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Singapore: 11 must-try local dishes

By Rosslyn Sinclair 8 September 2020

As a local born to a Singaporean in the “Lion City,” I’ve definitely inherited my mum’s love for food and cooking. With Singapore playing host to many different Southeast Asian cultures, it has become a melting pot for cuisines from around the region. Sought out by its neighbours, the Indian, Malay, and Chinese immigrant population has led to a variety of cooking techniques and dishes that, over time, have become uniquely Singaporean.

With that being said, whenever I go back to visit family, I also go back to have some of my favourite foods, and they ideally need to be from particular restaurants. For those of you who have never been to Singapore, this food guide will be the key for you to explore the city while appreciating some local delicacies.

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Photo credit: Oh Sheue Ling
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Roti prata

When people ask me what my favourite food is, I reply with, “Roti prata!” It’s not pizza or fries, but it is something I have grown up with as simply delicious junk(-ish) food. The dish comprises of roti chenai (an Indian-influenced flatbread), dipped in a curry of chicken, lamb, or vegetables. My go-to order is two roti prata—one filled with an egg and one plain—with chicken and lamb curry as well as a glass of Bandung.

Bandung (a Southeast Asian drink of evaporated milk or condensed milk flavoured with rose syrup) is also known as a “pink drink” and is essentially an iced rose latte. This is another drink that I grew up with and only had it with my roti prata. My personal favourite restaurant to have this meal is at Thasevi Food in Jalan Kayu. I refuse to have roti prata anywhere else. It is a hole-in-the-wall but is open around the clock. Just put on your most comfortable clothing of choice and head over for a scrumptious meal. Keep in mind this place is best when going with a few people so you can order different types of curry and share them.

Photo credit: Oh Sheue Ling
2

Otak-otak

Originating from Indonesian cooking, otak-otak (Southeast Asian grilled fish cake) is composed of minced fish meat, tapioca starch, and spices. It is then wrapped in banana leaf and cooked over a charcoal grill. This is more of a snack rather than a meal. I buy my otak-otak from Hiang Soon Food Catering that is also in Jalan Kayu, just a few doors down from Thasevi Food. They cook it right in front of you and they swiftly place them into a bag for you to take away. Otak-otak has spicy and non-spicy options; the green toothpicks holding the banana leaf together signal that the otak-otak is non-spicy, while the white toothpick means it’s spicy.

Photo credit: Derrick Ang
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Kaya toast

What could be more traditional and iconic than kaya toast for breakfast in Singapore? Consisting of two soft boiled eggs, and a cup of kopi (Singaporean and Malaysian coffee), kaya (Malaysian coconut jam with pandan leaves) is best consumed at Ya Kun, a chain restaurant all over Singapore and other Asian countries. Don’t knock it till you try it; despite being a chain, it is still good, no matter which branch you decide to have your breakfast at, as long as it’s in Singapore. Toasted to the point of crispy but never burnt, it is then filled with a slice of butter and kaya. Kaya’s flavour is unique—there really is nothing else like it.

Now, to get some protein into your first meal of the day, us Singaporeans love having two soft boiled eggs drizzled with dark soy sauce and white pepper. The dark soy sauce in Singapore is specially made to have very low sodium concentrations, therefore keeping it relatively healthy. The way to consume this egg dish is to mix in the pepper and soy sauce and then drink it right up—super nutritious and delicious. Pair it a little caffeine to boost your energy for the rest of your day! You can have it black or with some kopi siew dai (Singaporean and Malaysian coffee with less condensed milk) to make it slightly sweet.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

Photo credit: Derrick Ang
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Banmian

A personal favourite, banmian (Chinese handmade noodles served in soup) was influenced by Hakka origins of cutting the noodle into stiff straight strands using a wooden block. This makes the noodles flatter and thicker but that’s how the delicious texture comes about. The soup noodle is then topped off with minced meats that you would normally dip in chilli sauce on the side, braised Chinese cabbage, ikan bilis (Malaysian deep-fried anchovies) to add a salty kick, and a raw egg on the top that is delicious when you mix it into the soup. The noodles are dense and chewy yet smooth, and the pork bone broth is delicious to sip on. But keep in mind it is very filling and will keep you full for most of the day. This dish can be found in almost every food court in Singapore because it is a classic quick lunch local people have. I recommend having it at the food court of Tampines 1, a shopping mall in the Tampines district.

Photo credit: Derrick Ang
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Lor mee

Lor mee (卤面; Hokkien noodle dish with gravy) is a classic Hokkien dish. This noodle dish was introduced to me by my family due to our Hokkien origins and with age, I’ve started to enjoy it. This dish is really difficult to perfect and therefore people (including myself) are willing to line up for 40 minutes for a bowl of noodles. This dish is really only tasty if it is well made, which is why I only have it at specific hawker stalls.

My favourite place is Xin Mei Xiang Zheng Zong Lor Mee, located in the Old Airport Road Food Centre. My uncle and I have settled for Xin Mei as our go-to place for lor mee, after much trial and error. The thick soup base is composed of corn starch, eggs, and spices, and the ratio and cooking time has to be perfect for the right consistency and flavour. Another important aspect of this dish is the toppings. The best toppings to me are a hard-boiled egg, slices of fish cake, fish meat, deep-fried pork fat fritters (sounds gross but it makes a difference, trust me), Chinese black vinegar, freshly chopped cilantro, and finely chopped garlic. The vinegar and chopped garlic are essential to enhance the flavour of the broth. This dish definitely has very strong flavours, but they are what makes it hearty.

Photo credit: Oh Sheue Ling
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Mee siam

This is a Malay vermicelli (beehoon) noodle soup. It is a fairly light dish compared to the meals mentioned before and is seen more like a traditional breakfast food rather than a dish for lunch or dinner. This soup is a balance of sweet and sour due to the fresh calamondin lime squeezed on top, and just like many other Southeast Asian cuisines, it is spicy. It is also filled with fried beancurd and prawn. The dish has some Thai origins despite being better known as a Malay and Indonesian dish, which is why the flavour is super unique. So far, I haven’t come across any “bad” bowls of mee siam. This dish can be found mainly in hawker stalls and food courts, but a personal favourite is Robert Mee Siam in Whampoa Market.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

Photo credit: Derrick Ang
7

Dry fishball mee pok

Another noodle dish (I know), but for those who prefer dry noodle dishes, this is the one for you! I wouldn’t describe this as a fried noodle, because it never actually gets fried in a wok but rather the noodles are blanched and then layered on top of a sauce that the chef prepared beforehand in the bowl. Mee pok is of Teochew origin (eastern Guangdong) and is distinct from other noodle dishes because of the infusion of lye water and eggs. These added ingredients are what differentiate mee pok noodles from others by giving it a flat, chewy, and oily consistency.

What I also love about this dish is the toppings! Mee pok has many variations in terms of its toppings. Some people prefer more unconventional additives such as pig liver. Call me boring, but I prefer the standard fishball, sliced fish cakes, mushroom, and minced meat. But what really tops this dish off is the sauce. A concoction of black vinegar, fish sauce, sambal chilli, ketchup, shallot oil, and ikan bilis stock is what really enhances the dish and makes it delicious. The sauce is always at the bottom, so don’t forget to toss your noodles when they’re served! You can find these noodles at Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle.

Photo credit: Oh Sheue Ling
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Hainanese chicken rice

Another Singaporean staple, call me basic but this is truly such a good dish. The best part of chicken rice is the rice. It is infused with pandan leaves and chicken broth during the cooking process, giving it a unique and delicious flavour. Many Southeast Asian dishes incorporate it into the cooking, to take advantage of its fragrance. Boon Tong Kee is my favourite restaurant to go to, located in Balestier. The rice is cooked to perfection—each grain of rice is separate from one another (a good way to gauge the quality of chicken rice).

Chicken rice can be eaten with poached or soy sauce-marinated chicken depending on your preference. But the most classic chicken rice is made with ‘white’ chicken which is poached without any soy sauce, and lightly dipped in ketchup manis (sweetened Indonesian soy sauce) and chilli sauce with some rice. A side of vegetables and peppery chicken soup completes the meal.

Photo credit: Oh Sheue Ling
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Nasi lemak

Coconut infused rice, fried chicken, sambal chilli, ikan bilis, a boiled egg, cucumbers, and peanuts. What more could you ask for? Nasi lemak is a classic Malay dish that is wrapped in a banana leaf for additional aromatic flavours. Despite this dish being a national Malay dish, you can still find amazing nasi lemak in Singapore due to the major Malay influence.

Ponggol Nasi Lemak Centre in Upper Serangoon Road is a popular stall that Singaporeans like to go to. The stall is also known for its juicy and tender fried chicken wings! Most people spend around S$6 for a meal there, which is an amazing price given the generous portions and flavour of the dishes.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list👇

Photo credit: Oh Sheue Ling
10

Cendol

For those with a sweet tooth out there, cendol is a dessert made with shaved ice as a base, topped with pandan rice flour jelly, coconut milk, and palm sugar. This dessert is ideal to cool you down in Singapore’s heat. For those who have never tried cendol, it can be easily compared to the popular Japanese dessert called kakigori. This was my childhood favourite because of the green jelly for the most part. The best time to have cendol is at East Coast Lagoon Food Village after a ride or walk around Singapore’s east coast park. This is my favourite place to ride my bike and enjoy some time with nature. There are bikes you can rent for a couple of hours, to then make a pit stop at the food village for some cendol whenever you want.

Photo credit: Oh Sheue Ling
11

Chilli crab

Sri Lanka exports a limited amount of their world-renowned sweet and tender crabs and Singapore is one of the lucky recipients. Every time I am back in Singapore my uncle will pre-book a table for us at Jumbo, one of the best seafood restaurants in Singapore to have the famous chilli crab. The best part of the dish is not only the crab but also dipping deep-fried buns into the sauce, so as to not waste a single drop of deliciousness!

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Rosslyn Sinclair

Contributor

Rosslyn is currently working on her undergraduate degree in Montreal—however, her interests run far beyond the classroom. She craves hands-on learning through new experiences in different countries and cultures. Raised in Hong Kong, she’s had the privilege to travel to numerous Asia-Pacific regions within arm’s reach. Therefore, with any spare time available, Rosslyn is up for new adventures, whether it be action-packed or simply lounging by the beach soaking up some rays.

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