Courtesy of the Coconut Club
If we have to pick just eight 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 eight local edible experiences to hunt down for a taste of Singapore.
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—belachan (fermented shrimp paste), 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: 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—which are then soaked for a week before they’re cracked open and the precious “black gold” flesh is scooped out to make a paste. Lee then combines it with a rempah (spice paste) to make a thick, nutty-flavored 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. 17A Dempsey Rd., +65 1800 304 2288, comodempsey.sg
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. #01-07 Haig Road Cooked Food Centre, 14 Haig Rd., +65 9456 7573, facebook.com/haigroadputupiring
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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 chili and sweet sauce tops 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. 52–56 Upper Cross St., +65 6449 5030, springcourt.com.sg
At the Naked Finn, owner Ken Loon has concocted what might be the perfect bowl of prawn noodles (S$25/US$18), a comfort food for many Singaporeans. Loon humbly describes it as “a bowl of ramen but with prawn broth and somen or vermicelli,” but the broth has evolved many times. Since 2013, when the dish first appeared on the menu, Loon has experimented with numerous species of prawn. For now, it’s made up of wild-caught giant red shrimp, blue swimming crab, and dried sakura shrimp fried in grapeseed oil before being blended (heads, tails, and flesh) and left to simmer in pork stock for seven hours. Together with a generous amount of springy noodles, sliced pork collar, and a trio of salt-grilled tiger prawns, the result is a bowl of deep umami flavors that you’re unlikely to forget anytime soon. 39 Malan Rd., Gillman Barracks, +65 6694 0807, thenakedfinn.com
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 price is not reflective of its skillful preparation: fresh dough twirled, flipped, and folded on a greased griddle. Orders can be customized to 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. Thicker than a regular prata, the dough 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 prata fix—sometimes for as long as 30 minutes. #01-51 Jin Fa Kopitiam, 24 Sin Ming Rd., +65 6453 3893
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When a serving of nasi lemak (fatty rice) normally sells for S$3 (US$2.20), it takes guts to price it at S$12.80 (US$9.25)—but the people behind the Coconut Club knew they were offering something different. Using Mawa coconuts for their rich creamy flavor and earthy, nutty fragrance, the fruit is sourced directly from Perak, Malaysia, and transported fresh to Singapore where it’s 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 organic chicken thigh marinated with ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, and galangal). No plate of nasi lemak is complete without the punch of sambal (chili)—theirs is mild—and the crunch of freshly roasted peanuts, which enhances the overall flavor and texture combination, making it well worth its price tag. 28 Ann Siang Rd., +65 6635 2999, thecoconutclub.sg
Chicken and rice: practically every nation has its version of this combination. In Singapore, it’s found everywhere in variations (blanched, roasted, or braised in a soy sauce) 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 for almost 40 years. 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 chili (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. #01-72 Redhill Food Centre, 85 Redhill Lane
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 chili crab feast. A dish that gained popularity in the 1950s, there are many variations of it; the sauce—a mix of tomato and chili sauce and other ingredients—is every seafood restaurant’s best-kept secret. Using mostly Sri Lankan or live 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 chili crab for S$36 (US$27.40 each) and its signature garlic baked crustacean to be cooked together. The sweet-smoky combination of fresh garlic and cloves in a rich tomato chili sauce laced with egg is hard to beat. To complete the experience, mop up the rich sauce with a deep-fried mantou (bun). Various locations, newubinseafood.com
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