When I think back on some of my fondest memories, they almost always involve food, especially at big family gatherings. But instead of a Sunday roast and mashed potatoes, I grew up with the taste of Singapore noodles – my heritage summed up in a dish. This curry-flavoured noodle is a symphony of flavours. Each mouthful is different, with shrimp, chicken, thin rice noodles, green onions and a bit of chili adding up to an addictively aromatic, spicy and satisfying meal.
While I was born in Canada, I grew up with the intoxicating melting pot of Chinese, Malay, British and Indian flavours of Singaporean cuisine. I truly believe it is the best food in the world, and everyone should make it over to this tiny island nation to try it out for themselves. It’s extremely difficult to find Singaporean/Southeast Asian food in North America unless you’re cooking it at home, so if you do have a chance to visit Singapore, don’t pass it up. Your stomach will thank you.
What do you know about Singapore? Chances are, not a lot, as this former British colony doesn’t pop up in the news very often. If you’re a frequent flyer, you might know that Changi International Airport is the world’s best; if you’re up to date on weird facts, you might also know that chewing gum is illegal(!), as part of the Singaporean government’s measure to keep the Garden City clean and green. Also known as Lion City (the word ‘singapura’, from Sanskrit, means exactly that), there’s a lot to explore here, especially in the way of food.
For locals, good food is truly a way of life – Singaporeans have arguments about where you can find the best food, and you’ll most often be greeted with “Have you eaten yet?” instead of “How are you?”
It’s a given that most Singaporeans will eat their meals not at home, but at the legendary open-air ‘hawker centres’ of Singapore (they’re everywhere – each block of apartments has a local hawker centre), where you’ll find dozens of food stands, each specializing in different types of dishes. Here’s an introduction to some must-try dishes that you’ll commonly find in Singapore and its neighbouring countries, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Travel Tips: Not sure what to order? Look for big lines at the most popular booths, which indicate where you can find the best meals. At hawker centres, the stall owners don’t provide any napkins, so be sure to purchase your own tissue packets at a drugstore, or, simply buy tissue packets from the roving vendors who may approach you at your table.
Hainanese Chicken Rice – One of Singapore’s most famous national dishes comes from Chinese immigrants from Hainan province. Here’s how it’s prepared: plump chicken is slowly poached in a gingery broth. This fragrant broth, redolent with the essence of chicken, is then used to cook and flavour the accompanying rice, which takes on a rich and satisfying flavour. You might find it topped with a dipping sauce of red chilli, soy sauce and fresh ginger. This addictive and popular dish is unmistakably Singaporean – you’ll wonder how you ever got on without it! This picture doesn’t look that appealing, but the dish tastes better than it looks – trust me!
Chilli Crab – This mouthwatering must-try seafood dish is one of Singapore’s legendary delicacies. A thick, rich sauce of tomato and mild chili coats luscious, fresh crab. Actually not a spicy dish at all, the only worry you’ll have is cleaning your hands off after digging into this shell-on specialty.
Curry Laksa – Diving into the melting pot of Peranakan cuisine, a marriage of Chinese and Malay food, this incredible noodle soup starts with a rich and spicy coconut milk. Flavoured with a flurry of spices like turmeric, coriander, lemongrass, garlic and shallot, you’ll find an assortment of noodles topped with chicken, tofu puffs, fish cake and fresh shrimp. You will also find different varieties, such as Assam laksa, which features a more sour broth with a fish/seafood base.
Satay – In pretty much every culture in the world, grilled meat on sticks is a popular street snack, and Singapore fails to disappoint. This Indonesian snack features marinated, charcoal-grilled meat skewers (chicken, beef, pork or mutton), served with a tangy peanut sauce and other sides like cucumber, onion and rice cakes.
Roti Prata/Roti Canai – This Malaysian snack is influenced by Indian flavours and is great at any time of day, especially for breakfast. A thin, chewy-crisp roti, or flatbread, is accompanied by savoury, mild curry and your choice of meat (chicken or beef). Tear apart the roti, dip into the curry, and enjoy! If you have more of a sweet tooth, you can also find roti topped with jam, peanut butter, Nutella and more, to be consumed like a French crepe.
Iced Desserts – When you’re in a tropical country with constant humidity, there’s nothing that refreshes better than an icy cold dessert. At any hawker centre or food court, you’ll find shaved ices flavoured with myriad toppings, such as fruits, jellies, syrups and more. If you’re not sure what to order, you’ll be able to see photos of popular menu items to help you decide – ice kacang or cendol are both excellent choices.
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