What to eat in Singapore
Singapore is a melting pot of cuisines from around the world, and many Singaporeans are obsessive gourmands who love to makan (“eat” in Malay). You will find quality Chinese, Malay, Indian, Japanese, Thai, Italian, French, American and other food in this city-state.
Eating habits run the gamut, but most foods are eaten by fork and spoon: push and cut with the fork in the left hand, and eat with the spoon in the right. Noodles and Chinese dishes typically come with chopsticks, while Malay and Indian food can be eaten by hand, but nobody will blink an eye if you ask for a fork and spoon instead. If eating by hand, always use your right hand to pick your food, as Malays and Indians traditionally use their left hand to handle dirty things. Take note of the usual traditional Chinese etiquette when using chopsticks, and most importantly, do not stick your chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice. If eating in a group, serving dishes are always shared, but you’ll get your own bowl of rice and soup. It’s common to use your own chopsticks to pick up food from communal plates, but serving spoons can be provided on request.
Keep an eye out for the Singapore Food Festival, held every year in July. During the last three festivals, all visitors to Singapore smart enough to ask for them at any tourist information desk received coupons for free chilli crab, no strings attached!
Singapore is justly famous for its food, a unique mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian and Western elements.
The most identifiable cuisine in the region is Peranakan or Nonya cuisine, born from the mixed Malay and Chinese communities of what were once the British colonies of the Straits Settlements (modern-day Singapore, Penang and Malacca).
Chili crab is a whole crab ladled with oodles of sticky, tangy chili sauce. It’s spicy at first, but the more you eat, the better it gets. Notoriously difficult to eat, so don’t wear a white shirt: just dig in with your hands and ignore the mess. The seafood restaurants of the East Coast are famous for this. Be sure to get a side order of fried mantou (small sweet buns which have been deep fried for a crisp exterior) to mop up the sauce too. For a less messy but equally tasty alternative, ask for black pepper crab.
Kaya is a jam-like spread made from egg and coconut, an odd-sounding but tasty combination. Served on toast for breakfast, canonically accompanied by runny eggs and strong, sweet coffee (kopi). Exists in two distinctive styles; the greenish Nonya version, colored with pandan leaf, and the brownish Hainanese version.
Laksa, in particular the Katong laksa or laksa lemak style, is probably the best-known Singaporean dish: white noodles in a creamy, immensely rich coconut-based curry broth, topped with cockles or shrimp. Be warned that the common style found in hawker centers is very spicy, although you can ask for less/no chili to dial down the heat. The Katong style is much less spicy and is generally found only in Katong itself. Singapore laksa is very different from Penang laksa, which is a spicy, sourish, clear soup made with a tamarind-infused broth.
Mee siam is rice flour noodles served in a sweet-sour soup (made from tamarind, dried shrimp and fermented beans), bean curd cubes, and hard boiled eggs. Though the Chinese, Malays and Indians all have their own versions, it is the Peranakan version that is most popular with Singaporeans. You will largely find this at Malay stalls.
Popiah, or spring rolls, come fresh or fried. They consist of a filling of boiled turnip, fried tofu, pork, and shrimp with a slew of condiments, wrapped in a thin crepe smeared with sweet dark soy sauce and eaten like a fajita. They are related to the lumpia and runbing of other Chinese communities in Asia.
Rojak means a mixture of everything in Malay, and there are two very different types. Chinese rojak is a salad of pineapple, white turnip, cucumber, tau pok (fried bean curd) with thin tiny slices of bunga kantan (torch ginger flower buds), tossed in shrimp paste sauce and sugar, then sprinkled with crushed peanuts. Indian rojak consists of mainly fried fritters made from flour and various pulses with cucumber and tofu, with sweet & spicy sauces.
Satay bee hoon is rice vermicelli (bee hoon) served with the same peanut and chilli sauce used for satay, hence the name. Usually see hum (cockles), dried squid and pork slices are added.
Ice cream is just as it is in Western countries. However, in Singapore, there are various local flavors such as durian and red bean which are not available outside the region and are certainly worth a try. To impress the locals, try asking for ice cream in roti (bread).
Besides these dishes, the Peranakans are also known for their kueh or snacks, which are somewhat different from the Malay versions due to stronger Chinese influences.
Nasi lemak with sambal ikan bilis (fried anchovies with chilli paste), cucumber, chicken curry and an egg
The Malays were Singapore’s original inhabitants and despite now being outnumbered by the Chinese, their distinctive cuisine is popular to this day. Characterized by heavy use of spices, most Malay dishes are curries, stews or dips of one kind or another and nasi padang restaurants, offering a wide variety of these to ladle onto your rice, are very popular.
Mee rebus is a dish of egg noodles with spicy, slightly sweet gravy, a slice of hard-boiled egg and lime.
Mee soto is Malay-style chicken soup, with a clear broth, shredded chicken breast and egg noodles.
Nasi lemak is the definitive Malay breakfast, consisting at its simplest of rice cooked in light coconut milk, some ikan bilis (anchovies), peanuts, a slice of cucumber and a dab of chilli on the side. A larger ikan kuning (fried fish) or chicken wing are common accompaniments. More often than not, also combined with a variety of curries and/or samba.
Otah/Otak is a type of fish cake made of minced fish (usually mackerel), coconut milk, chilli and various other spices, and grilled in a banana or coconut leaf, usually served to accompany other dishes like nasi lemak.
Rendang, occasionally dubbed “dry curry”, is meat stewed for hours on end in a spicy (but rarely fiery) coconut-based curry paste until almost all water is absorbed. Beef rendang is the most common, although chicken and mutton are spotted sometimes.
Sambal is the generic term for chili sauces of many kinds. Sambal belacan is a common condiment made by mixing chili with the shrimp paste belacan, while the popular dish sambal sotong consists of squid (sotong) cooked in red chilli sauce.
Satays are barbecued skewers of meat, typically chicken, mutton or beef. What separate satay from your ordinary kebab are the spices used to season the meat and the slightly spicy peanut-based dipping sauce. The Satay Club at Lau Pa Sat near Raffles Place is one popular location for this delicacy.
Malay desserts, especially the sweet pastries and jellies (kuih or kueh) made largely from coconut and palm sugar (gula melaka), bear a distinct resemblance to those of Thailand. But in the sweltering tropical heat, try one of many concoctions made with ice instead:
Bubur cha-cha consists of cubed yam, sweet potato and sago added into coconut milk soup. This can be served warm or cold.
Chendol is made with green pea noodles, kidney beans, palm sugar and coconut milk.
Durian is not exactly a dish, but a local fruit with distinctive odor you can smell a mile away and a sharp thorny husk. Both smell and taste defy description. If you are game enough you should try it, but be warned beforehand — you will either love it or hate it. The rich creamy yellow flesh is often sold in places like Geylang and Bugis and elsewhere conveniently in pre-packaged packs. This ‘king of fruits’ is also made into ice cream, cakes, sweets, puddings and other decadent desserts. Note: You’re not allowed to carry durians on the MRT and buses and they’re banned from many hotels.
Ice kachang literally means “ice bean” in Malay, a good clue to the two major ingredients: shaved ice and sweet red beans. However, more often than not you’ll also get gula melaka (palm sugar), grass jelly, sweet corn, attap palm seeds and anything else on hand thrown in, and the whole thing is then drizzled with canned evaporated milk or coconut cream and colored syrups. The end result tastes very interesting — and refreshing.
Kuih (or kueh) refer to a plethora of steamed or baked “cakes”, mostly made with coconut milk, grated coconut flesh, glutinous rice or tapioca. They are often very colorful and cut into fanciful shapes, but despite their wildly varying appearance tend to taste rather similar.
Pisang goreng is a batter-dipped and deep-fried banana.
Chinese food as eaten in Singapore commonly originates from southern China, particularly Fujian and Guangdong. Noodles can also be served not just in soup, but also “dry”, meaning that your noodles will be served tossed with chili and spices in one bowl, and the soup will come in a separate bowl.
Bak chor mee is essentially noodles with minced pork, tossed in a chili-based sauce with lard, ikan bilis (fried anchovies), vegetables and mushrooms. Black vinegar may also be added.
Bak kut teh, lit. “Pork bone tea”, is a simple-sounding soup of pork ribs simmered for hours in broth until they’re ready to fall off the bone. Singaporeans prefer the light and peppery Teochew style (“white”), but a few shops offer the original dark and aromatic Fujian kind (“black”). Bak kut teh is typically eaten with white rice, mui choy (pickled vegetables) and a pot of strong Chinese tea, hence the name — the broth itself doesn’t contain any tea. To impress the locals, order some you tiao fritters from a nearby stall and cut them up into bite-sized chunks to dip into your soup. You may even choose to order an identical bowl of bak kut teh that your friend ordered and enjoy some fun bonding time with your peers over this widely loved Singaporean dish.
Char kway teow is the quintessential Singapore-style fried noodle dish, consisting of several types of noodles in thick brown sauce with strips of fishcake, Chinese sausage, a token veggie or two and either cockles and shrimp. It’s cheap ($2-3/serve), filling and has nothing to do with the dish known as “Singapore fried noodles” elsewhere! (And which actually doesn’t exist in Singapore.)
Chee cheong fun is a favorite breakfast consisting of lasagna-type rice noodles rolled up and various types of fried meats including fish balls and fried tofu. The dish is usually topped with a generous amount of sauce.
Chwee kway is a breakfast dish consisting of rice cakes topped with chai po (salted fermented turnips), usually served with some chili sauce.
Fishball noodles come in many forms, but the noodle variety most often seen is mee pok, which are flat egg noodles. The noodles are tossed in chili sauce and accompanied by a side bowl of fish balls in soup.
Hainanese chicken rice is steamed (“white”) or roasted (“red”) chicken flavored with soy sauce and sesame oil served on a bed of fragrant rice that has been cooked in chicken broth and flavored with ginger and garlic. Often accompanied by chili sauce made from crushed fresh chilis, ginger, garlic and thick dark soy sauce as well as some cucumber and a small bowl of chicken broth.
Hokkien mee is a style of soupy fried noodles in light, fragrant stock with prawns and other seafood. Oddly, it bears little resemblance to the Kuala Lumpur dish of the same name, which uses thick noodles in dark soy, or even the Penang version, which is served in very spicy soup.
Kway chap is essentially sheets made of rice flour served in a brown stock, accompanied by a plate of braised pork and pig organs (tongue, ear and intestines).
Prawn noodles are a dark-brown prawn broth served with egg noodles and a giant tiger prawn or two on top. Some stalls serve it with boiled pork ribs as well. The best versions are highly addictive and will leave you slurping up the last MSG-laden (probably from the shrimp heads) drops.
Steamboat, also known as hot pot, is do-it-yourself soup Chinese style. You get a pot of broth bubbling on a tabletop burner, pick meat, fish and veggies to your liking from a menu or buffet table, and then cook it to your liking. When finished, add in noodles or ask for rice to fill you up. This usually requires a minimum of two people, and the more the merrier.
Tau huay is probably the most common traditional Chinese dessert, a bowl of tofu curds in syrup, served either hot or cold. A recent innovation that has swept the island is a delicious custard-like version (“soft tau huay”) which includes no syrup and is extremely soft despite being solid.
Wonton mee is thin noodles topped with wantan dumplings of seasoned minced pork. Unlike the soupy Hong Kong version, it is usually served ‘dry’ in soy sauce and chilli.
Yong tau foo literally means “fermented tofu”, but it’s more exciting than it sounds. The diner selects their favorites from a vast assortment of tofu, fish paste, assorted seafood and vegetables, and they are then sliced into bite-size pieces, cooked briefly in boiling water and then served either in broth as soup or “dry” with the broth in a separate bowl. The dish can be eaten by itself or with any choice of noodles. Essential accompaniments are spicy chili sauce and sweet sauce for dipping.
The smallest of the area’s big three ethnic groups, the Indians have had proportionally the smallest impact on the local culinary scene, but there is no shortage of Indian food even at many hawker centers. Delicious and authentic Indian food can be had at Little India, including south Indian typical meals such as dosa (thosai) crepes, idli lentil-rice cakes and sambar soup, as well as north Indian meals including various curries, naan bread, tandoori chicken and more. In addition, however, a number of Indian dishes have been “Singaporeanized” and adopted by the entire population, including:
Chicken Tikka Masala is, true to the name, a gigantic barbequed grilled chicken cooked in a spicy onions and tomatoes gravy sauce. Singapore’s Little India is the place to sample this. Note that there are two distinct styles, the fiery Indian and the milder Chinese kind. Chicken Tikka Masala is the most popular North Indian Dish.
Tandoori Chicken is, true to the name, a gigantic charcoal oven barbequed chicken. Singapore’s Little India is the place to sample this. Note that there are two distinct styles, the fiery Indian and the milder Chinese kind. Tandoori Chicken is the most popular North Indian Starter (Finger Food).
Indian Chaat is the traditional indian street snack. Singapore’s Little India is the place to sample this. NIndian Chaat is the most popular North Indian Street Food (Finger Food).
Fish head curry is, true to the name, a gigantic curried fish head cooked whole until it’s ready to fall apart. Singapore’s Little India is the place to sample this. Note that there are two distinct styles, the fiery Indian and the milder Chinese kind.
Nasi briyani is rice cooked in turmeric, giving it an orange color. Unlike the Hyderabadi original, it’s usually rather bland, although specialist shops do turn out more flavorful versions. It is usually served with curry chicken and some Indian crackers.
Roti prata is the local version of paratha, flat bread tossed in the air like pizza, rapidly cooked in oil, and eaten dipped in curry. Modern-day variations can incorporate unorthodox ingredients like cheese, chocolate, sugar and even ice cream, but some canonical versions include roti kosong (plain), roti telur (with egg) and murtabak (layered with chicken, mutton or fish). Strict vegetarians beware: unlike Indian roti, roti prata batter is usually made with eggs.
Murtabak is a variety of Roti Prata where mutton, chicken, onion and sometimes peas, depending on the stall, are added into a typical “Prata”, and served with a curry of your choice. Most stalls has chicken and fish curry and they will serve you either of those two randomly unless specified. Do take note that the curry served is just plain curry without and meat included. Fish curry is generally the more commonly served and carries a slight sour taste. A Murtabak is generally much larger than a typical Roti Kosong and it is recommended that it is shared among at least two person. Zam Zam located at the Kampong Glam Bugis area is arguably the most famous restaurant in Singapore serving the murtabak
Putu mayam is a sweet dessert composed of vermicelli-like noodles topped with shredded coconut and orange sugar.
One thing notably absent from Singaporean hawker centers and food courts is any form of napkins or tissues. The solution to the mystery is in Singapore’s lack of government welfare: instead, every hawker centre has a resident invalid or two, who make a living by selling tissues ($1 for a few packets). These folks believe in self-reliance instead of depending on government welfare funds. Do give them your respectful support.
The cheapest and most popular places to eat in Singapore are hawker centers, essentially former pushcart vendors directed into giant complexes by government fiat. Prices are low ($2-5 for most dishes), hygiene standards are high (every stall is required to prominently display a health certificate grading it from A to D) and the food can be excellent — if you see a queue, join it! The lack of air-conditioning may seem somewhat unbearable to foreigners, but a visit to a hawker centre remains a must when in Singapore.
To order, first chope (reserve) a table by either parking a friend by the table or, in the more Singaporean way, dumping a pack of tissue onto the tabletop. Note the table’s number, and then place your order at your stall of choice. Some stalls will deliver to your table, in which case you pay when you get your food. However, note that some stalls (particularly very popular ones) have signs stating “self-service”, meaning that you’re expected to get your food yourself and you pay on order. Although, if it is quiet and you are sitting nearby, they will usually deliver anyway. At almost every stall you can also opt to take away, in which case employees pack up your order in a plastic box/bag and even throw in disposable utensils. Once you are finished, look around: if there are signs asking you to return your tray, take your dishes to the tray return station (usually clearly marked). This is part of a government initiative that has been pushed out in recent years encouraging diners to return their own plates so as to reduce the burden on the cleaners. If there are no signs, you can leave your dishes on your table, where a cleaner will come by to pick them up.
Every district in Singapore has its own hawker centres and prices decrease as you move out into the boondocks. For tourists, centrally located Newton Circus (Newton MRT), Gluttons Bay and Lau Pa Sat (near the River), are the most popular options — but this does not make them the cheapest or the tastiest, and the demanding gourmand would do well to head to Chinatown or the heartlands instead. Many of the best food stalls are located in residential districts away from the tourist trail and do not advertise in the media, so the best way to find them is to ask locals for their recommendations. A good example is the Old Airport Road Food Centre in a residential area near Dakota MRT station (about a $10-$15 taxi ride from town) which rarely has many tourists and is a true Hawker Centre for locals. And if you miss western food, Botak Jones  in several hawker centres offers reasonably authentic and generously sized American-restaurant style meals at hawker prices.
Coffee and tea in hawker centers and kopitiam goes for under a dollar a cup, a steep discount on Starbucks prices, but you’ll need to learn the lingo to get what you want. If you order just kopi (the Malay word for “coffee”) or teh (Hokkien for “tea”) in Singapore, it will definitely be served with a heaped spoonful of sugar, and more often than not with a squirt of sweet condensed milk. Kopi-C or teh-C substitute’s unsweetened evaporated milk, while kopi-O or teh-O makes sure it’s served with no milk. To get rid of the sugar, you need to ask for it kosong (“plain”), but if you want a plain black cup of joe, you need to ask for kopi-O kosong! If you want your drink cold, just add a peng to the end of the drink name, eg. kopi-O-peng, teh-peng, teh-C-peng, Milo-peng etc. and it will be served with ice. The drinks sold at such places are generally around $1.
Despite the name, coffee shops or kopitiam sell much more than coffee — they are effectively mini-hawker centers with perhaps only half a dozen stalls (one of which will, however, sell coffee and other drinks). The Singaporean equivalent of pubs, this is where folks come for the canonical Singaporean breakfast of kopi (strong, sugary coffee), some kaya (egg-coconut jam) toast and runny eggs, and this is also where they come to down a beer or two and chat away in the evenings. English proficiency can sometimes be limited, but most stall owners know enough to communicate the basics, and even if they don’t, nearby locals will usually help you out if you ask. Many coffee shops offer tze char for dinner, meaning a menu of local dishes, mostly Chinese-style seafood, served at your table at mid-range prices.
The usual international coffee chains such as Starbucks and the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf can be found in many shopping malls where an iced coffee or tea can set you back $5 and up. More discerning coffee drinkers may consider visiting the local cafes that serve coffee brewed with greater skill and care than these international coffee chains.
Found in the basement or top floor of nearly every shopping mall, food courts are the gentrified, air-conditioned version of hawker centers. The variety of food on offer is almost identical, but prices are on average $1-3 higher than prices in hawker centers and coffee shops (depending on the area, it is slightly more expensive in tourist intensive areas) and the quality of food is good but not necessary value for money.
International fast food chains like McDonald’s, Carl’s Jr., Burger King, KFC, MOS Burger, Dairy Queen, Orange Julius, Subway etc. are commonly found in various shopping malls. Prices range from $2 for a basic burger and $5 upwards for a set meal. Such restaurants are self-service and clearing your table after your meal is strongly recommended.
Ever wonder why every other Chinese hawker stall and restaurant in Singapore has a name that ends in Kee? The answer is simple: the character kee is Chinese for “brand” or “mark”, and is used much like the trademark symbol in the West. A name like Yan Kee thus means “run by the Yan family”, and should not be taken as a political statement!
Singapore offers a wide variety of full-service restaurants as well, catering to every taste and budget.
As the majority of Singapore’s population is ethnic Chinese, there is an abundance of Chinese restaurants in Singapore, mainly serving southern Chinese (mostly Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese) cuisines, though with the large number of expatriates and foreign workers from China these days, cuisine originating from Shanghai and further north is also not hard to find. As with Chinese restaurants anywhere, food is eaten with chopsticks and served with Chinese tea. Depending on where you go and what you order, prices can vary greatly. In ordinary restaurants, prices usually start from $20-30 per person, while in top end restaurants in five-star hotels, prices can go as high as more than $300 per person if you order delicacies such as abalone, suckling pig and lobster.
Being a maritime city, one common specialty is seafood restaurants, offering Chinese-influenced Singaporean classics like chilli crabs. These are much more fun to go to in a group, but be careful what you order: gourmet items like Sri Lankan giant crab or shark’s fin can easily push your bill up to hundreds of dollars. Menus typically say “Market price”, and if you ask they’ll quote you the price per 100 g, but a big crab can easily top 2 kilos. The best-known seafood spots are clustered on the East Coast, but for ambience the riverside restaurants at Boat Quay and Clarke Quay can’t be beat.
Singapore also has its share of good Western restaurants, with British and American influenced food being a clear favorite among locals. Most of the more affordable chains are concentrated around Orchard Road and prices start from around $10-20 per person for the main course. French, Italian, Japanese and Korean food is also readily available, though prices tend to be on the expensive side, while Thai and Indonesian restaurants tend to be more affordable.
One British import much beloved by Singaporeans is high tea. In the classical form, as served up by finer hotels across the island, this is a light afternoon meal consisting of tea and a wide array of British-style savory snacks and sweet pastries like finger sandwiches and scones. However, the term is increasingly used for afternoon buffets of any kind, and Chinese dim sum and various Singaporean dishes are common additions. Prices vary, but you’ll usually be looking at $20-30 per head. Note that many restaurants only serve high tea on weekends, and hours may be very limited: the famous spread at the Raffles Hotel’s Tiffin Room, for example, is only available between 3:30PM-5PM.
Singaporeans are big on buffets, especially international buffets offering a wide variety of dishes including Western, Chinese and Japanese as well as some local dishes at a fixed price.
Most hotels also offer lunch and dinner buffets. Champagne brunches on Sundays are particularly popular, but you can expect to pay over $100 per head and popular spots will require reservations.
The opening of the two casinos has led to several of the world’s top chefs opening local branches of their restaurant at the integrated resorts. Celebrity restaurants that have set up shop at Marina Bay Sands. Prices are generally what you would expect for eating at a fine dining restaurant in the West.
Pop up dining options or supper clubs are normally dinner events hosted by local chefs. While a relatively new concept in Singapore, it is gaining popularity with more and more local chefs opening up their homes to guests. Authentic food and dining in the company of new friends is a new trend that is catching up in Singapore.
Singapore is an easy place to eat for almost everybody. Many Indians and a few Chinese Buddhists are strictly vegetarian, so Indian stalls may have a number of veggie options and some hawker centers will have a Chinese vegetarian stall or two, often serving up amazing meat imitations made from gluten. Chinese vegetarian food traditionally does not use eggs or dairy products and is thus almost always vegan; Indian vegetarian food, however, often employs cheese and other milk products. Be on your guard in ordinary Chinese restaurants though, as even dishes that appear vegetarian on the menu may contain seafood products such as oyster sauce or salted fish — check with the waiter if in doubt. Some restaurants can be found that use “no garlic, no onions”.
Muslims should look out for halal certificates issued by MUIS, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore or 100% Muslim-owned certificates. Travellers looking for halal food can check at here or here for halal food. Many Western fast-food chains in Singapore are certified halal. Check for the halal certificates which will be prominently shown at the door or behind the counter. As Singapore is a multi-cultural country, you would be able to find many halal Malay, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai and Western cuisines.
Jews, on the other hand, will have a harder time as kosher food is nearly unknown in Singapore. Nevertheless, kosher food is still available near Singapore’s two synagogues at Oxley Rise and Waterloo Street in the Central Business District; check with the Jewish Welfare Board for details.
Celiac disease is relatively unheard of in Singapore, so don’t expect to find information on menus about whether dishes contain gluten or not.