Singapore, located 90 miles north of the equator on the southernmost tip of the Malaysian Peninsula, is oftentimes perceived as one of the less exotic places in Asia.
Upon arrival, it impresses everybody with its cleanliness, safety and clear organizational structures. A mainly business-oriented metropolis, Singapore is not famous for palm-tree-lined beaches with crystal-clear blue water, buffalos or rice paddies. The general appearance of its people and the clothes they wear resemble the fashion of any modern city.
First-time visitors to Asia tend to enjoy Singapore; it provides an easy transition into the Southeast Asian way of life minus the culture shock. Expatriates living in Singapore or experienced travelers like to call the city “Asia light” or “Asia for beginners.” Communication is no problem; almost all Singaporeans are fluent in English in addition to their own native language.
Home to many ethnic groups, Singapore is a multi-cultural country. The ethnic majorities, Chinese, Malaysians and Indians, contribute their different customs and traditions to a unique society found nowhere else. What unifies all residents of Singapore is an unparalleled love for food. Eating is a national pastime and food a countrywide obsession. For Singaporeans, it is common to eat out and their conversation is often about the food they had the night before and the different places they frequented. Aware of its burgeoning popularity, the Singaporean tourism board is promoting the local cuisines as one of Singapore’s main attractions.
The food of Singapore is as diverse as its population. There are those who say Singapore does not have its own distinct cuisine, rather it is just a mix of different Asian dishes and styles. This is a fallacy; there are quite a few dishes unique to Singapore. The local Peranakan cuisine, also known as Nonya cuisine, has its roots in early Chinese migrants intermarrying with local Malaysians. Their cuisine combines Chinese cooking techniques with typical Malay spices and ingredients such as candlenuts, shrimp paste, lemongrass, tamarind and coconut milk to create distinctive dishes like Otak-Otak, a fish paste wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed, or Laksa Lemak, a coconut-based spicy noodle soup. Typical Nonya desserts are often based on either rice, beans or coconut milk, sometimes flavored and colored with Pandan leaves.
Seafood is an integral part of the Singaporean diet. Especially on the east coast, many restaurants specialize in the preparation of fresh fish, crustaceans and other creatures of the ocean. It is not surprising that the unofficial national dish of Singapore is Chili Crab. Mud crabs, a hard-shell crab native to Southeast Asia, are stir-fried and then smothered in a spicy tomato chili sauce. They are served with steamed buns or French bread to dip in the sauce. Eating a chili crab is an adventure in itself. The crab is served in the shell in the relatively thick tomato chili gravy; it can be messy to retrieve the flesh from the shells. Yet the taste is so succulent that washing one’s hands and oftentimes the face is a small price to pay.
Visitors to Singapore with an interest in local food should not miss enjoying Fish Head Curry, regarded as one of the most noteworthy dishes in Singapore and Malaysia. Its origins are in India, but as with many other dishes, a significant amount of culinary cross-over results in a very interesting and spicy dish. For the Fish Head Curry, the whole head of a red snapper or bream is simmered together with tomatoes and okra in a thick, sour and spicy coconut gravy. The large pieces of flesh within the head are very sweet and flavorful, with the lips, eyes and brain the most desired parts among connoisseurs.
Along with seafood, Singaporeans consume meat and poultry. One of the most common dishes is Hainanese Chicken Rice; the name suggests roots in south Chinese cuisine from the island of Hainan. For this dish, a whole chicken is cooked very slowly in a flavorful liquid. The chicken is served at room temperature on a rice pilaf cooked in the chicken broth, accompanied by one soy-based and one chili-based dipping sauce and a bowl of the hot chicken soup with pickled vegetables.
Another dish most closely associated with Singaporean cuisine is “Bak Kut The,” literally translated “Pork Bone Tea.” For this flavorful soup, meaty spareribs and oftentimes organ meat are simmered in a strong pork broth flavored with cloves, cinnamon, star anise, fennel seeds, coriander seeds and whole cumin. A chili dipping sauce, dough fritters, and steamed rice accompany the soup.
A unique dish, oftentimes served for breakfast, is “Roti Kaya,” two slices of toast stuffed with a thick coconut custard and butter, which are then grilled over charcoal, with a dip made from an undercooked egg, dark soy sauce and white pepper. A common beverage to accompany Roti Kaya is sweet milk tea or sweet milk coffee. Despite the odd sounding combination, it has a pleasant taste and can become highly addictive.
Flatbreads and curries
Many cuisines have contributed to Singaporean eating habits. Flatbreads, originating in India, are very popular and include Roti Paratha, known in Malaysia as Roti Canai. It is oftentimes referred to as flying bread, describing the technique of tossing and spinning the dough to achieve this paper-thin flatbread. Roti Paratha is often prepared plain and served with curry gravy or stuffed with a raw egg and cheese and then folded and cooked on a griddle. In Muslim-oriented food stalls, one can find an interesting dish using the same dough called “Murtabak.” For this variation, the dough is filled with ground lamb, onions and egg and then cooked on a hot iron plate or griddle.
Curries are very popular among the Indian and Malaysian population. There are many ways to prepare these flavorful stews. A special way, found exclusively in Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine, is the use of a Rempah as the main flavoring ingredient. A Rempah is made by pureeing shallots with a variety of fresh and dry spices, often compared to a Thai curry paste, yet less standardized, varying from dish to dish. Rempahs for typical Malaysian or Singaporean curries contain aromatics such as shallots, garlic, mild as well as spicy chilies, coriander seeds, turmeric, lemongrass and galangal, a rhizome similar to ginger but with a sharper and fruitier flavor. The curries in Singapore resemble Malaysian curries cooked in coconut milk; they are commonly served with plain steamed rice and a sambal, a spicy condiment. Beef Rendang, often referred to as a dry curry, is one of the most popular Malay curries. For this dish, large dices of beef shoulder are first smothered with a rempah, coconut milk is added, and the beef is cooked very slowly until it is very tender and all coconut milk has evaporated. Eaten with plain steamed rice and a sambal, it is a culinary delight.
Eating street food is the best way to discover the local specialties wherever one goes. Yet in less developed countries, it may sometimes be a little risky; communication is challenging and the sanitary practices are often questionable. In Singapore, eating street food is almost risk free. All small food vendors are located in hawker centers under the supervision of a public health inspector. These hawker centers are found all over Singapore, either in public housing developments, or major subway stations as open air pavilions with 30 or more different vendors or in climate-controlled shopping centers where they are called food courts. Open and busy sometimes 24 hours a day, these gathering places are a real attraction in Singapore, evidence that eating is one of the most important activities for Singaporeans.