Popular Foods in Singapore

In this post we will do some basic exploration of foods that are popular in the Lion City.  And we will focus exclusively on local (including generally Southeast Asian) dishes which Singaporeans enjoy the most.

CHILLI CRAB

Chili crab is perhaps the signature dish in Singapore and is considered a must-have for seafood lovers. There are at least two ways in which it is usually prepared. The most-popular features the crab slathered with tomato-based (sometimes ketchup) sauce that is spicy though not overly so. And the crab itself is fried, though it is boiled beforehand to prevent the meat from sticking to the shell. Or there is another common variety where the crab is prepared the same, but the sauce is made up of black pepper. The dish is commonly served with fried (or steamed) mantou, a type of bread that is especially popular in China (the type you see on the old karate movies). The mantou is featured on the side to serve as a dipping food, as there is more than enough sauce not only to take with the crab but also for dipping.

HAINANESE CHICKEN RICE

Hainanese chicken rice is often referred to as just chicken rice. Its unique taste comes from the utilization of stock for the cooking of both the chicken and rice itself. The rice is cooked in chicken stock, with additional flavors/fragrances (garlic, ginger, pandan) also added to the mix. Meanwhile the chicken is partially cooked in a stock derived from chicken bone and pork. And upon serving the dish, the dish is oft accompanied with a sauce consisting of red chili and garlic, sometimes further complemented with a sweetish soy / chopped ginger sauce on top.

In some cases after the chicken is already cooked, the chef may submerge it in freezing water to give it a more-attractive gloss. And ideally the chicken is deboned before serving. This dish is just as ubiquitous as chili crab in the Lion City and is one which the locals take seriously. Moreover, the most-important factor in achieving a good Hainanese chicken rice is considered to be the quality of the chicken.

NASI LEMAK

The aforementioned pandan leaf, which is a popular herb in Southeast Asia, is even more essential to another popular Singaporean meal called nasi lemak.  What this food consists of, at its core, is rice which is actually cooked with coconut cream and further flavored with pandan.

Being that it is a rice dish, nasi lemak is usually served with a type of chili sauce, which is widely used in Singapore, known as sambal. But unlike Hainanese rice chicken, it does not come with a standard meat. So it’s up to the consumer to further complement his or her nasi lemak with a choice of fish, chicken, eggs or whatever other ‘meat’ he or she may prefer including another popular option, fried peanuts.

BAK KUT TEH

Bak kut teh is a dish which is known in the Western tongue as pork rib soup. But don’t let the simplicity of its moniker fool you. Yes, at the center of the dish is in fact pork ribs.  Moreover it is verily a soup. But the pork is actually cooked in the broth for hours. And it can be said that the broth itself lies at the heart of the dish, because the chefs who prepare bak kut teh take the creation of it very seriously, making sure the measure of ingredients (i.e. spices) is just right. But that being said it is still considered more of a basic dish in the Lion City, albeit one that is sold in some big-name restaurants.

Bak kut teh is often served with rice or other carbs such as tofu, pasta or dough fritters.  And for the record, Bak kut teh doesn’t literally translate to pork rib soup. It actually means “meat bone tea”, as traditionally the dish was served alongside Chinese tea.

CHAR KWAY TEOW

Char kway teow is another of Singapore’s standard dishes. It is a stir-fried platter whose main ingredient is flat rice noodles. Other standard components include soy sauce, Chinese sausages and some type of seafood (fish cake, shrimp paste, clams and/or prawns). Some cooks may also add eggs or pork lard to the dish.

Char kway teow is ubiquitous enough that you will not only find food hawkers selling it but also high-end restaurants. And it’s one of those type of dishes that never tastes the same way twice, even when you buy it from the same vendor, because plates are cooked individually, not en masse. Also note that, according to the legend of char kway teow, it was intentionally created to be a particular-fatty meal.

KAYA TOAST (WITH KOPI & SOFT-BOILED EGGS)

Kaya toast with kopi is recognized as the quintessential Singaporean breakfast. The toast itself may not be anything exceptional, but rather what’s unique is what it is served with.  For it is usually taken alongside butter and kaya or, as it is called in the English tongue, coconut jam. And as its moniker implies, this jam is partially made from coconut milk but also sugar, eggs and pandan leaves. Moreover the toast is oft served not with the condiments spread on top but rather more like a sandwich, with a thick slab of butter and some kaya between two slices of bread.

Meanwhile kopi is another name for coffee, though it has been noted that Singapore has some exceptional flavors of this well-known beverage. And the soft-boiled eggs, which are more like a personal preference than a mainstay of the dish, actually act as the main ingredient in a dip which also consists of pepper and soy sauce.

SATAY

Satay is fundamentally skewered, grilled meat. What type of meat – beef, lamb, chicken or pork – is up to the consumer, but overall pork may be the most-popular option.

The second main ingredient, which gives satay its distinctive taste, is turmeric. This spice serves as the base of the marinade used to flavor the meat. Then the dip that accompanies it is traditionally peanut-based, mixed with soy sauce. Other common side dishes include rice cakes and cucumbers, with the latter sometimes being served as a relish mixed with chili.

ROTI PRATA

Some readers may recognize roti as a type of bread which is a staple of West Indian cuisine. But in actuality it originates from the Indian subcontinent. Moreover it is also quite popular in nearby Singapore where it is known as roti prata, which translated simply means flat bread.

Similar to the West Indies, in Singapore roti is often taken with meat (i.e. mutton) and curry. Or instead of meat one can use fish or lentils. But Singaporeans are also known to get quite creative with their roti, at times imbuing it with cheese, eggs or even something sweet treats like chocolate or strawberries.

HOKKIEN MEE

Although the main ingredient in hokkein mee is egg noodles, this is another meal which would appeal especially to seafood lovers. For the way it is usually served is with prawns and squid as well as additional aquatic animals like oysters and fish cake.  In some cases it may also feature pork and chicken.  Additional ingredients include flavoring like soy sauce, lime, vinegar and chili.

Hokkien mee can be prepared in different ways.  For instance it can be served as a soup.  But the most-common method of preparing it appears to be stir frying, with condiments of lime and sambal sauce on the side.

FISH HEAD CURRY

Fundamentally, fish head curry is made up of the head (half or whole) of a red snapper which is cooked in a stew or gravy that is flavored primarily with curry.  Other flavors/ingredients that are commonly added include tamarind, okra and eggplant.  And the taste is further augmented by a cup of calamansi, i.e. the juice derived from a Southeast Asian variety of lime.  Additionally fish head curry is soupy in substance.  And accordingly it is usually served with rice or bread.

SAMBAL STINGRAY

Considering that Singapore is indeed an island nation, as can be ascertained from this list seafood is a mainstay of the local diet.  And the Singaporeans do indeed love their aquatic variety, as sambal stingray is also a popular dish in the Lion City.

The stingray, as the name of the dish implies, is slathered with sambal sauce consisting of chili, tomatoes and shrimp paste.  And it is also traditionally wrapped in a banana leaf, in the name of additional flavor, before being barbecued.  Moreover sambal stingray is oft flavored with lime juice, and sometimes Indian walnuts may be added on top.  Additionally the treat is often served with a dipping sauce which itself is made up of chili, lime and fermented seafood (krill and shrimp).

LAKSA

At the heart of laksa is a creamy sauce whose main ingredient is coconut milk.   Laksa is of a bi-national origin (Chinese and Malay), and as such it is prepared in a vast variety of ways.  But in Singapore the most-popular variety consists of flavoring the aforementioned sauce primarily with curry.  And the taste is further buttressed by bean curd and fish, and the pricier varieties may also feature cockles and shrimp.

Meanwhile the main carbohydrate featured in this meal is actually pasta, traditionally vermicelli, cut into bite-sized pieces.  And as for the name of the dish, laksa is actually a South Asian leaf which is also sometimes used to flavor it.

BAK CHOR MEE

The term bak chor mee translates to minced meat noodles.  Fundamentally the dish consists of pasta served with pork meat.  But outside of that nothing is set in stone.  For instance consumers can choose from different pastas and even combine them.  Also the pork itself is usually minced, but it can also be served as liver slices or pork balls.  Then other meats can be added as well, in addition to various types of seafood such as fish cake, fish balls or salted fish.

In terms of flavoring the dish a spicy, vinegar-like sauce is used.  And bak chor mee is usually served as a dry dish.  However some people enjoy it with more liquid, like a soup.

FRIED CARROT CAKE

Despite how the name of this food may sound, fried carrot cake is not a dessert, nor is it carrot cake as Westerners understand the term.  Rather it is actually white radish cake, which itself is not a dessert but rather shredded radish caked with rice flour.  In the eyes of some this substance resembles a carrot, thus giving the dish its name.

The white radish (or carrot) cake is fried and further complemented with eggs and soy sauce.  And as with other dishes on this list there are variants of fried carrot cake, some drier and some sweeter, which a consumer can enjoy.

CENDOL

Since the use of the term ‘carrot cake’ may have misled some readers, we didn’t want to conclude this list without highlighting at least one actual Singaporean dessert.  And in this case that would be an Asian delicacy known as cendol, with Singapore in particular having been recognized by CNN as the best place to enjoy this food.

Cendol is a chilled dish which consists of slices of jelly made of green rice flour, syrup made from palm sugar and coconut milk.  Additional ingredients may include sweet corn, red beans, attap chee (a type of palm nut) or even glass jelly (which is sort of like Jell-O).  Cendol is one of those types of dishes that if you visit Singapore, you definitely wouldn’t want to leave without trying it.

CONCLUSION

 We hope that this article gave you a better, albeit basic, understanding of popular foods of the Lion City.  As you can see seafood, pork meat and various types of plants/vegetables are the most-common ingredients found on the list.  But overall, the sheer variety is astounding.  Or stated differently, there are foods for every type of taste bud which can be enjoyed in Singapore.

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