They say the only way to really get under the skin of a country is to eat its food and when you come to Singapore, you’re in for a real treat. It’s no overstatement to say that Singaporeans are obsessed with food. Engage a local on the topic and they’ll regale you for hours on the best local dishes, the right way to cook them (their way, usually) and the food you simply have to try. Here’s our guide to the top ten dishes that define Singapore.
Katong Laksa, a deep, full-flavoured broth of coconut milk with thick rice vermicelli, dried prawns, shrimp, cockles, fish, egg and chicken meat is unique to Singapore and inspired by the Peranakan people. The Singaporeans take this dish so seriously that there have been ‘Laksa Wars’ for years with everyone claiming to be the original and the Katong version is served with the noodles cut up and only served with a spoon. Recommended restaurant: 328 Katong Laksa
Translated as ‘rich rice’, this is a well-loved Malay breakfast dish that has been converted to a lunch and dinner staple. So popular is it in Singapore that most Southeast Asian cultures have adopted their own version. It’s a steamed coconut cream-infused rice dish eaten with ‘ikan bilis’ or anchovies, fried fish or chicken, peanuts, egg and perhaps most importantly, a good sambal, a sauce made from chilli, shrimp paste, garlic, ginger, onions, lime juice, vinegar and whatever you want to throw in. It’s all wrapped in a banana leaf for a genuine taste of Singapore.
Often known as Hainanese Chicken Rice, it’s regarded by many as Singapore’s national dish. You’ll find variations across the board, from the hawker stalls to some of the best restaurants in the city. The chicken is steamed or boiled in high quality stock and served with oily rice cooked with things like ginger, garlic, chilli and pandan leaves topped with a tangy soy or chilli dip. Recommended restaurant: Tian Tian
Kaya Toast & Kopi
If you’re looking for a traditional Singaporean breakfast, look no further than a cup of steaming kopi – Robusta coffee beans roasted with butter, sugar and corn – and kaya on toast, Kaya is a sweet coconut custard jam slathered onto thickly-buttered, toasted white bread and usually served with two very runny boiled eggs and a splash of dark soy sauce and white pepper. Recommended restaurant: Tong Ah Eating House
Coming to Singapore and not eating chilli crab is, for some, tantamount to treason. It’s another national treasure where everyone has their ‘go to’ place as well as their favourite crustacean – the giant Sri Lankan, the Tasmanian King, the Dungeness or the Alaskan King crab – and the dish is prepared with either a black pepper sauce or with a tomato-based sauce (which splatters everywhere) but you can soak it all up with mantou buns for a true taste of Singapore. Recommended restaurant: Roland Restaurant
Fish Head Curry
There are two main versions of this dish that came to Singapore in the 1950s – one is Indian-influenced which spicy and intense and the other is Chinese-influenced which is lighter and sweeter. The main ingredient is the head (eyes, teeth and all) of a red snapper stewed slowly in a curry made from a whole host of ingredients including okra, eggplant and long beans. Some include tamarind for a sweet-sour combination and some add coconut milk for a deeper curry flavour and it’s served with rice or bread. Recommended restaurant: Muthu’s Curry
Fried Carrot Cake
Fried Carrot Cake
Don’t mistake this classic Singaporean dish known as chai tow kuay with the American dessert cake – for starters there’s no carrot in it! It’s made with eggs, preserved radish (chai poh) and white radish flour cake which some refer to as ‘white carrot’. The mixture is steamed, cubed and then fried with, amongst other things, garlic, spring onion, soy sauce and preserved turnip and you can have it white (original) or black (with sweet dark soy sauce).
This is an old-school Singaporean dish with strong Malaysian influences developed by noodle factory workers who used to gather on Rochor Road to fry up any of the day’s leftovers. It’s made from a combination of egg and rice noodles and cooked in a rich prawn stock full of prawns, squid, fish, pork belly and deep-fried lard! It’s a fatty dish served with a slice of lime to cut through the fattiness and if you can find a restaurant that cooks it over a charcoal stove, all the better.
Bak Kut Teh
Bak Kut Teh
Literally translated as ‘pork rib tea’, this humble dish has deep Chinese and Malay origins and is often eaten for breakfast. It is a slow-cooked pork rib consommé flavoured with Chinese herbs and spices including star anise, garlic and pepper which looks like the colour of tea, hence the name and it’s usually served with steamed rice.
The durian is Singapore’s national fruit but it most certainly divides opinion! If you’ve never seen one, it’s around the size of a pineapple with a spiky skin and cut open, the flesh is, according to British naturalist Alfred Wallace ‘a rich custard flavoured with almonds’. Singaporeans make desserts, cakes, tarts and even shakes from it but one thing you need to keep in mind – it stinks. Not a mild odour, it really stinks. Described as a mix of rotten onions, turpentine and raw sewage, it smells so bad that it’s been banned from public transport but tastes, according to some, delicious!