Along with shopping, eating ranks as the national pastime of Singaporeans, and a mind-boggling number of food outlets on just about every street cater to this obsession. One of the joys of the local eating scene is its distinctive and affordable street food, featuring Chinese and Indian dishes you won’t find in China or India, served up in myriad hawker centres and food courts, as is great Malay and Indonesian food. Also worth discovering is Nonya cooking, a hybrid of Chinese and Malay cooking styles developed by the Peranakan community. Western food of all kinds is plentiful too, though it tends to be pricier than other cuisines from Asia, which are equally available. Quite a few of the more run-of-the-mill restaurants swing both ways by offering both Western and Asian dishes, and there’s no shortage of upmarket places serving a fusion of the two.
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.
Hawker and kopitiam food
For taste and value, the inexpensive cooking served up by stalls in hawker centres and at the roadside diners called kopitiams simply can’t be beaten. While not the healthiest food you could eat – much of it is fried, and cooks use salt and sugar liberally – it is likely to form an abiding and highly favourable impression of Singapore cuisine.
Perhaps the most basic meal is mixed rice (nasi campur in Malay), widely served up by Chinese, Malay and some Indian stalls; you’ll instantly recognize it by the trays of stir-fries and stews behind the glass. Order simply by pointing at what you fancy, and expect plenty of entertaining culinary cross-fertilization – the Chinese stalls all serve curry, the Indian stalls have tofu, and so on. It’s best had at mealtimes when the dishes will be freshly prepared, though food never really goes cold in Singapore’s climate, so will be palatable at any time of day.
Otherwise, stalls offer literally dozens of classic one-plate rice and noodle dishes, plus other, more elaborate dishes.
As befits a country whose Indian community is largely Tamil, Indian food in Singapore tends to be synonymous with South Indian cooking, which is generally spicy, makes heavy use of coconut and tamarind and emphasizes starchy and vegetarian food. The classic southern Indian dish is the dosai or thosai, a thin rice-flour pancake. It’s usually served accompanied by sambar a watery vegetable and dhal (lentil) curry; rasam, a spicy clear soup flavoured with tamarind; and perhaps a few small helpings of vegetable or dhal curries, plus coconut or mint chutney. Also very common are rotis – griddle breads – plus the more substantial murtabak, thicker than a roti and stuffed with egg, onion and minced meat. The latter is a particular specialty of Indian Muslim kopitiams and stalls, which form a sideshoot of the South Indian eating scene and tend to place much more emphasis on meat.
One endearing aspect of South Indian restaurants is that they often serve food on a banana-leaf “platter”, the waiters dishing out replenishable heaps of various curries along with mounds of rice. In some restaurants you’ll find more substantial dishes such as the popular fish-head curry (don’t be put off by the idea – the “cheeks” between the mouth and gills are packed with tasty flesh).
South Indian restaurants tend to be very reasonably priced. North Indian food is usually pricier (though some cheap South Indian places will offer attempts at northern cooking) and tends to be richer, less fiery and more reliant on mutton and chicken. In Singapore, tandoori dishes – the tandoor being the clay oven in which the food is cooked – are the most common North Indian offerings, particularly tandoori chicken marinated in yoghurt and spices and then baked. Breads such as nan also tend to feature rather than rice, though just about every restaurant has a version of biriyani.
Malay and Indonesian food
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.
Markets and supermarkets
Many hostels and guesthouses have cooking facilities, and if you want to take advantage of them, the most interesting places to buy produce and ingredients are wet markets – so called because the floors are perpetually damp, and sometimes actually quite wet, thanks to being hosed down from time to time. If you don’t know a mango from a mangosteen, vendors are usually very helpful. Probably the most popular, well-stocked and atmospheric of downtown wet markets is the Tekka Market at the start of Serangoon Road, a worthwhile stopover on any trip to Little India. In addition, Singapore has plenty of supermarkets, some of which are franchises of Western or Japanese chains; all stock imported beers and wines and have a deli counter. For more unusual imports, try Market Place (outlets include: Level B1, Tanglin Mall, 163 Tanglin Rd; Level B1, Paragon, 290 Orchard Rd, near Orchard MRT; both daily 9am–10pm), which is popular with expats for its specialist Western and Japanese food, including organic produce.
Peranakan cuisine, also called Nonya/Nyonya food (Nonya being the term for a Peranakan woman), is the product of the melding of Chinese and Malay (and also Indonesian) cuisines. It can seem more Malay than Chinese thanks to its use of spices – except that pork is widely used.
Nonya popiah (spring rolls) is a standard dish: rather than being fried, the rolls are assembled by coating a steamed wrap with a sweet sauce made of palm sugar, then stuffed mainly with stir-fried bangkwang, a crunchy turnip-like vegetable. Another classic is laksa, noodles in a spicy soup flavoured in part by daun kesom – a herb with a distinctive taste and fittingly referred to in English as the laksa leaf. Other well-known Nonya dishes include asam fish, a spicy, tangy fish stew featuring tamarind (the asam of the name); otak-otak, fish mashed with coconut milk and chilli paste, then put in a narrow banana-leaf envelope and steamed or barbecued; and ayam buah keluak, chicken cooked with “black nuts” which are actually the large, creamy seeds of a local plant.
Street ice cream
A couple of generations ago, ice cream in Singapore often meant stuff sold by hawkers from pushcarts, in exotic flavours like sweetcorn, red (aduki) bean and yam. This was so-called potong (“cut” in Malay) ice cream because it came in bricks and the seller would use a cleaver to slice it into slabs, to be served either between wafers or, oddly, rolled up in white bread.
The general elimination of street stalls put paid to that trade in Singapore, but in recent years the ice-cream vendors have made a comeback. They’re often to be seen at Cavenagh Bridge, on Orchard Road near Somerset MRT and outside Bugis MRT. The bread option complements the ice cream surprisingly well, serving as a sort of neutral sponge cake.
Local dishes are generally eaten with fork and spoon – never a knife as the food is usually sliced up enough that one is unnecessary – and it’s the spoon you eat off, with the fork playing the supporting role of helping to pick up and move morsels of food, plus rice, onto the spoon. Of course you have the option of using chopsticks with Chinese food, but don’t make the mistake of trying to consume rice off a plate with them, as that’s where the spoon comes into play. Chopsticks go together with a rice bowl, which you hold right to your mouth so you can snaffle the rice using the chopsticks as a shovel. More familiarly, they also serve as tongs: one chopstick is laid between thumb and forefinger, and supported by your fourth and little fingers, while the second chopstick is held between thumb, forefinger and second finger, and manipulated to form a pincer. Indian and Malay food is traditionally eaten using the right hand as a scoop and the right thumb to flick food into your mouth, and there are always sinks near the tables for washing before and after the meal.