Singaporeans truly have it easy when it comes to homemade traditional food: You can find it everywhere, it’s absolutely incredible and you can have a complete meal for about $3. No wonder nobody has to cook at home!
City, state and country rolled into one, Singapore is the chameleon of Southeast Asia, its colourful history as a trading settlement still influencing all facets of life, including the local food. The vibrant mix of multiple cultures — Chinese, Indonesian, Indian and Malay — all overlap in the kitchen in delicious ways. The Peranakan community is made up of people with mixed Chinese/Malaysian/Indonesian heritage, and the resulting culinary fusion is melt-in-your-mouth good.
Neighbourhood markets all have a food court of sorts, filled with rows of “hawker stalls,” little kiosks that produce their own particular specialty. The stall you select just might be one of the three dozen in Singapore that are recognized by the Michelin Guide. The traditional foods sold here have laid the foundations for a new cuisine movement called Mod Sin (for Modern Singaporean), a twist on Grandma’s home cooking, enjoyed at many top-tier restaurants.
Here are a few of the best-known, most iconic Singaporean dishes to tantalize your visiting taste buds – breakfast, lunch, dinner or all three.
Chee Cheong Fun
Begin your day two or three of these tasty rice noodle rolls, perfect for breakfasting on the go with a side of iced coffee. These are steamed and served alongside soy, hoisin and/or sesame sauces, with roasted sesame seeds on top. Fun is right – your chance to step outside the breakfast box.
Created by Malay who lived in Singapore during colonial times, this excellent street food is essentially an omelette sandwich of minced meat, onions, eggs and chili sauce on a baguette. You can find vegetarian ones with cheese or mushrooms, too – really, whatever is hanging around the kitchen; think leftover comfort food.
Paradoxically, this is neither carrot nor cake, but also an omelette-style savoury food made with diced turnip and pickled radish. Rice flour and white radish (the “carrot”) are mixed and steamed, cut into squares and then fried with garlic and eggs. A meal in itself, it is much more delicious than that sounds.
Half the population of Singapore sits down to a dish of chicken rice every day for lunch – and they will line up for the best stalls, so keep an eye out for lineups and join one. Hawker Chan’s Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle made headlines when it was awarded a Michelin star in 2016. Mr. Chan’s now-famous dish goes for $2.50, making it the world’s least expensive Michelin-star meal.
Spicy and delicious, a plastic-bib kind of food, chili crab is great to share with a table of fellow travellers and giant bottles of beer on an outdoor patio. Consistently voted as having the best in town, No Signboard Seafood in the Geylang district is the place to go. The restaurant’s name comes from the early days when the restaurateur couldn’t afford a sign – and once they could afford one, they didn’t need it.
A big hug in a bowl, this comforting noodle soup is a Peranakan dish made of wheat noodles or rice vermicelli done up with chicken, shrimp or fish in a spicy curry coconut broth. There are many casual restaurants throughout Singapore that serve just different variations of laksa, and come six o’clock, they are all full.
Durian is a fruit that manages to be sweet and savoury at the same time, but also hated and loved equally: People hate the unusual smell of it, a combination of rotting onions and sulphur. Looking like a little profiteroles, durian puffs are crispy choux pastries stuffed with durian-flavoured whipped cream. Because they’re just tiny, a puff is a good way to determine whether or not this crazy fruit is for you.
The pandan plant is similar in taste to vanilla, and used to make many sweet treats in Singapore. Of Malay origin, the pandan cake is a green chiffon confection, similar to an angle food cake with the hole in the middle. It’s something people enjoy while visiting someone’s house for afternoon tea.
But back to Grandma’s cooking: its popularity among the young and old alike shows no sign of wavering. As a relatively conservative nation, a small island nestled between giants Malaysia and Indonesia, Singapore takes pride in preserving its heritage on all fronts. Food culture, blissfully alive and well, is by far the best way to do this – and people are eating it up.