When your mouth starts to water thinking of the flavours of Singapore, the first thing coming to mind might be a Singapore Sling. The classic gin-based cocktail combines sweet and tart elements to leave the palate refreshed – and the drinker desiring more. But the flavours of Singapore’s culinary scene are so much more complex than any classic cocktail. Often touted as the food capital of Southeast Asia, Singapore boasts a national cuisine that cleverly blends elements of Chinese, Indian, and Malay cooking. The results are distinctly local variations on regional specialties, along with national dishes not found anywhere else. We offer the top 3 foods to try on your Singapore vacation.
Eat Like a Local
You’ll be spoiled for choice with over 6,700 eateries and counting to choose from. There are plenty of upscale establishments, including the celebrated fine dining restaurants of Raffles Hotel, the famous birthplace of the Singapore Sling. But humble street food is the real highlight of the dining scene here, and it’s a lot more complex than any food cart you’ve seen recently. You won’t find a single street-side vendor in Singapore. Government concerns about food hygiene led to the establishment in the 1960s of so-called “hawker centres“, which look a lot like open-air food courts.
Since then, locals have embraced these tightly-regulated establishments wholeheartedly. Queues are busiest around lunchtime, since lunching ‘al desko’ is firmly eschewed here in favour of social eating. Find a table before you order, since dishes may be brought to you as they come, rather than served straight away at the counter. (If this is the case, you’ll also be expected to pay at your seat.) Hawker centres are dotted throughout most neighbourhoods, usually near major landmarks. When considering Singapore tours, make sure to pick one with a local guide who can recommend favourite kiosks and must-try dishes.
A Fresh Take on Crab
Celebrated as an unofficial national dish, chilli crab is now a staple of Singaporean seafood restaurants. According to legend, this street food creation was cooked up in the 1950s by a husband and wife team. Tired of selling crabs steamed and cracked in their shells, they created a tomato-based sauce to complement the succulent, sweet meat. Over the years, the sauce evolved into a thicker gravy with the additions of egg, tomato paste, and sambal – a thick chilli-based condiment. The chilli adds just the right amount of spice to boost the flavour of the crab without being too hot to handle. Order plenty of mantou – fried or steamed buns – to soak up all the gravy when you’re done. Try it at Uncle Leong Seafood, a beloved restaurant with three locations across Singapore.
Noodles Worth Noting
Stir-fried noodles might not seem particularly exciting, but add plump prawns, juicy slices of barbecued pork, and long-simmered shrimp stock, and you’ll find a dish worth salivating over. It’s called hokkien prawn mee, and in typical Singaporean style, it combines elements of Chinese and Malay cuisine. The thick, flat egg noodles take their name from their Chinese origins, but they’re also popular in Malaysian cooking. In Singapore, it’s common for vendors to offer complimentary refills of the rich seafood broth. However, if you’re eating at a hawker centre, you’ll find that most patrons don’t hang around after finishing their food, so only seek a refill if you have noodles left to finish. Try the dish at the popular Beach Road Prawn Mee, and if you’re hooked, compare it to the version at rival Jalan Sultan Prawn Mee. The establishments are owned by members of the same family, but locals argue over which spot serves the best noodles.
Unusual Barbecued Delicacy
Another local favourite with its origins in the street food scene, barbecued stingray places high on the must-try list for many foodies visiting Singapore for the first time. The fish is usually flavoured with sambal, the same chilli paste that lends its spicy flavour to Singaporean chilli crab. The tender, boneless meat is then wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked slowly over a grill. Try it at Newton Circus Food Centre or East Coast Park Food Centre… both are known for excellent seafood.
Stuffing It All In
When you’re planning your culinary tour of Singapore, remember that many hawker centres are closed on Mondays. Cuisine varies by neighbourhood, so you’ll likely see more Chinese influences in Chinatown, traditional Indian spices in Little India, and so on.
Our Singapore Fling tour promises great meals, balancing all the best multicultural delights that a Singapore vacation has to offer. Local insight is key when you’re choosing which hawker centre to visit and what to order, though as a general rule of thumb, a long line-up is the sign of a taste worth waiting for!