Ask any Singaporean what their favorite pastime is and I guarantee that eating will be at the top of the list, for good reason! The food in Singapore is delicious, incredibly flavorful and unique. Mix Indian, Chinese, Malay and Indonesian foods, add a healthy dose of British influence and you have Singaporean food.
Even prior to the British colonization in the early 1800s, Singapore served as a crossroads for the maritime route of the Silk Road. The British arrival further cemented Singapore’s appeal in the region and brought people from all over Asia to this tiny island. Each group brought their own foods along. As groups intermingled and intermarried these foods began to meld together and become something very unique to Singapore.
The local food is so important to the culture that the Singapore government lobbied for it’s inclusion on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. I’ve pulled together a list of foods that you must try during your time on the island. These foods are accessible to Western tastes and I’ve tried to choose places that are easy to get to and order from. I hope you enjoy!
1. Hainanese Chicken Rice
You’ll hear this dish loving called, “The National Dish of Singapore.” This is one of the few dishes, I learned to cook after I married my Singaporean husband. You’ll find versions of this dish throughout Southeast Asia but Singapore perfects it!
At it’s most basic, Hainanese chicken rice is poached or boiled chicken. It’s cooked in a stock of ginger, pandan (somewhat like a local vanilla), and sesame oil until the chicken is cooked through. It is then plunged into ice water to seal in the juices and to stop the cooking process. The chicken stock is then used to cook the rice, which is the real star of the show!
The dish is served with chicken, rice, cucumbers and a bit of the stock as soup. It doesn’t sound exciting, but once you add the condiments – minced ginger, chili garlic sauce and sweet, dark soy sauce – you’ll start to understand what people love about it. Mix the chicken with rice and add the sauces to your taste or don’t add any sauce at all… the rice is that tasty!
My daughter loves to eat hers with only the dark, sweet sauce and lots of it. I like to add the sweet sauce with a little kick of chili and ginger. Others are all about the chili sauce.
Where to go:
You can get Hainanese Chicken Rice all over Singapore but some are better than others.
Boon Tong Kee – has been consistently good with the most flavorful rice we’ve tasted
2. Roti Prata
Roti prata is a delicious, flaky flat bread that is stretched and folded multiple times with oil or ghee and cooked on a hot griddle for a light, crispy taste on the outside with a nice, doughy texture on the inside.
It is always served with curry to dip the prata into. If you happen to go to a traditional prata house, I recommend upgrading to the chicken curry which is richer and more flavorful. If you are feeling more adventurous, try the fish and lamb curries which are also delicious.
Where to go:
Violet Oon (serves higher end local food but it is authentic and well-executed)
The Roti Prata House (246 Upper Thomson Rd, Singapore 574370) – this is an authentic prata house experience with no fine dining or air-conditioning. However, it is one of the few places that has both good prata (crispy on the outside, soft on the inside) and delicious curry.
3. Nasi Lemak
Nasi lemak is a standby dish for me. Who doesn’t like fried chicken and coconut rice? It is typically served with sweet chili sauce, peanuts and tiny, dried anchovies called ikan bilis (served on the side and mostly there for crunch). I love mixing the chili, peanuts and anchovies in with the rice! Yumm!! Many shops will also add a fried egg to the meal.
If you are sensitive to spice, just ask to leave the chili out. It’s typically served on the side so you are in control of the spice level. You can also choose to leave the ikan bilis and peanuts out since those are served on the side.
You can find this dish at most hawker centers and it’s usually done pretty well. It’s considered a breakfast or lunch food so you may not find it for dinner but you never know!
Where to go
Nasi lemak is easy to find but the best ones are found in the more far flung parts of the island. Here are a couple that are easy to get to from the Central Business District.
Deliciously, marinated meat on a stick? Yes, please! Satay is a really accessible dish and very kid friendly. Chicken, beef or lamb grilled over a charcoal fire flavored with delicious local spices like tamarind and galangal. It has a sweet, mildly sour flavor. It’s served with a slightly spicy, peanut dipping sauce and it’s just heaven!
There are a couple of really fun spots to get satay. My favorite is at the Telok Ayer Market (also called Lau Pa Sat). The city streets are shut down nightly outside the market and satay vendors set up shop at 7:00 PM. The air is filled with the smell of charcoal and conviviality. I always love ordering a minimum from a few different vendors to see which one is my favorite. Go with a group, have some beer and enjoy a little “night market” feel without ever leaving Singapore.
If you happen to be at Gardens by the Bay, you can check out Satay by the Bay which has views of the waterfront and easier access to parking. The shops there are also open at lunch.
Where to go:
- Lau Pa Sat Satay Street
- Satay by the Bay – next to Gardens by the Bay so you can plan your visit accordingly
Laksa is a spicy, coconut-based curry with noodles (either thick, wheat noodles like spaghetti or thin rice noodles) and seafood like prawns and fish cake. Many shops will give you an added dollop of chili paste which you can either mix in (if you like things spicy!) or just move to the side of the bowl.
This dish can be quite spicy but if you can handle spices you are in for a real treat!
Where to go:
- The Original Katong Laksa – this is a more local place but it is one of my favorites
- Shangri-La Hotel, Lobby Lounge – this hotel does a great job with many local favorites and the laksa here is no exception
- 328 Katong Laksa – A decent laksa with a simple menu that makes it easy to order
6. Chilli Crab
Chilli crab is another of Singapore’s “national dishes.” Contrary to it’s name, chilli crab is not spicy but more like sweet ketchup with a hint of chili to keep it interesting. It is served with mantou buns which are the white, steamed bread that you’ll see on barbecue pork buns.
This dish is best had with a group so bring some friends and family. While you are there, order a black pepper crab to try as well, you may be surprised to find which one you like better. I’d love to hear your favorite!
Where to go:
7. Kaya Toast
My favorite local breakfast! Kaya is a coconut, egg jam that is flavored with pandan (local vanilla). Traditionally, it’s served on charcoal-toasted bread with a slab of cold butter. The warm bread, kaya and cold butter is just heavenly! The typical breakfast set is coffee or tea, kaya toast and two half-boiled (soft-boiled) eggs – do you detect the British influence? I would eat it every morning but I’m not so sure my waistline would appreciate it.
Where to go:
This dish is pretty easy to get everywhere and most places do a decent job with it. Hawker stalls are a bit inconsistent so I recommend going to one of the big chains for your first experience.
This very humble food is one of the few “salads” you’ll find in Singapore. Rojak is Malay for “mixture” and you’ll hear it used in local slang even when it is not referring to food.
It’s typically a mixture of fruit, vegetables and sometimes you tiao, which is like a Chinese doughnut. It’s topped with a sweet, slightly spiced palm sugar dressing flavored with shrimp and tamarind. There are truly no rules with this dish so vendors have a lot of freedom to make this dish their own. It also means that you can customize it. I prefer mine with about half the dressing they normally add.
Rojak is meant to be shared and the hawkers will usually serve it with wooden skewers instead of chopsticks or forks and knives.
Where to go:
I have only seen this dish in hawker centers so let me know if you know of a good one elsewhere.
- Balestier Road Hoover Rojak (Whampoa Dr, #01-06 Makan Place, Block 90, Singapore 320090)
- Toa Payoh Rojak (51 Old Airport Rd, #01-108, Singapore 390019)
9. Beef Rendang
At it’s simplest, beef rendang is a Southeast Asian beef stew, but that does it a huge injustice. The dish is originally from Indonesia and is considered a national heritage dish there. Historically, it was served at celebratory events such as, weddings or the end of Ramadan.
The beef is slow cooked in coconut milk and spices until the meat is tender. Spices typically include ginger, galangal, turmeric leaves, lemongrass, garlic, shallots and chillies. Interestingly, these spices actually act as a natural preservative especially in the humid Southeast Asian weather.
This dish can be a little spicy depending on where you go.
Where to go:
We’ll end on dessert! Chendol is Singapore’s version of shave ice except that it’s so much better. The ice is ground into fine crystals, topped with coconut milk, pandan-flavored, jelly-like, rice flour noodles and gula melaka (local palm sugar, which tastes a bit like maple syrup to me) It’s often served with azuki beans (sweet red beans like those you find in Japan) and sometimes herbal jelly. If you aren’t keen on these you can easily avoid them.
Where to go:
- Mei Heong Yuen Dessert (multiple locations) – this is my favorite one so far! It’s served with snow ice rather than the traditional shaved ice and they bring you a bottle of gula melaka so you can adjust the sweetness to your liking
- The Coconut Club
I could go on and on but there are so many websites dedicated to the food of Singapore. This is an introductory list to get you started. There are so many foods to try here! I’d love to hear some of your favorites, in the comments below.