The range of Chinese cooking available in Singapore represents a mouthwatering sweep through China’s southeastern seaboard, reflecting the historical pattern of emigration from Fujian, Guangzhou and Hainan Island provinces. Frankly there aren’t clear-cut differences between each province’s style; it’s more that each has its signature dishes (including some that were actually created by hawkers in Singapore and have subsequently become local standards). You’ll also come across food from further afield in China, notably northern Beijing (or Peking) and western Sichuan cuisines. It’s good to retain a sense of adventure when exploring menus: the Chinese eat all parts of an animal, from its lips to its entrails.
One popular feature of some Singapore Chinese kopitiams and restaurants is what’s termed zichar – which basically means that their food has a home-cooked, less formal slant, with more flexibility to order dishes that don’t correspond exactly to what’s on the menu.
Cantonese food dominates in formal restaurants, reflecting that cuisine’s pre-eminence in Chinese cooking. It’s noted for its subtleties of flavour and memorable sauces, most famously sweet-and-sour. Fish and seafood weigh in heavily, either fried or steamed, and other specialities include pigeon, roast meats and frogs’ legs. Dim sum is also a classic Cantonese meal: literally translated as “to touch the heart”, it’s a blanket term for an array of dumplings, cakes and tidbits steamed in bamboo baskets. Though you do occasionally see it on lunch menus, traditionally dim sum is eaten for breakfast, with one basket (of three or four pieces) costing as little as $3.
Hainanese cuisine in Singapore is synonymous with chicken rice, a simple but tasty platter featuring, predictably enough, slices of chicken laid on rice that has been cooked in chicken stock, with a chilli and ginger dip. Historically, though, the Hainanese were chefs to the British and kept their colonial employers happy with a range of fusion dishes such as pork chops, still found on menus.
The Hokkien chef relies heavily upon sauces and broths to cook his meat and (primarily) seafood. Without doubt, the cuisine’s most popular dish in Singapore is Hokkien mee, though confusingly it comes in two styles. The classic hawker version doesn’t consist of just mee – yellow noodles – but also features white vermicelli, the combination fried with prawns and pork for flavour. In restaurants, however, Hokkien noodles are braised in a savoury brownish sauce.
Chaozhou (Teochew in dialect) is a city in Fujian province where steaming is the most commonly used form of cooking, producing light but flavourful dishes such as fish steamed with sour plums. Other Teochew classics are braised goose, steamed crayfish and, at hawker stalls, mee pok – a spicy dish of flat noodles with round fishball dumplings.
The sumptuous presentation of Beijing cuisine reflects that city’s opulent past as the seat of emperors. Meat dominates, typically flavoured with garlic and spring onions, though the dish for which Beijing is most famous is roast duck, served in three courses: the skin is eaten in a pancake filled with spring onion and radish, and smeared with plum sauce.
Sichuan (or Szechuan) food is famously spicy and greasy, with chilli, pepper, garlic and ginger conspiring to piquant effect in classic dishes such as camphor-and-tea-smoked duck and chicken with dried chilli. One of the most common offerings in this vein in Singapore is the hotpot, akin to a fondue; you order raw ingredients, such as slices of meat and fish, and cook them at your table in a pot of boiling stock.