Singapore is a small country that became independent as a Republic in 1965, a relatively young country in Southeast Asia celebrating its 56th anniversary this year. Don’t be mistaken though, that the city-state at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, is a melting pot of cultures from its neighbor and managed to make its own hybrid. I have shared in my previous post the country’s modern art scene and ethnic enclaves which kind of proved my point. Now, we are diving into the food scene.
The food scene in Singapore has a little bit of everything – Malay, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Chinese, India… adding some Singaporean twist and magic. Here, I am covering some of my absolute favorite dishes, places to go, and tips and guides that may inspire you to spice up your meal plans while you are having a great time on this tropical island.
Singapore Food Centres
Without a doubt, Singapore has a great number of upscale and fine-dining places that are worth a visit, like Odette in the National Gallery, top-ranking Asia’s best Restaurant from Singapore; and Burnt Ends, Les Amis, Cloudstreet, Labyrinth Euphoria… but to truly dive into the local delicious dishes, you have to venture into one of those food centers that filled in every neighborhood in the city. A food center, exactly what it sounds like, is usually an open food court with a variety of stalls that offers all sorts of local cuisine. Diners are free to order any kinds of food they like and then enjoy them at a table. That’s why food centers are exciting as you get a full meal of anything you like from food, snack, dessert to drinks from all over the world. There’s no better way to have a night out with your buddies or family and share a dinner together in a packed hawker center – it is a Southeast Asia experience not to be missed.
Best Food Centres (or Hawker Centres) in Singapore:
- Lau Pa Sat Food Center is one of the most popular and also the most photographed food centers in Singapore because it has a beautifully shaped pavilion covering the food stall at Telok Ayer. The food center is within walking distance from both Chinatown and Marina Bay, and the pavilion is actually a 120-year-old building with classy iron arches that were originally imported from Scotland. The food center has a large variety of food choices and seats up to 1,200 people.
- Tiong Bahru Market is the number one place for breakfast and brunch. Located in a quieter residential neighborhood, the market is surrounded by bakeries, cafes, and teahouses. Inside, order a heartening kaya toast in the morning, or pork ribs, boiled pork knuckle noodles in the afternoon.
- Maxwell Food Centre is in a great location near Chinatown and it’s busy as this is where the famous Tian Tian Chicken Rice is located. Don’t be surprised to see a long line outside the stall right before the stall opens, even on the weekday. Other than chicken rice, try their fried oyster omelet and fishball noodles in neighboring stalls.
Chinatown Food Street is in the heart of Chinatown and you are right in the hub of all the hustle and bustle once you step out of the MRT station exit. Sample any kind of Chinese food here, from Sichuan, Canton all the way to a roast duck in the north. They also have some delicious satay, seafood, and even durians.
- Old Airport Road Food Center is located outside the city center but don’t forget to look for char kway teow, satay, and rojak – it’s their specialty.
- Chomp Chomp Food Centre is located near Bishan. The food center is also known as the Serangoon Gardens Food Centre. It’s an offbeat location where you will mostly meet the locals for some southeast Asian classics like barbecued chicken wings, noodle broths, grilled stingray, and more.
- Tekka Centre is a food center in Little India, and if you have a craving for Indian dishes, this is where you need to be. The local Indian crowds would recommend a dish of rice with chicken or mutton curry.
- Newton Food Centre and Pasir Panjang are some of my personal favorites. Come here for a local dish and I would highly recommend going for a dish of chili crab or pork bone stew.
- Singapore Food Treats and Makansutra Gluttons Bay are conveniently located at the waterfront near Marina Bay and they have some of the best hawker stalls in Singapore.
There is no way to go to Singapore without having a kaya toast before leaving – the sweet and coconut-y jam match perfectly with butter and this is the kind of breakfast that you should indulge yourself, especially when you are on vacation.
How about kopi and teh? It simply means coffee and tea – but don’t forget to have a Horlicks or Milo if you are not in need of some caffeine. Hey, there are more ways to add milk in a Kopi than Starbucks. You will always find a “Kopi” menu at the cashier of a cafe, as if mocking us for not being able to tell the difference between Kopi-C, Kopi-O, and …. Yucks, I still don’t know them all.
A piece of kaya toast pairs perfectly with soft-boiled eggs, which you can season with dark soy sauce and pepper. The tradition of kaya toast was brought to the country by Hainanese. There are a number of chains that you may already know – Toast Box (yeah), Fun Toast, Heavenly Wang… but Singapore has more, and here is my list:
Best Kaya Toasts & Kopi Gu You in Singapore:
- Ah Seng (Hai Nam) Coffee is a food stall in Amoy food center, and it’s one of those who still insist on toasting their bread on charcoal.
- Coffee Break has a variety of kopi, whether it’s with almond, almond ginger, black sesame, ginger, taro milk, taro, mint, melon milk, masala, and mango milk.
- Coffee Hut is an expert in coffee, and the owner learned how to make kopi from a Hainan coffee master, so order one while you are there with an order of their kaya toast, or any other bakery.
Good Morning Nanyang Cafe is a lovely place and it has a few branches. The cafe is painted with its signature orange color – but interior aside, they serve warm toasts and aromatic coffee that will brighten your day.
- Heap Seng Leong is a traditional cafe with an old-fashioned setting as if you are going back to the 70s through a time machine. Don’t forget to try their Kopi Gu You, a cup with a slab of butter dropped within for caramelized flavor and softer notes of the coffee beans.
- Killiney Kopitiam was founded in 1919 and it’s a small local joint that expanded tremendously with outlets, but it’s always best to visit the original store at Killiney Road.
- The 1950s Coffee is a Michelin-starred kopi stall located in Chinatown. Who would know their traditional kaya toast is only SG$1.20?
- Tong Ah Kopitiam serves kaya toast that is toasted three times to make sure it’s crispy and crunchy.
- Ya Kun Kaya Toast is the number one chain in Singapore and also the most beloved. Little you may know that Ya Kun was founded in 1944 by Loi Ak Koon; and it was known for its homemade kaya, a fragrance that is unmistakable on a piece of toasted brown bread.
- YY Ka Fei Dian is one of my favorites and it’s a short walk away from Bugis. Unlike the crunchy toasts that are usually served, you will find a soft kaya bun on the menu that’s very special.
Let’s talk a little bit about a bakery that is not under the tourist radar, but it’s an amazing place. “Bunnies” is in Chinatown’s People’s Park Complex. The shop moved a couple of times in the building, but I always drop by and buy a box (sometimes two) freshly naked soft mini buns. They have a wide variety of fillings, most of them are local ingredients: from egg yolk, pandan, sugar button, coconut… and Rousong (pork floss). The latest shop is located right next to “Lim Chee Guan”, another popular souvenir shop which is famous for their juicy and tasty sliced pork.
I always wonder why they are called Hainanese Chicken Rice if they do not originate from Hainan in China; as it turns out, this signature dish was introduced by Hainanese who came to Southeast Asia along, long time ago. Since then, it is a beloved easy yet heartwarming dish – I always enjoyed having one on the side of the road in Bangkok, and you could have ordered like 5 dishes easily. In Singapore, chicken is one of the few local dishes that made it onto the menu of Singapore Airlines, and one of the top 50 most delicious foods of CNN Go’s in 2011.
Chicken rice is literally available everywhere. I have listed some of the most popular ones, and to be honest, when you see there’s a long queue right outside the restaurant, it’s probably the best place.
Best Chicken Rice in Singapore:
- Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice at Maxwell is the number one well-known go-to place for not only visitors but also locals. Not only is the chicken cooked to perfection, but also the rice has a fragrance that’s hard to resist.
- Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice is my pick because they just managed to keep the chicken so juicy. The dipping sauce, which I believe is their secret, will have you going back for more.
- Boon Tong Kee Chicken Rice at Balestier is one of the few restaurants open until late at night, usually, until 4:30 am in the morning from Monday to Saturday, which is perfect if you are hungry for a midnight snack.
- Loy Kee Chicken Rice is a little bit different from other places which are typically braised to perfection – they have both kinds of chicken rice in their meal set and served on a wooden tray. A good portion is enough for a big eater.
- Chatterbox started off on the 5th floor in Mandarin Oriental, and now it is a chain expanded to a number of cities across Southeast Asia and even Hong Kong; for a more “grab and go” version, look for Chatterbox Express.
Do you know that Singapore has a national drink?
The Singapore Sling was invented and found in the Raffles hotel in 1915. One thing led to the other, this colorful and popular cocktail had gained tremendous recognition and made it to the international stage. Like the Long Island iced tea, Manhattan, Chicago Fizz, and more,… we have one more cocktail on the menu that’s named after a city or place.
Singapore sling is a mixture of gin, lime juice, pineapple juice, Grenadine (Pomegranate syrup), Dom Benedictine, Cointreau, and Cherry Heering. The cocktail has a summery pink color, and tastes absolutely refreshing, with a dash of sweetness and frutyness. It tastes like a punch, but at the same time it has a strong kick from the gin.
Today, this over century-old signature drink is still being served at the Long Bar in Raffles (the drink is widely available in the country, but only here it can be claimed as the “original”). In case you are caught in the notorious Singapore afternoon rain, happen to be at the Raffles Bay and have some time. Why not go in, have a sip, take some peanut, and enjoy the retro ambience of the bar, while looking at the rain? By the way, in case you would like to learn how it’s made at home, check our the demonstration from Raffles:
Bak Ku Teh
Bak Ku Teh is my number one go-to comfort dish in Singapore. I would be disappointed if I don’t at least have a bak ku teh once when I am in town. The warm, salty, and peppery broth of course goes with rice, noodle, or on its own. Not to mention the tender porn rib that goes with the pot. All in all, bak ku teh is a sensation, it is a tornado that had swept across Southeast Asia and had even gone to Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Today’s Singapore bak ku teh tasted quite different from those in Malaysia. The rule of thumb is Singapore bak ku teh is “peppery” (Teochew-style) and Malaysia bak ku teh is “herbaceous” (Hokkien style); in terms of ingredients, they may vary from town to town, but they generally don’t affect my mood enjoying them.
Best Bak Ku Teh in Singapore:
- Song Fa Bak Kut Teh is located on Hong Kong Street and it is a BKT (Ba ku teh) classic. There is no way you are a bak ku teh fan and don’t know about this place. The great thing is, good things come in small packages; and so you can sample many other small dishes.
- Ng Ah Sio Bak Kut Teh is one of the top names the locals usually call out when talking about the bak ku teh places. The original one was opened in Rangoon road, and it dates back to the 1950s. Ng Ah Sio has dishes of parts of animals that may not be found commonly in other places, fish maw soup, pork organs, and more.
- Outram Park Ya Hua Rou Gu Cha was introduced by a chef who once worked in Ng Ah Sio, bringing the knowledge of the dish he had and started his own business at Outram Park. Now he made it with three restaurants in Singapore, with the first flagship place at Keppel Road the most popular.
- Founder Bak Kut Teh – Bugis Point
- Heng Heng Bak Kut Teh is located near Farrer Park, and if you check out my food map at the end of this post, you will realize that there are quite a few BKT diners in the same area. Think about the competition! That’s why they also offer a famous steamed threadfin, charged at a seasonal price.
- Balestier Bak Kut Teh is also a local joint with a long history, and they open 24 hours!
- Leong Kee (Klang) Bak Kut Teh is one of those Malaysian-style bak ku teh in Singapore. The soup base is filled with herbs and dry klang and I always go back to; more, order a Fried chicken with shrimp paste, I just love to dip the chicken in the bak ku teh, they are a perfect match.
- Joo Siah Bak Koot Teh has a special name that I didn’t misspell, but they are called the Bak “Koot” Teh. The food stall is located in Jurong East, with their prime rib bak ku teh so yummy that you will ask for a refill of rice as soon as you finish the first one.
This is something you would probably love or hate; either you got all excited or you got all neasuatic – get ready for it, because baby, durians are in your life! There are so many different types of durians across Southeast Asia, and to be honest, the absolute durian paradises are probably in Malaysia or Thailand. Low prices, fresh, and wide choices. No wonder one time we drove to Malaysia (the Port Dickson) with a group of Singaporean friends and all they kept thinking about was durian stalls, durian stalls, durian stalls. I love Malaysian durians, too, especially Mao San King. I love the mushy, soft texture that almost tastes like molten cheese. Of course, D24 is also a treat.
Where to eat durians in Singapore? Try The Durian Story, Durian 36, Kungfu Durian, Parkway Durian, Ah Seng Durians, Durian BB, and the list goes on. If an original durian is too much – desserts, drinks, or snacks with a durian flavour can be found basically anywhere.
I love seafood, and I love crabs. Somehow Singapore has the two signature crab dishes that spoke to my heart: Chili crab and black pepper crab. Chili crab is a wok-fried crab coated with a sweet, savory, and spicy tomato-based sauce. It has a multi-layered flavor that sings with anyone who loves to eat spicy food. Black pepper crab was fried the same way but instead of red sauce, the crabs are coated with black peppers, giving you a pungent and numbing sense that you would probably want more after the first bite. Don’t let the black and charcoal-looking coating fool you – they are literally shell-licking food.
The iconic seafood dish is served in many diners, food centers, or restaurants. But truly, the dish has to be done perfectly right so the eater can experience the true colors of this magical dish. The crab has to be fresh and the sauce has to be tasty, frying a 2-kilogram crab with thick shells isn’t that easy after all. That’s why it is really important, out of all the other dishes above, that we have to look for the best places. Most of these best places are all gathered in the East Coast Park!
Best Chili / Pepper Crab in Singapore:
- Jumbo Seafood is the Mecca of chili crab that defines this dish. Another reason that the dish tastes so good is because of the size and freshness of the crab.
- Long Beach UDMC Seafood was created by the chef here, and you can say that this is the origin of black pepper crab. On the East Coast, the restaurants line up next to each other at the waterfront and you will see in Long Beach’s menu about this fact. Aside from the popular chili crab and black pepper crab, they also have white pepper Alaskan king crab, deep-sea “rose gold” crab, Australian snow crab, Scottish wild Calappa crab, and Australian King Crab available.
- No signboard Seafood gained international success by having its chain not only in Singapore but outside the country; The best thing about their chili crab, to me, is you can decide your own level of spiciness.
- Kelly Jie Seafood and Uncle Leong Seafood are both Singapore’s best-kept secrets as few of the tourist books or guides would mention them, and they are out of the East Coast Park cluster.
- Red House Seafood is the place you want to be if you like your crab swimming in a pool of delicious sauce.
- Holy Crab introduced the Green Chili crab that adds a new level of tastiness
The noodles, like fishball, wonton, laksa, and char kway teow, have so many variations and flavors that kept me surprised from place to place. Laksa is a spicy noodle soup, introduced by the Peranakan as a part of their cuisine, and now it has developed a profound and detailed craft from the use of noodles, the flavor of the soup, to ingredients that goes with the noodle.
Best Char Kway Teow and Laksa in Singapore:
- 328 Katong Laksa is absolutely at the top of the list when it comes to finding the best Laksa in Singapore. This place is full on a daily basis. The Katon-style laksa gravy and coconut-based curry soup are aromatic and delicious with that you would come back for more. Don’t forget, the 328 Katong Laksa featured celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay in a 2013 cooking showdown.
- Depot Road Zhen Shan Mei Laksa serves laksa in a clay pot, what more do you need?
- Janggut Laksa and 928 Yishun Laksa are local laksa places, serving authentic taste and good value. The setting may not be very clean and tidy, but who cares?
- Wei Yi Laksa & Prawn Noodle has a very specific name because they take pride in their signature noodle, allowing customers to mix and match their toppings with prawns, chicken, fried bean curd, and many more.
- Teochew Fish Ball Noodle
- Fishball Story
- Outram Park Fried Kway
- Teow Mee is an award-winning food stall, and personally, I find the chewy texture special.
- No. 18 Fried Kway Teow is located inside Zion Riverside Food Center and it’s at the number 17 stall. It has a generous amount of juicy cockles in the noodle, making it tastes unique and fresh.
- Hill Street Fried Kway Teow is a little bit off the travel radar, but it’s closer to the airport and East Coast Park. They added crunchy pork lard in their wok-fry, distinguishing themselves from their peers.
- Meng Kee Char Kway Teow uses sweet sauce and gives their dish a rather sweeter taste.
- 91 Fried Kway Teow Mee offers a healthier choice of char kway teow by replacing lard with oil and adding a layer of vegetable green on top.
I don’t think a lot of foreigners would be aware of putu piring – it is a traditional Singaporean treat. Putu piring is steamed rice cake filled with gula Melaka (meltdown palm sugar, or syrup), and it has a powdery texture which makes it different from other sticky rice dumplings that I have tasted before.
The chef usually puts rice flour in a metal tin and steam the entire mold in a boiler. After cooling down, it will be dipped into grated coconut and served on squares of pandan leaf. Putu piring has a subtle sweet vanilla fragrance, and it shares a long history and stories among the locals, as it always recalls the distant memory from anyone who grew up in Singapore, as they would start with “Ooo yeah, I used to eat this as a kid”.