Woe to anyone on the Atkins Diet who visits Singapore, for carbs get center stage in the hawker centers. When eating your way through hawker centers, be sure to pick up a bowl of Mee Siam, rice vermicelli swimming in a sweet, sour and lightly spicy gravy of coconut milk with sprightly notes of tamarind and belacan (shrimp paste). Fried tofu and egg give it additional body. Not only is it a filling flavor bomb in noodle soup form, but it’s cheap as well. This version from 153 Traditional Cuisine in the Hong Lim Complex and only cost $3 SGD ($2.30 USD).
Hainan Chicken Rice
If you didn’t know any better, you wouldn’t think much of a modest-looking dish like chicken over rice. But it's far more vibrant than it looks. Ask a group of natives where to get the best chicken rice, and you’re asking for an earful and a squabble for sure. But such passion makes sense, since it’s considered the national dish of Singapore.
Wherever you get your chicken rice, you’ll receive a quotidian mound of poached, chopped, and gloriously moist chicken over chicken fat glossed white rice. You’ll also get a cup of chili sauce (usually housemade), oyster sauce and chopped ginger which make welcome bedfellows with the chicken. I suspect part of the joy of the dish is the surprising amount of flavor that’s coaxed from such a pallid plate of food, and the other half is the self-gratifying ceremony of dressing the dish with aforementioned sauces.
In an episode of No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain heartily endorsed the Hainan chicken rice at Tian Tian in the Maxwell Road Food Centre, however after trying many different chicken rice preparations, I really enjoyed the version ($4 SGD/$3.05 USD) found at Huat Huat in the Geylang Road Food Centre (pictured).
I hadn't done my research on the Singaporean interpretation of ‘mutton steak’ before ordering it. Envisioning perhaps a slow-cooked braise of whole mutton shank, the dish that arrived was chopped mutton, tough but flavorful and meaty, surrounded by morsels of cooked egg, chopped egg noodles and onions. There’s a bracing thrum of spices and heat owing to the dish’s Middle Eastern and Indian background, but balance in between spice, savory and sweet. It may not be what Westerners think of when the word ‘steak’ is thrown around, but it’s still a dish worth ordering, such as this version ($5 SGD/$3.85 USD) at the Hajjah Jamillah Rajmohamed food stall in the Geylang Road Food Centre.
Mee Hoon Goreng
If rice is king in Asia, then noodles are the next successor to the throne. Mee Hoon Goreng, a dish of idiyappam (aka string hoppers or rice vermicelli) with an affinity for Indian flavors is a dish that may be rare in the U.S., but another staple in the hawker centers around Singapore. These satisfying threads of rice are served barely glistened with oil and a pleasantly spiced with curry. This version was also from the Hajjah Jamillah Rajmohamed food stall in the Geylang Road Food Centre, and only cost $3.50 SGD.
Bak Kut Teh
Of the uniquely Singaporean dishes, bak kut teh is one of the milder dishes you may encounter. Heavily influenced by the Teochew cooking style of the Guangdong province of China, this dish is a deceptively simple preparation of boiled on-the-bone nubs of tender pork. But the best part of the dish is the heady broth, wrought from pork bones and pleasantly piquant from plenty of garlic and black pepper. Get the version at Ya Hua Bak Kuh Teh Eating House the broth and rice pairs well with pungent giam cai (salted greens) and glasses of iced beer.
Murtabak, a stuffed flatbread which roughly translates to “folded” in Arabic, is another Middle Eastern dish that’s been re-purposed into an almost uniquely Singaporean dish. It’s almost as fun to watch being made as it is to eat.
The murtabak cook starts with a pallid lump of dough and rhythmically flings it against the counter with a calm "thwack thwack thwack," holding onto the near edge to stretch the dough. A minute later, and the dough has been stretched into tissue thin translucent membrane. With my mutton murtabak (sweet versions are also available), he coolly chucked a handful of chopped onions on the outstretched dough, smeared an egg, and scattered on crumbles of cooked mutton. These ingredients were folded by the corners into a savory envelope, and left to cook on a flat top grill. The cooked murtabak was plopped on a plate, and served with a small bowl of curry to moisten and season the pastry. Underneath the delicate, flaky dough, it’s a powerful, stick-to-your ribs dish which makes a fine breakfast, such as this version ($4 SGD/$3.05 USD) found at Ar-Rahman Royal Prata food stall in the Tekka Market Food Centre.
Char Kway Teow
This is a boldly flavored dish of Malaysian origin worth trying. Char Kway Teow gets its bravado from a dose of oyster sauce and shrimp paste, and a scattering of shelled cockles. It’s a rich dish, emboldened by hearty flat rice noodles, soy sauce and garlic, with a scattering of bean sprouts to add crunch. At Outram Park Fried Kway Teow Mee in the Hong Lim Hawker Center, the dish only costs $3 SGD, but for only an extra dollar, you can add an extra helping of cockles. If you’re here for the first time, you should go for the gusto.
Buah Keluak Nut
Durian, oysters, foie gras, and buah keluak. What do these foods have in common? They're polarizing foods; you either love ‘em or hate ‘em. This version from Candlenut Kitchen was slowly roasted and braised, yielding a fantastically complex and deep flavor. The other American at the table and I agreed that it was strikingly similar to the savory chocolate, cinnamon and nuttiness of a good Oaxacan mole, while our another dining companion, a born and bred Singaporean, took an irritated nibble, made a face and remarked, “tastes like a baby’s diaper."
Another dish along the lines of durian and buah keluak, petai beans are known for their strong smell and potentially offensive flavor. Indeed, these innocent looking beans had an off-putting rotting smell. However, the flavor was relatively tame, with a mellow nuttiness like that of a pistachio, opening up to slightly musty and fishy notes. At Candlenut Kitchen, where they’re paired with grilled prawns and sambal, you can order them with confidence. Just don’t go around kissing anyone right afterwards.
I’m a sucker for slow-cooked beef. The ugly, cheap stuff with tons of fat and connective tissue, which breaks down into an ethereally rich sauce when skillfully braised, such as the French beef bourguignon , Korean galbijjim and the Malay dish of rendang.
A rendang is often beef, but the same technique of slow-cooking with spices and coconut milk can be applied to other animal proteins. Whatever meat you rendang, the results are wonderfully tender and flavorful. At Candlenut Kitchen, in addition to the buah keluak and petai beans with prawns, we also tried an excellent upscale version of this dish. However, you’ll find just as good preparations of rendang across eating houses and hawker centers across the city.
Sri Lankan Crab and Mantao
If Hainan chicken is everyday comfort food, Sri Lankan Crab is reserved for a celebration or a splurge. Singapore is famous for its preparation of monstrous Sri Lank Crabs (sometimes referred to as Mud Crabs), which easily twice the yield of a Dungeoness crab, and are just as sweet and marvelous.
There was chili crab, bathed in a starch and egg laden sauce that was more sweet than heat. The more tamely named black pepper crab was more boldly spiced and piquant than the aforementioned chili crab, a must-order for spice hunters. However, the showstopper is the crab bee hoon, which sits in a broth fragrant with coconut milk, and bolstered by chicken stock and fish sauce. The precious creamy/crabby/chickeny/fishy broth was spooned into bowls along with wisps of rice vermicelli and greedily sucked down and was easily one of the best bites of food I’ve ever tasted in my life.
A meal this exorbitant demands a buffer; that padding can be found in an order of mantao. These, fried, slightly sweet and spongy buns are the perfect medium for sopping up the last dregs of chili crab sauce. Although this popular staple can be found across the city, this version is from Mellben Seafood on Ang Mo Kio Avenue. It’s a pricey dish as well (each crab is $45 SGD), and this location of Mellben Seafood publicly posts security photos of diners who try to eat and run in attempt to crab future acts.
I’ll never forget my first laksa experience in Singapore. It was a late evening on Geylang road, the air was a stifling mixture of enduring heat, wicked humidity, and pungent from exhaust fumes and durian. We were hungry, sweaty, and disoriented by the sheer number of eating options up and down Geylang Road.
If there is a single dish to try when visiting Singapore or Malaysia, it should be laksa. This noodle soup of Malaysian origin is the stuff of dreams when done right. The coconut milk fortified broth is rich, warm, and faintly spicy. It coats your tongue and hits flavor receptors you didn’t even know existed. Beneath the broth, springy noodles await, and with this version ($5 SGD/$3.85 USD) at Wang Fu Xing Eating House, sported meaty braces of poached chicken, although other bowls may contain fish, beef or tofu.
We slurped our laksa under bright fluorescent lights, sipped Tiger beers poured over ice, and let the breeze from the overhead fans lap our flushed cheeks.