Singapore’s Must-Try Classic Hawker Dishes
From Singapore chilli crab to nasi lemak and Hainanese chicken rice, Singapore's rich hawker centre food centre is unparalleled. These are some highlights.
Think of Singapore, and you think ‘melting pot’, applicable to both extreme humidity and colliding cultures. The food scene represents this best, weaving spice-heavy Indian with fragrant Hainanese, smoky Malay and delicate Nonya cuisine.
It’s undoubtedly one of the best eating cities in the world. Australia is represented in both David Pynt’s Burnt Ends (currently number 10 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list) and soon, Blackwattle, a second restaurant from Automata’s Clayton Wells. The high end restaurant and cocktail scene may hold its own against any other country, but it’s the hawker food that truly gets the heart racing.
Where else in the world can you eat a Michelin-starred meal for $2? Or chow down on a nasi lemak-inspired burger 24 hours a day?
Arm yourself with plenty of loose change and small bills, order plenty of dishes to share and sweat it out over Singapore’s best specialities.
There’s a world of difference between bad and good kaya toast. Avoid places that serve up a scant scrapping of the green pandan-infused coconut jam, and look for thick-style toast with pats of cold butter sandwiched with oozing amounts of kaya. At the famous Chinatown Complex Food Centre (336 Smith St), locals queue patiently for Wu Shi Nian Dai (The 1950s Coffee Stall). Order a set of kaya toast with soft eggs and kopi tarik (pulled coffee). Don’t be alarmed in you’re handed whole eggs: you crack them into a bowl, load them up with white pepper and soy sauce, and then dip the kaya toast as you eat.
Flaky prata roti is another dish that doubles as a breakfast snack and any-time snack. Unleavened elastic dough is expertly stretched, flipped and folded on a hot griddle to produce a roti that is equal parts fluffy, light and crispy, served with a side of curry sauce for dipping. It’s widely available all over Singapore, but follow the local’s lead and head to a traditional kopi-tiam, such as Mr and Mrs Mohgan’s Roti Prata (7 Crane Rd) for your fix.
Bak kut teh
This clear soup translates to meat bone tea in Hokkien, which is a pretty bang-on description. Essentially, pork ribs are simmered in a clear herbal broth laced with star anise, cloves, fennel and copious amounts of garlic. It’s the Singaporean answer to chicken soup; deeply comforting and delicious.
You’ll encounter a few different versions, but Legendary Bak Kut Teh is a favourite for their third-generation Teochew-style recipe. The soup is lighter than other styles, and spiked with heady amounts of white pepper. Opt for the meaty long ribs and order a side of you-tiao (Chinese doughnuts) to dip in the broth.
Ask any Singaporean cab driver what their favourite dish is, and they are likely to say chicken rice. Again, expect to encounter multiple versions.
Hawker Chan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken, a stall in the middle of Chinatown Complex Food Centre, is arguably the most famous in the world after earning a Michelin-star. The signature dish – meaty chicken braised in aromatic soy sauce broth, served with rice and sauce – will cost you $2 and an hour-long wait in the muggy heat.
Hainanese chicken rice is a different beast, poached with ginger, garlic and sesame.
The broth is then used to cook the rice, imparting an unctuous, umami-rich quality. Fresh cucumber, chilli garlic sauce, and soy sauce are essential condiments. Try Chin Chin (19 Purvis Street), a family favourite for many locals who consider a whole chicken vastly superior to single serves.
When you’ve overdosed on oil and meat, seek out this Nonya (Peranakan) speciality. Essentially a fresh spring roll, popiah hasn’t reached the same levels of fame as other Singaporean dishes, which is a shame. The two essential ingredients are the wrapper – a very thin delicate egg pancake – and a generous amount of pickled turnip.
In a vegetarian roll, the vendor may layer a slick of sweet soy with fresh bean sprouts, cucumber, coriander, warmed turnip, and crunchy fried garlic and crushed peanuts. Others may add prawn, pork or sliced omelette.The snack-sized portion should be super fresh, slightly sweet and equal parts soft and crunchy.
Head to Old Airport Road Hawker Centre (51 Old Airport Rd) to try it – two stalls in the centre specialise in popiah and both are good. Grab a side of kueh pie tee – tiny, crisp pastry shells that are stuffed with the same pickled turnip and vegetables – for the full experience.
At the same centre, order up on laksa – the Nonya kind again, served in a small bowl with thick noodles, minimal toppings and a floating spoonful of chilli paste to stir through. There are also several stalls slinging killer versions of prawn mee, a delicious roasted prawn noodle soup.
Singapore Chilli Crab
One thing is certain: you need to eat Singapore chilli crab while you’re there. What is less certain, however, is where to go for it. Every local will have a favourite place.
In the party district of Geylang, No SignBoard Seafood does a frantic trade in all things seafood. Originally run by a husband and wife team, the couple started out in a hawker centre in the 1970s, too poor to afford any proper signage. They claim to be some of the first to start selling seafood in hawker centres and made a name for themselves with white pepper crab.
Fat crabs are tossed in a sauce of garlic, chilli and tomato, which is thickened with egg, and served in a messy pile of gravy. Crack away at the claws and then wipe up with sauce with pillowy fried Chinese buns.
Be prepared to be billed for the basket of peanuts set down on the table, the little packets of wet hand wipes and glasses of water, as is the norm at most restaurants in town.
Carrot cake is possibly the most confusing Singaporean dish for Australian travellers. You don’t have it with coffee (that’s kaya toast), and there’s no carrot in it, nor butter, sugar or walnuts.
Instead, expect a savoury, soft cake of daikon and rice flour. Hawker centre-style dishes call for the cake to be steamed wok-tossed with garlic, eggs and soy sauce, depending on whether you order it white or black (with dark kepis manis).
Yum cha-style is different again; popular dumpling chain Tim Ho Wan calls it pan-fried radish cake on their menu. Here, it’s steamed and then pan-fried to give a crisp edge and charred flavour.
At Swee Choo Tim Sum, in the Little India district, it’s a popular post-party snack. Something of a local institution, this made-to-order dim sum restaurant is open until 6am, serving up xiao long bao, siew mai and oozy salted egg yolk custard steamed buns.
More hawker classics
Oyster omelettes, edges crisped from the wok, are a must-try and available at most hawker centres. Try it at Lau Pa Sat, one of the city’s most famous (and touristy) hawker centres in the heart of the financial district. After 7pm, one of the adjacent roads is closest off to become Satay Street. You’ll smell the smoke before you see it, as vendors frantically fan and flip skewers over hot coals. Order sets of chicken, mutton and prawns with sweet satay sauce and flag down one of the wandering Tiger beer ladies.
Nasi lemak (another local dish appropriated by McDonald’s) is a classic dish of fragrant coconut rice, sambal, peanuts, cucumber and fried anchovies, and a side of curry.
Chase it down with a bandung. Essentially milk with a dash of rose cordial, this lurid pink beverage is such a local favourite, McDonald’s created a bandung fizz in tribute. The fast-food chain swaps milk for lemonade with a slug of rose syrup and plenty of ice – it goes down a treat in the Singaporean heat.
(Lead image: Chilli Crab from No SignBoard Seafood)
Published 08 November, 2017