Rediscovering the Food Paradise

Ten traits that make local cuisine uniquely Singaporean

Issue: Aug 2010

The variety of Singapore foods available is a reflection of its diverse migrant history
The variety of Singapore foods available is a reflection of its diverse migrant history. Chicken rice was popularised in the 1950s and is one of the few local dishes offered by the Singapore Airlines
Photo Credit: Singapore Tourism Board

The cosmopolitan city-state of Singapore has long prided itself on being a food capital. When it comes to cuisines, Singapore offers variety bar none. But while this southern island in the sun has not been shy about welcoming the culinary expertise and cultures of the world to its shores, truly local food is somewhat less exotic or exquisite. In fact, attempt to list Singaporean favourites and most that make the mark are what would best be called “hawker centre foods”. But Singapore cuisine is by no means without its charm or character. To appreciate its flavours, one has to understand its traits.

Char Kway Teow
The char kway teow of today is a healthier and more luxurious variation featuring more greens and lap cheong or waxed sausages

INSIDE offers you 10 traits that define Singapore cuisine:

1. Singapore Food is the Food of Migrants

Singapore today is built on the backs of the migrant workers who hail from different parts of Asia. Most had modest means. As a result, the food they made, ate and sold were similarly modest. One such dish that has become a local stalwart is char kway teow or fried flat noodles. The original recipe had the noodles stir fried with only garlic, soya sauce and crispy shards of lard. Sold at night by fishermen, farmers and cockle gatherers moonlighting for extra cash, the dish was popular among labourers because its high fat and carbohydrate content made it a sustaining and satisfying meal.

Singaporean’s breakfast staple
Singaporean’s breakfast staple – the kaya toast with coffee
Photo Credit: Singapore Tourism Board

2. Singapore Food has Humble Beginnings

Like the country itself that rose from a tiny fishing village to the cutting-edge first-world business hub, much of its local food also has humble beginnings. The simple kaya toast is a Southeast Asia breakfast staple. But the coconut jam prepared with caramelised sugar, eggs and flavoured with pandan has been elevated to cult status thanks to the Ya Kun Kaya Toast chain of coffee outlets. The original Ya Kun kaya toast was the creation of founder, Ah Kun, who ran a stand-alone coffee stall in the business district from 1944. His toasts were crispier than the regular ones because his wife used to slice the bread thinner to make the loaf last longer. But what started out as a means to make a better living has since become a national, gastronomic icon.

3. Singapore Food is Spiced with Love

Chilli Crab
Chilli and seafood – there could be no more appropriate national dish for an island nation like Singapore than the chili crab
Photo Credit: Singapore Tourism Board

Singapore cuisine is spicy as it borrows liberally from the cuisines of its neighbours, which lean heavily on the use of chilli. And when it comes to a dish that packs a punch, the chilli crab is king. The mud crabs dish stir fried in a rich, sweet and savoury tomato and chilli based sauce was created by Singapore chef Cher Yam Tian and her husband Lim Choon Ngee in 1950. They started with a pushcart stall along Upper East Coast Road. The original version did not have eggs or sambal and is sweeter than what is usually associated with the dish. But chef Cher’s version was popular enough for them to graduate from their makeshift stall to a restaurant of their own which soon rose to fame.

4. Singapore Food is Ever-creative

Singapore cuisine is creative. Chef Cher is not the only proof of that. Roti John, which is a baguette sliced length-wise and pan fried with eggs, minced meat (usually beef or mutton) and onions was invented right here in 1976 by a Malay hawker named Shukor. Legend has it that Caucasian expatriates who used to frequent his stall at Taman Serasi Hawker Centre often asked for an onion omelette served with French loaf. One day, Shukor decided to combine the omelette with the bread and the Roti John was born. The dish is so named because roti is Malay for bread and John was a generic name for all Caucasian men at that time. The original Roti John was prepared sans meat. This ingredient was added much later.

Singapore Sling
The Singapore Sling is so popular in and out of Singapore that pre-prepared mixes can be bought to make your own concoction at home

5. Singapore Food has Enduring Appeal

It seems fitting that a country that is aiming to be an entertainment hub of the region should have a cocktail named after it that has found international acclaim. The Singapore Sling was created by bartender, Ngiam Tong Boon, who worked at the Long Bar in Raffles Hotel Singapore. The concoction dates back to 1915. But while the Long Bar is the birthplace of this classic cocktail, the Singapore Sling can now be found in almost every bar across the island and most reputable ones worldwide. Ngiam’s version uses gin, cherry Heering, Benedictine and fresh pineapple juice from Sarawak pineapples to give the drink a foamy topping. Today, the recipe has gone through more than a few modifications, but the crimson cocktail’s popularity remains ever unshaken.

6. Singapore Food adapts from the Palates of the West for the Plates of the East

Just as Singapore is at the crossroads of cultures, Singapore food often marries the best of both East and West. The relatively recent invention of the teh-cino is a perfect example. The tea drink, popularised by a Muslim stall in Sembawang in the mid 1990s, is a spin-off from the Italian cappuccino. Frothy steamed milk topped with tea, this local latte is now readily available at most Malay drink stalls.

7. Singapore Food is a Melting Pot of Asian Cultures and Cuisines

And of course, when it comes to synergy of cultures in the creation of cuisine, the marriage of Malay and Chinese food found in Peranakan dishes deserves special mention. Outside of the country, the only other capital of Peranakan food is Malacca. The Chinese method of wok cooking combined with Malay spices and ingredients has led to the creation of classics like ayam buah keluak (chicken cooked with nuts from the kepayangi tree), itek sioh (a sweet duck stew in tamarind sauce) and babi pongteh (braised pork with salted bean paste).

8. Singapore Food draws Inspiration from the Motherland

Arguably the most popular hawker stall dish in the country, Hainanese chicken rice, is a prime example of how Singapore cuisine adapts from the mother country of its migrant population to create something uniquely Singapore. Although it calls itself Hainanese, it bears little resemblance to the version found in Hainan, China, itself. The Chinese version is made with Wengcheng chicken that is bony and has little flesh and comes with rice that is thick with oil, accompanied by a green chilli dip. The local version probably has some Cantonese influence with the addition of a garlic-based chilli sauce laced with lime juice.

9. Singapore Food is influenced by a Mosaic of Local Cultures

It is inevitable that the many cultures and races that settle here should mutually influence each other’s cuisines. Multi-racial harmony in a pot could not come in a more delicious form than fish head curry. Created in Singapore a generation or so ago, the dish was the brainchild of an Indian man named Gomez who wanted to please the Chinese customers who came to his restaurant. He knew the Chinese loved to eat the fish head and though it is not an Indian preference, decided to combine the traditional South Indian curry spices with this Chinese favourite.

10. Singapore Food Ups the Ante

Katong Laksa
The Katong laksa distinguishes itself from the others not only in presentation but taste

Singapore cuisine is adventurous and unafraid to up the ante. Take the spicy, noodle dish, laksa. It is a Peranakan invention and in itself, a result of creativity. But Singaporeans love a gastronomic challenge and the Katong laksa has risen to the occasion. In the laksa scene where there are several variants to this dish, the Katong laksa stands out. The noodles are served chopped up instead of whole so the dish is slurped with only a spoon and only cockles and shrimps are added.

Perhaps when it comes to eating the Singapore way, there may be no such thing as fine dining. But Singapore cuisine is certainly full of history, character and flavour because much of what is considered Singapore fare originates from its migrant past. And, like the simple, hard-working folk who made it, genuine Singaporean dishes are unpretentious, hearty and real.

For a taste of Singapore, log onto for more information on where to locate all the CapitaMalls food courts.

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