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Singapore may be among the world’s smallest countries, but what it lacks in size it makes up for with an astonishing culinary variety. Here are 10 street food items that shouldn’t be missed.
Don’t be put off by the name – frog porridge is one of the cleanest dishes you’ll ever eat, and far from a tourist-baiting piece of grotesquery. Frogs are marinated in soy, spring onions and wine, with spicy chili and milder ginger variations common. Cooked well, the frog meat is succulent, sweet and unbelievably delicate. Rumors that it tastes just like chicken may be exaggerated, but there are some similarities. The porridge that accompanies it is gloopy yet light. It often comes with a green onion sauce in most hawker stalls.
Eminent Frog Porridge & Seafood, 323 Geyland Rd, Singapore, +65 9842 2941
Developed by Hokkien immigrants from China, bah kut teh (‘meat bone tea’) has long been one of Singapore’s most popular street food dishes. It’s also one of the most mythologized. Tales abound of it being improvised by a poor cook attempting to use his meager resources to feed a starving beggar. Some say its name comes from its brown tea-like appearance; others, from the oolong tea served alongside it to dilute the fat. It comprises juicy pork ribs, simmered for hours in a rich herbal broth. Sounds simple? The soup is highly complex, and demands the right quantities of garlic, star anise, cinnamon, cloves, fennel and dang gui to achieve the best flavor. Other ingredients, such as tofu, youtiao (fried dough) and mushrooms, are sometimes added. Teochew, the most popular variant, is light in color, while the original Hokkien recipe uses dark soy sauce for a saltier taste. Try it at Song Fa, which has specialized in bah kut teh since 1969.
Song Fa Bak Kut Teh, 11 New Bridge Road, Singapore, +65 6533 6128
Known as Ikan Bakar (‘barbequed fish’) in Malay, sambal stringray is a Singaporean invention. For years, stingray was looked down upon as a cheap, poor tasting fish. Then someone in the local Malay community had a novel idea – smear it with spicy sambal sauce. The resulting combination is a street food revelation. The fish is grilled in banana leaf, retaining its natural flavors. Sambal, a mixture of chili peppers, belacan (shrimp paste), shallots and spices, is spread on top. It’s often finished with a pot of cincalok (fermented krill) and a squirt of calamansi juice (a sour, lime-like fruit). At its best, the fish should have a crisp outside that breaks to reveal a moist interior. The simply named BBQ Seafood, in the Tamam Jurong Market, gets the balance just right.
Chili or pepper? It’s a difficult conundrum, and one that’s kept Singaporeans puzzled for years. A whole hard-shelled mud crab is stir-fried, either dry with black pepper or in a thick chili and tomato sauce. The chili recipe is older, originating in 1956 from a single seafood cart, but the pepper version followed soon after 1959. Both are mouthwatering, but to our mind the black pepper variety served with lush jackfruit sauce can’t be beaten. Long Beach Seafood cooked the original pepper crab and Red House Seafood is known for its chili. For the best of both worlds – and numerous other recipes besides – head to Crab Party! where you can even choose the geographical origin of your crustacean right at the street food stall.
Crab Party!, 110 Yio Chu Kang Rd, Singapore, +65 6288 8588
Blame for this delightful combination lies with immigrants from the island of Hainan, at China’s southern tip. In Singapore, chicken rice has become something of an unofficial national dish, and is regularly voted one of the tastiest in the whole world. Following Hainanese tradition, a whole chicken – preferably old and plump, and so laden with oil – is dipped in a warm pork and chicken bone broth until cooked. It is then sliced, and presented with rice cooked in its own separate vat of chicken stock. A hot chili dip is served alongside, topped with ginger and soy sauce. Alongside the main variant, dubbed luji, the street food dish can be presented Shaoji (‘roasted’) or Baiji, where it is dipped in ice for a refreshing, squishy skin. Ming Kee, in the Bishan district, prepares some of the best, but you’ll be able to find chicken rice everywhere in the city. And if you’re ever bored of it, why not try duck rice, a distinctly different plate cooked using the same techniques?
Not for nothing is durian nicknamed the king of fruits. Singaporeans, along with their neighbors in Southeast Asia, have an insatiable appetite for the spiky treat. The famed theater in Esplanade area was even designed to mimic one. So pungent that it’s banned from enclosed public spaces such as hotels and trains, the durian is something of an acquired taste. When the Victorian evolutionist Alfred Russell Wallace claimed it had ‘a rich custard highly flavored with almonds’, he was probably just being polite. Persevere, though, and you’ll find a distinctively sweet flavor, used in Singapore to create all manner of deserts and drinks. Buy one from Teo Boon Teck and his daughter, who will guide you through the numerous varieties.
Teo Boon Teck, 175 Albert Street, Singapore, +65 6396 6321
These two dishes, though both distinct, share a unifying ingredient – eggs. Oh-luak is an oyster omelet, made from fried egg and potato starch along with the delectable shellfish. Starch-less versions can be purchased, but they have a thinner taste. Originally from Taiwan, the Singaporean variant is always accompanied with chili vinegar. Ah Hock Fried Oyster Hougang serves some of the best. Chai tao kway, also known misleadingly as carrot cake, is generally served in the same stalls as oh-luak, and consists of egg-fried perverted radish, radish cake and seasonings. Its name comes from the apparent resemblance between carrots and radishes, and it’s often served for breakfast in many street food stalls.
There are few delicacies more disturbing to western diners than fish heads, which are often left behind after the rest of the meat is consumed. In Southeast Asia, however, it forms the basis for several delightful dishes, of which the most sainted is a curry. Originally from the Bengali region but refined to its present form in Singapore, the curry is a rich yet thin Keralan variety, with brinjal (eggplant) and Lady’s Finger (okra) often added for texture. Soaked in the sauce, the fish head is crisp and aromatic. Indian-run street food stalls tend to serve spicier varieties while the Chinese prefer a sweeter version. It’s the asam style – with tamarind for a sour finish – that’s most unusual. Try it in Gua Ma Jia, which opened in 2011 but already reputed to serve the city’s best.
Gu Ma Jia Food Pot, 45 Tai Thong Crescent, Singapore, +65 6285 5602
If you try only one dish in Singapore, make it laksa. The hallmark of Peranakan cuisine, which melds Malay and Chinese influences, laksa is a creamy coconut sauce filled with vermicelli noodles and fried bean curd. Slices of fish, shrimp and cockles are added for a hearty yet healthy meal. Like fish head curry, it can be enjoyed in a tamarind-filled asam variant which adds shredded mackerel and pieces of mangosteen. All laksa includes diced greens such as onion, pineapple, chili and cucumber, along with Vietnamese mint and bunga kantan (torch ginger) for taste. Some restaurants, especially in the Katong district, serve it with the noodles cut into small pieces, allowing it to be eaten as a soup. Get yours at 328 Katong Laksa, a street food stall which beat Gordon Ramsey in a televised cooking challenge.
328 Katong Laksa, 53 East Coast Road, Singapore, +65 9732 8163
After all these spicy delicacies, make sure you have room for dessert. Tau hua is the local version of the Chinese donhua, where it is often served as a savory dish. In Singapore, however, it’s doused with a sweet syrup infused with pandan leaves and topped with ginkgo seeds. Formed from grainy bean curd tofu, it can be served both hot and cold. Avoid a recent jelly-like version, which contains huge amounts of sugar. QQ Soyabean serves some of the most authentic, with an almond version for those who like their desserts extra-sweet.
QQ Soyabean, 51 Old Airport Road, Singapore, +65 8339 3459