Southeast Asia’s Lion City is often called a foodie’s paradise, with good reason. Singapore is the most ethnically diverse country in the region with a core population made up of Chinese, Malays and Indians. It’s also a highly cosmopolitan country in which one fifth of the nation’s residents, almost 1.2 million people, are expatriates. The food here understandably reflects the population’s multi-ethnic make-up. There is a wealth of wonderful, traditional Asian foods, cooked in both street stalls (we call them “hawker stalls”) as well as chi-chi, modern restaurants. Similarly, foods from the rest of the world are also readily available, in equally humble or high-end establishments. In Singapore, no one goes hungry. The only challenge facing the hungry diner is deciding what and where to eat.
For years, friends (and strangers) from all over the world have asked me what they should be eating when they visit. That, to me, is a really tough question and I often give different answers to different people, depending on what I know of their culinary preferences. That said, there are some things that every visitor should try. And I’ve realized that while I’ve penned those answers for countless friends for years on emails and even in SMS messages, I’ve never put that list up on this blog. So, for ease of use (and so that I have this on record somewhere) here are ten utterly delicious things I think you should eat when visiting, in no particular order. I should say that there are lots of other great things to eat not on this list (like oyster omelette, satay, nasi lemak, etc). In a place with as much good food as we have here, it’s pretty tough to choose just 10 great must-eats! I have also decided to limit this to rather accessible places. While I do consider visits to some of our high-end restaurants, like Iggy’s or Jaan par Andre, de rigeur for serious foodies, not everyone wants a fancy dinner when travelling or can afford to splash out on such culinary experiences. This list then is something pretty much any traveler should be able to feel pretty comfortable following.
Chicken rice may be Singapore’s favorite food. Ask a bunch of locals who makes the best version of this Hainanese boiled chicken dish and you’ll kick off a heated debate. You’ll soon learn that every person has their own favorite stall. What everyone agrees on though is what makes a good chicken rice. The chicken has to be tender. The rice that served with it, which has been cooked in chicken fat, must be aromatic and glistening. The accompanying sauces, dark soy, chili and garlic, are as important as the rice and the bird. If any of these components is off, the whole dish is ruined. I like going to two different places for my chicken rice. The first is a humble hawker stall slightly off the beaten path; the other is a sexy café in the Esplanade, the city’s performing arts centre. Both are excellent. The former is very real. The latter very chic (and therefore pricy but worth every penny).
Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice
Alexandra Village, Blk 120
Bukit Merah Lane 1, #01-15
Esplanade Mall, #02-25
8 Raffles Avenue
Tel: 6423 1881
Fish head curry
This dish was invented by a few very smart Indian restaurateurs many years ago and has since become one of the country’s most famous foods. Noting that their Chinese patrons enjoyed eating the very tender meat in and around a fish’s head, these enterprising Indians started to serve large fish heads that had been braised in a rich Indian curry. The rest is culinary history. While there is some debate over who exactly invented fish head curry, Muthu’s Curry is considered one of its earliest pioneers and one of the best purveyors of this delicious dish. In addition to Muthu’s, I also love the fish head curry at YY Kafei Dian, a Chinese-run coffee shop on Purvis Street.
138 Race Course Road, #01-01
Tel: 6392 1722
YY Kafei Dian
37 Beach Road, #01-01
This coconut-based curry noodle soup dish is one of the Singapore’s most popular dishes. It’s made with rice noodles and served most commonly with shrimps, cockles, fish cake and chili. Some hawkers add shredded chicken. While you can find it at stalls and cafés across the country, the most famous 4 purveyors—who all claim to make the country’s best and most authentic version—are located on a small stretch of East Cost Road in Katong, a neighborhood in the country’s East Coast. The rivalry of these stalls became so intense at one time it was called the “Katong Laksa War” by local media.
Stalls 47, 49, 57 and 328 are all located near the corner of Ceylon Road and East Coast Road.
Few foods are as intensely satisfying as chili crab. Large Sri Lankan crabs are cooked in a rich tomato-chili gravy. This finger-looking good seafood dish is served with steamed or fried buns, perfect for sopping up excess gravy. While there are many places that specialize in chili crab, I suggest ordering them at Roland Restaurant, located above a multi-story carpark in Marine Parade. Not only is this version excellent, but it is said that Mr Lim’s mother invented chili crab back in the 1950s.
Roland Restaurant Pte Ltd
Block 89, Marine Parade Central, #06-750
Tel: 6440 8205
Crab bee hoon
If you still haven’t satisfied your passion for crab, head on over to Sin Huat Eating House in Geylang, Singapore’s most well-known red light district. Don’t be fooled by Sin Huat’s deceptively gritty surrounds. Chef-owner Danny Lee’s food is so good that Anthony Bourdain called this place the very best restaurant in the country. All of Chef Lee’s seafood dishes are excellent, but the dish that regulars keep coming back for is his crab bee hoon – huge Sri Lankan crabs braised in stock and then fried with bee hoon noodles. This is truly an inspirational dish.
Sin Huat Seafood Restaurant
659-661 Geylang Lorong 35 (at the corner of Geylang Rd)
Tel: 6744 9778
This popular breakfast food is now eaten at all times of the day. This dish is actually made with white radish, which in Chinese is called “white carrot”, hence the name. Hongkongers like steaming it with soya sauce but in Singapore, we prefer it fried with garlic, spring onions and egg. The best two versions that I have eaten comes from Chef Yong Bing Ngen of the New Majestic restaurant in Chinatown and from Taste Paradise in the Ion Orchard shopping centre. Chef Yong serves his alongside a grilled rack of lamb coated with a Chinese honey sauce, while the guys at Taste Paradise serve their version fried with XO sauce. Yummy!
New Majestic Hotel
31-37 Bukit Pasoh Road
Tel: 6511 4718
2 Orchard Turn
#04-07 ION Orchard
Tel: 6509 9660
While some folks eat scrambled eggs and toast or bagels with cream cheese for breakfast daily, Singaporeans begin the morning with buttered toast spread with a coconut-egg jam called kaya, served with strong coffee and a couple of soft-boiled eggs. While there are many coffee shops and chain cafés that served this classic combination, the best most famous are Ya Kun and Killeney Kopitiam. My own current fave place for this is YY Kafei Dian, a coffee shop heavily patronized by Mercedes taxi drivers at the corner of Beach Road and Purvis Street. They make a light, fluffy brioche-like bread which they use for their kaya toast. I love the lightness and richness of it.
YY Kafei Dian
37 Beach Road, #01-01
Nasi Padang translates literally as “rice from Padang”, which is a part of Western Sumatra, Indonesia. Today, nasi padang connotes rice served with a dozen different Malay or Indonesian dishes. There are some classic dishes, like beef or mutton rendang, sayur lodeh (curried vegetables) and grilled fish, but the variations are endless. Traditionally, you choose what you want to eat from a large selection presented to you. There are, as you might imagine, many top nasi padang places in Singapore. One of my favorites is the Rendezvous restaurant, at the Hotel Rendezvous. It’s been around for over 6 decades and still serves consistent, delicious food.
Rendezvous Restaurant Hock Lock Kee
Hotel Rendezvous Gourmet Gallery
9 Bras Basah Rd #02-02/03
Tel: 6339 7508
Damian’s anchovy pasta
Is it local? Is it Italian? Who cares! Damian D’Silva’s spicy pasta dish is a local favourite and has fast achieved cult status in a very short period of time. Regulars come for the anchovy pasta, grilled meats and on weekends, Eurasian and Peranakan classics. Damian’s hawker stall, Big D’s Grill, is crazy-popular so if you plan on dropping by, please have patience. I suggest bringing a bottle of wine (or 2) to help pass the time. Oh, and bring lots of cash in case you get temped by the wagyu or kurabuta on the menu.
Big D’s Grill
Blk 46 Holland Drive, #01-359
Tel: 9662 7040
Fried durian ice cream
I’ll admit that eating this dish takes a little bit of courage. After all, to the uninitiated, durian, Singapore’s favorite fruit, smells like old, dirty sweatsocks stuffed with garlic. Nonetheless, Singaporeans are as passionate about their durian as Frenchmen are for stinky cheese. Chef Yong Bing Ngen has created what many consider to be the best durian dessert on the island. The secret behind Chef Yong’s fried durian ice cream is that it’s not really ice cream. Because the flesh of the fruit is so naturally creamy, the talented cook found that if he froze it, then quickly battered it and deep-fried it, the resulting texture was something akin to ice cream. Durian lovers have been known to swoon when tasting this delightful hot and cold dessert.
New Majestic Hotel
31-37 Bukit Pasoh Road
Tel: 6511 4718