Singapore is known for it’s fabulous, sometimes over the top food. It would be a crime not to enjoy it in excess, so leave your diet and skinny jeans at home. Food is so critical to society that instead of being greeted with, “Hello, how are you?” you’ll sometimes hear, “Have you had your lunch yet?” This always throws me off for the first day or so I’m there, but it’s completely endearing. I’ve had people tell me in jest that eating is Singapore’s national sport.
I personally don’t think they’re kidding. And, that’s a good thing.
To understand the food, you need a very quick geography and history lesson. Singapore is an island city, state and nation all wrapped into one, bordered by Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. In 1819, Sir Thomas Raffles (the famous Raffles Hotel is his namesake) turned barely inhabited Singapore into a major port for India-China trade. People from neighboring countries moved to the islands and in the 19th and early half of the 20th century, immigrants from Southern China fled to the region in search of new opportunities. In a nutshell, Singaporean cuisine is influenced by that of Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Southern China.
Simply put… Singaporean food is awesome. I’ve had the great fortune of visiting Singapore more times than I can count throughout the last decade due to my husband’s work. And, because there are plenty of things to do in Singapore with kids, I’ve taken my daughter several times since then. Here’s a short list of everything I try to eat (multiple times) when I’m there.
Singaporean Chili Crab
This is not a meal for your best attire. Restaurants will typically crack the crab shells to help you out, but be prepared to dig in and get a little messy. You’ll receive chopsticks and usually a crab cracker. Then, it’s up to you and your hands to get the meat out.
Regardless of whether or not you order black pepper chili crab or traditional chili crab, it’s not as spicy as you might think. The crab is stir fried in a thick, fragrant sauce made of homemade ketchup and chili sauce, that begs to be lapped up with homemade buns. The crabs used are typically mud crabs, however, other varieties such as softshell crabs or blue swimmer crabs can be used too. The dish is said to have been created in the 1950s at a famous seafood restaurant called Long Board, which still exists today.
Hainanese Chicken Rice
Singapore’s national dish actually originates from Hainan Island in Southern China. Basically, chicken is served usually skin on and next to or on top of rice cooked in chicken broth. The typical condiments include a bowl of chicken broth, chili sauce, soy sauce, and sliced cucumbers on the side. A whole chicken is boiled until done, then plunged into an ice bath. The rice is stir fried in ginger, garlic and chicken fat, before being boiled in the chicken broth.The rice can make or break this dish. It should be flavorful and mild on the garlic, but definitely not plain rice. The chicken is fall off the bone tender and served at room temperature, due to the ice bath. Don’t let photos make you think this dish is boring. It’s not fancy looking, but it’s definitely comfort food.
Higher end restaurants, such as those in hotels, will give you the option of having breast meat or thigh meat. I don’t feel like I’m compromising when I choose breast meat. I also have had equally good Hainanese Chicken Rice at Singapore’s hawker stalls, which can be found all over the city.
Nasi Goreng, Nasi Lemak, Nasi Pedang
Frankly, I’m good with anything that has nasi in the name.
In Malay and Indonesian nasi means rice and goreng means fried. Nasi goreng is the national dish of Indonesia, however, it does somehow stem from Chinese fried rice. There are many variations of it. Some include sausage, stinky beans (for vegetarians), salted fish, goat, but chicken is the most common meat. With chicken, you may get a fried drumstick or a wing on the side depending on where you are. Also, most households serve nasi goreng as a breakfast food, using up the prior night’s rice.
Nasi lemak is the national dish of Malaysia and is basically a fragrant rice dish cooked in coconut milk and a pandan leaf (sometimes curry, too). Accompaniments can include peanuts, fried egg, fritters, fried chicken and a number of other delicious items.
Nasi pedang is, you guessed it, rice served with a variety of cooked meat that is usually plated on separate dishes like a small buffet. The dish stems from Pedang, the capital of West Sumatra. At the hawker stalls you just point to the meat choices behind glass (usually) and it will be plated accordingly.
Char Kway Teow
Char kway teow is a flat noodle dish that literally translates to “stir-fried rice cake strips”. They are cooked over high heat in usually (wait for it) pork lard (doesn’t matter, it’s so good) with soy sauce, shrimp paste, bean sprouts, seafood, sausage and/or whatever the cook desires.
I’m told that the hawker centres are using more vegetable oil than pork lard these days to cater to healthier sensitivities. Don’t worry about it either way, just enjoy.
Though many Western restaurants do satay pretty well, there is nothing like the real deal and it’s everywhere in Singapore. You can buy it by the stick as a snack or in bunches of 10 (or less) served with sweet and spicy peanut sauce, cucumber slices, onion slices and ketupat (Malay rice cakes). A brushing of oil on he exterior of the meat is what gives it a brown appearance.
The beauty of Singaporean food is that if can be enjoyed on any budget. Buy the above dishes for just a few dollars at a hawker centre (Maxwell hawker centre is pictured above) or spend a little bit more and enjoy it in your hotel (we always stay at the Four Seasons Hotel Singapore or The Regent Singapore). It will be tough to find comparable eats in the U.S.—trust me on this.
If you really want to blow your taste buds away, visit Singapore in July during the Singapore Food Festival, put on by the Singapore Tourism Board. Plan right, and you’ll also be able to attend The Great Singapore Sale (a shopper’s dream) in July at the same time. That’s quite an epic itinerary paired with some Singapore slings (yes, I have the Raffles Hotel recipe).
Photo credits: Singapore Tourism Board