At the airport one is welcomed by the smell of traditional Singaporean coffee (kopi) and tea (the) alongside traditional breakfast fare such as yummy thin-cut toasted coconut jam (kaya) sandwiches or thick-cut toast slathered with peanut butter, condensed milk and/or floss (otherwise known as the hairy, meaty stuff they put in Chinese congee).
Of course, on the other side of this is a McDonald’s outlet, serving the global chain's usual burger selections. But it also offers more localized inventions, like the McSpicy chicken burger, which caters to the Singaporeans’ penchant for all things hot and spicy and addresses the norm of serving Halal and non-pork selections for the Muslim population.
But this is just in the arrival area of Terminal 2. In fact, Changi Airport, has more than 300 dining and shopping options, from Halal-friendly fare and vegetarian restaurants, to kid-friendly spaces and 24-hour joints for late-night or early morning travelers.
And then you get to the city.
A melting pot of cuisines can be found in every corner of Singapore, and this actually reflects the cultural harmony among its three main racial groups–Chinese Singaporeans, Malay Singaporeans and Indian Singaporeans.
When eating in any community hawker centre (Singapore’s version of the food court, and the main community meeting point), one can enjoy the best Chinese congee or noodle dishes alongside an array of biryani (Indian rice) flavors and roti pratas (flat breads). You can literally have your cake and eat it too when it comes to choosing what to indulge in.
One of the most popular Singaporean dishes is Hainanese chicken rice, and not a few families have made significant fortunes serving nothing but this all-in-one meal consisting of boiled chicken, green Chinese veggies, chicken broth and rice cooked in the chicken broth. Sounds healthy? It’s deceptive but worth every calorie.
A standout when it comes to chicken rice is Boon Tong Kee, which started in 1979 and now has seven branches across Singapore. Frankly speaking, going to the original branch in Balestier is worth the effort (it’s not that far anyway, anyhow!) because the other branches are more often than not overcrowded (testimony to this brand’s popularity; by the way, it’s Manila branch, located in Rockwell, Makati, is always packed as well!).
Have the chicken rice along with their other specialities–fried French bean with XO sauce, fried spare ribs with fried mantou (golden bread rolls). For the less adventurous or for the kids, order its very popular take on perennial favorites, sweet and sour pork and deep fried prawn toast.
Singapore is also known for its Nonya laksa, a rich, creamy and coconutty tofu and seafood soup, and its chicken curry, both of which are perfect rainy weather treats. Every hawker center and kopitiam (local coffee houses) will sell its version, but my all-time favorite cheap and cheerful place to have them is Toast Box, the Singaporean coffee house franchise that is as popular abroad as it is at home (just try getting a seat during breakfast and in the mid-afternoon).
Toast Box’s laksa is a popular all-day choice of diners, while its chicken curry, which is simmered “in a crock pot for hours” is a great way to end the day, either with rice, which is guaranteed to put you to sleep, or thick cut white toast, that you can dip in its spicy gravy as an added meal-ending treat.
My less commercial favorite place for laksa though is a small hole-in-the-wall in Boat Quay called Mama Chin. It has a limited menu of laksa, mee siam (think palabok!) and another version of laksa, the Penang laksa, which is more sour (think sinigang!). They also make poh piah, or the famous Chinese lumpia that can give the Mexican burrito a run for its money size-wise.
Singapore has also become popular lately for its xiao long bao (soupy pork, sometimes with seafood, dumplings) and la mian (hand pulled noodles), and for these, three names stand out–the Taiwanese franchise (but for some reason heavily identified with Singapore) Din Tai Fung, Crystal Jade and Imperial Palace, with the latter two making names for themselves in serving almost every kind of Chinese cuisine, from Cantonese to Teochew.
Located in most major malls and shopping streets, these three compete for the Asian “fast food” market, for nothing fills up Asians more than either a steaming bowl of rice, or a piping hot bowl of noodle soup.
And then, there are Singapore’s famous crab dishes. Cooked several ways, from buttered to peppered to drowning in a sweet-and-spicy chili sauce and served with piping hot steamed or golden fried buns, the crab selection is actually, oddly enough, not local. Normally, restaurants use crabs sourced from Sri Lanka, but others will offer the King Crab, which, while so much meatier and easier to eat, will set you back a lot; so make sure to specifically ask for Sri Lankan crabs, if you’re keeping to a budget.
My husband’s favorite place to bring guests is No Signboard, one of Singapore’s landmark chili crab places. Established in 1981 when its first branch literally had “no signboard,” this institution now has branches across Singapore, one in Macau and one in Jakarta. The restaurant is popular with locals and tourists, so reservations are definitely recommended.
Another crab specialist is Longbeach, which has been around since 1946 and was the creator of the black pepper crab. Today, this venerable seafood haunt has become an innovator of dishes not typically available in the market. It's as well a perfectionist of old favorites. It is also one of the few crab places where you can be a princess (or prince) and ask that they shell the crabs for you.
For those who are not on the Atkins diet, one of Singapore’s most popular meals is the Indian-originated rice dish, the biryani, or briyani, as the word has locally mutated into. A hearty breakfast or lunch, this colorful rice dish topped with lamb, beef or chicken and vegetables is cooked a myriad ways and with both Indian and Malay influences.
But my all-time favorite rice dish, being a coconut-lover, is the nasi lemak. A popular breakfast choice o locals, there is never a “correct” way of preparing it as you can mix-and-match what the fragrant rice is paired with, from Malay-style options such as fried anchovies, pickled veggies (achar, or achara to us Filipinos), cucumbers and either fried fish or chicken, to the Chinese influenced sausages, luncheon meat and curry chicken additions. Being a total foodie, I have had it with every single option listed above, and then some.
If I’m feeling virtuous (or guilty, after having indulged in the abovementioned carb-filled meals!), there is a hearty dish of vegetables, tofu and fish cakes in soup called yong tau fu, which, like the nasi lemak, is completely customizable. You get to choose what actually goes into the soup, and also, what kind of broth (from plain, to spiced, to coconutty) to use.
For briyanis, nasi lemak and bowls of piping hot yong tau fu, I head to my nearest hawker center, food court (every mall and virtually every building has one) or, in the case of the rice meals, nasi padang, which is an Indonesian food stall that serves rice plates with several meat and veg dishes, just like our Filipino turo-turo. For tourists, I suggest heading to the food courts at ION, Wisma Atria and Ngee Ann City (Takashimaya), all on Orchard Road.
And finally (well, not really, for there are more Singaporean dishes to write about; I’m just running out of space), there are the Singaporean desserts. And if you’re wondering why the ladies here are skinny minis, it’s because they’re not into rich, gooey and chocolatey endings. Singaporean sweets, influenced by the Chinese and Malay cultures, are light and always offer some kind of health benefit.
When a Singaporean says he wants “dessert,” he doesn’t mean a sundae, but either a hot or a cold Chinese sweet soup, either almond, peanut, sesame, walnut or red bean, the former apparently very good for the lungs. He could also mean a nice cold mango soup with sago and pomelo, which is lovely on a hot and humid day, or a warm and filling bowl of yam paste with gingko nuts and pumpkin. As weird as the latter sounds, I have added it to my list of personal comfort foods because it does just that–it comforts my tummy until my next meal!
From the Malay influence is kueh, or their version of the Filipino kakanin, and if you look closely, you’ll notice theirs is not much different. While there are several wonderful old places that the locals get their sweet fixes from, the more readily accessible and popular ones are Bengawan Solo and Kedai Kue Kue, both of which are found in almost every shopping center and commercial area.
For the first timers, I suggest sticking to the kuehs that look familiar, such as their version of cassava cake, known as bingka ubi (sound familiar?), or their take on our pichi-pichi, the ongol ubi. Kids will love the sago-based kuehs, such as the colorful lapis sagu and the sagu Melaka and their take on the puto, the ma kuo kueh, likewise served with grated coconut and coconut sugar on the side.
Both stores carry an extensive line of local cookies, some familiar, such as cashew nut and cornflake, and some with a more Asian twist, such as cassava cheese and the savory shrimp rolls. All are very popular as gifts, particularly during the Chinese New Year, when it's traditional to give out several varieties, in particular, the pineapple tarts, which I find unusually sweet for what I’ve come to learn as the Singapore taste but are nevertheless addictive. You can’t have just one!
Margarita Locsin-Chan is a trailing spouse and mother of 2. Married to a Filipino-speaking Chinese-Australian lawyer, she writes freelance for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Sassy Mama Singapore, Glam-o-Mamas and now, Positively Filipino.