Beyond the larger-than-life skyscrapers and urban green gardens, Singapore is all about the food. Growing up in this small but lively metropolis, I was always surrounded by rich and spicy flavors and fed with a constant stream of noodles, rice, and seafood. As a food-centered culture, our lives have always revolved around eating.
But if you think Singaporean food is just another version of Chinese food, you’re definitely in for a surprise. As a multi-cultural society, the Singaporean population is made up of four main races — Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian. This colorful ethnic mix has thus created a culinary heritage so explosive and rich in traditions that few Southeast Asian countries can rival.
Let’s take a look at some of my favorite dishes from Singapore. You’ll find them in almost every part of the country – but I recommend hunting them down in the old-school hawker centers (big local eateries) where they’re cheap and authentic.
This famous Singaporean dish is rich, spicy and finger-licking good (trust me, you’ll be licking your fingers after this). If Singapore had a national dish, this would be it. Giant, fresh crabs are first deep fried then drenched in generous portions of thick chilli sauce that flows over the crabs like molten volcano lava. To eat like the locals do, order a set of man tou (Chinese wheat buns) to go with the crabs and dip them in the piquant sauce for a kick.
Beef Hor Fun
As a staple Cantonese dish, beef hor fun is another example of Singapore’s Chinese roots. Thick rice noodles (known as hor fun in Cantonese) are braised with tender beef slices and seasoned with dark soy sauce, oyster sauce, and black beans. The hor fun can also be dry fried (without sauce). The general rule is that the thicker and darker the color of the sauce, the better it tastes!
Wanton or Wonton Mee
This internationally recognized dish is hardly a stranger to most of you – it’s easily available found in the States and many parts of Europe – but I dare say few restaurants can make it to perfection. The ideal wanton mee features thin slippery egg noodles that are chewy yet savory, pork or shrimp dumplings which are juicy and soft, and dark sauce that keeps the dish well balanced. Most wanton mee comes with char siew (Chinese barbecue pork) although this is hardly the star of the show.
Char Kway Teow
Considered a national favorite in Singapore, char kway teow is a simple yet traditional dish that has won the hearts of many tourists. You can also find it in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei, but Singaporeans like to call it our own. This hearty dish features flat rice noodles stir-fried with dark soy sauce, chilli, cockles, Chinese sausage, and crispy chunks of pork lard. It can be found in almost every hawker center and food court.
This dish cannot be more aptly named — rojak means a random mix of unrelated things in Malay. I’m a big fan of the Indian rojak, even though the most popular version of this dish is a Chinese concoction of fried you tiao (dough fritters), tofu, prawn paste sauce and peanuts. The Muslim-Indian rojak is an assortment of potatoes, eggs, and bean curd — all deep fried in batter and slathered with a sweet and spicy chilli sauce.
Originally Indonesian, this dish of grilled meat skewers can be found anywhere from a street-side stall to a high end restaurant and traditional Malay wedding. Satay can be found in the form of chicken, mutton, or beef meat. These are then grilled over a wood or charcoal fire and served with a peanut curry sauce and chunks of rice wrapped in coconut leaves.
Unique for its strong aroma and unmistakable flavor, durian is known as the ‘King of Fruit’ in Singapore. Although it’s a local favorite, its smell puts many foreigners off. But if you want to eat like a local, don’t be afraid to dig in. Commonly found all over Southeast Asia, it is available in different species – with the D24 type most expensive and popular. The best place to try some is along the brightly-lit fruit stalls of Geylang Road, Singapore’s red light district. Be careful though: because of its pungent smell, it is prohibited to carry durians in taxis, the MRT (subway system), and hotels.
If you’re planning a trip to Singapore, be sure to come with an empty stomach – even the fussiest eater won’t want to miss the culinary surprises that this island nation has to offer.