Singapore might be a relatively new country, becoming independent in 1965, but its food history is rich with traditions from its Chinese, Indian and Malay populations. These foods and techniques have mingled and morphed to form a true fusion cuisine that’s best sampled in neighbourhood restaurants and the hundreds of hawker markets dotting the city.
Singapore chilli crab
Chilli crab is Singapore’s number-one culinary claim to fame. According to local history, the dish was created by Madam Cher Yam Tian in 1956 when she would sell mud crab topped with a sweet and spicy tomato sauce from a pushcart. She parlayed her street-food success to a bricks-and-mortar restaurant called Palm Beach Seafood Restaurant, which exists to this day. Cher and her husband sold up some of their shares in the business and moved to New Zealand more than 30 years ago, but Palm Beach still sells top-notch chilli crab to the original recipe.
Singapore Chilli Crab (right) from Palm Beach Seafood. Also pictured: Black Pepper Crab; Creamy Crab. Image supplied
1 Fullerton Road #01-09
Hainanese chicken rice
Gingery, garlicky chicken served atop a dome of fluffy white rice is probably the quintessential Singaporean dish. You’d be hard-pressed to find a hawker market that doesn’t have at least one vendor serving up the delicacy, but there’s one that rises above all others: Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle. Located in the Chinatown Complex hawker market in, you guessed it, Chinatown, Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken was awarded a Michelin star in the inaugural Singapore Michelin Guide earlier this year for stallholder Chan Hon Meng’s version. He’s been plying his trade for years, and despite three or four other stalls in the Chinatown Complex doing the same dish, there’s only one stall with a queue snaking around the corner well before lunchtime. Chan dishes up his famous chicken until he runs out, so get in line early.
Top image: Chan Hon Meng hard at work at his Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Noodle and Rice stall. Image via Getty.
Chinatown Complex Food Centre, 335 Smith Street
Rojak is popular in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia (where it’s known as rujak), and it’s decidedly addictive. It’s a salad of sorts: crunchy fruit and vegies with tofu and deep-fried dough sticks that are topped with a sticky, dark sauce and sprinkled with peanuts. The salad may consist of cucumber, turnip, pineapple, apple and beansprouts. The sweet, spicy and sour flavours come from the sauce, a combination of tamarind paste, chilli, shrimp paste, palm sugar and lemon. The beachside East Coast Lagoon Food Village has a view of the water, making it one of the city-state’s nicest places to consume hawker fare, and Kampong Rojak serves up one of the best versions of rojak in town.
Sweet, sour, salty, spicy... rojak is all things to all people. Image via ThinkStock
East Coast Lagoon Food Village, 1220 East Coast Parkway
Fish ball noodles
What, pray, is a fish ball? Generally, it’s raw white fish that’s been minced and shaped into a ball before being boiled in stock or fried. Fish balls are served either dry with noodles tossed in a chilli and vinegar mixture, or in a clear, tangy soup with springy noodles and a generous topping of shallot. Both versions often come with other toppings including pork slices, pork mince, fishcakes or prawns. Hui Ji Fish Ball Noodle, Yong Tau Fu in the trendy Tiong Bahru area is notable for its super-fresh handmade fish balls, served with dry noodles tossed in fish sauce, chilli, vinegar and shallot oil. They come topped with slices of fried fishcake, sliced pork and generous amounts of shallot and chilli sauce on the side.
Oyster omelette, or orh luak, is just that: oysters mixed into a starchy omelette batter thickened with tapioca starch or potato starch, which is cooked until it’s crispy on the outside and tender in the middle. The contrast of the crisp outer edge of the egg and the tender oysters just works, somehow. It’s topped with a spicy, tangy chilli sauce and coriander leaves. Simon Road Oyster Omelette turns out crisp-fried omelette with a fluffy filling and perfectly cooked oysters with expertise that’s been honed over many years.
Mee Sek Foodcourt, 965 Upper Serangon Road
Head to Little India and seek out the Tekka Centre for South Indian cuisine. At lunchtime, there’s a queue outside Yakader Muslim Food for its dum biryani (dum indicates the meat has been cooked in the same pot as the rice as opposed to cooked separately and placed on top). The dish is made up of spiced basmati rice with mutton, chicken or fish, plus pickled cucumber, dhal and poppadums. The dish originated in India but the Singaporean take is intertwined with Malaysian rice dishes (hence nasi, which means rice in Malay). It’s sometimes served with egg, cashews and a rich, curry-gravy on the side, too.
Tekka Centre, corner of Bukit Timah Road and Serangoon Road
Stingrays are edible, something they seem to have cleverly managed to hide from us here in Australia. The fact did not escape the notice of the culinary adventurers of Singapore, where stingray is grilled over coals and topped with a spicy sambal sauce. Sambal is a tasty combination of chilli, dried shrimp, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, shallot, sugar and an acid such as lime juice or vinegar, and it makes the perfect topping for tender stingray flesh. At Chomp Chomp BBQ in Ang Mo Kio, a residential area of Singapore, the stingray wings are marinated slowly in sambal before being wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled.
Chomp Chomp Food Centre, 20 Kensington Park Road
Banana leaf rice
A banana leaf serves as a disposable plate for a selection of curries, pickles, chutneys and flat breads in a Singaporean banana leaf rice meal. These foods are typically eaten with the hands, so dig in – and bring some wet wipes. Samy’s Curry, located close to the excellent Singapore Botanic Garden, is justifiably famous in Singapore for its version. Sit down to a chilled glass of lime juice, diluted with water and sweetened with sugar (incredibly refreshing), and choose from the buffet of curries on offer. There could be chicken tikka, dhal, mutton curry or spiced fried fish. Next, a banana leaf with a pile of steaming rice will be presented before your selections are served. It’s perfectly acceptable to have many more servings after the first, so don’t hold back. It is customary to fold the banana leaf inwards as a sign of thanks after the meal has been completed – and don’t eat it!
25 Dempsey Road
Fish head curry
Don’t be put off by the idea of fish eyes staring up at you from your bowl. While to western sensibilities, the head of the fish should be discarded in favour of the rest of the body, in Singapore, it’s the basis of a hugely popular curry. It’s a truly Singaporean dish – it combines Indian spices with Chinese favourite, fish head. That’s why you’ll find variations of the dish on menus in Indian, Chinese and Malay restaurants. The tender cheeks are considered the best bit, and the eyeballs are also a treat. Go on, live a little! Muthu’s Curry is among the most popular in town with locals and tourists alike.
Fish head curry from Muthu's Curry. Image supplied
138 Race Course Road
#b1-109/177 Suntec City Mall, 3 Temasek Boulevard
Block 7 Dempsey Road
Carrot cake, or chai tow kway, is a Singapore specialty, but it’s a misnomer: there’s no carrot here, and it’s hardly a cake. This is a savoury dish that incorporates white radish, not carrot, into a rice cake that’s steamed then cut into cubes and fried with egg, garlic and pickled radish. A dark-coloured version of the dish is known as “black” carrot cake and it’s fried in sweet, dark soy sauce. The Fried Carrot Cake stall at Clementi Food Centre keeps things simple both in its name and in its focus one its one dish. There’s often a queue here and the stall occasionally sells out even before lunch.
Fried carrot cake: it's neither cake nor carrot. Image via ThinkStock
Clementi Food Centre, #01-45, Block 448, Clementi Avenue 3
Start the day like the Singaporeans do with fluffy white toast topped with sweet kaya jam. This delectable breakfast dish costs peanuts but there are few more delicious ways to kick things off. Kaya jam is made with coconut milk, sugar, pandan and eggs, and on toast, it’s a breakfast staple the way Vegemite toast is to Australians. It’s often served with soft-boiled eggs with soy sauce, and kopi (Singaporean coffee). There are plenty of kopitiam(coffee shops) offering very decent kaya toast, but Tong Ah Eating House serves its homemade kaya as French toast – and the result is indulgent. There’s also a traditional version on the menu.
35 Keong Saik Road
Singapore is Milo-obsessed, which suits us just fine. A Milo dinosaur is Milo with ice and milk – with a generous layer of extra Milo on top. Icy-cold and heavy on the Milo, this is more dessert than drink. To go extra crazy, try a Milo Godzilla: it’s a Milo dinosaur with a scoop of ice-cream on top. It’s possible to buy prehistoric Milo drinks at any hawker centre – they’re all good.