Though Malays form the largest minority in Singapore, the Malay eating scene is a bit one-dimensional, mainly because the Malays themselves don’t have a tradition of elaborate eating out. Every hawker centre has several Malay stalls, but these tend to serve fairly basic rice and noodle dishes. It’s a shame, because Malay cuisine is a spicy and sophisticated affair with interesting connections to China in the use of noodles and soy sauce, but also to Thailand, with which it shares an affinity for such ingredients as lemon grass, the ginger-like galingale and fermented fish sauce (the Malay version, budu, is made from anchovies). Malay cooking also draws on Indian and Middle East cooking in the use of spices, and in dishes such as biriyani rice. The resulting cuisine is characterized by being both spicy and a little sweet. Santan (coconut milk) lends a sweet, creamy undertone to many stews and curries, while belacan, a pungent fermented prawn paste (something of an acquired taste), is found in chilli condiments and sauces. Unusual herbs, including curry and kaffir-lime leaves, also play a prominent role.
The most famous Malay dish is arguably satay, though this can be hard to find outside the big cities; another classic, and this time ubiquitous, is nasi lemak, standard breakfast fare. Also quintessentially Malay, rendang is a dryish curry made by slow-cooking meat (usually beef) in coconut milk flavoured with galingale and a variety of herbs and spices.
For many visitors, one of the most striking things about Malay food is the bewildering array of kuih-muih (or just kuih), or sweetmeats, on display at markets at street stalls. Often featuring coconut and sometimes gula melaka (palm-sugar molasses), kuih come in all shapes and sizes, and in as many colours (often artificial nowadays) as you find in a paints catalogue – rainbow-hued layer cakes of rice flour are about the most extreme example.
Worth mentioning in the same breath as Malay food is Indonesian cuisine – the two can have much in common, given that native Malay speakers live in many parts of what is now Indonesia. One style of Indonesian cuisine is especially widespread in Singapore – nasi padang, associated with the city of Padang in Sumatra. Like mixed rice, it’s largely served up as curries and stir-fries in trays; point at what you want and servings will be dolloped on top of a generous portion of steamed rice.