What makes the food in Singapore unique is its multi-cultural diversity. It might be among the smallest countries in the world, but there is so much choice that it can be a bit bewildering for a first time visitor. After all, aren’t all noodle dishes the same? They might appear to look the same but what they deliver in taste and flavour is streets apart.
I love the variety of food in Singapore and if I was there for a month I could find something different to eat for each meal. Even then, I doubt that I would have been able to scratch the surface of what’s available. Oh, and I meant to tell you that it’s not all about just noodles either. There is so much more to try.
WHAT MAKES THE FOOD IN SINGAPORE DIFFERENT FOR THE REST OF SE ASIA?
To answer this we need to go back in history. Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore in 1819 to establish a trading post and with this came immigrants from China, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Middle East, Europe India and the USA.
THE CHINESE INFLUENCE
Many of the Chinese traders hailed from the southern provinces of China and brought with them not only different dialects but their local food as well. This was the beginning of one of the most popular, heavenly dishes, Hainanese Chicken rice
It is a staple dish that you will find on hawker stalls throughout the city, but more about that a bit later.
The Hokkiens brought the popular yellow wheat noodle that is also seen in many dishes. One of the favourites is Hokkien char mee, pan-fried with soy sauce, squid, prawns, cabbage, some pork as well as crispy bits of pork belly. I guess you could call this surf and turf noodles although you would probably be shot at dawn if you did. The Singaporeans take their food very seriously.
Dim sum is a bit like the Chinese version of tapas. These delicious bites are usually steamed in a bamboo basket. The Singaporeans acquired the habit of eating dim sum from the Cantonese community and it is a popular snack all over the city. There is a huge variety to choose from, but if you are going to indulge then do so before mid-afternoon when most places change their menu for the evening meal and stop serving dim sum.
WHAT DID THE INDIANS BRING?
The Indians came to Singapore as indentured labour. Once their contract was completed many of them stayed on and settled in the area that became known as Little India. They originated mostly from Tamil Nadu and Kerala where fresh vegetables and seafood was an important part of their diet. It’s no secret that Indians love spicy food and soon curries were on the menu.
Did you know that there is a Little India in Singapore?
THE MALAYS CONTRIBUTION
Peranakan or Nonya cuisine was born in the late 1800’s. Many Chinese arrived in SE Asia without wives and married Malay women. Their descendants became known as Peranakan or Straits Chinese. A new cuisine started to emerge that is widely acknowledged as one of the earliest examples of fusion food.
A classic example of this is laksa. Both the Malaysians and Singaporeans claim to have invented this. I really don’t mind who lays claim to it. I have eaten numerous bowls of laksa in both countries and while they differ in flavour they are equally delicious. A good example of this is Katong laksa, made from prawns, coconut milk, cockles, fish cakes, bean sprouts, lemongrass, turmeric, chilli, shrimp paste and laksa leaves. As you can see there are influences from all of the above cuisines.
Another popular dish is Cendol also called Chendol in Singapore. It is a dessert with green rice flour noodles, coconut milk. palm sugar and sweetened red beans all placed on top of shaved ice. Once again you will find this dish in Malaysia as well, where it originated.
NOW DOWN TO THE GOOD STUFF!
Singaporean chilli or black pepper crab
This is probably the national dish of Singapore and I love it! Let me tell you right now eating it is a long, messy process, but it is worth the effort. The taste of the sweet crab with a hit of chilli and tomato is heavenly.
In the early 1950’s Madam Cher Yam Tian started selling crabs from a cart in the street and later from a small restaurant. A Local chef added vinegar and sambal to the original tomato and chilli creating a rich gravy.
Wherever you go you will see signs for chilli crab, but one of the best is No Signboard. Back in the 1970’s Madam Ong Kim Hoi sold her crab from a hawker centre. Everyone loved her crab and wanted to send their friends around, but she could not afford a signboard, so the reference became the stall with no signboard. Today there are 4 outlets and the easiest one for you to visit is in Geylang Road. If you don’t like heavily spices food don’t worry, because you can also choose just how hot you would like your crab to be.
Location: 414 Geylang Road, Geylang
Laksa comes in a variety of forms. It can be enjoyed as an asam version which includes shredded mackerel and bits of mangosteen or with the addition of pineapple, chilli cucumber, mint and ginger.
The Katong version referred to earlier serves the noodles cut into small pieces which are added to a soup. If you want to try the best laksa in town then head to the street food stall that beat Gordon Ramsay in the Sing Tel Hawker Heroes Challenge.
Don’t get confused by the number 328 in the name, it’s not an address but numbers that signify prosperity.
Location: 328 Katong Laksa at 216 East Coast Road
What started out as a simply hawker stall has now become an international business. In 2016 this humble hawker was awarded a Michelin star. The meal he serves up has now become known as the cheapest Michelin starred meal in the world. It might not be the prettiest meal in town, but it is packed with flavour.
The signature soya sauce chicken rice dish will set you back about $ US 2.75. Other options are Char siew pork rice that costs a little more at $ US 2.90 while a whole chicken costs about $ US 18.
You could visit the original hawker stall or the new premises on Smith St, in Chinatown which is where I went.
Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle
Location: 78 Smith Street Singapore
Hokkien Prawn Mee & Rochor Mee
You will find a similar version of this dish in Malaysia. It’s locally referred to as Hokkien Mee and is a dish of yellow noodles and thick bee hoon (vermicelli) all stir-fried in an aromatic pork and prawn stock. Pork belly bits, squid, egg, juicy prawns and sometimes crunchy, fried pork lard complete the dish. It’s always served with a squeeze of lime and chilli sambal on the side. This dish is supposed to be quite dry so don’t be surprised at the lack of sauce.
Somewhere in the past this dish got the Peranakan treatment and became known as Rochor Mee. These noodles have more gravy and are also served with a sambal.
Noodles are eaten at any time of the day and there are loads of hawker stalls that serve delicious versions of this dish.
TIPS FOR CHOOSING A GOOD HAWKER STALL
Like anywhere else in the world these tips really common sense are much the same as those I wrote about for how to enjoy street food in India.
The longer the queue the better
People in Singapore are happy to queue for good quality food. Hawker stalls that deliver delicious food will have long queues no matter what time of day you arrive.
Do a bit of research
The Singaporeans love their food and there are loads of reviews online. Michelin has even recognised some of them with a Bib Gourmand awards. You will also notice awards or articles printed out and on display which is always a good sign.
See what the popular choice is
A quick walk around will give you a good idea of what people are eating. If you like the way something looks then ask what it is and then go and order some for yourself. People will even point you to the right hawker stall. I have often used this strategy and it works a treat.
Need somewhere to stay? Here’s my choice of some great design hotels
I could go on and on about the food in Singapore. There are so many amazing dishes to try, but most people are only in the city briefly and rarely manage to try more than a couple of local dishes. My problem is that I always want to head to my favourite places first and then I end up running out of time. I always promise myself that the next visit I will try something different, but I usually end up only trying a couple of new dishes each time. My theory is that if I visit often enough I will eventually do the food in the amazing city justice.
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