Chicken Rice – No Singapore hawker centre (food court) is complete without a stall (or a dozen) selling chicken rice, Singapore’s no-frills national dish. In the traditional Hainanese recipe, which dates to the 1850s, the chicken is boiled and then immersed in cold water to smoothen the skin and gelatinize the fat. It is served with rice cooked in chicken broth after the grains have been fried with garlic, sesame, and chicken fat. It is a recipe that Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice in central Singapore follows steadfastly, earning a badge of authenticity among locals.
Chilli Crab – 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 hot sambal, tomato, onion, and egg. Matchbox-sized Mattar Road Seafood Barbecue takes an hour to serve this legendary dish, but it’s worth the wait. The owner claims his recipe dates back to the 1950s, and he devotes two days each week to preparing his sambal and letting it rest. The result is an addictive balance of sweet, spicy, and sour.
Dim Sum – 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 sums are exquisitely crafted: silky dough is stuffed with filling, pleated with at least 18 folds, and steamed lightly. Every dim sum is filled with broth, warmth, and goodness.
Satay – Every evening, Lau Pa Sat hawker centre thrums with the voices of satay vendors hawking their barbecued 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, sitting under Lau Pa Sat’s high 19th-century 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.
Nasi Padang – 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 also serves staples such as beef rendang as 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 ways, “Milo Dinosaur” and the ice-cream-topped “Milo Godzilla.”
Century Eggs – 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.
Sambal Stingray – Fiery sambal, made with ginger, garlic, onions, vinegar, rice wine, and shrimp, and succulent stingray are a match made in heaven—and a very popular Malay-Singaporean delicacy. At Lau Pa Sat, one of Singapore’s food courts, evenings are a busy time when office-goers stop for a snack, and families throng the stalls and sit around food-laden tables. Try the sambal stingray or barbecued stingray here. The fleshy fish is marinated in sambal paste, wrapped in a banana leaf, and barbecued. The dish is served with lemon wedges and chinchalok, a relish of onion, chilli, lime, and fermented shrimp.
Kaya Toast – Singaporeans love their kopitiams, traditional coffee shops which 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. Crisp slices of bread are 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 the city. Killiney Kopitiam has many outlets in Singapore while Tong All Eating House is an old city favourite.
Fish Ball Soup – Fish balls can be a little hard to like 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 lane 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.
Ais Kacang – Corn and beans for dessert may sound weird, but not in Singapore. They’re an integral part of the technicoloured ais kacang, that’s all the rage in the nation. A bit like a Singaporean falooda, the dessert comprises red beans, coconut milk, rice noodles, grass jelly, and palm seeds arranged around a bowl and topped with a mountain of shaved ice. This is drizzled with sugary syrup and a concoction of sweet corn and coconut milk. It is such a popular dish, that there are gourmet versions available in swanky restaurants. Try the options at the Chinatown Complex Food Centre.
Picks for the Pantry – If you like cooking as much as eating, spend a morning scouring Singapore’s many supermarkets. Shelves brim with Chinese sausages, fish balls (vacuum sealed for the journey back), bottles of sambal, and packets of laksa paste. Pouches of spices like Sichuan pepper, dehydrated mango, and bottles of rice wine make great food souvenirs. You could also pick up tropical fruits like rambutan just before you head back home. Tea lovers can make a trip to the teahouses in Chinatown that sell all manner of delicate Chinese and flavoured teas.