Katong’s main thoroughfare is a colorful parade of shophouses and fantastic food. 
Credit: Darren Soh

On the global stage, Singapore stands out as a big, bright beacon of far-flung flavors. Soaking up most of the spotlight are the boldly shaped buildings and densely-packed hawker stalls of the city-state’s sprawling central business district. Outside the iconic skyline, however, a cache of savory secrets hides beyond the view of the uninspired traveler. If you’re merely looking to capture glitz and glamor for your Instagram followers, stay in Marina Bay. It won’t disappoint. But one neighborhood has been dishing out deliciousness long before smart phones ever existed. For a true taste of Singapore, head to Katong.

Here you’ll find the heart of Peranakan — a vibrant cultural combination of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Indonesian influences, unique to this part of the world. It’s expressed most obviously through the cuisine, but also in the distinct architecture lining the sidewalks on either side of Joo Chiat Road. The district’s main thoroughfare is a colorful parade of shophouses: multi-storied residences historically offering goods and services on the ground floor, and tenancy atop. While Singapore is increasingly regarded for its fixation with modernity, Katong holds on to a classic aesthetic.

Credit: Danny Santos

Much of the food plated and bowled in the busy cafés and unmarked coffee shops of the neighborhood is what would have been served when it was still under the English Crown. So when you want laksa, for example, this is where you come. The traditional spicy noodle soup permeates every corner of town. 328 Katong Laksa is perhaps the most famous purveyor, after its owner, Nancy Lim, beat Gordon Ramsay during a live cook-off challenge in 2013.

Her ever-so-slightly chewy noodles are marinated in a coconut curry bath. A paste of sambal chili and dried shrimps dials ups the heat and umami in alternating turns. Though it’s appeal to outsiders is undeniable (and comparisons to ramen inevitable), locals recognize a pronounced familiarity, connecting the dish to offerings the older generations used to prepare at home.

Few culinary creations, however, are as nostalgic to natives as kaya toast. And Katong is ground zero for this sweet-yet-salty breakfast staple. Its namesake spread is a coconut-infused paste, typically arriving tableside between two slices of buttered bread, accompanied by soft-boiled eggs and strong coffee. A longstanding morning ritual has given birth to kopitiam (coffee shop) culture, on full display at unassuming outposts like Chin Mee Chin Confectionery or in more well-appointed interiors such as Ah Kong Den.

Last year, Firebake opened alongside one of the town’s busiest intersections. The bakery/restaurant hybrid holds Singapore’s first-ever full-scale woodfire bread oven. “The menu here features contemporary dishes cooked with traditional European techniques,” explains owner and expat Konstantino Blokbergen.

Rather than resisting the outside influence, locals flocked here in droves. Firebake’s success speaks to the inclusive spirit of Katong, where residents have long demonstrated an appetite for the eclectic, and a strong sense of social cohesion known as the "kampung spirit."

Katong Antique House
Credit: Courtesy

“To break bread — share bread with your neighbor — is one of the oldest gestures of goodwill and bonding,” adds Blokbergen. “Katong is an old estate, with roots in Peranakan and Eurasian. It has a laid-back feel, and many would say some of the best local foods can be found here. With the mix of local of foreign residents, offerings are diverse and interesting.”

Regional specialities such as the Malay-inspired Nasi Lemak is available in as many variations as there are restaurants serving it; with crispy chicken wings at Ponggol, or with bone-in pork chop at Sinpopo.

When it’s time for dessert, Birds of Paradise brings artisanal gelato to the fold, showcasing the produce and spices of Southeast Asia in frozen form. Though hardly a classical approach, residents still queue around the block for a cool reprieve from Singapore’s tropical humidity.

Even (or especially) without a specific destination in mind, Katong rewards the adventurous gourmand. The area is concentrated around a dozen or so blocks, and the dining options dense. Explore by foot and simply follow your nose to the flavors that suit you. There’s no rush. While Singapore constantly moves furiously into the future, in Katong, at least, there will always be virtue in taking it slow.