Singaporeans pride themselves in their local cuisine, many times traveling to far corners of the island just to seek out the perfect wonton or the most succulent chili crab. The true local eating experience is the open-air hawker center, where tiny cooking stalls are operated by families who hand secret recipes down through generations -- the best stalls can attract long lines daily. Choose from traditional Chinese, Malay, and Indian favorites under one roof. A meal at a hawker center is undoubtedly one of the truest Singaporean encounters.
Excellent cuisine from around the world can also be found in restaurants that range from moderately priced cafes and small venues to veritable palaces of gastronomy.
Connoisseurs may be interested to visit Singapore either in April, during the World Gourmet Summit (www.worldgourmetsummit.com), or in July, during the Singapore Food Festival (www.singaporefoodfestival.com).
The large Chinese population in Singapore makes this obviously the most common type of food you'll find, and by right, any good description of Singaporean food should begin with the most prevalent Chinese regional styles. Many Chinese restaurants in the West are lumped into one category -- Chinese -- with only mild acknowledgment of Sichuan and dim sum. But China's a big place, and its size is reflected in its many different tastes, ingredients, and preparation styles.
A lot of hawker center fare is inspired by regional Chinese home cooking. Local favorites like carrot cake (white radishes that are steamed and pounded until soft, then fried in egg, garlic, and chili), Hokkien bak ku teh (boiled pork ribs in an herbal soup), Teochew kway teow (stir-fried rice noodles with egg, prawns, and fish), and the number-one favorite for foreigners, Hainanese chicken rice (poached sliced chicken breast served over rice cooked in chicken stock).
Fusion cuisine has been hitting the market hard as globalization takes control of Singaporean palates. Also called "East meets West" or "New Asia," this cuisine combines Eastern and Western ingredients and cooking styles for a whole new eating experience. Some of it works, some of it doesn't, but true gourmet connoisseurs consider it all a culinary atrocity.
Cantonese Cuisine -- Cantonese-style food is what you usually find in the West: Your stir-fries, wontons, and sweet-and-sour sauces all come from this southern region. Cantonese cooks emphasize freshness of ingredients, and typical preparation involves quick stir-frying in light oil or steaming for tender meats and crisp, flavorful vegetables. These are topped with light sauces that are sometimes sweet. Cantonese-style food also includes roasted meats like suckling pig and the red-roasted pork that's ever present in Western Chinese dishes. Compared to northern styles of Chinese cuisine, Cantonese food can be bland, especially when sauces and broths are overthickened and slimy. Singaporean palates demand the standard dish of chili condiment at the table, which sometimes helps the flavor. One hearty Cantonese dish that has made it to local cuisine fame is clay pot rice, which is rice cooked with chicken, Chinese sausage, and mushrooms, prepared in -- you guessed it -- a clay pot.
Shark's fin soup can be found on the menu of many Cantonese restaurants, but if you have an interest in animal welfare, you may wish to steer clear, as it's considered to be endangering the world's shark population.
The Cantonese are also responsible for dim sum (or tim sum, as you'll sometimes see it written around Singapore). Meaning "little hearts," dim sum is a variety of deep-fried or steamed buns, spring rolls, dumplings, meatballs, and a host of other bite-size treats. It's a favorite in Singapore, especially for lunch. At a dim sum buffet, dishes are offered from table to table and you simply point to what appeals. Food is served in small portions, sometimes still in the steamer. Take only one item on your plate at a time and stack the empty plates as you finish each one. Traditionally, you'd be charged by the plate, but sometimes you can find great all-you-can-eat buffets for a good price.
Beijing Cuisine -- Beijing cuisine, its rich garlic and bean-paste flavoring betraying just a touch of chili, comes to us from the north of China. Heavier sauces allow for greater selections of beef and mutton, rarely found on southern Chinese menus. The most famous Beijing-style dish is Beijing duck (also known as Peking duck). The crispy skin is pulled away and cut into pieces, which you then wrap in thin pancakes with spring onion and a touch of sweet plum sauce. The meat is served later in a dish that's equally scrumptious.
Shanghaiese Cuisine -- Shanghainese cuisine is similar to its Beijing counterpart but tends to be more oily. Because of Shanghai's proximity to the sea, Shanghainese recipes also include more fish. The exotic drunken prawns and the popular drunken chicken are both from this regional style, as is the mysterious bird's nest soup, made from swift's nests.
Sichuan Cuisine -- Sichuan cuisine, second only to Cantonese in the West, also relies on the rich flavors of garlic, sesame oil, and bean paste, but is heavier on the chilies than Shanghainese cuisine -- much heavier on the chilies. Sugar is also sometimes added to create tangy sauces. Some dishes can really pack a punch, but there are many Sichuan dishes that are not spicy. Popular are chicken with dried chilies and hot-and-sour soup. Another regional variation, Hunan cuisine, is also renowned for its fiery spice and can be distinguished from Sichuan style by its darker sauces.
Teochew CuisineE -- Teochew cuisine uses fish as its main ingredient and is also known for its light soups. Many dishes are steamed; in fact, steamboat, which is a popular poolside menu item in hotels, gets its origins from this style. For steamboat, boiling broth is brought to the table, and you dunk pieces of fish, meat, and vegetables into it, a la fondue. Other Teochew contributions to local cuisine are the Teochew fish ball, a springy ball made from pounded fish served in a noodle soup, and the traditional Singaporean breakfast dish congee (or moi), which is rice porridge served with fried fish, salted vegetables, and sometimes boiled egg. Also, if you see braised goose on the menu, you're definitely in a Teochew restaurant.
Hokkien Cuisine -- Although the Hokkiens are the most prevalent dialect group in Singapore, their style of cuisine rarely makes it to restaurant tables, basically because it's simple and homey. Two dishes that have become local cuisine favorites, however, are the oyster omelet, flavored with garlic and soy, and Hokkien mee, thick wheat noodles with seafood, meat, and vegetables in a heavy sauce.
Malay cuisine combines Indonesian and Thai flavors, blending ginger, turmeric, chilies, lemon grass, and dried shrimp paste to make unique curries. Heavy on coconut milk and peanuts, Malay food can at times be on the sweet side. The most popular Malay curries are rendang, a dry, dark, and heavy coconut-based curry served over meat; sambal, a red and spicy chili sauce; and sambal belacan, a condiment of fresh chilies, dried shrimp paste, and lime juice.
The ultimate Malay dish in Singapore is satay, sweet barbecued meat kabobs dipped in chili peanut sauce. Most Malay food is served as Nasi padang -- a big pile of rice surrounded by meat, egg, vegetable, tofu, and condiments smothered in tasty, spicy gravy.
Peranakan cuisine came out of the Straits-born Chinese community and combines such mainland Chinese ingredients as noodles and oyster sauces with local Malay flavors of coconut milk and peanuts. Laksa lemak is a great example of the combination, mixing Chinese rice flour noodles into a soup of Malay-style spicy coconut cream with chunks of seafood. Another favorite, popiah, is the Peranakan version of a spring roll, combining sweet turnip, chopped egg, chili sauce, and prawns in a delicate wrap. Otak-otak is very unique. It's toasted mashed fish with coconut milk and chili, wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled over flames.
Southern Indian Cuisine -- Southern Indian food is a super-hot blend of spices in a coconut milk base. Rice is the staple, along with thin breads such as prata and dosai, which are good for curling into shovels to scoop up drippy curries. Vegetarian dishes are abundant, a result of Hindu-mandated vegetarianism, and use lots of chickpeas and lentils in curry and chili gravies. Vindaloo, meat or poultry in a tangy and spicy sauce, is also well known.
Banana leaf restaurants, surely the most interesting way to experience southern Indian food in Singapore, serve up meals on banana leaves cut like place mats. It's very informal. Spoons and forks are provided, but if you want to act local, use your hands. Remember to use your right hand only, as that is the proper etiquette, and don't forget to wash up before and after at the tap.
One tip for eating very spicy foods is to mix a larger proportion of rice to gravy. Don't drink in between bites, but eat through the burn. Your brow may sweat, but your mouth will build a tolerance as you eat, and the flavors will come through more fully.
Northern Indian Cuisine -- Northern Indian food combines yogurts and creams with a milder, more delicate blend of herbs and chilies than is found in its southern neighbor. It's served most often with breads like fluffy nans and flat chapatis. Marinated meats like chicken or fish, cooked in the tandoor clay oven, are the highlight of a northern Indian meal.
Northern Indian restaurants are more upmarket and expensive than the southern ones, but although they offer more of the comforts associated with dining out, the southern banana leaf experience is more of an adventure.
Some Singaporean variations on Indian cuisine are mee goreng, fried noodles with chili and curry gravy, and fish head curry, a giant fish head simmered in a broth of coconut curry, chilies, and fragrant seasonings.
Muslim influences on Indian food have produced roti prata, a humble late-night snack of fried bread served with chickpea gravy, and murtabak, a fried prata filled with minced meat, onion, and egg. Between the Muslims' dietary laws (halal) forbidding pork and the Hindus' regard for the sacred cow, Indian food is the one cuisine that can be eaten by every kind of Singaporean.
Japanese food is very popular in the city, and not only with the Japanese expat population. Singaporeans love the focus on quality fresh ingredients, as well as the ease with which you can grab sushi on a break from the office or while shopping. Quality and price ranges from supermarket refrigerator sushi, to conveyer-belt restaurant chains, right up to the epicurean shrines that fly their ingredients freshly from Tokyo's Tsujiki fish market every day. Other than sushi, plenty of places specialize in cooked foods, including noodles, delicately fried tempura, and hearty dishes like tonkatsu (breaded, fried pork, rather like Wienerschnitzel).
One cannot describe Singaporean food without mentioning the abundance of fresh seafood. But most important is the uniquely Singaporean chili crab, chopped and smothered in a thick tangy chili sauce. Pepper crabs and black pepper crayfish are also a thrill. Instead of chili sauce, these shellfish are served in a thick black-pepper-and-soy sauce.
A walk through a wet market at any time of year will show you just what wonders the Tropics can produce. Varieties of banana, fresh coconut, papaya, mango, and pineapple are just a few of the fresh and juicy fruits available year-round; in addition, Southeast Asia has an amazing selection of exotic and almost unimaginable fruits. From the light and juicy star fruit to the red and hairy rambutan, they are all worthy of a try, either whole or juiced.
Dare to try it, if you will: The fruit to sample -- the veritable king of fruits -- is the durian, a large green, spiky fruit that, when cut open, smells worse than old tennis shoes. The "best" ones are in season every June, when Singaporeans go wild over them. In case you're curious, the fruit has a creamy texture and tastes lightly sweet and deeply musky.
One interesting note on fruits: The Chinese believe that foods contain either yin or yang qualities with corresponding "heaty" and "cooling" effects. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners, fried and oily foods are heaty, producing heat in the body, and, therefore, should be kept to a minimum in the Tropics, and the same is true for some fruits. Whereas watermelon, star fruit, and oranges are cooling, mangoes, litchi, and durians are heaty. Taking too many heaty foods is believed to result in a fever, aches, and sore throat, for which the best remedy is to take Chinese tea.