Singapore’s cuisine has been shaped by its multi-ethnic immigrants. The city-state is a smorgasbord of Southeast Asian cuisine—a sensory hotpot of Indonesian, Malay, Peranakan, Indian, and Chinese food. Here’s our list of the best dishes in the city and where to get them.
Every evening, the Lau Pa Sat hawker centre—which dates back to the 19th century—thrums with the holler of satay vendors hawking their barbecue delights. Plastic chairs and tables are set up outside stalls, and the air is heady with the smoky aroma of chicken, beef, and prawn sizzling on skewers. Some patrons take their barbecue party inside the centre, under Lau Pa Sat’s high arches, amid Victorian columns with fine, filigree ironwork. The grilled meat is served with sweet-and-spicy peanut sauce, and best enjoyed with chilled beer, which is the second-most popular buy in Lau Pa Sat.
18, Raffles Quay, Singapore 048582; open 24 hours; satay 70 cents/₹34 per stick.
Eating chilli crab is a hands-on experience. Crack the crustacean, scoop out the moist, tender meat, and quickly pop it in your mouth before the brown, flavourful juice seeps out. Use bread to mop up what’s left of the spicy sauce made with sambal, tomato, onion, and egg. Matchbox-sized Mattar Road Seafood Barbecue in southeast Singapore takes an hour to serve this legendary dish, but the wait is worth it. The owner claims his recipe dates back to the 1950s, and he devotes two days a week to prepare and let his sambal rest. What results is an addictive balance of sweet, spice, and sour.
+65-6447 2798; 1-63, 51 Old Airport Road Food Centre; 3-11p.m., Thu-Mon; SGD40/₹1,925 for a 1kg-crab; price of seafood is determined by weight.
No Singapore hawker centre is complete without a stall (or dozen) selling chicken rice, Singapore’s no-frills national dish. In its traditional Hainanese recipe, which dates back to the 1850s, the chicken is boiled and then immersed in cold water to smoothen the skin and gelatinize the oil. It is served with rice cooked in chicken broth and seasoned with garlic, sesame, and chicken oil. It is a recipe that Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice in central Singapore follows steadfastly, earning a badge of authenticity among locals.
+65-6255 6396; 101 Thomson Road, 1-08 United Square; 10.30a.m.-10.30p.m.; SGD4.80/₹230.
Century eggs aren’t for everybody. The Chinese delicacy is made by preserving chicken, duck, or quail eggs in a saline solution for a few weeks, some say years. The result is an ominous-looking grey yolk with egg white that has turned a translucent black-coffee brown. It’s a far stronger flavour than boiled eggs, but one that’s surprisingly smooth and packed with umami. Available at Din Tai Fung.
+65-6836 8336; 290 Orchard Rd, B1-03 Paragon Shopping; www.dintaifung.com.sg; open 11a.m.-9.30p.m.; meal for two SGD60/₹2,900 approx.
Nasi Padang is the Indonesian equivalent of a thali: a lush spread of vegetables, meat, and seafood curries served with rice. Tuck in at the two-storeyed HJH Maimunah restaurant that serves staples such as beef rendangas well as more unusual preparations like lemak siput (snails cooked in chilli paste and coconut milk). Most patrons team their nasi padang with glasses of the chocolate and malt drink, Milo. Like many other restaurants in Singapore, Maimunah serves them in two sizes, “Milo Dinosaur” and the larger “Milo Godzilla”.
+65-6291 3132; 11&15 Jalan Pisang; Mon-Sun 7a.m.-8p.m.; SGD10-12/₹480-580 per person.
Stingray and sambal are a match made in heaven—and one of the most popular Malay-Singaporean delicacies. At the Lau Pa Sat food court, the fleshy fish is marinated in sambal paste, wrapped in a banana leaf, and then barbecued. Served with lemon wedges and chinchalok, a relish of onion, chilli, lime, and fermented shrimp.
18, Raffles Quay; open 24 hours; SGD15/₹730 for one stingray.
Beyond the glass walls of the kitchen at Din Tai Fung, cooks and servers wearing face masks gingerly place dim sums in bamboo baskets before wheeling them over to patrons. The restaurant chain is known for their xiao long bao (juicy pork dumplings), steamed buns, and unagi (eel). The pork and truffle dim sum are crafted exquisitely: silky dough is stuffed with filling, pleated with at least 18 folds, and steamed lightly. Every serving is filled with broth, warmth, and goodness.
+65-6836 8336; 290 Orchard Rd, B1-03 Paragon Shoppin; www.dintaifung.com.sg; open 11a.m.-9.30p.m.; meal for two SGD60/₹2,900 approx.
Corn and beans for dessert may sound weird to some, but it’s all the rage in Singapore and just one of the ingredients in the technicoloured ais kacang. Vaguely like a Singaporean falooda, the dish comprises red beans, coconut milk, rice noodles, grass jelly, and palm seeds topped with a mountain of shaved ice and drizzled with sugary syrup, sweet corn, and more coconut milk. Kacang can be found on the streets and in swanky restaurants.
Chinatown Complex Food Centre, 335 Smith Street; Tanjong Pagar Market and Food Centre, 6 Tanjong Pagar Plaza; SGD5/₹250 for ais kacang.
Fish balls can be a little hard to stomach if you aren’t used to eating seafood. The spheres have a slightly gelatinous texture and a strong aroma that some find hard to stomach. Sample a bowl at Chinatown’s Food Street—that spans an entire cobblestone street with outdoor seating—where vendors beckon hungry customers to their small restaurants and stalls. Each serving has clear broth flavoured with garlic, red chillies, and onions and a few fish balls. Some hawker centres also serve noodles in their soup, and if that’s how you like it, make sure you ask.
Chinatown Food Street, Smith Street, Chinatown; Meiling Market & Food Centre, 159 Mei Ling Street; approx SGD3/₹150.
Kopi tiams, or coffee shops, can be found on most streets in Singapore and they all serve a strong, dark brew that’s a guaranteed shot in the arm. The best accompaniment to a stiff glass of kopi is kaya toast. Toast slathered with a generous layer of butter and kaya: a spread made from coconut milk, egg, and sugar. Occasionally, kaya is flavoured with honey or leaves of the palm-like pandan tree. It’s the perfect start to the day, or a lovely end to a long one spent exploring. Killiney Kopitiam has many outlets in Singapore while Tong Ah Eating House is an old city favourite.
Tong Ah Eating House, 36 Keong Saik Road; SGD1.6/₹78 for two slices. Find the Killiney Kopitiam outlet closest to you on www.killiney-kopitiam.com.
If you like cooking as much as eating, spend a morning scouring any one of Singapore’s many ubiquitous supermarkets. Shelves brim with Chinese sausages, fish balls (vacuum sealed for the journey back), bottles of sambal, and packets of laksa paste. Bottles of spices like Sichuan pepper, dehydrated mango, and bottles of rice wine make great food souvenirs. Tea-lovers might make the trip to the tea houses in Chinatown that sell all manner of delicate Chinese and flavoured teas.
Available at all NTUC Fairprice stores and several shops in Chinatown.
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.
Rumela Basu is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Her favourite kind of travel involves food, literature, dance and forests. She travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself.