FOOD IN SINGAPORE
Nonya food, developed by Chinese-Malay Peranakans, is the nearest thing to Singapore's national cuisine. Also known as Peranakan cuisine, it is known for its spicy seafood dishes and Chinese dishes made with Malay ingredients. Food critic Nina Simonds wrote in the New York Times, “Nonya is the local, high-bred cuisine, which originated when Chinese traders settling in Singapore, Penang and Malacca took Malay wives; it reflects a melting pot of different cultures. The Chinese who were from southern China were accustomed to robust foods cooked with dark soy sauce, leeks, garlic and onions. The Malaysian influence is apparent in the use of ingredients like coconut milk, tamarind, screw pine and fresh lime leaves. Indian seasonings such as cumin, cardamon, and curry mixtures are as prevalent as Thai flavorings like lemon grass and shrimp paste. The abundant use of chili peppers, both fresh and dried, impart a fiery brilliance.”
Essential ingredients in Singaporean dishes include grated green papaya, lime juice, ground peanuts, palm sugar, honey, sweet soy sauce, condensed milk, vinegar, tamarind, garlic, lemon grass, shallots, coriander, picked garlic juice, lime leaves, galangal (similar to ginger), scallions, sugar, turmeric, basil, curry, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, watercress, carrots, and onions.
Singapore is also famous its fusion cooking and cutting-edge culinary creativity. It hosts a popular annual food fair and world gourmet food summit. It has its own connoisseur magazine (Wine $ Dine) and features restaurants that offer things like avocado shakes flavored with coffee and whiskey, grilled fish cakes with melted Camembert cheese, truffle-topped cream of mushroom soup and Chilean sea bas with preserved Chinese cabbage.
Members of Singapore’s ethnic group tend to eat foods associated with their group. Malays tend to favor things like spicy rice and curry, the Chinese like noodle and rice dishes and the Indians eat mutton stew as their staple. Much of the Chinese food eaten by locals is traditional Hokkein fare. European food, American-fast food, Thai food, Malay-Indonesian food, Indian food and Chinese food are all widely available in Singapore. Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Hawaiian, Arab and Pakistani food are also available.
According to eating guidelines offered by the Singaporean government, people are encouraged to reduce their consumption of salt-cured, preserved and smoked foods. Mothers are advised to breast feed their infants for at least six months. Gladys Wong, president of the Singapore Nutrition and Dietetics Association, told Associated Press. The sheer abundance of food and major cultural shifts over the past few decades have contributed to young people’s bad eating habits. “In the 1950s, if you’re hungry, you drink water until Grandma prepares the next meal, and have to wait for Dad to come home before everyone eats together at the table,” Wong said. “Nowadays, if the kid is hungry, taking a break from the computer can be a TV-dinner frozen pizza from the freezer to the microwave within minutes,” she said. [Source: AP, October 5, 2004]
Chinese villages in the rural areas of Singapore have traditionally had small ponds, green with water hyacinths. The plants were harvested as pig food which non-pork eating Muslim Malays have no reason to grow. In the old days that was one way to distinguish between a Chinese village and a Malay one. Singapore Chinese used to sometimes fish a chicken foot out of their soup and throw into the soup of their Western friends just to see what their reaction would be.
Less than 10 percent of the population is obese. See Health
Culinary Diversity in Singapore
With its rich multicultural heritage, Singapore serves up a true melting pot of flavours and foods. You can see a reflection of Singapore’s cultural diversity in the array of local cuisines on the menu – Chinese, Malay, Indian and Peranakan among others. Take a stroll around the diverse neighbourhoods and you’ll come across halal Malay food, South Indian vegetarian thali, North Indian naans and briyani, Cantonese dim sum, Hainanese chicken rice, Peking duck, Hokkien mee (fried noodles from the China’s Fujian Province) and popiah (spring rolls), available in food centres and restaurants across Singapore. [Source: yoursingapore.com, Singapore Tourism Board]
Chinese cuisine represents one of the main players in the country’s gastronomic arena. The Chinese believe in combining ingredients to enhance the harmony between the yin and yang qualities of the food. Food is also used for its symbolic properties, such as noodles for longevity, oysters for good fortune and fish for prosperity.
A visit to Singapore offers you an opportunity to sample dishes from the different parts of China. You can enjoy the delicious dim sum, roasted meats and double-boiled soups brought by the Cantonese immigrants, the spicy dishes from Szechuan and the flavourful chicken rice with its roots from the Hainan province. The famous yong tau fu, or beancurd stuffed with fish paste, was a contribution by the Hakkas. Hearty meat dishes and appetising noodles are a part of Hokkien meals while Teochew dishes include lighter items such as steamed seafood, comforting porridge and clear soups. On your trip here, don’t forget also to try local Chinese favourites such as chilli crab, bak kut teh, fish head curry or rojak.
If you’re a fan of Indian food, you’ll be spoilt for choice between dishes from the southern and northern part of the sub-continent. The first features vegetarian thosai, seafood dishes and fiery curries enriched with coconut milk. The second includes milder curries, creamy yogurt based dishes, tandoori offerings and fluffy naan breads. Most Indian dishes are infused with flavoured spices such as cardamom, cloves, cumin, coriander and chillies, and only in Singapore will you also find spicy fish head curry in various Indian restaurants.
You can also get a taste of popular local Indian-Muslim dishes such as roti pratas, murtabak - (prata stuffed with minced meat, eggs and onions) and nasi briyani, a saffron rice dish with spicy chicken or mutton. All these dishes go well with teh tarik (or “pulled tea”), an absolutely satisfying creamy and frothy milk tea.
The Malay cuisine in Singapore will give you a chance to savour an array of spices and herbs including ginger, turmeric, galangal, lemon grass, curry leaves, pungent belachan (shrimp paste) and chillies. You’ll find the cuisine spicy without being unbearably hot, thanks to its generous use of coconut milk and local spices. Peanut sauce occupies a pride of place in dishes like gado gado, an Indonesian salad of lettuce, bean sprouts and fried bean curd. It is also a staple accompaniment with satay – skewers of meat grilled over charcoal served with raw onions and cucumber. Try the nasi lemak for its flavourful coconut steamed rice, or nasi padang, where you can select from a wide range of dishes on display.
The unique Peranakan or Nonya food offers a blend of Chinese, Malay and Indonesian flavours, combining aromatic herbs and spices such as lemongrass, chillies, tamarind paste, shrimp paste and coconut milk to create a rich cuisine of braised dishes, stews and curries. You’ll have to try the ayam buah keluak, a chicken dish mixed with earthy-tasting buah keluak nuts and the laksa, a famous Nonya dish made with rice vermicelli and coconut milk and garnished with seafood or chicken.
And that’s far from all. Singapore also offers you a wide range of international cuisines – from Thai, Korean, Vietnamese to Mongolian food. Whether you’re in the mood for a Japanese dinner, a hearty Italian meal, or a casual French bistro experience, you’ll find it all in this little red dot.
Singaporean Eating Habits
A wide variety of food is available day or night. Most Singaporean meals consist or rice or noodles accompanied by some meat or fish dish and vegetables such as cabbage, spinach or cucumbers. Sometimes Malay meals are served with a pancake-like bread that is used to mop up the food. Dishes are often served together rather than one after the other. They are often seasoned with chili past, coconut milk, curry, lemon grass or dried fish.
Breakfast is generally eaten between 6:30am and 8:00am and generally consists of rice, spicy stew, dim sum, meat, or nasi lemak (rice and spices cooked with coconut milk) and tea. A common Singapore breakfast is pig-organ soup. Kaya Toast is a Singaporean breakfast item with Kaya, a coconut jam made with eggs, sugar and pandan, and toast. Most people eat breakfast at home. It's hard to find a restaurant that serves breakfast.
Lunch is generally eaten between 12:00noon and 1:30pm. It is often the big meal of the day. It typically consists of a main dish served with four or more side dishes. Dinner is generally eaten between 7:00pm and 8:00pm. It is often made up of lunch leftovers. Fresh fruit is a common dessert.
Many Malays eat with their hands and the tables of traditional Malay restaurants are water containers that patrons sue to wash their hands before they eat.
Vegetarian meals are widely available and most meat dishes are made with chicken, pork or seafood. Beef is expensive. Sometimes the beef comes from water buffalo, fish often comes with the head attached and the chicken often has a lot of bones. Seafood such shrimp, prawns, a variety of fish, crab, lobster, clams, dried fish, squid, flounder, eels, and jellyfish, are most widely available in the coastal areas.
Singapore Signature Dishes
Singapore specialties include fish head curry, piquant pepper crab and chili crab. Fish Head Curry is made with Ikan Merah (red snapper fish) cooked in a spicy-hot curry with vegetables. Thosai is a crispy Indian pancake eaten with dhal and chutney. Kaya Toast is a Singaporean breakfast item with Kaya, a coconut jam made with eggs, sugar and pandan, and toast. Roti Prata is a Indian dish that is similar to a pancake and eaten with curry or sugar.
Chilli Crab is one of Singapore’s signature dishes and is made by frying crabs with a fragrant red sauce. Char kway teow is a Singaporean favourite of stir-fried flat rice noodles. Bak Kut The, meaning “meat bone tea”, is a soup made with pork ribs and spices. Rojak is a Singaporean-style salad of beansprouts, greens, tau pok, you tiao, pineapple, cucumber, and peanuts tossed with a prawn paste. Yong Tau Foo is a healthy local dish consisting of tofu stuffed with fish or pork paste.
A staple Peranakan dish, Ayam Buah Keluak is a chicken dish cooked with nuts in a rich sauce Otak Otak is a Peranakan dish of mashed fish and spices, which is steamed then grilled. Laksa is a Peranakan dish consisting of noodles, prawns, fishcake, eggs and cockles, cooked in a spicy coconut broth.
Satay is a Malay and Indonesian dish of grilled meat on skewers, served with a peanut dipping sauce. Rendang is a Malay dish with Indonesian origins consisting of beef or chicken stewed in coconut milk and spices. Nasi Padang is an Indonesian dish comprising of steamed white rice with various meat and vegetable dishes. Nasi Lemak is a rice dish made from cooking rice in coconut milk and serving it with a variety of dishes.
Lor Mee features a signature thick, dark and starchy sauce with thick flat yellow noodles. Hokkien Prawn Mee is made by frying yellow and white noodles with seafood and lard. Hainanese Chicken Rice is often known a Singapore’s national dish and is a favourite among locals and tourists alike. Dumpling Noodles is a Cantonese dish of noodles served with dumplings filled with ingredients such as prawns and pork.
Nonya Dishes include “bakwan kepetong” (a traditional soup made with chopped pork, crabmeat balls, and bamboo slices), “otak otak” (fish cakes steamed in banana leaves) “ayam buah keluak” (a stew made with chicken and stuffed keluka nuts and seasoned with lemon grass, galangal and turmeric), and “kua pie tee” (pastries filled with a mixture of shredded bamboo shoots and turnips seasoned with garlic, bean paste, shrimp and chilies), “babi pong tay” (stewed pork shoulder with red star anise). Also worth trying are “ngoh hiang” (minced pork and prawn roll), “beef radang” (cubes of beef flavored with lemon grass, ginger, curry and coconut milk) and “ikan goreng chi garam” (sea bass topped with super hot chili paste). Other Singapore specialties include fish head curry, piquant pepper crab and chili crab.
Also try “rojak” (fruit and vegetables stir fried in shrimp-based sweat and sour sauce), “panggang golek” (spiced duck with cashews and coconut cream), chili crabs in a spicy sauce, “dodeng” (ginger beef), “mee siam” (spicy Thai-style noodles), “tak otak” (fish mouse in lemon grass and banana leaves), chili prawns, deep-fried chicken, stewed water buffalo, and “mee rebus” (noodles in beef gravy).
Bak Kut The consists of meaty pork ribs simmered in a unique broth of herbs and spices; the use of cloves, cinnamon, star anise, fennel seeds and coriander in this dish reflects Singapore’s diverse cultural influences. The dish evolved as such in order to supplement the meagre, often innutritious diet of the coolies of yesteryear and popular among the locals and tourists to international celebrities and dignitaries. Yet, the dark-coloured soup rich in herbs and spices is just one of two versions of bak kut teh. If you prefer a less herbal-tasting soup that’s just as satisfying, you’ll surely enjoy the other style of cooking, which serves up a soup that is clear and peppery. A bowl of bak kut teh tends to come with pork ribs, preserved vegetables and braised beancurd skins, all of which make this a wholesome, healthy and inexpensive option at any time of the day. So popular is the bak kut teh concoction in Singapore that it’s now a flavour in instant noodles and there’s even a DIY kit, consisting of a soup base, that’s ideal as a culinary souvenir from Singapore. [Source: yoursingapore.com, Singapore Tourism Board]
The different varieties of this popular dish is a reflection of how descendants of immigrants from different parts of China have adapted bak kut teh to suit their palate. The Cantonese have a strong soup-drinking culture and thus tend to add more medicinal herbs to the dish, whereas the Hokkiens, who prefer their food salty tasting, add soy sauce to darken the soup of the bak kut teh. Some of the most famous bak kut teh can be found along Balestier Road (Founder Bak Kut The, 347 Balestier Road), Rangoon Road (Ng Ah Sio Pork Ribs Eating House, 8 Rangoon Road) and Joo Chiat Road (Sin Heng Bak Koot Teh, 439 Joo Chiat Road) and are available all through the day. The dish can be enjoyed with both rice and noodles, and is most often served with you tiao (deep-fried dough fritters).
Rojak is another popular Singaporean dish. One rojak variation is adapted from Malay and Chinese cuisines, which is a veritable toss of beansprouts, greens, tau pok (or deep-fried soybean cake), yu tiao (a crispy long strip of fried flour) pineapple, cucumber, and a generous sprinkle of finely chopped roasted peanuts well-tossed (which gives it ample texture and a lovely crunchy bite) with a spicy fermented prawn paste sauce. The other is the Indian version, which is also tossed in peanut sauce, although this version has an added red flavouring and colour for that tinge of spiciness. The Indian rojak can be personalised to one’s specific tastebuds as most stall vendors allow their patrons to choose the ingredients that they want – which includes baked potatoes, steamed fishcakes, prawn fritters, octopus, a mix of fried greens and many more.
Yet again, this is a popular dish in Singapore, so finding a rojak stall near you won’t be too much of a hassle. While the best rojak stalls are found outside the city (like in neighbourhoods like Bukit Merah and Katong) there are still reasonably good places within the CBD or in the Orchard Road area where you can find them. The Food Republic food courts in Wisma Atria and 313@Somerset are easy enough to find; but also do check out Straits Kitchen at the Grand Hyatt hotel along Scotts Road for a sampling of this true-blue Singapore dish in a stylish, sleek setting.
Malay-Influenced Singaporean Dishes
Malay food is similar to Indonesian food and is not as diverse as Vietnamese food or spicy as Thai food, but it is still pretty good and it can be spicy. Malays rely on cayenne, the red-hot pepper, to make their food spicy.
Nasi Lemak is arguable the staple of Malaysian cuisine. There are two versions of this classic; the Malay (original) version has a straightforward offering of ikan bilis (fried anchovies) and nuts, fried fish, cucumber and sometimes an egg; whereas the Chinese version, like Chong Pang Nasi Lemak and the Changi Village Nasi Lemak (take the Bus No.2 to the Changi Village market to sample this unforgettable version) have a whole bunch of things like deep fried drumstick, chicken franks, fish cake, curried vegetables and luncheon meat (Asian Spam) in it. Like the chicken rice, the accompanying chilli condiment can make all the difference; sometimes the chilli and plain lemak rice is enough for a satisfying meal. Nasi lemak is always enjoyable whether at breakfast or any other time of day, and some stalls still retain the tradition of wrapping the rice in a banana leaf to enhance its flavour. It is commonly found at food centres in Singapore. [Source: yoursingapore.com, Singapore Tourism Board]
Satay is another popular Singaporean dish. Often served in bunches of 10 (individual sticks are also sold), it goes in accord with a dip of spicy and sweet peanut sauce, and is usually accompanied with chopped onion, cucumber and ketupat (Malay rice cakes wrapped in a weaving pattern of coconut leaves). Interestingly, the peanut sauce (made from a slew of spices and ground peanuts) was first served in the Philippines where it was introduced by its colonial overlords, the Spanish, who in turn borrowed the recipe during their time in South America.
Though the satay sticks of today are factory-processed strips made from bamboo, it was the humble dried leaf stem of the coconut leaf which was first used to skewer the meat centuries ago. Barbecued over an open-flamed charcoal fire, the satay is feverishly brushed with oil to give it a well-browned glaze.
One of the most famous Malay dishes in Singapore, satay is a must-try, and is served at many hawkers, restaurants and food centres, including the East Coast Food Lagoon and the famous 24-hour Lau Pa Sat Festival Market, where no less than a dozen stalls selling only satay hold fort. A new addition in recent years has been the pork satay, introduced by Chinese satay sellers, giving this centuries-old item another delightful twist.
Malay cuisine is well known for its aromatic blend of spices and herbs including the kaffir lime leaf and lemongrass, shallots and garlic, ginger and galangal, curry leaves, turmeric, pungent belachan (shrimp paste) and chillies. Visit a Malay stall at any food centre and take your pick of nasi padang – a wide variety of spicy meat, fish, poultry, and vegetable dishes, served with rice. Also visit Carousel, a halal buffet in the heart of town, or other Malay restaurants to savour the Soto Ayam, a spiced chicken stock served with chicken and bean sprouts, together with your choice of a potato croquette or compressed rice cakes. Sit down to enjoy skewers of beef, lamb or chicken satay served with onions, cucumbers and the ubiquitous peanut sauce. Another signature dish on the Malay menu is the nasi lemak, packed in a banana leaf and beef rendang, a hearty dish made of large chunks of beef cooked with spices and herbs.
Another fundamental ingredient in Malay cuisine is belachan, a pungent dried shrimp paste, often combined with freshly pounded chillies to make the popular sambal belachan that serves as a sauce to add flavour to any dish. Neither Malay nor Indonesian cuisines include any pork for religious reasons, and are generally referred to as “halal”. Most dishes use coconut milk to take the edge off the spicy curries. Freshly grated coconut is also used to garnish cakes and other types of desserts. Malay desserts such as cendol are usually very rich in coconut milk and impossible to resist if you have a sweet tooth, while ice kachang is a popular dessert made of flavoured ice with red bean and jelly. Make your way to the cultural precinct of Kampong Glam to see the sights, and end the day at a coffee shop to try classic Malay cuisine that’s spicy and full of exotic flavours.
Indonesian-Influenced Singaporean Dishes
Indonesian and Malaysian dishes include “satay” (skewered and marinated beef, chicken or mutton cooked over an open fire, and served with a delicious peanut sauce), “nasi goreng” (fried rice with vegetables and spices), “gado gado” (vegetables and rice with the delicious peanut butter sauce), “soto ayam” (soup with chicken, bean sprouts, onions and celery), “laksa” (spicy fish, coconut milk and noodle soup), Sarawak-style laksa in coconut sauce, “nasi padeng” (steamed rices served with side dishes like vegetable or spiced fish), “nasi ulam” (an eastern Singapore herb-rice dish) and “rendang” (spicy stew made with meat and coconut milk, served with rice).
Nasi padang dishes are prepared in a hot, dry style of cooking unique to Indonesian cuisine, and are rich in flavour and aroma. Singapore’s local nasi padang stalls however, have made a name for themselves by consciously blending healthier alternatives such as less salt added in dishes and bigger vegetable portions into their overall spread. Nasi padang dishes are typically shared like a mini buffet with friends or family, each member helping himself to his personal favourites and placing a scoop of everything on his plate of rice. The most popular nasi padang stall in Singapore is Hajjah Maimunah Nasi Padang in the Kampong Glam district, which provides a homely dining experience that’s perfect for big groups wanting to sample a wide range of dishes. [Source: yoursingapore.com, Singapore Tourism Board]
But you don’t have to go the Kampong Glam or Geylang areas of Singapore to try this Malay-Indonesian fare; there are numerous nasi padang outlets dotting the city, even in places like the CBD, where lunchtime patrons flock to well-known outlets for their regular nasi padang fix. When you arrive at a nasi padang stall, you’ll be confronted with an array of dishes displayed in a glass-panelled counter. Do not be intimidated by this sight; just point at the dish you fancy having (or ask the stall helper for recommendations) and you’ll be promptly served. This is often the best-value-for-money value meal you’ll find during your time in Singapore.
Rendang is another popular Indonesia-influenced Singaporean dish. Similar to curry, Rendang is traditionally made from beef, slowly simmered with coconut milk and spices till the meat is tender and the gravy has been absorbed. Other meats that can be frequently prepared as Rendang include chicken and lamb. Lemongrass, galangal, garlic, turmeric, ginger and chillies are some of the spices that are used, pounded into a Rempah (spice mixture) which is then used to coat the beef. Coconut milk is then added and it is left to stew for a few hours. However, many people believe that it tastes even better if left overnight.
Originally served during ceremonial occasions such as Hari Raya Aidilfitri, or to honour guests, Rendang is now eaten all year round. It is rare to find Rendang on its own, as it is often eaten with a variety of dishes in Nasi Padang. These dishes include Ikan Bakar (barbequed fish), Ayam Goreng (fried chicken) and Sayur Lodeh (vegetable curry), together with rice, Ketupat (rice dumpling) or Lemang (glutinous rice roasted in bamboo sticks).
The Nasi Padang belt of Kandahar Street, located at the historic Kampong Glam area, houses numerous Nasi Padang stalls which are known for their tender and aromatic Rendang. These include Sabar Menanti and Warong Nasi Pariaman, two extremely popular restaurants in Singapore. Other Indonesian restaurants serving authentic Rendang, albeit in a more modern setting, include Garuda Padang and The Rice Table, both located along Orchard Road.
Ayam Buah Keluak is a staple Peranakan (Straits-Chinese) favourite that is truly memorable for its acquired yet robust flavour and taste. Strong traditions have resulted in this golden recipe being passed down from generation to generation, making it a truly authentic Peranakan dish. Made with chicken pieces (and sometimes pork) combined with “keluak” nuts (an atypical type of nut which comes with a tough shell exterior, but oozes a piquant liquid inside), it produces an appealing yet unique flavor that must be tasted to be believed.[Source: yoursingapore.com, Singapore Tourism Board]
The dish isn’t a simple one to make; the rempah (pounded spices) alone is made of seven ingredients and takes half a day to fry. Then, you have to scrub every nut, soak it in water for two days, chop off one end of the nut and dig out the black flesh inside. Then you have to pound or blend it with some spices. You have to neaten the nut’s opening with a cutter so that it’s presentable before you put the flesh back in (phew, what hard labour!).
Finally, you put the stuffed nuts, chicken and rempah on a simmer for another half a day until the sauce thickens. Now that takes a lot of work. So how about rewarding the hard work by trotting down to one of several Peranakan dining institutions to try it. Restaurants like The Blue Ginger, Spice Peranakan (if you have the time to venture out into the suburb of Buona Vista) and Baba Inn & Lounge are some of the best Peranakan restaurants serving this dish in Singapore, which is not commonly found at typical eateries. The dish is best eaten with a bowl of steamed rice, chincalok egg (fermented shrimp omelette) and sambal kangkong (water spinach); a truly heady combination if ever there was one.
Peranakan cuisine comes from the Peranakans, the descendants of the original Chinese immigrants who had settled in Penang, Malacca, Indonesia and Singapore, and inter-married with the local Malays. It’s also referred to as ”Nonya”, an old Malay word which was used as a term of respect and affection for women of prominent social standing. Peranakans believe that the distinct flavour of their recipes owes itself to the “rempah”, a combination of spices with a very specific texture and density that is pounded into a paste with a pestle and mortar. Small wonder that Peranakan recipes involve a time-consuming and lengthy preparation and are handed down from one generation to the next. Interestingly, a Nonya was supposed to be able to judge the cooking ability of her new daughter-in-law merely by listening as she prepared the rempah with a mortar.
An imaginative and creative cuisine infused with delicate flavours, Peranakan or Nonya food employs chillies, belachan and coconut milk as vital ingredients in its cooking. It blends the ingredients and wok cooking techniques of the Chinese with the spices used by the Malay and Indonesian community to create tangy, aromatic and spicy dishes. You’ll be interested to learn that this unique cuisine displays subtle regional differences in its style of cooking. For instance, the dishes that originate from the Penang use tamarind and other sour ingredients more liberally, displaying a Thai influence, while those from Singapore and Malacca use more coconut milk, exhibiting a stronger Indonesian influence. Take for instance laksa, a spicy Nonya dish made with rice vermicelli and coconut milk and garnished with seafood or chicken. You’ll find the sour assam laksa in Penang while it is the coconut milk-based laksa lemak that is popular in Singapore.
Dine at a Peranakan restaurant such as Baba Inn & Lounge or True Blue Cuisine and you’ll be able to sample signature dishes like the otak-otak, a blend of fish, coconut milk, chilli paste, galangal and herbs wrapped in a banana leaf; ayam buah keluak, a chicken dish cooked with nuts in a rich sauce; and itek tim, a classic soup made using duck, tomatoes, green peppers, salted vegetables and preserved sour plums simmered together. Nonya desserts include kueh or cakes enriched with the sweet flavour of coconut and sweet, sticky delicacies. Have a taste of authentic Peranakan food at Joo Chiat or Katong and take a look at the intricate beading and embroidered traditional costumes at Rumah Bebe. You can also enjoy a Peranakan history lesson when you visit the Katong Antique House.
Laksa and Otak Otak
Laksa is a popular Peranakan dish that can be found in Singapore and Malaysia. However, as most recipes go, several variations of laksa can be found in different parts of the region. Laksa lemak, also known as nyonya laksa, is made with a rich and creamy coconut milk gravy. A variant unique to Singapore, laksa lemak can be found in hawker centres and food courts everywhere. However, the most famous laksa lemak stalls are found in Katong, a neighbourhood on the eastern side of the island. Here, Katong laksa is served with the noodles cut up, so that the whole dish can be slurped up with a soup spoon, without the need for chopsticks. Assam laksa, a lighter version of the dish, is served with a tangy fish-based broth. Lately, the rich flavours of laksa have even been interpreted in laksa pasta. Although it isn’t quite the real deal, it’s still delicious nonetheless. [Source: yoursingapore.com, Singapore Tourism Board]
Katong is an area that’s traditionally associated with the Peranakan community. It’s where you’ll find the most popular laksa stalls along East Coast Road―—the battleground of the legendary ‘Katong Laksa War’. Will the original Katong laksa please stand up? Over the years, the infamous ‘Katong Laksa War’ has been well documented in the press. The feuding stall owners all claim to have the original and the best version of this much-loved dish, and up till today, the source of the authentic Katong laksa remains unresolved.
If you want a taste of the action, head to the three competing Katong laksa shops at the corner of East Coast Road and Ceylon Road: 49 Katong Laksa at 49 East Coast Road, 328 Katong Laksa at 51 East Coast Road and Marine Parade Laksa at 50 East Coast Road. Don’t know which one to try? Perhaps the fact that 328 Katong Laksa has been ranked number 1 of 550 things to do in Singapore by Lonely Planet Travellers will influence your decision.
Top 8 Laksa Stalls in Singapore: Laksa stalls were recommended by readers in a contest held by CityGas and Shin Min News. These are the results: 1) 48 Roxy Laksa at East Coast Lagoon Food Village; 2) Terry Katong Laksa at Bukit Timah Market and Food Centre; 3) Depot Road Zhen Shan Mei Claypot Laksa at Alexandra Village; 4) Lucy’s Penang Delights at Block 117 Aljunied Avenue 2; 5) Sungei Road Laksa at Block 27 Jalan Berseh, Jin Shui Kopitiam; 6) 328 Katong Laksa at 51 East Coast Road; 7) Katong Laksa at 1 Telok Kurau Road; 8) 49 Katong Laksa at 49 East Coast Road, Hock Tong Hin Eating House. (The New Paper, Nov 2011)
Otak Otak is made with various ingredients wrapped in a banana leaf that has been softened by steaming, before being grilled lightly over a burning charcoal fire. The recipe is known in several Asian regions, and although otak otak means “brains” in Malay, it’s a name derived from its soft, mushy texture. While fish otak otak is the most common, you’ll also be able to find other variations made with prawns, cuttlefish, crab and fish head. Otak otak is best eaten on its own as a snack, and is a great complementary dish to other local favourites like laksa and nasi lemak. Those who have never tried it might find this an acquired taste, but otak otak is so commonly sought-after in Singapore that every food centre has one or two stalls that often also sell them in bulk for occasions such as private parties and office lunches.
Curries and Indian-Influenced Singaporean Dishes
Roti chanai(a crispy pancake with a chick pea sauce) and murtabak” (pastry filled with egg, vegetables and meat) is very popular.
Roti prata evolved from the original pancake recipes from Pakistan and India, and is a favourite in Singapore. Roti means “bread”, and prata means “flat”, but it is actually closer to a pancake with a lightly flavoured and subtle sweet dough that makes for a gratifying meal, especially in the mornings. While commonly served plain with dhal or curry, local menus now feature a variety of eccentric variations such as durian, ice-cream, cheese, chocolate and banana, all worth a try for the adventurous diner. It is also not unusual to see prata - as it’s commonly known to the locals - being eaten with a sprinkle of sugar, as this brings out its natural taste. [Source: yoursingapore.com, Singapore Tourism Board]
The sight of the prata maker making the dish is a sight to behold. Look out for quick finger and hand movements; a toss in the air; and vigorous slaps and smacks just before serving to make it light yet doughy. And forget about eating this with a fork and spoon; the best way to sample the magic of the prata is by dunking it in the complementary curry (usually mutton or fish-based) with your fingers. Only then will you fully understand the phrase, “Finger licking good!” Between the many prata stalls, you’ll also find that the texture of the dough differs, ranging from soft and chewy to super crispy, with most being somewhere in the middle. Egg lovers should also try the egg prata, a filling and savoury version that’s hugely popular with the locals. The roti prata is ubiquitous throughout Singapore, and chances are that you’ll find a prata stall a stone’s throw away from your hotel. Just ask your concierge to point you in the right direction; they’ll only be too glad to help, as Singaporeans pride themselves in knowing the best places in town to get the best local chow.
Thosai is another popular Indian-influenced dish in Singapore. An order of thosai comes complete with dhal and splashes of dips like chutney, typically served on a classic metal plate with banana leaf. With such a colourful presentation, it is not hard to fall for the dish, especially after you’ve tasted the marriage between the refreshing tartness of the thosai and the rich and spicy flavours of the accompanying dips. A popular variation is the masala thosai, accompanied by spiced potatoes and different types of sambar (vegetarian curry).
Little India’s famous eateries are where you can sample this light, simple fare. Perfect for vegetarians, there is even a super-sized version of this dish known (appropriately enough) as the rocket thosai. Look for Komala Villas restaurant or the Madras Woodlands in Little India for hard-to-beat versions of this South Indian classic. Just before you scoot off, wash the meal down with the ever excellent South Indian-style milk coffee, a perfect way to round off any thosai-based meal. When you’ve established that you want Indian food for your next meal, your next decision to make has to do with whether you would like North Indian cuisine or South Indian food. Here in Singapore, you’ll find plenty of both varieties.
In general, you’ll find that most Indian dishes are infused with flavoured spices and herbs such as cardamom, cloves, cumin, coriander and chillies. North Indian food is often cooked with yogurt, while the dishes in the South frequently rely on coconut milk to temper the spicy dishes. A North Indian menu at a restaurant like Spices of India features mild curries, creamy yogurt based dishes, tandoori items baked in a tandoori or clay oven, fluffy naan breads, lentils, desserts and milk-based sweetmeats, while a South Indian restaurant such as Annalakshmi offers you vegetarian thosai and fiery curries enriched with coconut milk. Often served on a banana leaf or a thali, vegetarian meals consist of vegetables, pickles, chutney and bread. South Indian cuisine also includes delectable seafood dishes from Kerala.
One of the most famous Indian dishes that you can try in Singapore is fish head curry, but what may surprise you is the fact that it is actually not Indian. While it does reflect Indian cooking in its complex use of spices, the fish head curry is more of a local creation, and is also available in Chinese cuisine as well. Stroll by stalls at food centres around the city and you’ll notice yet another hybrid form of food that is more Indian-Muslim in nature. Sample the roti prata, a flaky griddle fried bread served with curry, or try the murtabak – fried bread stuffed with shredded chicken or mutton, onions and egg.
Southeast Asian Dishes
Southeast Asian Dishes include “pad tai” (fried noodle, bean sprouts, nuts, eggs, chiles and sometimes seafood), “khow pat” (fried rice), “khow pat “(fried rice with chicken), “khow pat moo” (fried rice with pork), “khow pat kung” (fried rice with prawns), “tom yam” (spicy lemon soup), “kaeng kari” (Indian-style curry), and “kaeng ped” (Thai curry)
You can also get “mii grob” (crisp fried noodles), “pat prii oh wahn” (sweet and sour vegetables), “nua pat nammun hoy” (beef in oyster sauce), “tom kha khai” (chicken with ginger and coconut milk), “pla pad khing” (fried rice with ginger), “kaeng kari kae “(curried chicken), “pla pow haw bai ong” (grilled fish in banana leaves), “yum won sen” (clear fine noodle salad), “kaeng jeud” (pork, chicken or prawn soup), “khai dao” (fried eggs), scrambled eggs (“khai khon”), and omelette (“khai jii oh”).
Chinese -Influenced Singaporean Dishes
Chinese Dishes are also widely available. Chinese restaurants serve mainly fried rice, fried noodles, noodles soups and Cantonese and southern-Chinese-style dishes. Typical Chinese dishes include Hong Kong specialties such as bird nest soup and shark fin soup.
Hainanese chicken rice is a gem of a recipe adapted from early Chinese immigrants originally from the Hainan province in southern China. The dish is simple : bite-sized pieces of steamed white chicken, fragrant rice (it’s pre-fried in chicken fat and cooked in chicken broth), light or dark soy sauce, and a delicious ground chilli and ginger paste. For the dish to sizzle as a whole all parts must be equally up to par or else it’ll easily slip into the realm of the mediocre. In fact, the accompanying ground chilli paste has the ability to make or break the dish; too hot will make for an uncomfortable dining experience, too mild will leave the dish tasting bland as a whole. [Source: yoursingapore.com, Singapore Tourism Board]
A lot of effort goes into the preparation of this flavourful dish, with cooks first steaming the chicken until it is fully cooked, before immediately soaking it in cold water. This stops the cooking process and ensures that the meat remains tender, and is also why the meat is usually served at room temperature. Usually accompanied by a bowl of light chicken broth, thin slices of cucumber, chilli mixed with dark soy sauce, and ginger paste, a good plate of chicken rice can easily be found at many hawker centres in the city, including Maxwell Road Hawker Centre for Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice and restaurants like Boon Tong Kee, Big Bird Chicken Rice Restaurant at Balmoral Plaza,Wee Nam Kee at Novena Ville and Chatterbox at Mandarin Orchard Hotel. Simple yet tasty, Hainanese chicken rice is Singaporeans’ choice comfort food, making it another must-try.
Dumpling Noodles (Wanton Mee) is served dry or in soup. It comes in two distinct versions, the Hong Kong-style version or the Malaysian and Singaporean version. Hong Kong-style Wanton Mee is usually served in a clear broth, with dumplings filled with ingredients such as prawns and pork. The thin noodles are blanched quickly, giving it an al dente texture. Extremely popular in Cantonese restaurants, a good Hong Kong-style Wanton Mee should feature slightly crunchy noodles and plump dumplings with a translucent skin, filled with goodies such as prawns, pork and black fungus. Some good family restaurants which feature Hong Kong-style Wanton Mee include Crystal Jade Kitchen and Imperial Treasure Cantonese Cuisine.
The Singaporean and Malaysian versions are largely similar, offering slices of Char Siew (barbecued pork), in addition to bite-sized dumplings and leafy vegetables. The local version is often eaten dry, and sometimes comes with deep-fried dumplings as well. The sauce for dry Wanton Mee varies from stall to stall, with the Malaysia version made with black soy sauce, and the Singaporean version consisting of tomato sauce, chilli sauce and sesame oil.
Char Siew plays an important role in local Wanton Mee, with succulent and charred slices considered the best. Egg noodles are also used, and are usually yellow, springy and flat. Char Siew is also eaten with rice, together with a sweet barbeque dipping sauce. Char Siew marbled with fat is the most flavourful, as it gives it a distinct charred taste. However, lean Char Siew has become more popular with the health-conscious.
In recent years, other variations of Wanton Mee have made appearances, such as Kolo Mee from Sarawak. Good and authentic local Wanton Mee can be found cheaply in food centres in Singapore, with some stalls more well-known then others. Some popular food stalls that sell it include Foong Kee Coffee Shop along Keong Siak Road, Kok Kee Wanton Mee at Lavender Food Centre, and Happy Wanton Noodle at Bukit Timah Food Centre. Wanton Mee is a must-try for all noodle lovers and will definitely leave you wanting more.
If you fancy a Chinese meal in Singapore, you can look forward to an incredible menu of choices. While Chinese cuisine includes more than 80 different styles of cooking, these can generally be divided into four or five main regions of China. Cantonese food is known for its light, creative cooking and subtle flavours. Signature Cantonese dishes include Shark's Fin soup, crispy deep-fried chicken, Won Ton soup, and roasted suckling pig. One of the most popular items is dim sum – which includes steamed or fried buns, dumplings and pastries stuffed with meat, prawns, sauces and herbs.
If you are in the mood for something lighter, opt for Teochew food which is usually roasted or steamed, with very little animal fat and seasoning, such as steamed seafood, clear soups and healthy porridge. You can also take your pick from fiery Szechuan dishes characterised by their generous use of hot chilli peppers, dig into mouth-watering Hainanese chicken rice, or treat yourself to the famous yong tau fu, or bean curd stuffed with fish paste from the Hakkas.
No matter which form of cooking you enjoy, and whether you dine at a restaurants such as Hai Tien Lo and No Signboard Seafood or food centres around Singapore, you’ll discover that rice forms a staple addition to their menus. Most Chinese restaurants also serve noodles made of flour, cooked in a host of different styles. In general, most Chinese meals offer you rice accompanied by small portions of several types of meat, poultry, fish, and vegetables.
Hokkien Chinese -Influenced Singaporean Dishes
A favourite on the Hokkien menu is the fried hokkien mee – a tasty dish created with a rich mixture of wheat flour noodles and rice vermicelli fried with garlic, prawns, pork, sliced squid, bean sprouts, eggs, and Chinese chives. Served with thick chilli paste and a tiny lime, it is most fragrant when served in an opeh leaf (a species of palm). Another much-loved dish is popiah or spring rolls, which are rolled crepes filled with shredded Chinese turnips, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, prawns, eggs and Chinese sausage, seasoned with garlic, chilli paste, and sweet bean sauce. [Source: yoursingapore.com, Singapore Tourism Board]
Hokkien Prawn Mee was created by the post war Hokkien sailors from South China. After working in the factories, they would congregate along Rochor Road and fry excess noodles from the noodle factories over a charcoal stove. Today, this dish is stir-fried with garlic, eggs, soy sauce, yellow noodles, bee hoon, bean sprouts, prawns and squid. A flavourful stock is also essential for a great tasting dish, and is usually made from stewing prawn heads, clams and dried fish. To cook this dish, the noodles are first flooded with stock, stewed for a minute while adding the seafood, then fried till damp. Pork lard is also a vital part of Hokkien Prawn Mee; however, most stalls use less or none of it nowadays as it is deemed as unhealthy. [Source: yoursingapore.com, Singapore Tourism Board] Sambal chilli and lime are also standard toppings for this dish, giving it that extra zing and tanginess. Some stalls also serve it on an Opei leaf (soft palm bark), to enhance the fragrance of the dish. So head down to Nam Sing Fried Hokkien Mee or Geylang Lor 29 Fried Hokkien Mee, two of Singapore’s most famous Hokkien Prawn Mee stalls, for a plate of mouthwatering noodles today.
Lor Mee originated in Xiamen, China, and was brought over to Singapore in the 1950s. Distinguished by its signature thick, dark and starchy sauce, Lor Mee is traditionally made using thick flat yellow noodles. However, Lor Mee stalls today will gladly also serve it with vermicelli. The thick dark sauce is often what determines whether a bowl of Lor Mee is average or great, and it is made by stewing a combination of pork bones, eggs and spices. Potato or corn flour is sometimes also used to thicken it. Ingredients that go into Lor Mee vary, but commonly found items include braised pork, fish cake, braised eggs and slices of Ngo Hiang (fried meat roll). Other ingredients that are available at certain stalls include fried shark meat, fried fish meat, braised duck meat and deep-fried dumplings. A bowl of Lor Mee is also not complete without its usual condiments, such as minced garlic and ginger, red chilli and dark vinegar, added to give it that extra oomph. Recommended stalls where you can find that soulful bowl of Lor Mee include Tiong Bahru Lor Mee and 178 Lor Mee at Tiong Bahru Market, Bukit Purmei Lor Mee at Bukit Purmei Avenue and Yuan Chuan Lor Mee at Amoy Street Food Centre.
Yong Tau Foo originated in the 1960s, and is basically tofu stuffed with fish or pork paste. Meaning “stuffed bean curd”, this dish can be easily found in Malaysia and Singapore. Today, Yong Tau Foo comprises of a variety of food items stuffed with fish paste, such as chilli, lady’s finger, bean curd, bitter gourd, mushroom, tofu skin and eggplant. These food items can also be bought pre-prepared at local supermarkets and wet markets. The fish paste is traditionally made by beating fish meat, usually Ikan Parang (Wolf Herring) or Ikan Tengerri (Spanish Mackerel), with a mortar and pestle into a sticky white paste. Good Yong Tau Foo is often characterised as having a tender and bouncy fish paste filling. Deep fried items such as dough fritters, dumplings and Ngo Hiang (fried meat roll) are also offered.
Either served dry or in a soup, you can have it with a choice of rice, egg noodles or vermicelli. This clear soup, which is also used to cook the items in, is usually made with soy beans and Ikan Billis (dried anchovies), and has a light and fragrant aroma. To accommodate to local tastes, certain stalls also offer Laksa (Peranakan spicy soup) or curry options. Chilli and sweet bean sauce, as well as sesame seeds, are some of the essential accompaniments when eating Yong Tau Foo.
A Malaysian version of this Hakka dish, Ampang Yong Tau Foo, is also popular in Singapore. Served dry, the ingredients are either steamed or braised slowly, adding a unique savoury touch. Well-known Hakka Yong Tau Foo stalls in Singapore include Goldhill Hakka Restaurant along Changi Road and Rong Xin Cooked Food at Tanjong Pagar Market and Food Centre. So if you’re looking for a healthy option at the food centre, be sure to order some Yong Tau Foo.
Lesser-Known Regional Chinese Food in Singapore
In 2009, Huang Lijie wrote in The Strait Times, “Many new eateries offering regional Chinese food have sprouted here with the influx of new immigrants. When China-born Zhang Juan, 28, hankers after a taste of her hometown, Xian, she goes to the Yang Gui Fei restaurant in Smith Street for a steaming bowl of yang rou pao mo, home-made bread steeped in a clear mutton soup. The year-old Chinatown restaurant specialising in food from Xian is one of many eateries offering lesser-known regional Chinese cuisines. Many of them have sprung up in recent years to cater to new immigrants from China. [Source: Huang Lijie, The Strait Times, September 28 2009 +++]
“And these curious eats, from Xinjiang-style barbecued quail spiced with cumin to milky Mongolian mutton soup, are winning Singaporean fans as well. Indeed, these eateries, opened mostly by Chinese immigrants, have become so popular that they have muscled their way into dining enclaves such as Chinatown and Geylang, which were previously dominated by shops selling Singaporean Chinese fare such as frog’s leg porridge and beef kway teow. +++
“One such gastronomic newcomer is Mongolian King, a coffee-shop stall in Geylang Lorong 13, opened by Mongolian-born Ren Hai Yi, 29. He holds a master’s degree in software engineering from Peking University and worked as an operations manager in a software company here for two years before setting up the eatery at a cost of more than $40,000 in July. The self-taught chef-owner says: “I wanted to be an entrepreneur and I chose to open a store selling Mongolian food because there are very few such eateries here.” +++
“He adds that he saw potential in the business because the considerable population of Chinese immigrants provided a ready customer base. With these eateries staffed by cooks from China and targeting Chinese immigrants, one would expect the food to taste authentic. Yet the owners and chefs also admit to having adapted the flavours to suit taste preferences here. Mr Ren says: “Winters in Mongolia are very cold so the food tends to be saltier and more oily to keep the diners feeling warm and full. But if I cooked that way here, even customers from China would not enjoy the food because the weather here is too hot for salty and oily food.” +++
“He is quick to add that although he has tweaked the taste of the food, its integrity is not compromised. Citing the Mongolian milk tea sold at his store as an example, he says: “I stick with the traditional recipe. I still use the same ingredients and go through all 11 steps to make the tea. I just don’t make it as oily or salty as it is brewed in Mongolia.” +++
“Mr Andy Liu, 31, owns LDM Charcoal BBQ Restaurant in Geylang Road. It sells meat grilled in the style of his hometown, Jilin, using spices such as cumin and peppers. He says: “After having spent some time here, Chinese immigrants have adapted to local tastes, so the adjustment is necessary. “Also, customers from different parts of China have their own peculiar taste preferences too, so our food has to accommodate everyone and cannot be too spicy or salty.” +++
“Chinatown is also a hotbed for these eateries because Chinese immigrants frequent the neighbourhood for its money remittance and airline ticketing services. The rapid growth of such outlets has led to competition among the shops. Ms Susan Sun, 40, co-owner of Zhong Guo Seafood Restaurant in New Bridge Road, says hers was the first outlet in that stretch of shophouse eateries to sell northeastern Chinese food such as bean noodles with pickled cabbage and stewed pork shanks in 2005. The restaurant also sells Xinjiang-style meat skewers that are grilled to order. Two other shops have since popped up in the same stretch – a north-eastern Chinese restaurant that also offers Xinjiang- style barbecued meat skewers and a Sichuan eatery that has north-eastern pancakes and meat pies on its menu. +++
“Owners of Chinese restaurants offering mainstream cuisines such as Cantonese and Beijing-style food, though, welcome these lesser known Chinese regional eateries. Mr Andrew Tjioe, 51, whose Tung Lok group of restaurants offers everything from modern Chinese cuisine to classic Shanghainese and Sichuan food, says: “These new eateries promote a more vibrant eating culture and this benefits everyone, restaurants and diners.” Similarly, Mr Fong Chi Cheung, 41, owner of the chain of Pu Tien restaurants that helped popularise Heng Hwa food here around 2004, says: “With more types of Chinese cuisines available, the dining scene becomes more lively.” +++
“The month-old Chinese restaurant Duo Le in Orchard Central, the cooking is a marriage of Shaanxi and Sichuan cooking. The offerings range from classic Shaanxi foods such as liang pi (cold noodles) to contemporary interpretations of Sichuan cuisine such as a dish of fried chicken gristle that embodies the spicy flavours of Sichuan food. +++
Singaporean Fish Head Curry and Chili Crab
Fish head curry was originally created by Singapore’s Malayalee (an Indian ethnic group from the Southern Indian state of Kerala) community. It is prepared by stewing the head of an ikan merah (red snapper fish) in a spicy-hot curry with vegetables; with the sour-tasting tamarind flavour an unmistakable signature of this dish. Visitors can either have it with rice or as the Chinese do it - wipe the curry gravy clean with a soft bun. The sweetness of the dough helps to neutralize the spices in the curry - a great way to enjoy the dish even if you have a low tolerance for spice. [Source: yoursingapore.com, Singapore Tourism Board]
The Chinese tend to have it alongside smaller dishes of vegetables and meat; head down to McCullum Street in the heart of the city for a taste at the famous Ocean Fish Head Curry eatery. The Indians likewise tend to eat it in a similar manner, having it with rice, pappadams and Indian pickle; check out the Banana Leaf Apolo in Little India, as well as the famous Muthu’s Curry on Race Course Road, which is just a few yards away. Savour the soft chunks of meat and dig into the eyes of the fish and complement the spicy flavours with a tall glass of Kingfisher (Indian beer) or ice-cold lemonade. This is another dish you must have during your visit here, as you are unlikely to find something like this anywhere else in the world.
Chili crab is a featured dish at No Signboard Seafood Restaurant, Jumbo Seafood and Long Beach Seafood at the East Coast Lagoon Food Village which sits right by the beach at East Coast Park. Other unique locations for seafood are Long Beach Seafood at Dempsey, Palm Beach Seafood at One Fullerton and Singapore Seafood Republic at Resorts World Sentosa. What makes this dish so special is its sensuous, sweet yet savoury sauce, created with a base of chilli and tomato sauces which will electrify your palate and satisfy your taste buds.
The red-tangy sauce is made deliciously fragrant with light flavourings of garlic and rice vinegar, while thickening flour and egg ribbons (produced by adding beaten eggs towards the end of the cooking process) give the chilli crab dish the fluffy texture it’s known for. For extra oomph, order some mantou (toasted buns) to scoop up the thick gravy, which will leave you hankering for more. While mud crabs are commonly used in the preparation of this dish, other varieties such as the soft-shell crab can also be used. If you’re a fan of seafood, this is one dish that you must chase after while you’re here in Singapore. Alternatively, head towards Joo Chiat to a coffeeshop called Eng Seng Restaurant for its sister dish, the black pepper crab. Coffeeshops are not cafés, but smallish outlets consisting of hawker stalls found throughout Singapore.
Sweets and Snacks in Singapore
Kaya Toast is a Singaporean breakfast item of Kaya, a coconut jam made with eggs, sugar and pandan, and toast. Fish Head Curry is a Singaporean dish of Ikan Merah (red snapper fish) cooked in a spicy-hot curry with vegetables. Thosai is a crispy Indian pancake eaten with dhal and chutney. Roti Prata is a Indian dish that is similar to a pancake and eaten with curry or sugar.
Dim Sum restaurants and Chinese bakeries in Singapore are aplenty, and you are sure to find this fried Chinese pastry on the menu. Coated in sesame seeds, these balls are fried till crisp on the outside and are not much to look at. However, once you bite into it, you will realise what all the fuss is about. Its sweet and chewy texture, together with its hollow centre, makes it a delicious snack. The plain versions are light and nutty, while those that are filled with sweet red bean or lotus seed paste are equally enjoyable. Kuih Bom is the Malay version of this snack, and is prepared the same way. The only difference is that Kuih Bom often contains shredded sweetened coconut, as well as the occasional green or red bean paste. Other snacks and desserts made from glutinous rice flour include Nian Gao and Tangyuan. [Source: yoursingapore.com, Singapore Tourism Board]
Nian Gao, a sticky and sweet pudding, is traditionally eaten during Chinese New Year. Meaning “a greater or higher year” in Chinese, it is eaten steamed or pan-fried (and sometimes with egg) during this time for good luck, although it’s also available all year round. On the other hand, Tangyuan is traditionally eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Today, however, it can also be found at food centres and even in supermarkets all year round. Served with a sweet soup, it comes either plain or filled with a variety of fillings, such as ground sesame, ground peanuts or red bean paste. Jian Dui, with its golden colour and round shape, resembling gold coins, is a symbol of fortune and wealth. There is a Chinese belief that as the Jian Dui grows bigger when it is fried, so will your wealth. So next time when you’re at a Dim Sum restaurant or a Chinese bakery, be sure to have some Jin Dui and watch your fortune increase.
Char Kway Teow is an extremely popular dish of flat rice noodles has a vibrant history. In its early days, char kway teow was mostly sold by fishermen and farmers who doubled up as food peddlers at night to supplement their income; they used to use leftovers from meals to whip up this dish, hence its multiple ingredient mix. Char kway teow, loosely translated as “stir-fried rice cake strips”, is made by stir-frying flat rice noodles (similar to the Italian tagliatelle) with light and dark soy sauce, a dash of belachan (shrimp paste), tamarind juice, bean sprouts, Chinese chives, lap cheong (Chinese sausages) and cockles. In its original recipe, the rice noodles are also stir-fried in pork fat using crisp bits of pork lard, resulting in a distinctively rich taste.
In recent years, the dish as evolved into a healthier version with hawkers serving up more greens and adding less oil. This not only makes the dish healthy but the greens and bean sprouts give it a freshness and crunchy texture, adding to the overall star quality of this old-time favourite. The clanging wok and sweet-smelling hot air wafting from it gives it a heady, sensuous dimension of sight, smell and sound; and that’s even before you’ve taken a bite!
Char kway teow is easily available at most food centres in Singapore, such as at the Maxwell Road Hawker Centre, and it’s also a signature dish at the Princess Terrace Café. Choose from either cockles or prawns to go with a plate of sizzling hot char kway teow, and have a hearty meal that satisfies your sinful cravings. If you’re heading to Zouk for a spot of clubbing, then why not stop off at the nearby Zion Road Hawker Centre (no need to mention the stall here; you’ll recognise it instantly from its long queues of eager customers) for a scrumptious plate of this famous dish from a much-lauded, famous hawker.
Common desserts include “durian chendol” (durian puree with red beans, palm sugar and jelly), “longan pulot itam” (black rice cooked with dried longans and topped with coconut milk), “gula malaaca” (sago pudding made with sago palm sugar) and “kueb” (cakes made with rice flour, coconut milk and fragrant spices).
Ice Kachang is a favorite dessert and and street snack. It contains jelly, red beans, sweet corn and attap chee (palm seeds), topped with shaved ice, coloured syrups and condensed milk. Cendol is a traditional dessert made from shaved ice, coconut milk, green starched noodles with pandan flavouring and palm sugar. Fried Sesame Balls are made from glutinous rice flour and contain an assortment of fillings. Fried Carrot Cake, or Chai Tow Kueh, is made with steamed rice flour and white radish, fried with egg and garnished with spring onions. Mooncakes are made up of a thin skin covering a sweet dense filling, sometimes containing salted egg yolks.
The first ice-cold dessert introduced (way back long ago) in Singapore was ice balls, finely grated ice packed into a ball and topped with a type of coloured sugar coated syrup, typically eaten by using just the fingers or hands. The ice ball was a common sight in the 1950s and 1960s and was sold by the roadside and street corners, usually by pushcart drink vendors wanting to supplement their (meagre) income. [Source: yoursingapore.com, Singapore Tourism Board]
The ice kachang is a thus modern, more elaborate update of the ice ball — comprising jelly, red beans (hence the name; kachang means beans in Malay), sweet corn and attap chee (palm seeds) as its base, and topped off with a mound of shaved ice, psychedelically coloured syrups and condensed milk; and it’s served in either a bowl or a tall glass. Today, ice kachang even comes with fruit cocktail, aloe vera jelly and novelty toppings such as chocolate and durian to satisfy the selective palate of the savvy Singaporean crowd. This fun (if served in a bowl, it usually comes mound-shaped, and all these lovely ingredients are tucked under the ice shavings; so there’s quite a bit of fun to be had by digging your way to the “goodies”) and colourful dessert can be had at food centres all across the city such as the popular Maxwell Road Hawker Centre in Chinatown.
Remember to savour this lovely dessert dish slowly, or else: Brain Freeze! It’s sometimes hard for the new visitor to Singapore to suss out the good from the bad ice kachangs out there. But bear this in mind: A good ice kachang is one where the ice is cleanly shaven to very small bits; so much so that when you put a spoonful in your mouth, the ice should just melt in your mouth together with the sweet tasting syrup. As for ingredients, the more varied the better; nothing like biting in multiple textures every time you take a mouthful.
Cendol is made from coconut milk and green starched noodles with artificial pandan flavouring and palm sugar. Singaporeans are known for personalizing their eating experience, and with cendol, it’s no exception. Expect additional topping options such as grated ice, red beans, glutinous rice, grass jelly and creamed corn; making this yummy dessert just perfect for the sunny weather here in Singapore. The more adventurous among you can try durian-flavoured cendol, which is (acquired taste aside) quite delicious.
Fried carrot cake is made from an old-world recipe that’s been a local favourite for many years. Also known as chai tow kueh, it consists of cubes of steamed rice flour and white radish, fried in egg-like an omelette and garnished with spring onions, a recipe common to the Teochews in Singapore. It can be served “white” (plain) or “dark” (seasoned with sweet soya sauce), and is perfect for those looking for a quick yet satisfying meal. Some of the best carrot cake in town can be sampled at Makansutra Gluttons Bay near the Esplanade Theatre and Newton Food Centre. Restaurants such as Hai Tien Lo offer a Cantonese variation of the fried carrot cake - usually served with fresh radish, “lup cheong” (preserved Chinese sausage) and shrimp, in large rectangular slabs that are first steamed then fried whole. The process of cooking carrot cake is a fun-filled one, with hawkers chopping the omelette-like dish on their hot plates into squares; there’s a lot of clanging sounds, chopping thuds and quite a bit of theatre, so stick around to see your dish being whipped up.
Mooncakes date back to the Yuan dynasty in China, Zhu Yuanzhang, the leader of the Ming Army, conceived the plan to use mooncakes to distribute messages to the people, so as to overthrow the Mongolian rule. On the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, when the moon was at its fullest, the people formed a rebellion and overthrew their oppressors, hence establishing the Ming dynasty. This day is now used to commemorate the Mid-Autumn Festival and is celebrated with the lighting of lanterns, as well as the eating of mooncakes and pomelo fruits.
Mooncakes are usually round or square shaped, and are made up of a thin skin covering a sweet dense filling, sometimes containing salted egg yolks. Traditionally, the skin of a mooncake is made from a chewy brown dough made with lard. This dough is also used to make fish or piglet shaped biscuits that are sold with mooncakes, largely popular with children. Today, other types of mooncake skins, such as those made out of flaky pastry and snow skin, are commonplace.
The Chinese characters for longevity or harmony are often imprinted on the top of mooncakes. Other imprints include the name of the bakery, the filling, as well as images of flowers, the moon or Chang Er (the goddess of the moon in Chinese folklore). The original filling for mooncakes is said to be lotus seed paste, but fillings like red bean paste and yam paste are also widespread. Modern varieties of mooncakes have also popped up in recent years, including flavours such as durian, ice-cream, bird’s nest, chocolate, green tea, cream cheese, chempedek and more.
Many establishments in Singapore sell mooncakes, with Chinese restaurants, bakeries and hotels producing highly sought after creations. Some popular outlets include Raffles Hotel, Chop Tai Chong Kok at Sago Street and Tai Thong Cake Shop at Mosque Street. Be it traditional mooncakes or those with a twist, these treats are sure to send you over the moon.
Kaya Jam and Kaya Toast
Kaya Toast is a Singaporean breakfast item with Kaya, a coconut jam made with eggs, sugar and pandan, and toast. Yvonne Ruperti wrote in seriouseats.com, Kaya jam is a deliciously sweet curd made of caramelized sugar, coconut, and eggs that's infused with pandan, a subtly nutty flavored, bright green leaf. The color of the pandan tints the kaya a questionable shade of murky green. To me, it's a Southeast Asian version of dulce de leche, and I've been hooked on the stuff since the very first time I sampled it at a local coffee house, or kopitiam. Kaya jam is traditionally served slathered on toast (often pandan flavored), with pats of butter and the crusty ends of the toast trimmed off. Combined with the obligatory soft boiled eggs and a coffee or tea, it makes for a tasty snack or a not too heavy breakfast (compared to a hearty bowl of porridge). [Source: Yvonne Ruperti, seriouseats.com, March 14, 2013 \\]
“Kaya jam served on toast was created by Chinese kitchen workers who served on British ships and eventually settled in Southeast Asia. These people began selling the toast that they served the British but with local jams such as kaya. Now it's sold all over Singapore and Malaysia (literally, almost every coffee stop will sell it). In the supermarket, there seem to be more brands of kaya than peanut butter. \\
“Though the jarred versions are okay, and I'm more than happy to shell out the $2.50SG for a quick fix, I wanted to figure out how to make it myself. The ingredients are simple and can't get any more Southeast Asian: coconut cream, palm sugar, pandan leaves, and eggs. According to many recipes, all of the ingredients are slow cooked—very slow cooked—until everything caramelizes and thickens into the most addicting flavor you've ever tasted. The traditional way takes time and patience, and I had trouble keeping my eggs from curdling during the process. My solution? To caramelize the sugar first, then the coconut milk, and then stir in the eggs at the end, just as in a standard citrus curd. The result was a silky smooth, rich-flavored "jam" in a fraction of the time. \\
“If you can find whole pandan leaves to cook with, great. If not, pandan flavoring is the next best choice, or the first one if you want a more in-your-face pandan flavor (the more, the better for me). Serve this tropical concoction on anything you can find, or better yet, grab a spoon and dig right in. \\
“One of the best places to get your kaya fix in Singapore is Ya Kun Kaya Toast, which sells a delectable range of kaya toast spreads since 1940s. Food gifts are also available at their outlets where you can bring home the famous kaya and coffee powder. Or if you can’t spot one of these eateries around, head for any old coffeeshop or even food court for this stunning yet simple fare. Another popular local café chain that sells this item is the Killiney Kopitiam, which of course, has a branch on Killiney Road, just behind the futuristic Orchard Central mall. At some places, it even comes with a side of half-boiled eggs, which is perfect for dunking your toast into; and then wash the brekkie all down with a cup of bitter black coffee known as kopi-o. [Source: yoursingapore.com, Singapore Tourism Board]
Weird Food in Singapore
Many Singaporean Chinese go to Johor Baru, Malaysia for a meal of termites, which they believe will relieve headaches and muscle pain and generally improve health. The termites are served three ways—live, dripped in alcohol or preserved in rice wine—and sell for as much as $7 for individual termite ( a plump, juicy two-inch-long queen). One termite eater said they "were tough and firm on the outside, cool and creamy on the inside—absolutely tasteless.” The Chinese reportedly have considered termites a delicacy for 3,000 years. [Source: Reuters, 1996]
Restaurants in Singapore serve deep-fried drunken scorpions with asparagus and crispy black ants on shredded potato and vegetables. A popular Singapore breakfast dish in Singapore is pig-organ soup. Singaporeans used to catch, skin and eat fruit bats.
Explaining why here srbed bull penises and cocdile tails as part of Valentine's day dinner, Chris Schittler, amanger of the Apollo Hotel, said, "The motivation is to cerate something which the average Singaporean has near sen before, to tkcle their lust a little."
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated August 2020