While Singapore may have grabbed headlines in recent years for its high cost of living, grand architectural wonders and master planned, integrated resorts, it is something entirely different that gets the locals most excited – food.
And it’s not just any food either, but the dishes they have been eating for decades at the country’s countless food courts, also known as hawker centres. This is where most locals will start the day with kaya toast and a glass of boiling hot kopi, then recharge during lunch with a char kway teow and meet their friends and family after a long day of work over a plate of satay or chai tow kway.
History of Good Taste
Singaporean cuisine owes its diversity to the country’s rich ethnic heritage. The food is influenced by centuries of interaction with other cultures and features culinary traditions such as Malay, Chinese, Indonesian, Indian and Peranakan as well as Western influences, mainly those from England and Portugal. Most hawker centres will embrace all of these influences, but there are a few dishes that always stand out as essentially “Singaporean” – at least to locals.
Start the Day Right
Throughout Singapore, in every residential neighbourhood and across all the major business districts, there will be a kopi tiam. Kopi is Malay/Hokkien for coffee and tiam means shop. These often modest outlets form the staple of daily life for a lot of locals who visit on their way to work for a glass of coffee – more often than not laced with sweet condensed milk – and kaya toast, a popular breakfast food consisting of slices of toast with coconut jam, sugar, coconut milk and eggs. They sit on plastic chairs inside an old shophouse or on the street and catch up with fellow patrons or read the morning paper. Many kopi tiams also serve other favourites such as a variety of fried noodles and soft boiled eggs, eaten not out of the egg shell like in the west but cracked open onto a plate and seasoned with dark soy sauce.
Despite its name, Hainanese chicken rice, has become something of a national dish in Singapore, sold at almost every hawker centre and even at many international hotels. Recipes change from vendor to vendor and some have been passed down for generations, but generally speaking, the dish consists of soft, tender chicken that has been steamed or boiled in a pork and chicken bone stock that is used again and again to maximise the flavour. The meat is sliced and placed over white rice that has also been boiled in fatty chicken stock to create a fragrant, slightly oily result. Condiments also change, but usually include chicken broth, sliced cucumber, dark, thick soya sauce, a tangy chilli sauce and ginger sauce. Some shops will place the chicken on a bed of Chinese cabbage to soak up the juices from the chicken. The question of which is the best chicken rice in Singapore is a hotly contested one, but many locals mention Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken at Maxwell Food Centre. For a less obvious option, but packing the same rich flavours, try the Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice stall at Tiong Bahru Food Market & Hawker Centre.
Another national dish of Singapore is chilli crab, a whole crab prepared in a sweet-spicy chilli sauce, or pepper crab, prepared with a pepper paste. Then there is char kway teow – fried, flat rice noodles usually with prawns and a sticky soy based sauce and chai tow kway, also known as fried carrot cake, although it doesn’t contain any carrots. Instead it is made from steamed radish, which is then fried with eggs, preserved radish, soy and other seasonings.
Last but by no means least, Laksa is another very popular Singaporean dish – a noodle soup with bean curd, fish, shrimps and cockles. You can choose either curry laksa or asam laksa, but the former is much more common in Singapore, the latter mostly found in Malaysia.
Temples of Food
Every hawker centre in Singapore boasts a few food stops that locals swear by, but there are only a few that you will hear mentioned over and over again. A visit to any of the below temples of food offers a delicious all around experience.
- Tiong Bahru Food Market & Hawker Centre, 30 Seng Poh Road – must try dishes include the Peranakan specialties at Daisy Dream Kitchen (#02-36), handmade fish balls from Twochew Fish Ball Noodle (#02-13), Tiong Bahru Hainanese Chicken Rice (#02-82) and Lor Mee, thick, flat egg noodles served in a thick gravy, (#02-60).
- Jurong West Food Centre, Blk 5050 Jurong West Street 52 – popular for its keuh tutu (#01-11), a steamed dumpling made from rice flour or glutinous rice flour, filled with ground peanut or coconut with sugar. Also chicken claypot from Chinatown Claypot (#02-12) chicken and rice prepared and served in a claypot with steamed mustard greens and a thick, slightly sweet say sauce base.
- Newton Food Centre, 500 Clemenceau Ave N – also known as Newton Circus, the Newton Food Centre is popular for its seafood and satay. The best satay is to be found at Satay Chicken Wings Otah at stall number 30. Try the oyster omelette from Heng (stall 28) and the fish porridge from Kwang Kee Teochew Fish Porrige (stall 20). For some Indian flavours go for chicken murtabak – a roti prata stuffed with chicken shreds, at Al-Amin Indian Muslim Food (stall 26).
- Telok Ayer Market, 18 Raffles Quay – located in the central business district around Raffles Quay and referred to by locals as Lau Pa Sat, this hawker centre is located within a beautiful historic market. Go there for the dum biryani at Andra Curry (stall 3) or the yong tau foo, a clear soup with fish balls, crab sticks, lettuce and bitter gourds at Jason Yong Tau Foo (stall 17) or the char kway teow, fried noodles with light and dark soy sauce, chilli, bean sprouts and chives at Lakeview Char Kway Teow (stall 77).