Singaporeans are obsessed with makan (food), from talking incessantly about their last meal, to feverishly photographing, critiquing and posting about it online. It's hardly surprising – food is one of Singapore's greatest drawcards, the nation's melting pot of cultures creating one of the world's most diverse, drool-inducing culinary landscapes.
How it All Began…
Singapore has a history of migration. As each ethnic group and subgroup came to Singapore, it brought its own cuisine along. Each type of food remains largely undiluted to this day, but as often happens when cultures are transplanted far from home, local variations and customs have crept in. Just as the people of Singapore developed their own characteristics the longer they were separated from their homelands, the character of dishes such as fish-head curry, chilli crab and yu sheng (raw fish salad eaten at Chinese New Year) have all evolved from traditional favourites. Singaporeans live to eat, and while you're here you might as well join them.
For Singaporeans, what's on the plate is far more important than the quality of the china (or plastic) it's served on. The smartest-dressed businessman is as comfortable sitting down on a cheap plastic chair at a plastic table and wading into a S$4 plastic plate of char kway teow (a Hokkien dish of broad noodles, clams and eggs fried in chilli and black-bean sauce) as he is eating S$90 crabs in an air-conditioned restaurant. Combine this unpretentiousness with infinite variety, high standards of hygiene and the prevalence of the English language, and you have some of the best and most accessible eating opportunities in Southeast Asia.
Hawker Centres, Kopitiams & Food Courts
Singapore's celebrated hawker centres, kopitiams and food courts serve up knockout street food at wallet-friendly prices.
Hawker centres are usually standalone, open-air (or at least open-sided) structures with a raucous vibe and rows of food stalls peddling any number of different local cuisines.
Often found in air-conditioned shopping malls, food courts are basically air-conditioned hawker centres with marginally higher prices, while coffeeshops, also called kopitiams (tiam is Hokkien for 'shop'), are open shopfront cafes, usually with a handful of stalls and roaming 'aunties' or 'uncles' taking drinks orders.
Hawker Centre Etiquette
- Bag a seat first, especially if it's busy. Sit a member of your group at a table, or 'chope' (save) your seat by laying a packet of tissues there. Don't worry if there are no completely free tables; it's normal to share with strangers.
- If there's a table number, note it as the stall owner uses it as a reference for food delivery.
- If the stall has a 'self service' sign, you'll have to carry the food to the table yourself. Otherwise, the vendor brings your order to you.
- Ignore wandering touts who try to sit you down and plonk menus in front of you.
- It's customary to return your tray once finished, although there are a few roaming cleaners who'll take your empty dishes.
Beyond Hawker Centres
Singapore's restaurant scene is booming. From celebrated local chefs' restaurants, such as Violet Oon's National Kitchen by Violet Oon and Janice Wong's eponymous restaurant Janice Wong, to hot Australian chef Sam Aisbett's Whitegrass, the city has an ever-expanding legion of top-notch, celebrity-chef nosheries. Iggy's remains one of Asia's most coveted destination restaurants, with French chef Julien Royer's new offering Odette providing lofty competition.
Most exciting is Singapore's new breed of lively eateries, which, alongside trailblazers such as Kilo, deliver sharp, produce-driven menus in an altogether more relaxed setting. Among the best are Australian grill Burnt Ends and Japanese izakaya Neon Pigeon, two of a string of newcomers that have transformed Chinatown and Keong Saik into dining 'it' spots.
Not Sure What to Eat? Just Queue
Singaporeans are quite happy to spend half an hour in line to get a dish that's new, popular or famous. According to local wisdom, if you want the best food, join the longest queue. Stalls go in and out of favour very quickly, but if you want to witness or join in with this phenomenon, you can find sure-fire mammoth queues for Michelin-star dishes at Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle and Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle, and for delicious crab dishes at Mellben Seafood in Ang Mo Kio.
Cantonese is the best known of the regional Chinese cuisines, with typical dishes including xiao long bao (dumplings filled with a piping hot soup) and dim sum – also known as yum cha – snack-type dishes usually eaten at lunchtime or as a Sunday brunch in large, noisy restaurants. Practically Singapore's national dish, Hainanese chicken rice is a soulful mix of steamed fowl and rice cooked in chicken stock, and served with a clear soup, slices of cucumber and ginger, chilli and soy dips.
Many of Singapore's Chinese are Hokkien, infamously coarse-tongued folk whose hearty noodle dishes include char kway teow (stir-fried noodles with cockles, Chinese sausage and dark sauces), bak chor mee (noodles with pork, meat balls and fried scallops) and hokkien mee (yellow Hokkien noodles with prawn, served either fried or in a rich prawn-based stock).
Seafood is a speciality of delicate Teochew cuisine, with fish maw (a fish's swim bladder) cropping up alarmingly often. The classic Teochew comfort food is rice porridge, served with fish, pork or frog (the last is a Geylang favourite).
Spicy, South Indian food dominates Singapore, with a typical dish being thali, often a large mound of rice served with various vegetable curries, rasam (hot, sour soup) and a dessert. Local Chinese love Indian roti prata – a flat bread cooked with oil on a hotplate and served with a curry sauce. Try a roti telur (prata cooked with an egg) or a roti tissue (ultra-thin prata cooked with margarine and sugar and served in a cone shape).
Other South Indian vegetarian dishes include masala dosa, a thin pancake rolled around spiced vegetables with some chutney and rasam on the side. Its carnivorous, halal (Muslim) equivalent is murtabak, paper-thin dough filled with egg and minced mutton.
Malay & Indonesian
The cuisines of Malaysia and Indonesia are similar, with star staples including satay – grilled kebabs of chicken, mutton or beef dipped in a spicy peanut sauce. Both ayam goreng (fried chicken) and rendang are popular staples, as are nasi goreng (fried rice) and nasi lemak (coconut rice served with anchovies, peanuts and a curry dish).
The Sumatran style of Indonesian food bends much more towards curries and chillies. Nasi padang, from the Minangkabau region of West Sumatra, consists of a wide variety of spicy curries and other smaller dishes served with rice. Simply pick and choose what you want and it's dolloped on a plate.
Peranakan food is a unique fusion of Chinese ingredients and Malay sauces and spices. It's commonly flavoured with shallots, chillies, belacan (Malay fermented prawn paste), peanuts, preserved soybeans and galangal (a ginger-like root). Thick coconut milk is used to create the sauce that flavours the prime ingredients.
Typical dishes include otak-otak (a paste-like combo of fish, coconut milk, chilli, galangal and herbs, wrapped and grilled in a banana leaf) and ayam buah keluak (chicken stewed with dark, earthy nuts imported from Indonesia to produce a rich sauce). Equally scrumptious is the distinctive Peranakan laksa (noodles in a savoury coconut-milk gravy with fried tofu and bean sprouts).
Vegetarian & Vegan
Little India teems with vegetarian food, and most food courts and hawker centres across the island offer at least some vegetarian options.
Be aware that interpretations of 'vegetarian' food can vary. 'Vegetable soup' can contain both chicken and prawn (the reasoning being that because it contains vegetables, it's a vegetable soup). Be highly specific when ordering food – don't just say 'vegetarian', but stress that you eat 'no meat, no seafood'.
Vegans may find life a little more difficult, but as the consumption of dairy and other animal by-products is relatively limited, usually all you have to do is ensure there are no eggs.
The lurid mini-volcanoes often seen at food centres are ice kachang, a delicious combination of shaved ice, syrups, evaporated milk, fruit, beans and jellies. Cendol is similar, consisting of coconut milk with gula melaka (brown or palm sugar) syrup and green jelly strips topped with shaved ice. Also worth trying is ah balling, glutinous rice balls filled with a sweet paste of peanut, black sesame or red bean and usually served in a peanut- or ginger-flavoured soup.
Head to Little India to experiment with Indian sweets: burfi, ladoo, gulab jamun, gelabi, jangiri, kesari and halwa, to name a few, are made with ingredients that include condensed milk, sesame and syrups.
Peranakan (Nonya) desserts are typified by kueh (colourful rice cakes often flavoured with coconut and palm sugar) and sweet, sticky delicacies such as miniature pineapple tarts that are sold everywhere in small plastic tubs with red lids. The magnificent kueh lapis, a laborious layer cake, is a must-try.
For those willing to push the boundaries, head to 2am: dessertbar to taste the cutting-edge creations of local chef Janice Wong.
As the older generation of hawkers begin to retire, a new breed of innovative hawkers are taking up the challenge of dishing out great meals on the cheap. Food trucks have not fully taken off in Singapore like they have in other countries due to the nation’s myriad government regulations, one being that the truck must remain in the same location. Food truckers have thus begun to set up in the city’s hawker centres. The most notable is Timbre+, where you’ll find old-school hawker stalls jostling up to Airstream caravans selling everything from fancy French cuisine to salted egg-yolk chicken wings. Throw in some shipping containers covered in street art, a craft-beer bar and night-time live-music acts, and Timbre+ is one of the hippest joints in town to grab a meal.
If you’ve got a craving for ramen, the boys at A Noodle Story serve up piping hot bowls of the silky broth, but with a Singaporean twist. The constant line confirms its popularity, as does the sign warning customers that the stall often sells out before closing time. Good old fish and chips meets Singapore flavours at Fish & Chicks; order the ‘best of both worlds’ so you don’t miss out on tasting the seriously good chilli crab and salted egg-yolk sauces.
If you’re craving some stodgy British fare, make your way to Lad and Dad where father and son duo serve up possibly the best bacon and chip butty outside of Britain. Kopi (coffee), Singapore’s unofficial national drink, has also had a makeover at the hands of Coffee Break. Choose from flavours like sea-salt caramel and pumpkin spice to give your traditional sock-brewed caffeine hit an extra special kick.
When the Michelin Guide launched in Singapore in 2016, two humble Singaporean hawkers were bestowed with the honour of receiving one shiny star each. Chinatown’s Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle also boasts the accolade of being the world’s cheapest Michelin-star meal – at just S$2, hawker Chan Hong Meng’s delicately flavoured chicken and rice has always been popular with locals, but now it’s known worldwide. Quick to build on his success, he has outlets throughout Singapore, as well as in Indonesia, Taipei and Melbourne, plus a sold out three day pop up in London. The new shops have a more McDonald's-esque vibe, so we recommend sticking to the Chinatown Complex original if you’ve got time to wait in the snaking queue.
The other line you’ll want to join is at Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle. It’s a little further out of the way, about a 10-minute walk from the Lavender MRT station, but the queue here is shorter (though you can still expect a lengthy wait, especially at lunchtime). The object of desire? Teochew-style bak chor mee (minced pork noodles), springy noodles, tender pork and liver slices, crispy flat fish and a punch-packing vinegary chilli sauce. This second-generation hawker stall has been at it since 1932, so it’s safe to say they know what they’re doing.
Top Food Blogs
Start with KF Seetoh's superb Makansutra, the bible of hawker centre food, then visit www.sg.dining.asiatatler.com for high-end restaurant news and reviews. Also check out the following respected food blogs:
www.ieatishootipost.sg On-the-ball foodie Leslie Tay reviews mainly hawker food around the island.
www.ladyironchef.com Psst, Ladyironchef is actually a bloke, offering highly respected opinions and helpful 'best' lists.
www.danielfooddiary.com Food-show radio presenter Daniel Ang loves talking about, eating and sharing food.
www.sethlui.com Seth scours the island for the best fare. Whichever neighbourhood you're visiting, he's been there and written about it.
www.misstamchiak.com Blogging about the Singapore food scene for over 10 years, Miss Tam Chiak loves to share her foodie adventures.
A highly recommended cooking school exploring Singapore's classic dishes is Food Playground. Courses usually run for three hours and can be tailored for budding cooks with dietary restrictions.
Must-read Food Books
- Makansutra Singapore (KF Seetoh)
- Only the Best! The ieatishootipost Guide to Singapore’s Shiokest Hawker Food (Leslie Tay)
- Singapore Tatler: Best Restaurants Guide
- Michelin Guide Singapore
Need to Know
- Hawker centres, food courts, coffeeshops: 7am to 10pm, sometimes 24 hours
- Midrange restaurants: 11am to 11pm
- Top-end restaurants: noon to 2.30pm and 6pm to 11pm
- Book a table for expensive and 'hot' restaurants.
- Make bookings for midrange restaurants for Friday to Sunday nights.
Tipping is unnecessary in Singapore, as most restaurants impose a 10% service charge – and nobody ever tips in hawker centres. That said, many do leave a discretionary tip for superlative service at higher-end restaurants.