A Savory Stroll Under the Neon Lights of Singapore

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 sidewalk. 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 past time,” said 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 centers, or food halls filled with dozens of stalls that peddle affordable and quickly prepared eats, were recognized 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 flavors and are claimed as distinctly Singaporean.

The gritty Geylang neighborhood doesn’t have the gleaming skyscrapers or carefully manicured streets that characterize 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 flavors, representative of the immigrant communities clustered in Geylang, said Cai Yinzhou, a 32-year-old Geylang resident who gives tours of the neighborhood.

“We have pulled from all different parts of the world because we have the diversity of the people who are present here,” said Mr. Cai of the origins of the local cuisine.

Sample the bounty of flavors yourself on a 1.6-mile stretch of Geylang Road, on an eating-and-walking tour that hits some of the most appetizing establishments. You’ll want to start in the early evening, when most stalls at hawker centers 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 Playa 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 Center, where you’ll want nasi padang, a rice dish of Indonesia served with various side dishes of vegetables and proteins, said 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, Mr. Seetoh said.

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 molds 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 colorful 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 flavor and quality and you’ll soon find that all Singaporeans seem to have an opinion on which durian — described by enthusiasts to taste of custard and caramel — reigns supreme. Though this store is open 24 hours a day, durian availability depends on the season, generally June through 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 J.B. Ah Meng a few blocks away, for crab cooked with ginger, scallion, an astonishing amount of white pepper and finished with heaps of cilantro. The crab flesh is succulent and juicy, and the sauce is deeply flavorful. The soundtrack here is of a constant din of conversation from large dinner parties and the sounds of cracking crab legs. (Plastic gloves are available upon request.)

Another popular dish is the fried bee hoon, a crispy pancake of rice vermicelli noodles cooked in a soy sauce with dried shrimp 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 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 are draped with festive string lights and the restaurant contains a tiny museum devoted to its history. Founded about three decades ago, the business has expanded to multiple locations in Singapore. Its popularity was built upon its white-pepper crab dish, but on a recent evening, most diners were eating chili crab, a dish of mud crabs smothered in a sweet and spicy chili 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 revelers 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 savory, that only cost a few dollars each. There are steamed buns filled with spicy chili crab, crispy prawn-paste chicken wings and fluffy custard buns, all 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.

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Christine Chung is a travel reporter for The Times. She previously covered breaking news. She joined The Times in November 2021. @chrisychung

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