hopscotch), Carlos Fuentes (Aura) and Laura Esquivel (Like Water For Chocolate).
For a great introduction to the genre, read The Vintage Book of Latin American Stories; its selection of stories will knock your socks off.
If Latin American food is what you’re after, Singapore is home to many great restaurants serving Hispanic cuisine. The best in our books is Peruvian restaurant Tono Cevicheria at Duo Galleria. Daniel Chavez, the Peruvian co-owner and chef of OLA Cocina del Mar, teamed up with Limatrained chef Mario Malvaez for the first fullservice Peruvian restaurant in Singapore and Asia. Try the signature ceviche, the national dish of Peru, together with the pisco sour, a famous Peruvian cocktail. You’ll be spirited away to Peru in no time.
For Argentinian food, go to Bochinche at Amoy Street, popular for its steak, pappardelle and mushroom risotto. For Mexican food, there’s always Margarita’s on Dempsey Hill, serving rustic homemade cuisine. – HY
There are 44 countries in Europe, each with its own distinct culture and heritage. And while it’s impossible to experience them all while island-bound in Singapore, there are ways to sample some of them now.
The Association for the Promotion of the Italian Culture in Singapore runs a variety of workshops at its Italian Cultural Centre at Beach Road. Some of its popular classes include a cooking class to learn how to make pasta and Roman Suppli (fried rice balls) with vegetables, like an Italian nonna or grandma. Can’t visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa? Learn how to draw it instead, at an art workshop.
But if dining is still your preferred way to experience a country, walk a little more down Beach Road, and there is So France at Duo Galleria, which comprises a bistro, terrasse and store with gourmet products, such as Bordier butter imported from France. The bistro recently launched a new menu with classic French bistro dishes such as sweet and savoury crepes and the Croque Monsieur and Madame.
On the other end of Beach Road, BBR by Alain Ducasse at Raffles Hotel is offering Spanish Very BBR set menu, available till April 13. The Spanish menu is created by chef de cuisine, Louis Pacquelin, who has worked closely with Ducasse. Some of the highlights include Arroz Bomba con Langosta, a dish of bomba rice and lobster, and Crema Catalana, a gluten-free caramelised custard.
Dining is not the only way to experience what Europe has to offer. How about rejuvenating some spots in your home, especially if you have been working from home for a while now? The minimalist and calmness that Scandinavian decor style exudes could be just what we all need during this stressful time.
Scandinavin vintage furniture store, Möbler, at Tagore Lane offers that muchneeded relief. Swedish founder Emelie Heden says: “High-end Nordic design is now the barometer of contemporary living, pervading Instagram and other social media platforms.” The pieces are all sourced from Sweden by Ms Heden and her sister. “What all pieces in our collection have in common is that they represent the true essence of Scandinavian design – its proud history, Scandinavian craftsmanship, longevity and quality.” – TSC
04. MIDDLE EAST
Social media has been a blessing for this region. It’s given rise to more diverse voices and perspectives, shaping the region’s politics and society in unexpected ways. Influencers have been able to project varied images of the region’s youth, challenging the way the 24-hour news cycle typically portrays them.
One of the best ways to appreciate the beauty of the region without leaving home is via Instagram. One addictive Instagram account that looks at Arabic designs and architecture is I Have This Thing With Zelij (@ihavethisthingwithzelij). Zelij refers to the geometric tilework found in the region, but this young female Instagrammer goes beyond that to feature many stunning aspects of Islamic art and architecture.
Other great Instagram accounts include Mosques Of The World (@ insta.mosque), Everyday Middle East (@everydaymiddleeast) and arabictypography (@arabictypography). If some of these images have you yearning for the real thing, you should head to Fat Prince in Chinatown Complex, an atmospheric Turkish restaurant with a gorgeous mosaic countertop, evocative lighting and plush furnishings. It makes you feel like you’ve just taken a magic carpet ride into the Arab world. The food by head chef Paul Lim is equally authentic. Popular dishes include the slow cooked lamb shoulder, tagine jus couscous, and shakshuka leek and kale ragout.
Other great Middle Eastern restaurants in Singapore include Shabestan at The Pier at Robinson and Beirut Grill on Bussorah Street.
After dinner, ease into a good book with any of these great authors: Naguib Mahfouz (The Cairo Trilogy), Orhan Pamuk (Snow, My Name Is Red), Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner), Elif Shafak (The Forty Rules Of Love) and Khaled Khalifa (No Knives In The Kitchens Of This City). The first two authors are Nobel laureates in Literature. – HY
Africa is a huge continent, with 54 different countries, hundreds of ethnic groups and thousands of languages. One of the best ways to sample the richness of its culture is through the African cuisine at Kafe Utu at Jiak Chuan Road. The restaurant is founded by Canadian Kurt Wagner, who grew up in Liberia, South Sudan and Kenya. Yearning for a taste of African food, he decided to start the restaurant and lounge, named after the Swahili word for “humanity”.
Kafe Utu may be the only African restaurant in Singapore. And for an hour or more, almost everything in it, from the decor to the menu, makes you feel like you’re in the continent,. The interiors feature panels and mirrors that were carved by a master craftsman from Malindi, as well as motifs that reflect Zanzibari traditions. The water glasses are hand blown by Kitengela Hot Glass from Nairobi. But there is a touch of Singapore at Kafe Utu, thanks to the 8m long bench cut from an African mahogany tree grown in Singapore.
The menu was conceptualised by Mr Wagner and his brother, who runs a restaurant in Nairobi.The easiest way to navigate it is to pick dishes under the “From Mama Africa” category. Habanero is a common ingredient among the dishes, such as in the Liberian peanut chicken stew or theNigerian fiery peppered pork stew. Expect the dishes to have a slow burn effect in your mouth. But the spiciness is relieved by the rice served with the dishes. For a sweet treat, get the cacao kali, a hot chocolate drink served with cayenne pepper, whose heat unexpectedly complements the sweet chocolate.
When you’re gastronomically sated, turn to African literature for some mental fodder. Our five favourite novels are Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half Of A Yellow Sun, Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born and Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist. – TSC
Russia is the largest country in the world by landmass, and has an incredibly rich culture and traditions. It’s particularly renowned for ballet, literature, classical music, cinema and visual arts – all of which you can have a taste of, without leaving Singapore.
Come May 2 and 3, Russia’s most famous contemporary ballerino Sergei Polunin is set to astonish audiences at Marina Bay Sands as the lead in Rasputin, a ballet based on the infamous historical figure Grigori Rasputin (1869 – 1916), a self-styled holy man who ingratiated himself into the Russian royal family by claiming he could cure Czar Nicholas II’s hemophiliac son.
If you prefer to be entertained at home, watch the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, arguably Russia’s most influential Russian filmmaker, on Youtube for free. His films are bleak, haunting and philosophical – much like the writings of compatriots Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky – but they rank among the greatest achievements of cinema. We recommend Solaris (1972), Mirror (1975) and Stalker (1979).
If you prefer actual Russian food – instead of food for the soul – head to Shashlik restaurant at Far East Shopping Centre. This award-winning 35-year-old institution serves some of the finest Russian food on the island – just ask the dozens of Russians dining there every night. Try the borscht, with its generous portions of beef shanks in a satisfying broth, or oxtail stew, slow-cooked for 36-hours. For dessert, nothing beats its baked Alaska.
Russians are famously pensive people, contemplating life’s big questions over a bottle of good vodka. No wonder Russian vodkas are the world’s best. Our topof-the-shelf picks include Stolichnaya Elit, Russian Standard Gold and Beluga Noble. – HY
07. SOUTH ASIA
From the vibrant diversity of India and Pakistan, to the startling spiritual beauty of Bhutan and Sri Lanka, South Asia remains a vast region for adventurers and dreamers to get lost in. Housing 1.89 billion people – or onequarter of the world’s population – South Asia is filled with historical, cultural and natural treasures. But until Covid-19 slows its progress, there are ways to taste its wondrous fruits without going there.
For starters, Singapore is home to many good South Asian restaurants. There’s the Michelin-starred The Song Of India, located in an elegant black-and-white colonial bungalow amid lush greenery on Scotts Road. Here you’ll find chef Manjunath Mural’s tasteful interpretation of traditional cuisine, expressed in the likes of pan-seared lobster served with Kerala moily sauce, Goan fish curry and jumbo prawns in tandoori marinade.
A more contemporary take on South Asian food can be found at Thevar on Keong Saik Road. Chef Mano Thevar went on a spice- and soul-searching journey through India a few years ago. Upon his return, he created unique dishes such as grilled octopus in dal puree, crispy pork with sambal aioli, and mackerel dosai with tomato chutney.
In the literary realm, South Asia-born authors have long occupied a special place in the minds of readers. The long list of accomplished authors writing in English include India’s Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy, Pakistan’s Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie, Sri Lanka’s Michael Oondatje and Bangladesh’s Monica Ali. Many of them moved to the West and permanently settled there, and their novels often explore the bittersweet existential tension of being bicultural.
When it comes to South Asian entertainment, India’s gargantuan industry towers over that of its neighbours. And for a long time, global cineastes struggled to find films from other parts of South Asia. But the advent of Netflix has helped redress the situation somewhat. The streaming service has titles as varied as Pahuna from Nepal, Sincerely Yours, Dhaka from Bangladesh and Cake from Pakistan. – HY
08. EAST ASIA
Even if they don’t necessarily all get along with each other, countries like China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan make up some of the most popular destinations for Singaporeans who can’t get enough of hotpot, sushi and K-drama. But it’s also because of their popularity that you’ll find plenty of ways to indulge in the respective cuisines, culture and entertainment.
For some Chinese culture, food consultant David Yip recommends a pottery class at Thow Kwang Pottery, which offers a nostalgic backdrop to learn about Chinese heritage, particularly Teochew culture. If you don’t want to get your hands dirty, there are rooms filled with Chinese porcelain for sale and a dragon kiln tour to occupy you.
Or check out the blog of Gong Pan Pan or Hanfugirl, who became fascinated with the clothes worn by Han Chinese in the preQing dynasty era. Besides blogging about the history of Chinese fashion, she also conducts workshops and exhibitions such as Art in Tang China at local art institutions. And for a spot of china shopping, literally, there’s a colourful Sunday flea market at Fook Hai Building every week when antique shops and temporary stalls offer everything from Qing dynasty collectibles to reproductions.
Have your Japan travel plans been cancelled because of the recent advisory? Soothe your woes by binge-watching Grand Maison Tokyo – a deliciously addictive drama now streaming online which was one of the biggest hits in Japanese TV last year. About two rival chefs vying for three Michelin stars, expect lots of food porn and a surprisingly entertaining script.When you’re hungry, do what expat chefs Tomoo Kimura of Sushi Kimura and Kazuhiro Hamamoto of Ki-Sho do. Chef Kimura heads straight for his favourite sake bar Mobomoga at Mohamed Sultan Road, and Suju at Mandarin Gallery for authentic homemade miso and cold tofu. Chef Hamamoto is a typical Japanese papa who makes curry rice with raw egg yolk for his family over the weekend but enjoys super authentic food at restaurants like Nagomi in Cuppage Plaza. But for a more suburban setting, head to Fine Dining Bakery on Mohamed Sultan Road to snap up fluffy loaves of Shokupan bread and croissants by Chef Akira, and get a glimpse of Japanese ladies delicately nibbling sandwiches and coffee while chattering in rapid-fire Japanese.
If you’re hankering for something Korean besides speed-watching the romantic K-drama Crash Landing on You, head to ‘Little Korea’ in Tanjong Pagar. Louis Han - the former chef of Kimme - heads to Todamgol, a very authentic Korean restaurant serving comfort food such as sundubu-jjigae (tofu stew) and bibimbap. For Korean barbecue, he heads to Wang Dae Bak in Amoy street, while he and his friends enjoy drinking soju in some of the watering holes in Tanjong Pagar. – JE
09. SOUTH-EAST ASIA
South-east Asia is home to Singapore, as well as many of its closest allies and friends. With that in mind, the Singapore government invests heavily in making its museums, such as the National Gallery Singapore and the Asian Civilisations Museum, richly representative of the cultures in this region.
National Gallery Singapore, for instance, has the world’s biggest permanent collection of South-east Asian art on display in a dedicated wing of the museum. Here you’ll find works by the region’s most influential figures, such as Malaysia’s Redza Piyadasa, Indonesia’s Raden Saleh, the Philippines’ Felix Hidalgo, Myanmar’s U Ba Nyan, Vietnam’s Nguyen Gia Tri and many others.
The Gallery also regularly mounts thematic exhibitions focused on Southeast Asian artists. Coming up is Malaysian master Latiff Mohidin’s show, which had travelled to Centre Pompidou in 2018. With Covid-19 keeping foreign visitors away, now would be a good time to visit the museums to savor the region’s cultural masterpieces.
Turning to literature, the past 20 years saw the minting of new South-east Asian stars such as Malaysia’s Tash Aw (The Harmony Silk Factory) and Tan Twang Eng (The Garden of Evening Mists), Indonesia’s Eka Kurniawan(Beauty Is A Wound) and Vietnam’s Ocean Vuong (On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous). Their novels offer beautifully intimate and epic explorations of their country’s past.
Similarly in cinema, Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Philippines’ Lav Diaz and Vietnam’s Tran Anh Hung have captured global acclaim for creating unique filmic languages in the telling of the stories of their people.
Turning to food, many of the region’s famous dishes, such as Vietnam’s beef pho, Thailand’s pad thai and Indonesia’s gado gado, can be found in various eateries and restaurants across the island. But here are some of our favourites: For super authentic Thai food and atmosphere, check out Golden Mile Complex for its myriad street food options. For better ambience, head to either Sawadee Thai at Tan Quee Lan Street or Jam at Siri House at Dempsey. The former offers authentic traditional Thai cuisine while the latter serves up Thai with a mod twist. For Indonesian food, there’s Bayang in Clarke Quay and Tambuah Mas in Paragon. For Vietnamese, there’s the humble pho chain NamNam created by chef Nam Quoc Nguyen with the Les Amis Group. And for more varied flavours of Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), there’s IndoChine at Chijmes. – HY
Oceania is a beautiful region stretching from Australia to French Polynesia, and comprises thousands of islands scattered across the Central and Pacific Ocean. For most Singaporeans, their main contact with the region is through Australia, a continent beloved for its vast open spaces, blue skies on end, vineyard tours and fresh produce.
Australian cities are known for their cafes, and one of the best Australianowned cafes in Singapore is Carrotsticks & Cravings, located at Robertson Quay and Dempsey. The former offers a view of the Singapore River, while the latter is set in lush greenery with trampolines for the kids.
Carrotsticks & Cravings is run by TerriAnne Leske, a Melbourne expat, who is also a cookbook author and food stylist.
She says: “I started the cafe because I felt there was a gap in the Singapore market in terms of fresh, healthy Aussie-style food in a relaxed casual setting where bringing the whole family is encouraged. We source a variety of wholesome ingredients from Australia, flying in authentic Melbourne roasted coffee beans, milk and kombucha, and using organic dairy, quinoa, nuts and seeds in our menu.”
Naturally, the menu includes the Aussie classic smashed avocado on sourdough. But Ms Leske’s version comes topped with Australian feta and housemade dukkah, which adds a bit of salty spice to the dish. Don’t miss the carrot cake, made using Ms Leske’s grandmother’s recipe.
The experience of visiting a vineyard may be hard to replicate in Singapore – but how about a brewery tour? Visitors to Western Australia would be familiar with Little Creatures Brewing, which started in Fremantle. In Singapore, Little Creatures has an outlet at Club Street. Apart from its Pale Ale and IPA which it ships in from Australia, it has locally brewed beers such as Purple Haze, a fruity purple-coloured beer, and Lunar Wit, which has dried tangerine and osmanthus flowers. Complimentary brewery tours are also available.Meanwhile, if you’re curious about Australia’s neighbour Fiji, there’s the chance to sample its cuisine at Poon’s Supper Club (poonssupper.club), a series of private dinners hosted by Fiji-born photographer Kevin Lee at his Bukit Merah home. His late father used to run a restaurant in Fiji, and Mr Lee has recreated some of the recipes, such as mountain goat curry and scrap pot curry chicken.
In Fiji, cooking in a pit is common, and Mr Lee recreates that smokiness on his kitchen stove for his smoked banana leaf fish and honey coconut chicken. – TSC