Eating in Singapore is like a sport. There is strategy involved: What excuse can I make today to find myself near my favorite hawker center Tactics: when can we go for the shortest queue at the chaw kueh teow hawker? How do we divide up to get the best meal?
There is, of course, aggressive, critical commentary that puts ESPN to shame: Psh, you go there for your Hainan chicken? But most of all, there's athleticism to food here: jockeying through crowded halls to find and eat it, and wielding woks, flames, and (seemingly) magic wands to cook it.
So goes the ordered chaos of daily meals in Singapore, all six or so of them. How do you navigate such a dense, overclocked culinary landscape that resists definition and easy categorization? Take it one dish at a time. Forget what's Hakka Chinese, ethnic Malay, Peranakan, or Chettinad. Seek out something you know and something you don't. Devour them both. Move on to the next thing. Pick up all the flavors, textures, and experiences that you can, and worry about the definitions later. You can always look them up in books, but your noodles are hot now, and look, the queue for ondeh ondeh is unusually short.
Here is a list of 25 dishes to get you started on your eater's journey through Singaporean cuisine. As I mentioned in my introduction to the local food scene, Singapore's food hails from China, Malaysia, India, and beyond—but also, in a sense, from nowhere but itself. Some dishes are direct imports into this immigrant culture, but most have undergone some regional variation. So the hokkien mee, bak kut teh, and chili crab (among many, many other dishes) will often be totally unlike what you've had elsewhere, even in next-door Malaysia.*
Carey (who traveled to Malaysia last year) and I have been playing this game for a couple weeks: wait, that's how they make that in Penang?
There's a word in Singlish—the local creole of English, various Chinese dialects, Malay, Tamil, and more—that Singaporeans use to describe a dish they really love: shiok (like "shuck," but spoken faster, with a giddy swoop of the mouth), which roughly translates to holy crap that's awesome. A really shiok dish rewires your pleasure centers to make that next bite feel like the best thing in the world. Above all else, if you want to eat well in Singapore, listen for this word, and have whatever the person who said it is having.
This list is not an exhaustive one, nor a complete group of "essential" dishes or "greatest hits." I wish I could give you one; give me a month, or three, or six, and I may, but until we get funding for Serious Eats: Southeast Asia, I hope this will tide you over. It's simply a group of Singaporean dishes I encountered on my way that I think you should encounter, too. Notably absent are breakfast classics like kaya toast and desserts; those will get their own guides in the coming weeks.
View all the dishes in the slideshow, or jump to a specific dish below.
Stir Fried Noodles
Noodles in Broth
More on Singapore
- An Introduction to Singaporean Food »
- Snapshots from Singapore: 10 Must-Eat Singaporean Breakfasts »
- Snapshots from Singapore: A Must-Try Pork Jerky-Kaya Toast Sandwich Hack »
- Snapshots from Singapore: The To-Go Bag »
- Snapshots from Singapore: A Guide to Singaporean Coffee »