The food scales fall from our eyes
Note: It's hard to write a post like this without falling into the expat trap of sounding like you are bragging about your life. I hope that doesn't come through too much here, but if it does, that's not my intent. I just think most of the people who are reading this should know that good food does not universally require spending a fortune
Here’s the first lesson that I’ve learned since arriving in Singapore: America is losing the battle for food culture. Since arrival, we’ve been staying at a hotel that is in the middle of a major shopping district. We are surrounded by shopping centers. There are easily 10 of them within a mile radius (really more of a mile line, as they are all on the same main road). Each one has multiple levels, both above ground and below ground. And each one has insane food.
The American model of a mall food court doesn’t hold here. There are food courts, but they aren’t full of crappy junk food. Each one is selling a different variant of your favorite Asian food experiences. Here’s a picture of one stall in one food court:
The shopping center that houses this stall has this food court on the fourth level AND a separate food hall with booths and sit down restaurants in a below-ground level. Indeed we only found the fourth-floor court because we were looking for a nursing room after eating lunch at one of the subterranean restaurants, and an employee directed us to “the large food court” above, at which point my wife and I looked at each other and marvelled “there’s a large food court?”.
Every shopping center is like this. Full of food. Then consider the stand-alone restaurants and Hawker centers, and you can maybe start to get an understanding of just how much there is to eat on this tiny island.
We keep trying to eat small and keep blundering into restaurants where the food is anything but. Here’s a picture of yesterday’s lunch. It was S$10 (aka $7.50):
Here’s what my wife had:
Not a bad meal for $15. In fact, one of the best I’ve ever had at that price point, only rivaled by the other, comparably priced, meals that I’ve had since I’ve been here.
Leaving aside the price, the experience at these restaurants is efficient and easy. Generally, everything is ordered via an iPad running a dedicated app for the restaurant. The food comes quite shortly after that. These types of systems seem to be on the rise in America, but they are far from standard, even at the same sorts of “fast casual” restaurants that occupy the same food niche (e.g., Panera bread, though the comparison begins and ends with the ecological role of the place). And things can get quite interesting.
Here’s an example from Friday night’s dinner at Genki Sushi, a "hi-tech" sushi chain: We are seated, and the iPad is given to us so that we can order. The app allows us to choose the sushi we want on an a-la-carte basis. Up to four choices at once are loaded onto a digital train. The confirmation button is pressed, and then this happens:
Dinner for all of us was $37.50. And the quality of the sushi was among the best that I’ve ever eaten. Last night, my son and I went to Din Thai Fung (which does have some American outlets) where our selection of Dumplings was prepared for us bespoke by a team of cooks working in a clean-room style kitchen at the center of the establishment:
$42 for that one, which included takeaway for my wife.
Which is really the heart of the first lesson, something that I didn't realize until I came here: Asian cuisine available in America is generally overpriced, less-than-healthy, and mediocre. We have not had overly fancy or expensive food while we have been in Singapore, but without exception, it has been among the best versions of the cuisine that we have ever had. To get close to this cuisine at this quality in the USA, you probably have to frequent places like this.
Here, it’s a $40 dinner, tip included.