Singapore skyline

Singapore’s 5 most iconic dishes

Singapore is one of my favourite cities on earth, and I have been so lucky to visit quite a few times. It is never enough and I wish younger me had had the guts to move there for a few years to truly experience the asian metropolis properly.

While I wait for my next trip, I welcome a Singaporean friend’s guest post on the best dishes to try when visiting, iconic staples of the city’s bustling food scene.

Singapore Prawn Noodles

Fat yellow noodles resting in a prawn / soya / garlic / lard broth with large boiled halved prawns. A large part of the pleasure lay in extracting the generously sized prawns and munching on them. The stall was not far from where I was staying with a friend in Singapore. I went there more than once.

Singapore prawn noodles

I was in Singapore in June this year to touch base with friends and family. I’ve lived in Britain for a long time now but every so often I long to feel the sun on my back, hear Singlish spoken, walk pristine streets and most importantly of all, enjoy the local cuisine.

When I left Singapore in the eighties, the pace of Singapore’s evolution into a world class first world city was already accelerating. What I am happy to say is that the Singaporean love affair with all things culinary has remained at the heart of Singapore culture and long may that continue. There were a number of reasons for my visit. As I’ve mentioned, a visit to friends and family was one of them. Mum is getting on and I wanted to check up on her and have a natter about the good old days. I still have a handful of friends and family and they too merited a visit or two.

But there was another reason: I’m current doing a Masters degree in Creative Writing and my dissertation was going to feature a lot of the food that I grew up eating. Something that would be impossible to write about fairly and accurately without a refresher.

Rojak

A spicy sweet and tangy fruit and vegetable salad pepped up by the addition of dried tofu cubes and chunks of yew char kway. The magic lies in the thick viscous black sauce made up of belachan, tamarind paste, sugar, limes and crushed peanuts.

Rojak

Singaporean food culture is complex diverse and utterly delicious. It reflects the multi-cultural multi-racial and multi-religious nature of the country. To understand the food, you need to understand its origins.

Paul Kong, MFA & author

Singapore was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819 as a British colony. New arrivals were largely Chinese, Indian and Malay with a smattering of Armenians, Jews, Arabs, Parsis and more, all there to work as traders and labourers. After a hot day sweating in the sun, no one wanted to cook and so an opportunity opened up for people with the ability to cook. Entrepreneurs started street stalls to offer them an inexpensive taste of home. So we ended up with two of the world’s great cuisines – Chinese and Indian – being influenced by SE Asian culinary traditions, in particular Malay and Indonesian cookery along with the opportunity to experiment with the profusion of spices and herbs that thrived in the verdant tropics.

Toss in a pinch or two of European influence, sprinkle in the dietary dictates of the world’s great religions and the resultant concoction is simply some of the most amazing street food on the planet.

Satay

Strips of chicken/ lamb/ beef on bamboo skewers and grilled over a charcoal fire. Simple and delicious, especially when dipped into the sweet peanut sauce.

Satay

That happily is a tradition that remains to this day. The street stalls have morphed into food centres; the hygiene standards might be much higher; the food might have evolved somewhat, but at heart, Singapore cuisine has remained true to its roots. But its easy to over think something like this. Sometimes it best to just enjoy the food and reminisce. I ate a lot of tremendous food in Singapore.

Hainanese Chicken Rice

The clue is in the name. There is an original dish created by the Hainanese in China. The Singapore version is a variation adapted to suit local tastes. In essence, it’s poached chicken served with chicken rice: rice cooked in chicken stock, chicken fat, garlic and salt. Its one of the key Singaporean dishes.

In Singapore, everyone is a foodie. This is a good thing. Everyone is a critic, a judge, a juror and, if the food is bad, an executioner. You cannot survive in Singapore serving up bad food. The abundance of good cooks everywhere means high standards and relatively low prices. When it comes to good food, Singaporeans are no elitists. They will go anywhere if the food is exceptional.

Growing up I remember seeing a line of Mercedes saloons parked outside a decrepit looking seafood restaurant that looked in need of demolition. The chef made killer deep fried soft-shelled crab. No further explanation necessary!

Hokkien Mee

Hokkien Mee. Egg noddles and rice noodles stir-fried in an aromatic broth made up of prawn and pork bones, and garnished with lime and chilli.

Hokkien mee

I’ve written about some of the dishes that I enjoyed back home. There were many many more that I could have written about but these I think are illustrative of the variety and quality of the street food available in Singapore.

I recommend a visit soon.

Guest post author Paul Kong is studying for an MFA in Creative Writing in Britain. He loves food and writing equally.

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