Courtesy of Violet Oon Singapore
Courtesy of the Coconut Club
Singapore is known for its food, and with good reason. Make the most of it by seeking out traditional dishes everywhere from hawker center booths to upscale restaurants.
If we have to pick just 10 things to try in Singapore, these would make our last supper list.
Food in Singapore is like a religion. Locals are obsessed with eating and endlessly debate where to find the best *insert dish*—even if it means driving across the island for it. And while Singapore has a diverse culinary scene catering to every palate and budget, more traditional foods rather than Western-style menus find the most favor. Here are 10 foods to hunt down for a taste of Singapore.
There are countless versions of this beloved but messy spicy noodle dish: The Sarawak style laksa is more curry-like, the Penang version has a robust tamarind sweet-sour flavor, while Katong Laksa features short rice noodles swimming in a creamy coconut broth.
At Violet Oon Singapore, its take is a Dry Laksa (S$26/US$19.80) crafted from a heritage recipe perfected over the years. The secret lies in a gravy that’s more like a smooth paste (no need to worry about the sauce “decorating” your white T-shirt) made from freshly ground lemongrass, chiles, dried shrimp, and coconut milk that coats springy rice noodles anointed with plump prawns and a generous topping of aromatic laksa leaf shreds.
The dish is available at all four outlets, but if you can’t wait to try a true-blue Singaporean meal, make haste to its restaurant at Jewel Changi Airport once you’ve cleared security. Tip: Ask for a table that looks out at the spectacular indoor Rain Vortex waterfall.
This mixed rice dish that first originated among Muslims of the Indian subcontinent is not to be missed. In Singapore, bustling Tekka Market on the fringe of Little India is a recommended place to have a plate—and do a spot of people watching. This hawker center is home to some of the best biryani chefs on the island. While various stalls hawk plates of freshly spiced fish, chicken, or mutton biryani (S$5/US$3.69), Allauddin’s Briyani remains a popular choice for its highly guarded family recipe that originated in Kumbakonam, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
A stalwart of Singapore’s briyani scene, Allauddin's earned a Michelin Plate recommendation in 2020 for its fluffy, perfectly spiced basmati rice studded with chunks of fork-tender chicken, fish, or mutton. We won’t blame you if you get in the queue for a second plate.
Having a nasi padang meal is an integral part of the Singaporean dining experience. Translated as “rice from Padang” (a city in Indonesia), nasi padang is a casual affair, where a wide variety of precooked dishes are displayed behind a glass counter and customers point to a selection (usually two vegetables and one protein). Then a server will load up a plate with their choices plus the namesake rice, preferably topped with a healthy dose of coconut-based gravy and a side serving of crunchy peanuts and anchovies. At Rumah Makan Minang, more than 50 selections are offered daily, many of them based on recipes handed down by one of its founders, Hajjah Rosemah. In business since the 1950s, Rumah Makan Minang is famous for its lemak ikan gulai (fish in coconut curry), beef rendang (slow-cooked beef in a spice paste braised with coconut milk), and spicy petai (stink bean) prawn in sambal. But if the choices prove overwhelming, just go with whatever catches your eye, or mimic the order of the patron in front of you. The menu varies each day (don’t worry, it’s all delicious); try to go before lunchtime as it usually sells out by 2 p.m.
Peranakan cuisine (an amalgamation of Chinese with Malay and Indonesian cuisines) is loved for its slow-food approach, using rich stocks, hand-crafted spice pastes, and braised meats to achieve full flavors. Of the many dishes and condiments—like belachan (fermented shrimp paste) and chincalok (fermented baby shrimp)—it’s the tar-like, nutty flavored buah keluak (Indonesian black nut) that’s most prized.
At one-Michelin-star Candlenut—the only Peranakan restaurant awarded a star—chef/owner Malcolm Lee has created a number of dishes from the rare paste, including an ice cream and a secret, not-on-the-menu burger just for staff. But it’s the age-old babi buah keluak (S$36/US$26), pork stew cooked with nuts from the kepayang tree, prepared using his Aunt Caroline’s recipe, that stands out.
A painstaking dish to make, it starts from selecting the right buah keluak—“meaty, earthy with some chocolate notes,” says Lee; the nuts are then soaked for a week before they’re cracked open and the precious “black gold” flesh is scooped out. Lee then combines it with a rempah (spice paste) to make a thick gravy, adds free-range Borrowdale pork, and lets it simmer for 90 minutes until the pork falls off the bone. It’s a dish that’s a true labor of love.
Singapore isn’t short on fancy, Instagrammable desserts, but this traditional Malay kueh (sweet), once sold by pushcart vendors, holds a special place for many locals. It’s a simple treat: disc-shaped rice flour cakes filled with chunks of gula melaka (palm sugar) and served on freshly snipped pandan leaves.
Today, only a few traditional sellers like Haig Road Putu Piring remain, but they still use the same original source of gula melaka imported from Java, Indonesia, for its rich, smoky flavor. For the rice cake, they marinate the rice flour overnight before it’s steamed, sieved, and given a dash of salt water. The result? A fluffy stuffed rice cake with just the right amount of sweet and salty, best eaten fresh so you can enjoy the sensation of molten gula melaka.
Spring rolls aren’t anything new, but the Southeast Asian version called popiah, with a stewed turnip filling, is a little harder to find due to its laborious preparation. At Spring Court—which has been operating since 1929 and claims to be the oldest restaurant in Singapore—its version of popiah (S$7.50/US$5.40) is elevated: Conventional ingredients of softened turnip, crisp julienned vegetables, chopped egg, prawns, and roasted peanuts get a boost from generous chunks of sweet crabmeat. A dash of chile and sweet sauce top the mix before it’s wrapped up in a paper-thin wheat crepe and sliced to be enjoyed in multiple bites that burst with flavor.
A meal of roti prata (flaky South Indian flatbread cooked on a griddle) will come highly recommended by most locals. Priced from as little as S$0.70 (US$0.50) for a single piece, the cost is not reflective of roti prata’s skillful preparation: Fresh dough twirled, flipped, and folded on a greased griddle. Orders can be customized depending on what’s offered: Crack an egg in it or add unconventional toppings like cheese, chocolate, and even Milo powder. For the uninitiated, Sin Ming Roti Prata’s signature coin prata (six for S$4, or US$2.89) is one of the best choices. Thicker than a regular prata, it is flipped, folded, and rolled from a single piece of handmade dough. Served with a side dish of curry sauce, the prata’s extra crispy yet pillow-soft texture is what keeps regulars waiting patiently for their fix—sometimes for as long as 30 minutes.
When a serving of nasi lemak (fatty rice) normally sells for S$3 (US$2.19), it takes guts to price it at S$16.80 (US$12.29)—but the people behind the Coconut Club knew they were offering something different. They use Mawa coconuts (for their rich flavor and earthy, nutty fragrance), sourced directly from Perak, Malaysia, and transported fresh to Singapore where they are cleaned and juiced by hand to obtain an ultra creamy coconut milk.
The painstaking preparation pays off: The coconut-milk-infused rice is lemak (rich) in taste with a hint of sweetness, the perfect foil to the crispy ayam goreng berumpah (fried French Poulet leg or chicken breast marinated with ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, and galangal). No plate of nasi lemak is complete without the punch of sambal (chile)—Coconut Club’s is mild—and the crunch of freshly roasted peanuts, which enhances the overall flavor and texture combination, making it well worth its price tag.
Chicken and rice: practically every nation has its version of this combination. In Singapore, it’s found in multiple variations (blanched, roasted, or braised in a soy sauce) in every hawker center, with most locals swearing allegiance to a particular hawker. An underrated choice—most “Best of” lists tout names like Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice at Maxwell Food Centre—is Hua Kee Chicken Rice (S$4/US$2.90), which has been in business since the 1970s.
At lunchtime, those in the know queue for Hua Kee’s succulent chicken poached in a broth of chicken stock, soy sauce, and pandan leaves. While the bird is the star, the quality of the chile (not too spicy, with just the right amount of zing) and the lightly oiled rice (aromatic with notes of ginger and garlic) make this dish worth lining up for.
This iconic Singapore dish is unapologetically tourist fodder (most places hand out a cheesy-looking bib as they serve the dish), but locals aren’t immune to the allure of a good old chile crab feast. The dish gained popularity in the 1950s, and there are many variations of it. The sauce—a mix of tomato and chile sauce and other ingredients—is every seafood restaurant’s best-kept secret.
Using mostly Sri Lankan or fresh mud crabs, it’s a messy meal but one that’s worth the cleanup. At New Ubin Seafood, founder Pang Seng Meng, known for his experimental zi char (Chinese home-style food) dishes, offers a novel way to have the old favorite: Order the classic chile crab for S$42 (US$30.72 each) and the restaurant’s signature garlic-baked crab (from S$72 (US$53.17) to be cooked together. The sweet-smoky combination of fresh garlic and cloves in a rich tomato chile sauce laced with egg is hard to beat. To complete the experience, mop up the rich sauce with a deep-fried mantou (bun).
>>Next: Where to Shop Local in Singapore
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