One might say that Singapore’s food culture is Singapore’s culture, and they won’t be far from the truth. Food is an integral part of the daily lives of people living in Singapore, and nothing reflects the patchwork of cultures that make up the republic more than Singaporean cuisine. It’s safe to say that Singaporeans don’t eat to live; they live to eat.
While it would be loath of us to prescribe a certain way of travelling, we feel that skipping out on food in Singapore means missing out on a great chunk of culture. The museums and architecture are great, but they lack a certain viscerality. Singapore food culture goes beyond taste. Every dish of significance carries with it a history—be it of joy or hardship, and what’s truly special is how age-old recipes have been adapted over the years to incorporate local flavours, making Singaporean cuisine as distinctive as it’s delicious.
Singapore food culture is having roti prata and teh tarik to start the day, a hearty plate of nasi lemak to fuel your afternoons, and a flavourful serving of chicken rice to end the day. Though these dishes have different ethnic origins, Singaporeans will proudly claim them as their own, regardless of the ethnicity they identify with. It won’t be a stretch to say that Singapore food culture is born out of serendipity and it’s a huge unifying factor for all Singaporeans.
Top 5 Dishes to Try in Singapore
Singapore’s chicken rice was brought to its shores by Hainanese immigrants and adapted with local flavours. Blanched or roasted chicken is served with rice boiled in chicken stock, then drizzled with sauce cooked in chicken fat. It’s an explosion of flavour that the appearance doesn’t justify. Singaporeans will tell you that the chilli sauce makes or breaks the dish. Every chicken rice stall has their own fans, so it’s really up to you to discover your favourite!
You’ve probably heard of Singapore laksa before. Rich, creamy, and full of zing, the curry noodles are a mainstay of Singaporean cuisine and will leave you hungry for more. Its origins are murky, but it is thought that laksa was born out of the intermarriage of Chinese traders and Malay women, hence, the fusion of Chinese soup noodles and Malay spices. Each bowl of thick rice noodles is filled with spiced coconut milk broth, shrimps, fish cakes, bean curd skin, a dollop of sambal chilli, and finished with a dash of chopped laksa leaves. What a feast!
A heavy meal isn’t what most of the world would start the day with, but for Singaporeans, it’s never too early for dough soaked in vegetable/chicken/fish curry. Brought to Singapore by South Indian immigrants, Singaporean children (and adults) jump for joy when prata is on the menu for breakfast or supper. While prata is available for takeaways, nothing beats watching the prataman toss and slap the dough onto the griddle. 100% full sensory experience.
Nasi lemak probably originated in neighbouring Malaysia, but it’s inseparable from the Singapore foodie experience. A simple, inexpensive meal available at most hawker centres, the plate consists of rice cooked in coconut milk accompanied by sweet sambal (shrimp paste) chilli, fried ikan bilis (anchovies) and peanuts, cucumber slices, telur goreng (fried egg), and a meat of choice—fried chicken, fried ikan kuning (yellowstripe fish), or otah (grilled fish cake).
Let’s clear this up: Singapore carrot cake does not contain carrots. Instead, this Teochew dish consists of soft dough cubes made of white radish and rice flour fried with garlic, eggs, and preserved radish. It’s served with sambal chilli (see a pattern?), which only brings to prominence the marriage of sweet and savory.
Singapore Food Culture: The Present
Regarded as communal dining centres, hawker centres are the backbone to Singapore’s livelihood. It is the only place Singaporeans of all stripes break bread with each other without regard of one’s social class. It is for this reason that the Singapore government is hoping for Singapore’s hawker culture to be nominated for the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
However, there are concerns about the future of Singapore’s hawker centres especially with the retirement of first generation hawkers. Food vending is an arduous business with uncertain gains, and the young are pursuing careers in the areas more directly related to Singapore’s economic growth. There is a very real threat to the loss of the unique Singapore food culture. To encourage more youths to take up the mantle, the government has set up the Incubation Stall Programme to halve the costs of renting a stall for six months.
Singapore Food Culture: The Future
As hard as it is to come to terms with, Singapore’s hawker culture is waning. The future is uncertain. However, with globalisation in full force, people around the world have taken interest in Singapore’s food culture and many have even left their homes to share their cuisine with Singaporeans. Singapore has definitely developed a fondness for and openness to foreign flavours. Both Singaporean and foreign restaurateurs have set up shop selling fusion food, marrying the diverse local flavours with foreign ingredients.
Singapore Food: How much to Budget
Fortunately for foodies, cooked food remains one of Singapore’s most accessible exports—if you know where to look. Hit up the many hawker centres scattered throughout the island. A rule of thumb is the closer it is to the downtown district, the higher the price. Else, absolutely feel free to explore!
If you’re into gourmet cuisine and fine dining, Singapore is a regional destination for that too. However, you will need to deepen your pockets considerably. Here’s a quick guide:
A single meal at a hawker centre: $3-$5
Three meals at a hawker centre: $10-$15
A single meal at a cafe, no drinks: $20-25 pp
A single meal at a cafe with drinks: $30 pp
A single meal at a restaurant: > $40 pp (the sky is your limit)
Singapore Food: Where to Eat
Hawker centres are available in every district as part of the government’s efforts to maintain accessibility to cooked food. All the better for everyone! Most hawker centres will serve the five dishes listed above, and ultimately, the best taste boils down to personal preference.
Cafes and restaurants are mostly available downtown, around the Tiong Bahru and Tanjong Pagar districts. Higher end fare is common at the Marina Bay area. However, there are most definitely a few surprises out of the way.
For a general guide, visit these five Singapore food blogs below:
Singapore Food: The Takeaway
Singapore’s food culture is as diverse as its population, sometimes even more so. The fusion of mainly Malay, Indian, Chinese and Eurasian flavours led to the flourishing of Singapore’s strong food scene, and with globalisation in full swing, it seems that we can only expect more experimental ideas and novel tastes to hit the shores. To be honest, we can’t wait! And we hope that you’ll join us to learn about and enjoy Singapore’s culture through its cuisine.