Singapore is a proud nation of foodies and eating (and the perennial quest for good eats) is a pastime that is beyond compare. Once you get a taste of all the yummy eats on offer in this island nation, perhaps you will finally understand why.
If you are new to this city, the local food here is a blend of Asian cultures, spices and flavours, and the best places to sample them are in the food courts and hawker centres that are spread out across the country.
It was a painful task—and virtually an impossible one—to list only five must-try items in this article. So let’s be clear; this list is far from exhaustive! Nevertheless, we persevered and narrowed it down to these few top contenders that we are sure will leave your mouth watering and you asking, “More, please?”
This list is in no particular order:
We felt it fitting to begin with rojak simply because its name, meaning “eclectic mix”, perfectly symbolises the melting pot that is Singapore and its accompanying food culture. This word has become part of our Singlish vernacular, often used in our daily speech when we are trying to describe anything that is a mixture.
So what exactly is rojak? It is best described as a sweet and savoury salad consisting of sliced fruit and vegetables, which may include pineapple, apple, raw mango, radish, turnip, cucumbers and beansprouts, along with fried dough fritters and a fried, spongy beancurd called taupok. The salad is generously doused and tossed in a sweet, sticky and dark peanut sauce.
There is another version of rojak that is distinctly different yet just as tasty, and I would venture to say is a much heavier dish—Indian rojak. You can usually pick from a shelf of food items such as fried egg, cuttlefish, tempeh, potatoes, fried fish balls, onions, cucumber, chilli and more. These are then cut up to bite-sized pieces and are served together with a slightly spicy but mostly sweet red gravy that you can dip the rojak pieces in. Simply delightful.
Char Kway Teow
Char Kway Teow is a fried noodle dish that is just about as decadent as it gets. It was a favourite of the late Anthony Bourdain’s, who had to have a plate of them each time he set foot on the island.
While it may not be the most good-looking dish—save for some sliced green chives or scallions that add a touch of colour, the sweet dark sauce that’s one of the main ingredients in the dish makes it a look mostly like an oily brown slop—char kway teow gets an A+ in terms of flavour. The noodles are wok-fried at high heat with egg, Chinese sausages, chives, bean sprouts, and cockles. The sauce is oily (in a good way) and a perfect balance of sweet and salty (and it can be spicy too, if you wish).
Laksa consists of a thick vermicelli noodle (usually served with prawns, shredded chicken and cockles) that is bathed in a broth of coconut milk gravy. The broth is made from boiling prawn heads and shells, and consists of a laksa paste made from laksa leaves, chilli, galangal, turmeric, shallots, lemongrass, dried shrimp and candlenuts, among other umami-inducing ingredients.
It is a rich, spicy and creamy delight. For one of the most famous places to sample this delicious fare, head over to Katong Laksa, where the noodles are served cut up and eaten with a spoon; no chopsticks required!
Roti prata is a breakfast staple for many locals, but it is also perfectly legit as lunch, dinner or supper. It’s a flat, crispy and chewy dough that is served warm with a shallow bowl of curry (usually chicken or mutton, but fish may also be an option, if you ask). Many also enjoy prata with a generous sprinkling of sugar.
Classic pratas are either plain (or kosong) or with egg. But these days, you can get prata in myriad ways from cheese to chocolate to ice-cream.
Personally, I love my prata old-school—plain and crispy, dipped in curry, and paired with either a piping hot glass of teh tarik (pull tea) or teh halia (ginger tea).
If you get lucky, you can watch as the cook skillfully flips and tosses the prata—it’s surprisingly mesmerising.
Bak Kut Teh
Bak Kut Teh translates to ‘pork rib tea’, but it doesn’t actually contain any tea. It is, however, the ultimate comfort food—a savoury, piping hot bowl of pork rib soup topped with crispy, crunchy fried dough fritters and served with a bowl of white rice.
There are slight variations to bak kut teh; the Hokkien version has more dark sauce, the Teochews like theirs more peppery, while the Cantonese make theirs more herbal. But all of them have those same lovely tender ribs that easily fall off the bone, which you need to dip in some fresh cut chilli that’s been soaked in soy sauce. Go ahead, try all three versions and decide for yourself which you like best.
Now if I could only decide what I am going to have for lunch!