With Singapore’s hawker culture now part of UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, we take a look at new tours that showcase the Lion City’s vibrant and storied tapestry of food.
Rather than crossing out ‘must-tries’ from tourist checklists, food tour operators are today digging deeper to tell of unheard local food stories. The fact that food tours can do well with the local crowd may come as a surprise in a city of foodies, each with their own list of hidden hawker gems.
This is why at a time when the domestic market is king, food tour operators are pandering not to tastebuds, but the hunger for local rediscovery among travel-starved Singaporeans, according to Law Yock Song, head of partnerships and business development at Tribe.
“Since every Singaporean is a foodie, we didn’t want to get into the tussle of which [eatery is] the best. We prefer to focus on the behind-the-scenes stories of hawkers and food.”
Atika Rosli, head of business development at 8th Wave Events and Destinations, agreed. “To target locals, focusing on food itself is not enough. We need to showcase the stories around the food – like the history of venues, or the story of family cooks and recipes, hidden shops and funny anecdotes. [To design our tours], we do a lot of research as well as site inspections and interviews with vendors.”
“The result has been some fun, interesting and delicious food tours that celebrate our heritage, and hopefully leave the participants with much more than a full tummy.”
Who put the John in Roti?
In a welcome departure from the “food nationalism” dominating recent discourse on local cuisines, Persp8ctives (the tour arm of destination management company, 8th Wave) is shedding light on the eclectic origins of flavours familiar to Singaporeans — tracing them back to Chinese cooks on steamer ships, Javanese labourers in Malayan plantations, off-duty soldiers, Tiffin lunches of the British Raj, Portuguese traders and Thai merchants.
For S$80 (US$60.30) per pax, participants in group sizes ranging from 5-20 — split into sub-groups in keeping pandemic measures — are taken on a three-hour walk around Chinatown, where they learn about unique adaptations of recipes from around the world, touch and smell original spice blends, and enjoy dessert and drinks at a cafe.
With Singapore's hawker culture now UNESCO recognised, operators are pandering not to tastebuds, but the hunger for local rediscovery among travel-starved Singaporeans. Photo Credit: 8th Wave Events and Destinations
Kristina Forssell, managing director of 8th Wave Events & Destinations, told Travel Weekly Asia, “Singapore’s heritage [involves] different cultures, countries and eras. We want to help participants see the influences and understand how our food has evolved from a new perspective.”
"Take the Kopi & Cha tour for instance. One of four new food experiences from Persp8ctives, this journey revolving around Singapore's black brew hopes to help Singaporeans see beyond the hype of lattes, bubble teas and matcha frappes, and gain new appreciation for local coffee and tea culture.
The three-hour tour includes a traditional bak kut teh (pork ribs soup) lunch with tea pairing at a Michelin-recommended eatery. Here, participants will also learn about the meal’s rich dark history and coolie heritage. Participants are also invited to taste Singapore-style kopi (coffee), and learn why coolies preferred butter in theirs.
The Kopi & Cha tour is priced at S$70 per pax. 8th Wave is also running a Chinese New Year promotion with discounted rates for this tour available on Klook.
On the hawker trail
Until the end of February, the Tribe HawkerWalk series at Chinatown Complex will feature special Chinese New Year-themed components, extending beyond the cooked food section of the marketplace into the wet market and retail areas as well.
Law elaborated, “We wanted to [highlight] the dry goods and ingredients that make up our Chinese New Year feast, as well as their significance. For example, why do we have scallops, mushrooms, sea moss, etc during the new year? [What about the] sweets we eat? Why do we have sugar-coated lotus seeds or the eight treasures box?”
Tribe's guides on a mission to explain dry goods and ingredients that make up our Chinese New Year feast. Photo Credit: Tribe
The limited-time-only tour will also continue to pull the curtains back on the hawker trade, touching on topics such as food preparation (for instance, why Apollo ovens are used to roast meat) and business challenges.
Apart from encouraging locals to rediscover food in Singapore, the tour has also brought generations closer together.
Law mused, “We have seen and heard first-hand how the tour bridges inter-generational participants. The older ones in their 60s to 70s reminisce and share their own experiences, and the younger ones in their 30s to 50s learn through their parents or seniors' [accounts] and further relate this to their own children.”
The public run of Tribe's tour is on Wednesdays, 09.30am -11.00am for 1.5 hours. The tour is also available for group bookings of four pax and above at S$50 per pax.