Malaysians may say they make the best char kueh teow, and that may be true, but the renditions you'll find in Singapore can be damn fine. This smoky stir fry of fresh, wide rice noodles with shrimp, shrimp paste, egg, bean sprout, and generous slurps of dark, sticky soy sauce and hot chili paste is a hawker center staple. Keep an eye out for cooks using charcoal fires, which tends to indicate 1) a smokier char kueh teow and 2) a staunch traditionalist cook who's committed to doing things the old fashioned way.
What many consider Singapore's national dish: crab in a sweet, spicy, eggy chili sauce made with onions, garlic, chili paste, plenty of oil, and the natural broth that forms from simmering the crab. It's best to wear a bib for this one; cracking the crab shells sends sauce flying. Leftover sauce is usually sopped up with fried mantou buns, or gets poured over noodles. You can find chili crab in hawker centers, but a local warned me that it's probably best to seek this dish out in a restaurant, where the crab is likely of higher quality. Wherever you find it, know that chili crab sauce can sometimes be on the sweet side. It's a great thing, but perhaps unexpected for Western seafood palates.
Hainan Chicken Rice
If you always thought poached chicken was humdrum, prepare to change your mind. Hainan chicken is just chicken gently poached in water or stock that's laced with ginger and sometimes some other spices, then served cool. The rice is cooked in the water after the chicken, becoming the most delicate, chickeny starch you can imagine. The gelled stock that forms on the surface of the meat rivals crisp chicken skin for the title of ultimate delicious chicken substance. Chicken rice, which is available by the single serving or portion of chicken, is served with a pungent hot sauce, but it's really all about the power of poultry and the delicacy of ginger. Though plenty of mediocre versions are out there, the good ones are just so shiok.
A griddled flatbread somewhere between two Indian classics: the crepe-like roti and the flaky, fatty paratha. The dough is stretched paper-thin by hand, folded over a few times into a small square or circle, and griddled in oil or clarified butter until crisp with a bit of chew. The curry served alongside is darker and sharper than your average Malaysian roti canai dipping sauce.
Ayam Buah Keluak
I fell in love with this Peranakan chicken dish, a braise of chicken and keluak nuts in a sweet, sour, funky, and smoky sauce built on keluak nut meat, tamarind, and stir fried chili paste. Keluak nut meat tastes like an extra-meaty, slightly smoky olive. You use something like a crab fork to pull them out from their clamshells, swipe them through the intense sauce, and eat them with a bit of chicken.
The Peranakan people in Singapore are a mixed ethnicity of Chinese and ethnic Malay locals. (To my understanding, "Peranakan" also refers to other mixed ethnic groups throughout Southeast Asia, but the Chinese-Malay Peranakans were the ones I encountered repeatedly.) Their food, a fusion of Malay and Chinese, is a fascinating mix of flavors from all over Southeast Asia: curries, stir fries, braises, and fritters, all with hot-sweet-sour-funky-meaty aspects to them.
Bak Kut Teh
"This is great cold weather food," my friend Victoria told me on the day we tucked into this pork rib soup—it was 85°°. But bak kut teh really is great comfort food, the chicken noodle soup of Southeast Asia. Pork ribs are simmered long and slow to make an unctuous broth. In Malaysia, the broth is fragrant with green herbs, but Singaporeans prefer a simpler, more rustic-tasting soup heavy on the black pepper with fat cloves of garlic. It's often joined by a pot of pu ehr or oolong tea to cut the richness. No matter what the form, a bowl of fried crullers accompanies the soup. When dipped into the fatty, meaty broth, they're a meal on their own.
It's probably unlike any biryani you'll find in India, but it's great regardless, a staple food of the country's Indian population. The typical biryani features rice fragrant with cardamom and warm spices, then topped with a rich, dark chicken curry gravy that's similar to what you'll find in Indian restaurants in the West—but with much more character. A side of lentil soup is always a plus. The best part? You get to eat this with your hands. Singapore is all about dishes like this: really simple ingredients and components that are cooked into something headspinningly delicious.
Another of those "so simple, so good" dishes, this one from Hokkien, China, and a favorite breakfast among Singaporean Chinese. The foundation is a plate of small steamed rice cakes that are only mildly seasoned, so the flavor of naturally sweet rice comes through clearly (in the good ones, at least). They're a little chewy, a little creamy, and a lot covered in a blanket of salted preserved radish, and sometimes a mild chili sauce. This dish exhibits the kind of perfect oneness between starch and condiment that Italian pasta cooks are always going on about: mild sweet rice + salty vegetal pickle = happy eating.
Fish Head Curry
The bulk of Singapore's Indian population is Tamil, from a southern state along the Indian coastline. It's from these Indians that you'll find the bulk of fish head curry in Singapore, one of those poverty-necessity-turned-delicacy success stories. The chili-forward sauce can get pretty hot, but the fishy funk of the head keeps it in check. It's a scary dish the first time you see it, but fish cheek meat is really good: tender and full of flavor. And yes, you do eat the gelatinous eyes.
You could write a whole book on laksa, the coconutty curry seafood soup of Malaysia, but it's more fun to just down every bowl you can find. Made with coconut milk, stir fried curry paste (a mix of chilies, galangal, turmeric, lemongrass, and other spices), laksa has a creaminess and depth of flavor most soups dream about. What goes into it? Noodles and all sorts of seafood, though shrimp is probably the most common in Singapore. The hot soup is often topped with some hotter sambal, because that's just how they do in Southeast Asia.
Singaporeans love their fish paste, especially when it features a mackerel-starch emulsion spiked with galangal, ginger, garlic, turmeric, shallot, and chili—all wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled. The fish gently steams in the leaf, picking up its herbal flavor along with some licks of smoke from the grill. If I had to compare it to anything, it'd be a hot dog. A fishy, spicy, steamed-grilled hot dog. Yup.
What happens when you add starch to a base of blended eggs, do basically everything you can to make a French omelet wrong, and then throw in some juicy, briny oysters at the end so they barely cook at all? You get one of Singapore's most beloved egg dishes, a crisp and creamy pile of rich eggs and refreshing oysters. The crusty bits are the thing, made all the better by a swipe through some hot sauce, if provided. New York restaurants: start making this for brunch and you will be swimming in fans. But this is one egg dish that, in Singapore anyway, you'll see people eating any time of day.
When another writer asked a local, "so what's your junk food here," one of the answers was curry puffs. The flaky baked or fried pastries can be filled with meat, poultry, potato, or other vegetables, and along with fritters of all shapes and sizes, are essential snacktime fare. In my experience the curry here is pretty mild; these are more about satisfying your greasy pastry craving than your spicy food craving.
A dish that looks almost Japanese in origin, and if you've tasted Japanese curry that'll give you a sense of what to expect: a sweet, thick curry sauce rich with the musk of turmeric, topping simple steamed rice. Hainan curry rice is a Singaporean specialty, usually served with a pork chop, chicken, crisp, or fried pork, and a side of preserved cabbage. (The photo above features pork belly and fresh cabbage.) Save room for this dish, in whatever form you find it.
Another dish you'll hear called Singapore's "national." Sure, it's just crab stir fried with lots of pepper, but describing it as such doesn't capture the delicate floral, pungent aroma of pepper mingling with sweet crab and a slick of oil—something that, when done right, is as shiok as it gets. You can find both black and white pepper versions around the country; the black pepper dish is more pungent and fiery, the white pepper more delicate and floral.
A hodgepodge of noodles in a thick sauce or soup, char siu roast pork, and wonton soup on the side. A little confusing? Yeah. Really delicious? You bet—especially with cloudlike wontons, really chicken-y broth, hoisin-, spice-, and pickle-laced noodles, and fatty, smoky meat. Admittedly it's hard to find a single hawker who gets all the elements right, and I got the impression that most Singaporeans put more emphasis on the noodles than the roast meat, which is often a dry afterthought. But when it's all done right, with al dente noodles and succulent pork, it's magic.
If you're eating in Southeast Asia, you're going to encounter meat on sticks. In Singapore, take advantage of the local fondness for mutton and get a spice-rubbed bite of charcoal grilled sheep on a stick. It frequently comes with Indonesian peanut sauce (less sweet and more nutty than the college town Thai restaurant versions in the U.S.), as well as cubes of cold rice. Skewer one with the end of your stick, swipe it through the sauce and a bit of rendered fat, and get to snacking.
Best described as stir fried noodles with "stuff," which can include thin vegetables like cabbage and scallion, tofu, potato, or meat. The sauce is a little curry-like, with a sweetness that comes as much from ketchup as anything else. It's something of an uncomplicated starchfest, but it's a good one.
A Chinese-inspired dish Singaporeans now call their own, lor mee isn't one that makes most tourist guide books. That's because it's a noodle soup with a broth best described as mucilaginous, so thickened by cornstarch as to pull from a spoon in thick threads. But you're not in Singapore to eat what you know; you're there to seek out new experiences wherever you can, and once you get used to the thickness of the broth, it has a nice comfort food feeling to it. Dashes of vinegar, and spoonfuls of garlic applied tableside, keep it plenty interesting.