Since its beginnings as a British port in the early 1800s, the city has welcomed countless visitors to its shores. Malaysian, Indian, Chinese and European immigrants brought with them cures for homesickness, not least of which were their palates and recipes. Today, the enduring legacy of Singapore’s past can be seen in the profusion of dishes that fill local hawker centres and eateries. True, the city prides itself on an abundance of world-class restaurants to rival New York’s or London’s. But the beating heart and soul of Singapore can still be found in a good, cheap bowl of steaming laksa or a plate of chicken rice. Food that — like the earnest, forthcoming grin — reveals most clearly what Singapore truly is.
1) Hainanese Chicken Rice
A slapdash of local touches has made chicken rice, which originates from China’s Hainan province, one of Singapore’s unofficial national dishes. It is comprised of an unalterable Holy Trinity of components. Chicken, which is poached, sliced and drizzled liberally with sesame oil. Oily, fragrant rice steamed with chicken stock, ginger, garlic and pandan leaf. And a transcendent garlicky, limey chilli sauce. There are as many ways to enjoy this dish as there are stalls purveying it. Some add dark soy sauce to the chilli for a tinge of sweetness, or ginger paste for a kick of spice. Drizzling the soy sauce over the oily, fragrant rice is not uncommon. Some stalls offer roasted or soy sauce chicken instead of the usual poached variety. Go ahead and explore — the chicken rice world is your oyster.
Boon Tong Kee is a local chicken rice institution. The branch at 399 / 401 / 403 Balestier Road opens daily till late. Lee Fun Nam Kee Chicken Rice at 94 Lorong 4 Toa Payoh serves legendary soya sauce chicken as well as the traditional variety.
2) Chilli Crab
The amount of sucking, cracking, chomping, slurping and finger-licking involved in eating this dish is enough to make your grandmother blush, if she wasn’t already tucking into the crab herself. Another of Singapore’s national gems, chilli crab consists of a fresh crab (usually of the humongous Sri Lankan variety) swathed in a thick, eggy, spicy-sweet chilli sauce. There is no use for cutlery here; take full advantage of your opposable thumbs to dig out morsels of the fresh, sweet meat from every nook and crevice of the crustacean. An order of mantou, a sweetish fried bun, usually accompanies the dish and is best used to sop up every last drop of sauce.
No Signboard Seafood at Block 1202 East Coast Parkway, #01-02, East Coast Seafood Centre serves some of the best chilli crab in town. So does Jumbo Seafood Restaurant, located at Block 1206 East Coast Parkway, #01-07, East Coast Seafood Centre.
3) Carrot Cake
One might be forgiven in expressing surprise that there isn’t a shred of carrot in this dish. The ‘carrot’ here refers to the main ingredient, white radish (also known as daikon or white carrot), which is grated and steamed with rice flour to result in a ‘cake’. This is then fried with liberal amounts of egg, preserved radish, soy sauce, garlic and spring onions. Cholesterol-laden though this is, Singaporeans are not deterred from enjoying carrot cake at any time of the day. Yes, even for breakfast. Two equally popular versions exist; ‘black’ means that dark soy sauce is added for a sweeter taste, while ‘white’ refers to the usual, more savoury type.
This dish can be found in most hawker centres. For some of the best, go to Ah Heng Carrot Cake at #01-28 Newton Circus Food Centre, 500 Clemenceau Ave North. Or try Miow Sin Carrot Cake at #01-04, Lavender Food Square, 380 Jalan Besar.
This culinary treasure was introduced by the Peranakan (Straits-born Chinese) diaspora in Singapore. Thick rice vermicelli comes drenched in a spicy, coconut milk-based broth, redolent of the flavour of dried ground shrimp. The dish comes charged up with taupok (a local version of dried tofu), cockles, a dollop of fiery sambal and a liberal garnishing of laksa leaves (also known as daun kesom), which imparts its distinctive herbal sharpness to the soup. With the amount of slurping and splattering involved, white shirts are not recommended for a laksa binge. However, some joints offer noodles already cut into shorter lengths, easily scooped up with a spoon — a godsend for those who haven’t quite perfected the art of chopsticks.
Relinquish chopsticks at these popular ‘short-strand’ laksa joints: 328 Katong Laksa at 53 East Coast Road, and Sungei Road Laksa at #01-100 Jin Shui Kopitiam, 27 Jalan Berseh.
5) Kaya Toast and Kopi
Forget chi-chi brunches in ritzy locales. For an unbeatable and unbeatably economical start to the day, one can’t go wrong with the simple but magical duo of kaya toast and coffee (more affectionately known as kopi). Thin slices of bread are toasted to a delicate crisp and spread generously with slabs of butter and kaya, an unctuous, pandan-scented coconut and egg jam. Wash it down with a cup of thick, dark kopi, made using coffee beans roasted in butter and sugar for that aromatic, caramelised flavour. Still peckish? Include a side order of half-boiled eggs, seasoned with pepper and dark soy sauce, for a complete breakfast.
The undisputed granddaddy of kopi joints is Ya Kun Kaya Toast (est. 1944), which has numerous branches in the city. The one at 18 China Street is particularly atmospheric.
6) Bak Kut Teh (Pork Rib Soup)
Bak kut teh (which literally translates as ‘pork rib tea’) is a rather polarising subject. In Singapore the light, peppery Teochew-style broth is slightly more popular, though many still swear by the darker, herbier Hokkien-style version. No matter the allegiance, the underlying idea remains — pork ribs are boiled for hours in a broth resplendent with garlic, onions, pepper, and a secret smattering of herbs and spices. The resulting ribs are intensely flavourful and fall-off-the-bone soft, best dipped in the accompanying chilli-infused dark soy sauce. Though the soup is usually served with steamed white rice, many opt to add you tiao (fried crullers), which are dunked in the soup before being eaten.
A good Hokkien-style version can be found at Leong Kee (Klang) Bak Kut Teh at 321 Beach Road. For the peppery Teochew broth, go to Song Fa Bak Kut Teh at 11 New Bridge Road or Old Tiong Bahru Bak Kut Teh at 58 Seng Poh Road.
7) Bak Chor Mee (Minced Pork Noodles)
Originating from Singapore’s Teochew forefathers, this humble dish has reached unprecedented levels of local ubiquity. It’s the perfect quick meal — fresh egg noodles are tossed with vinegar, chilli and oil then topped with a mound of minced pork. Slices of stewed black mushrooms, which impart a smoky umami kick, crumbs of sinful fried lard, and pungent slivers of crispy dried sole fish complete the dish. (One can opt for no lard, but where’s the fun in that?) Each order comes with a bowl of soup on the side; you know it’s good when the broth is cloudy with the residue of minced meat.
There are virtually no bad bak chor mee stalls in Singapore, but here are some of the best: Joo Heng Mushroom Minced Pork Noodle at #01-86 Ang Mo Kio Market And Food Centre, 628 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4, Street 61; and Seng Kee Mushroom Minced Pork Noodles at 316 Changi Road.
A Local Fix
Not able to get to Singapore? A few establishments in Vietnam do great versions of Singaporean and Peranakan cuisine.
In Ho Chi Minh City there’s Lion City. With a number of franchises around town, the original is still arguably the best. Check them out at 45 Le Anh Xuan, Q1. Also try the excellent, recently opened Oriental Garden (23 Tran Ngoc Dien, Q2).
Lion City is also in Hanoi (92 Le Duan, Hoan Kiem). But for the real deal head to Rasa Singapura (63 Truc Bach, Ba Dinh). This is tasty, home-cooked, Peranakan-style fare served up by a Singaporean-Vietnamese couple. Their signature dish, nasi lemak, is to die for.
Another standout restaurant in Hanoi is Jade Restaurant (71 Kim Ma, inside Nha Hat Cheo, Ba Dinh). The Singapore hot chilli crab is sensational.