This quintessentially Singaporean dish is deceptively simple – blanched or roasted chicken atop oily rice steeped in chicken stock, paired with thick dark sauce or tangy red garlic chili. Adapted from Wenchang Chicken brought over by Hainanese immigrants from China, Hainanese chicken rice is a Singapore staple and found anywhere from humble corner kopitiam stalls to gourmet hotel restaurants – just look for the row of chickens hanging up in the stall window.
Visitors may be surprised to learn that there are actually different variants of this spicy seafood noodle soup dish found in Singapore. The most famous is the Katong laksa, named for the Peranakan district it originated from, and served with short strands of thick vermicelli that is consumed with only a spoon. Other versions include a curry-like coconut milk broth and a more tangy assam version with tamarind.
Follow your nose when it comes to this delightful Javanese dish of seasoned meat skewers, best when barbecued over an open grill. Dip generously in the accompanying peanut sauce and balance it out with some ketupat rice cakes and pickled achar sides. The most popular meats used are chicken, beef and mutton, and stalls usually sell them in batches of five or 10 sticks.
Whether you favour this as a morning pick-me-up or a late night supper indulgence, this south Indian flat bread is most traditionally eaten plain or with an egg, dipped in fish/mutton curry or served with a side of dipping sugar. These days, you can find them paired with just about anything from cheese to ice cream. Textures range from fluffy to crispy depending on the stall, and if you are lucky you can watch the prata man himself in action, whirling and slapping the dough skilfully on an open griddle.
Bak Kut Teh
You will find two versions of this delicious pork rib soup in Singapore – a clear, peppery ‘Singaporean’ version and a ‘Malaysian’ version which tends to be more herbal with more ingredients in the soup. Pair with your choice of white rice or vermicelli, or order a plate of crispy youtiao fried dough fritters to soak up the soupy goodness. Good news for soup lovers – soup refills are usually free for dine-in customers.
Rojak is a popular local dish akin to a tossed salad of various vegetables, fruits and some fried dough fritters for that extra crunch. What marks a rojak is the liberal use of a thick sticky sauce consisting of fermented prawn paste, chilli paste, sugar and lime to coat everything in the bowl. Garnish with some chopped peanuts and ginger flower slices – everything is indistinguishable at a glance, so eating this dish is always somewhat of a taste adventure.
‘Lemak’ translates from Malay as ‘rich’, and that definitely describes the full-bodied flavour of the coconut and pandan leaves that infuse the Nasi Lemak rice. Typically served up with some cucumber, a sprinkling of peanuts and anchovies and a fried egg, most Nasi Lemak also includes a fried chicken wing, deep fried fish or spicy otah or fish paste. The sambal chili that accompanies the dish can make or break this meal.
Fried Carrot Cake/Chai Tow Kway
Let’s get one thing straight – there is no carrot whatsoever in Singapore’s version of fried carrot cake, better known locally as chai tow kway. The dish consists of rice flour and white radish that is steamed, cubed and fried with egg and preserved radish and is quite savoury, not at all like the dessert cake version. The dish originated from southern China, but in Singapore there are two versions to choose from: ‘white’ in its original form or ‘black’ which is tossed with a thick sweet dark soy sauce.
Economy Mixed Rice
The cheapest and easiest way to grab a meal at a hawker centre is to look for the stall with lots of different food items prominently on display. Ask for some rice, point at a few dishes and top it off with some curry or gravy. Now you have what the locals call cai fan, that literally translates into ‘vegetable rice’ (budget tip: meat and fish items tend to cost more). For those who like Malay cuisine, look for the Nasi Padang stalls – these specialise in Malay food items.
Kaya is a traditional coconut jam, a thick olive-green concoction that Singaporeans love to spread on their breakfast toast. Kopitiam drink stalls usually offer a typical ‘breakfast set’ in the morning that consists of a few slices of this kaya toast, two runny soft-boiled eggs that you can dip your toast in for that mix of savoury and sweet, and your choice of coffee or tea. Kaya toast has become such an institution that there are entire chains like Ya Kun Kaya Toast dedicated to the breakfast set found in shopping malls, but ask a local if you want to find those truly old school spots.