In Singapore, food is viewed as crucial to national identity, and Singaporean literature declares “eating” as a national pastime! As such, food has become a national obsession!
Food is a frequent topic of conversation among Singaporeans. Seafood and ice cream are popular dishes readily available on a daily basis, although religious dietary strictures do exist. For example, Muslims do not eat pork and Hindus do not eat beef, while there is also a significant group of vegetarians. People from different communities often eat together (in public food courts known as hawker centres) and choose food that is acceptable to all parties present. The majority of food in Singapore is influenced by the native Malay, the predominant Chinese, Indonesian, Indian, Peranakan, and Western traditions (particularly English) since the founding of Singapore by the British in the nineteenth century. Influences from other areas such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the Middle East also exist in local food culture.
Most prepared food in Singapore is eaten outside the home at hawker centres or food courts, examples of which include Lau Pa Sat, Maxwell Food Court, and Newton Food Centre. This is because such Singaporean hawker stalls include a huge variety of cuisines, ranging from Malay food, to Thai, Indian, Western, Korean, Japanese and even Vietnamese food. These hawker centres are abundant and cheap, hence encouraging a large consumer base with varied ethnic and cultural values. More about Singapore’s hawkers.
So let’s take a look at some of the more traditional snacks, meals, and desserts from Singaporean culture!
Breakfast is the first thing Singaporeans think about when they wake up ready to go to school or work. A good slice of Kaya Toast will be deliberately burnt (chargrilled) and then have some of the charcoal scraped off with an old milk bottle lid. No idea how was process this developed, but it’s the traditional method! Coconut Jam (Kaya) is then used to coat the toast and then it’s topped with sugar and sometimes eggs! Wash the toast down with a nice cup of Nanyang Kopi, which is full of condensed milk.
For an amazing snack during your time in Singapore, look no further than the Curry Puff, pioneered by local fast food franchise Old Chang Kee. It is like Singapore’s own version of the Murtabak that you would find in the Arab World or the Panada from Indonesia. Of course, Singaporeans like their curry so this pastry is filled with lots of the hot stuff! Durian, known as the King of the Fruits, is known as Singapore’s national fruit, and if you can withstand the infamously pungent smell, then you will enjoy its refreshing taste! Another snacking option in Singapore is the deliciously sweet Pineapple Tarts, which are especially popular during Chinese New Year celebrations.
Char Kway Teow is made from flat rice noodles that are stir-fried over very high heat with light and dark soy sauce, chilli, a small quantity of belacan, prawns, cockles, beansprouts, and Chinese chives. The dish is commonly stir-fried with egg, slices of Chinese sausage, and fishcake. Also popular as street food in Malaysia, Char kway teow has a reputation of being unhealthy due to its high saturated fat content.
Fish Head Curry is a dish with Indian origins. The head of a red snapper is semi-stewed in a Kerala-style curry with assorted vegetables such as okra and eggplants. It is usually served with either rice or bread, or as a shared dish.
Bee Hoon is a simple dish consisting of thin noodles, which can be topped with any meat or fish of your choice, or simply eaten on their own. In fact, bee hoon is the closest you’ll get to “Singapore Noodles”, which are advertised and sold around the world, yet Singaporeans have never heard of them!
Hor Fun has its origins in Cantonese cuisine, but has became one of Singapore’s most popular dishes. It is made from wide rice noodles and has a similarity to the Vietnamese national dish, Pho. Fresh fish is a popular accompaniment.
Chilli Crab is without question the dish that most people associate with Singapore, and it is considered the de facto “national dish” of the country. Mud crabs are commonly used and are stir-fried in a semi-thick, sweet and savoury tomato and chilli-based sauce, making them feel very heavy. Despite its name, chilli crab is not a particularly spicy dish. More information about Singapore’s national dish!
BBQ Sambal Stingray is a Singaporean dish that has since been introduced to neighbouring countries such as Malaysia. The stingray is barbequed and then coated in sambal sauce. Other ingredients may include garlic, sugar, pepper, or salt. For some reason female stingray are considered tastier than males! In Singapore, the best stingray can be found at East Coast Park.
Bak Kut Teh is an extremely popular soup in Singapore and the name literally translates to “meat bone tea”. It consists of meaty pork ribs simmered in a broth of herbs and spices for hours. Bak kut teh is usually eaten with noodles and a youtiao, which is a fried Chinese dough. Read more about Bak Kut Teh.
Hokkien Mee is a dish that has its origins from China’s Fujian Province. In its most common form, the dish consists of prawns, as well as egg noodles stir-fried slices of pork, and served and garnished with vegetables, small pieces of lard, and coated in sambal sauce.
Black Pepper Crab is a must-try dish when in Singapore. It is made with hard-shell crabs, and fried with black pepper. Unlike Singapore’s other popular crab dish, it is not ‘heavy’ due to the absence of a sauce. The black pepper crab is liked by many locals over the chilli crab because of its drier and fragrant ‘pepperish’ nature. It is also nowadays becoming very popular to mix the black pepper crab with a fresh jackfruit sauce. The best black pepper crab in Singapore can be found in the Boat Quay area.
Claypot Chicken Rice is typically served with Chinese sausage and vegetables. More often than not, the rice is cooked in the claypot first and cooked ingredients like diced chicken and Chinese sausage are added afterwards. Traditionally, the cooking is done over a charcoal stove, giving the dish a distinctive flavour.
After you main meals – if you have any room left in your belly – you can start to think about dessert. In Singapore, there are a lot of Chinese and Malay influences in sweets and desserts, but two of the more local after-dinner treats are the literal Ice Cream Sandwich, which can be found at roadside vendors all over the island, and Cendol, which is basically green jelly noodles (made from pandan) bathed in sweet coconut milk. Perfect for a steamy Singaporean evening!
Which of the foods above tickle your fancy? How do you think Singaporean cuisine compares to its neighbours from Malaysia and Indonesia? Let me know of your opinions!