To define Singaporean cuisine is no easy task. Its influences are wide and varied, and what can be called the true ‘national’ dish is hotly debated. However, there are any number of dishes that are uniquely Singaporean, and as with everything else that is best about the country, these are very often the result of a fusion of traditions, cross-community interaction, and a desire to craft something that is new but still manages to reflect the past. The main elements of Singaporean food are essentially Chinese, Indian, Malysian and Peranakan (which is itself a blend of Chinese, Malay and Indonesian flavours), but even within these broad groups there are diverse regional influences, and this conflation of tastes, and the ability to take a staple dish from elsewhere and redefine and ‘own’ it, is one of the many qualities that marks out Singaporean food.
There are therefore some dishes (usually found all over the island, but sometimes only in small pockets), that you really must sample in Singapore in order to discover the essence of its rich and diverse cuisine. These dishes can be found in hawker centres and local corner eateries as well as in more upmarket establishments. Each stall, or restaurant, or chef, will have their own take on the dish while retaining its essence, and so finding a favourite place for char kway teow, the best hawker centre to eat fried hokkien mee, or the restaurant that does the tastiest katong laksa, is a true national pastime.
For instance, it is impossible to be in Singapore for any length of time without enjoying Hainan Chicken Rice, which many will argue is the country’s true national dish. Steamed or boiled chicken atop oily rice, accompanied by cucumber and a range of different sauces, chicken rice can be found literally everywhere in Singapore, from humble streetside stall to some of the most upmarket places in town.
Another favourite is char kway teow, which is usually made from flat rice noodles that have been stir-fried in lard and these are topped with chili, cockles, Chinese sausage, bean sprouts and perhaps prawns and egg. Cooked at high heat, this is a dish you will find just about anywhere in Singapore.
Chili crab is considered a signature Singapore dish, the key ingredient being a spicy chili and tomato sauce that is not necessarily that hot, and mud crabs (although other types of crab are sometime used), that are stir-fried together.
Anyone who comes to Singapore also has to sample fried hokkien mee. This is a mixture of thick yellow egg noodles and rice vermicelli, cooked in a seafood stock and topped with prawns, squid, pork belly and pieces of fried lard. The dish can be greasy, but a squeeze of lime juice cuts through this and enhances the flavour even further. Originally a workers’ dish, it has now become a national institution.
Katong Laksa is the quintessential Peranaken dish, being both a mixture of Chinese and Malay recipes, and is a thick soup made from rice vermicelli and a rich, spicy coconut gravy. This is mixed in with ground dried shrimp, while sambai and laksa leaves enhance both taste and aroma. Usually eaten with a spoon (the noodles are cut into shorter lengths) this is one of the real flavours of Singapore.
A extremely popular breakfast dish in kaya toast, where thin warm toast is buttered and then topped with with kaya, a coconut custard jam. The accompaniment of choice is usually a couple of soft-boiled eggs with soy sauce and pepper, washed down with a cup of black coffee. Many Singaporeans’ choice to start the day.
Hawker Centres are perhaps the best representation of Singaporean cuisine and its citizens’ approach to food and eating. Growing out of temporary and makeshift locations, where food hawkers would gather on the roadside or in front of shophouses with wooden pushcarts and mobile kitchens to sell food to passers-by, they slowly transformed into more permanent locations, and the modern mall food court represents the latest stage in their development.
In a sense, a hawker centre neatly summarises Singaporean food because of the way different stalls all come together under the one roof, the way many traditions have coalesced to create the Singaporean culinary landscape. The most popular stalls at the most popular hawker centres do a roaring trade at all times of the day and night, and people will gladly go out of their way or make a long journey to get the right dish from the right stall.
While the ambience and comfort levels vary, and they can appear a bit chaotic and disorganised on first acquaintance, some of the best food in Singapore is to be found at hawker stalls, cooked by artisans with immense experience and tradition behind them. A new visitor to Singapore should have absolutely no hesitation about eating from hawker stalls (you don’t need to have the same concerns as you might about eating ‘street food’ in other Asian cities) and some of the unique dishes you savour will undoubtedly rank in your culinary highlights.
Where is the best hawker centre? A question that is debated over and over, and ultimately one that has no answer — somehow, this makes the discussion more engaging. Certainly, there are extremely popular, even internationally famous, individual hawker stalls, and centres that attract more customers than others. As to the best, there is no definitive answer, so instead we introduce you briefly to a few of the best-known and most popular hawker centres.
Old Airport Road Food Centre
19 Old Airport Road
Chinatown Smith Street Food Centre
336 Smith Street
East Coast Lagoon Food Centre
East Coast Park Service Road
Maxwell Road Hawker Centre
1 Kadayanallur Street
Changi Village Food Centre
2 Changi Village Road
Chomp Chomp Food Centre
20 Kensington Park Rd
West Coast Market and Food Centre
726 Clementi West Street 2
Newton Food Centre
500 Clemenceau Ave N
Geylang Serai Market and Food Centre
1 Geylang Serai
Queenstown Food Centre
40A Commonwealth Avenue