From Katong laksa in the east to Indian-Muslim fare in the west, here are 40 foods that define Singapore's culinary character
Singaporeans are simply obsessed with eating. For the best food, they will queue endlessly, they will traverse the island, and they will eat at all hours. Many have been known to come back after migrating simply because they miss their favorite foods. Much of it is humble but insanely delicious street fare found in food centers and coffee shops throughout the island.
CNNGo rounds up 40 of the best, "die-die must-try" foods from the little red dot.
1. Chicken rice
It’s everywhere -- at hawker stalls, food courts, luxury hotels and even at the zoo, but Singaporeans just can’t get enough of it. Chicken rice is often called the “national dish” of Singapore. Steamed or boiled chicken is served atop fragrant oily rice, with sliced cucumber as the token vegetable. Variants include roasted chicken or soy sauce chicken. Don’t miss out on the dipping sauces -- premium dark soy sauce, chili with garlic, and pounded ginger. Play around with different combinations to discover new tastes.
If you are put off by perpetual queues at legendary Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice (Stall 10, Maxwell Food Centre), you can dine in air-conditioned comfort instead at Boon Tong Kee.
2. Char kway teow
There is no stopping Singaporeans from indulging in this high-fat hawker favorite. Flat rice noodles stir-fried with lard (for best flavor), dark and light soy sauce, chilli, de-shelled cockles, sliced Chinese sausage, bean sprouts, Chinese chives and sometimes prawns and egg. Essential to the dish is good “wok hei” or breath of wok, the qualities and tastes imparted by cooking on a wok using high heat. Many now choose to omit the cockles but char kway teow will always be incomplete without the sinfully rich fried pork lard pieces.
One of the island’s best char kway teow is at a humble hawker center in the east. Hill Street Fried Kway Teow at Block 16, Bedok South Road, #01-187. tel +65 9042 131.
3. Wonton or Wantan mee
The name “wonton” literally means "swallowing of cloud" in Cantonese. Indeed, the dumplings with their flowy translucent skins resemble wispy clouds when suspended in soup. Most Singaporeans prefer the dry version of the noodles. Wonton noodles look simple but the perfect one is elusive. The thin egg noodles need to be of the right texture, the sauce has to be well-balanced, and the pork or shrimp dumplings ought to be juicy and meaty. At many places, you’ll find the sliced char siew (Chinese BBQ pork) is often papery dry and red with artificial dye but that hardly deters fans of the dish who seem to prize the noodles and dumplings.
Try the cult favourite Hong Mao Wonton Mee but note they open early and close early (7am to 4pm, closed Mondays) and there is at least a half-hour wait. 128 Tembeling Road.
4. Carrot cake (chai tow kuay)
No, not the sweet Western cake loaded with orange carrots. This "carrot" is more of a white radish (daikon). Rice flour and grated radish is mixed and steamed into large slabs or cakes. These are cut up into little pieces and fried with preserved turnip, soy sauce, fish sauce, eggs, garlic and spring onions. It’s amazingly good. You can have it “white” or “black” (with sweet dark soy sauce added). Also known as fried carrot cake or chye tow kueh, this grease-laden belly warmer is available at many hawker centers.
Look for old stalwart Heng Carrot Cake at Stall 28, Newton Food Centre, Newton Circus Road.
5. Chili crab
Another national signature, chili crab is one of the most requested dishes for anyone who comes to Singapore. There are more than a dozen ways to do crab (black pepper, salted egg yolk, cheese-baked, etc) but chili crab remains the bestseller. It’s certainly not something to be consumed daintily. The spicy chili-tomato gravy tends to splatter, but crab enthusiasts love it so much, they’ll mop everything up with mini mantou buns.
Roland Restaurant claims to be the creator of the dish. They are at Block 89 Marine Parade Central #06-750, tel +65 6440 8205.
6. Bak kut teh
Bak kut teh, meaning "pork rib tea" is most likely of Hokkien or Fujian origin. Meaty pork ribs are lovingly boiled for hours with lots of garlic, pepper, medicinal herbs and spices. Early 20th century port coolies often relied on this as a tonic to strengthen bodies and health. These days, bak kut teh is simply enjoyed for its taste. There are two styles -- the clear, peppery Teochew broth and the darker, more herbal Hokkien stew. You tiao (fried crullers) are the perfect croutons for soaking up the soup, and a hot pot of Chinese tea (ideally Tieguanyin) helps dissolve or wash down the fats ever present in the meaty ribs.
For the Teochew variety, try Ng Ah Sio Pork Ribs Eating House at 208 Rangoon Road, tel +65 6291 4537. For the Hokkien version, try Sin Heng Claypot Bak Kut Teh at 439 Joo Chiat Road, tel +65 6345 8754.
7. Sambal stingray
Singaporeans love their seafood and they love their spices. Sambal is a versatile chili paste blended with spices, shallots, candlenuts and often belachan (fermented shrimp paste). Sambal-coated cuts of stingray are wrapped in cleaned banana leaves and grilled to smoky perfection. The sweet, tender flesh is a perfect canvas for all the complex spices and BBQ flavor.
Check out award-winning Leng Heng Seafood BBQ and enjoy your BBQ by the sea. Stall No. 6, East Coast Lagoon Food Centre, East Coast Lagoon Road.
8. Fried Hokkien mee
Yet another dish favored by hardworking laborers of the past. Thick yellow egg noodles mixed with rice vermicelli are cooked in a rich seafood stock, and tossed with prawns, squid, small strips of pork belly and deep-fried lard pieces. A small kalamansi lime is always given should you prefer some tangy juice to cut through the greasiness of the dish.
Tian Tian Lai (Come Daily) is practically an institution, and deserves its hype. Come to Block 127 Toa Payoh Lorong 1 #02-27, tel +65 6251 8542.
Rojak is actually a Malay word used to describe something made from a random mix of unrelated things. But any derogatory undertones are erased when one refers to the fruit salad that bears the same name. Rojak does have an odd mixture of ingredients. Bite-size pieces of fruits, vegetables, dried tofu, fried you tiao (dough fritters) and cured cuttlefish are tossed in a prawn paste sauce topped with crushed peanuts. Grated bunga kantan (pink ginger buds) add a sensuous fragrance. The result is a wild mix of sweet, spicy, sour and savory flavors.
HK-Hollywood superstar Chow Yun Fat is a fan of Balestier Road Hoover Rojak. The rojak here has jellyfish instead of cured cuttlefish. Block 90 Whampoa Drive, #01-06 Whampoa Drive Food Centre.
10. Bak kwa
This chewy snack is like salty-sweet BBQ jerky. Bak kwa (dried meat) is made from pork although now halal versions made from chicken exist. These squarish BBQ meat sheets are popular as gifts for friends and relatives at Chinese New Year. Throngs will form at shops despite elevated prices. Bak kwa can be eaten on its own, with bread or with homecooked food.
The king of bak kwa is undisputedly Lim Chee Guan at 203 New Bridge Road, tel +65 6227 8302. Or try Bee Cheng Hiang’s spicy pork at its 28 outlets islandwide.
11. Economy rice
Possibly one of the best value meals you can get at hawker centers and food courts. Choose from a wide array of meats, vegetables and side dishes to accompany white steamed rice. Popular choices include sweet and sour pork, curry chicken, steamed egg custard, braised tofu and stir-fried mixed vegetables. It’s predominantly Chinese food, and very much like what many Singaporeans would make at home.
The heartlands have it. Try Economic Mixed Vegetables Rice at Block 341 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1, #01-13 Teck Ghee Market & Food Centre.
12. Kway chap
Delicacy for some, Fear Factor food for others. The Chinese have always made full use of the animal they eat. Here, pork offal (stomach and intestines in particular) are braised until tender in soy sauce and herbs along with meat, tofu, boiled eggs and fish cake. If you are lucky, pig’s tongue and ears may be available too. Best eaten with kway (rice flour sheets) in broth but some opt for steamed rice or yam rice. Tangy chili dipping sauce is a must.
Try Guan Kee at Block 211 #01-01, Toa Payoh Lorong 8. Tel: 9739 6960
13. Oyster omelette
Known as “or luak” or “hao jian” locally, this Southern Chinese dish is another grease-laden supper favorite. Potato starch is mixed into the egg batter to give it a thicker and semi-gooey consistency. Oysters are added just a few seconds before serving, so that they are not overcooked. Hawkers have now started using plump Korean oysters, instead of smaller oysters. As a healthier option, they are also replacing lard with vegetable oil.
Ah Chuan Fried Oyster Omelette whips up a mean omelette with crisp edges and serves it with a sourish chili sauce. Block 22 #01-25, Toa Payoh Lorong 7.
14. Katong laksa
This is a Peranakan (Straits-born Chinese) influenced dish consisting of thick rice vermicelli in a rich, spicy coconut gravy. The soup is thick, opaque and slightly gritty from the abundance of ground dried shrimp, which gives it the umami kick. The Katong version has noodles cut into smaller lengths, so it can be easily scooped up with a spoon alone, along with a good amount of soup. No chopsticks or forks are given. Stir in the dollop of sambal and fragrant laksa leaves or daun kesum and inhale.
There have been Katong laksa wars in Singapore for over a decade now, with stalls fiercely professing to be the original. No matter your pick, they all taste equally good. Try 328 Katong Laksa at 51 East Coast Road, tel +65 9732 8163.
15. Fish head or fish soup bee hoon
The freshwater toman (snakehead fish) is boiled in milky fish stock along with a handful of healthy greens. Fish head aficionados will devour the bony meat, lips, cheeks and eyeballs. If you’re squeamish about fish head or prefer boneless convenience, go for the boiled fish slices or fried fish chunks, which are just as popular.
Holland Village XO Fish Head Bee Hoon struck gold by adding a dash of XO brandy to the fish stock. Block 46 Holland Drive #01-359 Holland Drive Food Centre, tel +65 6778 3691.
16. Yong tau foo
One of the healthier options in the hawker food arena because it features fresh vegetables and tofu. Yong tau foo (stuffed beancurd) will see items stuffed with fish paste or minced meat paste (Hakka-style). Pick the items you like (including choice of noodles) and have it served either dry-style with generous lashings of sweet sauce and chili, or soup-style with clear soybean and anchovies broth (some stalls offer a curry gravy option).
Special Yong Tau Fu has an impressive variety of homemade items, served in a good broth. 482 North Bridge Road, #01-87 North Bridge Road Food Centre.
17. Bak chor mee
Bak chor mee (minced pork noodles) gained some notoriety a few years ago when it starred in a satirical podcast. A good rendition of this popular Teochew dish will have fluffy minced pork, succulent stewed mushrooms, crispy tee por (small deep-fried pieces of flatfish or sole), springy noodles in a dark vinegary sauce. Let the hawker know if you wish to omit the sliced liver pieces.
The owner of Seng Kee Minced Pork Noodles boasts more than 25 years of experience and is known for occasional wok theatrics. Try his famous fish maw soup as well. 316 Changi Road, tel +65 6345 7561.
18. Peranakan kueh
These desserts are a carnival of color, much like the culture of the creators. Under the Peranakans’ deft touch, simple local ingredients like tapioca, banana, glutinous rice, coconut milk and gula melaka (palm sugar) are transformed into a huge assortment of delectable kuehs.
Bengawan Solo carries a good variety at many locations throughout Singapore. Or try Glory Catering right in the Peranakan enclave of Katong at 139 East Coast Road, tel +65 5344 1749.
19. Bak chang
The legend is somewhat morbid -- Chinese peasants throwing rice dumplings into the river to distract fish from eating the body of beloved poet and patriot Qu Yuan who drowned himself as a protest against corruption. Today, more than 2,000 years later, these dumplings commemorate his life during the Duan Wu Festival. The rest of the year, they are a great snack in a pack. The Hokkiens who love salty food fill the glutinous rice dumplings with braised pork belly, mushrooms and chestnuts. The Peranakans lean towards the sweeter side with minced spiced pork and chopped sugared melon strips.
Get your dumplings early at Hoo Kee Rice Dumplings. They sell out really fast, even before lunchtime. Best to call and reserve in advance. 7 Maxwell Road #01-18 Amoy Street Food Centre, tel +65 6221 1155.
20. Kaya toast
Kaya is a coconut custard jam, sweet and fragrant. When slathered onto thin slices of warm toast with ample butter, the sandwich it makes is simply divine. Down it with a cup of thick black coffee. Many locals have this for breakfast supplemented by two soft-boiled eggs with soy sauce and pepper.
Ya Kun Kaya Toast still makes the best since 1944 with locations all over the island. www.yakun.com
21. BBQ chicken wings
In many a hawker center, you will see rows of chicken wings glistening and turning on a roasting spit. Singaporeans love ordering these wings as a side dish, frequently as a large plate to share among family and friends. Best eaten hot and with a garlic chili dip. A spritz from calamansi limes add sweet tang to the wings. This finger food is great with beer or sugarcane juice.
Kris BBQ serves wings that are evenly marinated and grilled. Block 85 Bedok North Avenue 3 #01-02.
22. Chin chow grass jelly
The kids love the slippery jelly, and the adults appreciate its yin or cooling properties. Dubbed chin chow (immortal grass), grass jelly purportedly helps prevent indigestion and lower blood pressure. The herb Mesona Chinensis is boiled and cooled to make deep black slabs of firm yet chewy jelly. It can be made into a drink or served in a bowl as dessert. Modern toppings like palm seeds, longan and honey sea coconut make this traditional dessert more appealing to youngsters.
The grass jelly is still homemade in a wooden bucket at Zhao An Granny Grass Jelly. Quench your thirst at 505 Beach Road, #01-58 Golden Mile Food Centre.
23. Teh tarik
Teh tarik or pulled tea is tea with showmanship. Indian tea-makers pour a stream of hot milk tea back and forth between two vessels held as far apart as possible. It looks a lot easier than it is. The result is a frothy drink that’s well-mixed. You can request for teh halia (milk tea with ginger) as well.
The Sarabat Stall is a hole in the wall but customers flock here at all hours. Soak in the atmosphere of the Arab and Muslim quarters while you enjoy the tea with snacks. A drink here costs less than US$1. 21 Baghdad Street.
This is Southeast Asia’s rendition of the kebab with a few unique twists. There’s the peanut dip, sweet and spicy. The marinade of local spices that totally transforms the meat. The thin wooden skewers made of bamboo or stem of coconut leaves. And the refreshing sides of chopped raw cucumber and onions, along with ketupat (rice cakes steamed in woven coconut leaves). It’s a joy to watch your satay being grilled over an open charcoal fire. The aroma heightens the anticipation and the enjoyment.
Haron’s Satay has chicken, beef, mutton and even babat (tripe) satay. Stall No. 55, East Coast Lagoon Food Centre, East Coast Lagoon Road.
25. Ayam penyet
What? Flattened chicken? Yes, that’s what ayam penyet is. Large pieces of chicken are smashed with a mallet to allow the marinade of many spices to permeate thoroughly. The chicken is then deep-fried to a crisp golden brown. It’s originally Indonesian but has taken Singapore by storm in the past few years. Ayam penyet is usually served with lots of crispy batter, fried bean curd, tempeh (soybean cake) and vegetables. The real star is the delicious sambal belachan relish that’s an explosion of complex flavors.
If you are brave, go for the spicy hot version at Waroeng Penyet. The restaurant is at Block 81 Marine Parade Central #01-638 is best but there are food court franchise outlets elsewhere.
26. Ngoh hiang
Once the snack of choice at street wayang (theatre) performances, this medley of fritters is now popular as a teatime nibble. It’s a strange combination of deep-fried bean curd, prawn fritters, pink pork sausages, liver rolls, fish cakes, century eggs and cucumber slices. Ngoh hiang (five spices) itself refers to the Hokkien minced-pork roll that is made with lots of five spice powder but can also be used as the generic name for the fritters.
Hup Kee Wu Siang Guan Chang or China Street Ngoh Hiang is one of the few stalls that still makes the items by hand. Stall 97 Maxwell Food Centre, Maxwell Road.
27. Nasi lemak
Singaporeans are in love with lemak (richness bestowed by coconut cream). The Malay breakfast dish of nasi lemak (rich rice) has rice cooked in coconut milk served with a spicy sambal, fried anchovies, fried peanuts, and perhaps an egg and cucumber slices. It’s simple but satisfying. The Chinese have adopted the dish and thrown in a multitude of other side dishes like sausages, fried chicken wings, luncheon meat, fish cake, and various cooked vegetables.
Selera Rasa Adam Road No.1 has the Brunei royalty getting takeaways at Stall 2, Adam Road Food Centre, 2 Adam Road.
28. Mee Siam
Despite its name, Mee Siam (Siamese noodles) did not come from Thailand. It’s a Malay breakfast dish. Pre-fried thin rice vermicelli is served in a spicy light gravy made from taucheo (fermented bean paste), dried shrimp, sugar and seafood stock. Tamarind gives the dish its signature tartness. Toppings include cubed fried bean curd, chopped chives and sliced boiled egg. But note, there are no cockles in Mee Siam.
Zaiton Selera Rasa serves Mee Siam right in the heart of the Central Business District. 11 Collyer Quay, #01-04 The Arcade, tel +65 6226 3713.
29. Indian mee goreng
This Indian-Muslim classic of spicy fried noodles is a hybrid invented in this region in the 1950s. Indian immigrants borrowed the use of the wok from the Chinese and started frying yellow egg noodles with their own favoured ingredients -- tomatoes, egg, green chilies, mutton mince, cabbage and diced potatoes. It takes skill to wok-fry the noodles to a moist but not mushy ensemble. Oddly, in Singapore, mee goreng tends to sport a bold, almost garish red appearance not found elsewhere.
You’ll find many stalls offering good Indian-Muslim fare at the Ayer Rajah Food Centre, Block 503 West Coast Drive.
Sometimes lauded as the Asian burrito, this healthy snack is like a Chinese spring roll that’s not deep-fried. The name popiah refers to the soft, paper-thin skin made from wheat or rice flour. It’s smeared with a sweet sauce, chili sauce, minced garlic and is used to wrap ingredients like braised turnip or bangkuang (jicama), carrots, bean sprouts, Chinese sausage, shredded omelette, crushed peanuts and even shrimp or crab meat. Many Singaporeans love to hold popiah parties at home, as rolling your own popiah (easier than it looks) can prove to be the best entertainment at times.
Kway Guan Huat makes one of the best popiah on the island, and offers DIY party sets. They still make the skins by hand in a little pre-war shophouse at 95 Joo Chiat Road, tel +65 6344 2875. www.joochiatpopiah.com
31. Roti prata
You will find roti prata (flat bread) in practically every neighborhood in Singapore. Watch as the Indians knead and flatten an oiled ball of dough, and flip it with practised flair until the dough is a tissue-thin sheet. This is then folded into multi-layered pancakes and griddle-fried til crisp. It’s usually served with curry or a sprinkle of sugar. Nowadays, prata makers get creative with all kinds of fillings and combinations -- cheese, mushroom, durian, ice cream, honey, banana, cashew nuts, and even sardines.
Sin Ming Roti Prata serves it crispy, fluffy and gently chewy. Their fish curry is the perfect dip. Block 24 Sin Ming Drive #01-51, tel +65 6453 3893.
These are huge and for the very hungry. The dough is similar to that used in roti prata, but it is super-sized and stuffed with minced mutton and onions. Like roti prata, murtabak is often fried in a pool of ghee or oil. Chicken and sardine versions have surfaced for those who find mutton too gamey.
Singapore Zam Zam Restaurant is the undisputed king of murtabak. Go for a hearty supper at 697-699 North Bridge Road, tel +65 6298 7011.
It isn’t clear how the name otah or otak (brain) came about for this snack, but perhaps it is brain food after all, since it’s predominantly made of fish. Fish that’s mashed and mixed with coconut milk, chili paste and spices, wrapped in banana leaves and grilled over charcoal. Otak is a frequent accompaniment to dishes like laksa and nasi lemak, although it’s also eaten as a snack on its own.
Otah Inc. is modernising the otah. They have come up with otah taquitoes, otah toast and flavoured otah pastes. B1-K11, basement of Bugis Junction Shopping Centre, 200 Victoria Street, tel +65 6884 4650.
34. Fish head curry
Waiter, there’s a decapitated head in my soup! Well, that’s the highlight. A whole large head of red snapper stewing in curry gravy. Surprisingly, there’s a lot of meat to be had on the bony head, but the best (and most tender) part is the cheeks. This dish is purely a Singapore creation. About 30 years ago, an Indian restaurateur here decided to use fish head (not an Indian delicacy) in his curry to please Chinese customers. It became a runaway hit, spreading even across the Causeway to Malaysia.
If you’d like the whole experience of eating fish head curry with steamed rice on banana leaves, try Banana Leaf Apolo at 54 Race Course Road, tel +65 6297 1595.
35. Nasi Padang
The cuisine of Padang from Sumatra, Indonesia, features many spicy dishes to go with rice. A bedazzling smorgasbord of more than 30 dishes is available at some places. Nasi Padang also suits communal dining as a group can share dishes and enjoy a bigger variety at the same time.
Sinar Pagi Nasi Padang is packed with the office crowd on weekdays, so go early. Their BBQ chicken in coconut curry, beef rendang, tauhu telur (deep-fried mound of tofu and egg) and quail eggs in sambal are divine. 13 Circular Road, behind Boat Quay, tel +65 6536 5302.
36. Dum briyani
Briyani or biryani originated from Persia and eventually found its way into the hearts of spice-loving Singaporeans. The fluffy basmati rice grains, dappled gold and orange from saffron and spices, go so well with meat and gravy. Dum cooking is the method where pre-fried boiled rice is layered with par-cooked meat, and then pressure-baked in a sealed vessel. This way the meat infuses the rice with its flavours.
Ali Nachia Briyani Dam serves succulent and flavorful mutton with his briyani at The Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, 30 Keppel Road. tel +65 9389 2615.
37. Curry puff
The curry puff is possibly the country’s favorite tea-time snack. Deep-fried like samosas, these are generally filled with curried potatoes, chicken and a slice of egg. The popularity of the curry puff has spawned puffs with other fillings like sardines, black pepper chicken, tuna and sweet yam.
Tip Top Curry Puff (Block 722 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 8 #01-2843, Hiap Hwa Coffee Shop) sells the thick crust variety, whereas 1A Crispy Puff ( with eight locations islandwide) features the flaky, multi-layered spiral puffs. www.1acrispypuffs.com
38. Goreng pisang
The Malay snack of goreng pisang (banana fritters) have found fans from all races in Singapore. The deep-frying helps caramelize the natural sugars in the bananas, making them even sweeter than before. Some Chinese versions have unusually delicate and puffy batter.
Lim Kee (Orchard) Banana Fritters offers banana and other fritters with crispy batter that stays firm for hours. Stall 61 at Maxwell Road Food Centre, Maxwell Road.
39. Ice kachang
Shaved ice desserts are always a popular treat in the hot tropics. Ice kachang (ice with beans) evolved from the humble ice ball drenched with syrup to be the little ice mountain served in a bowl, drizzled with creamed corn, condensed milk, gula melaka and brightly coloured syrups. Dig into it and you’ll discover other goodies hidden within -- red beans, palm seeds and cubed jellies.
Many will brave sweltering weather for the snow-like ice at Annie Peanut Ice Kachang. Best of all, she sprinkles roasted crushed peanuts generously on top. Block 6 Tanjong Pagar Road, #02-36 Tanjong Pagar Plaza Market and Food Centre (branch at #01-07 Far East Square).
This dessert is named for the soft, greenish noodle bits it comes with. The very best cendol is still the simplest -- just coconut milk, shaved ice, gula melaka, light green cendol and a dash of salt. These days, other toppings like kidney beans, grass jelly cubes, creamed corn and even durian paste and vanilla ice cream have found their way into this dessert.
Cendol Geylang Serai serves old school cendol in convenient takeaway cups. Find them at 1 Geylang Serai, #02-107 Geylang Serai Market and Food Centre, tel: +65 9485 5845
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