From dawn to dusk and dusk to dawn, there is always something delicious cooking in Singapore#1. It would pay to work on upping that metabolism before you even plan a trip here. To fit in all the strangely wonderful treats hidden around the city, an appetite for the extraordinary and the stomach to try it all are necessary.
While many Singaporeans enjoy the more-than-occasional sleep-ins, hardcore foodies know that the quest for the best food is a round-the-clock hunt. To get to the famous stalls before their best fares sell out, it is advisable to get there before sunrise.
The journey begins the moment you board a taxi, and you don’t even need to have a destination in mind. Simply talk to the driver and ask about the top hawker centres#2 that they like to go to – most of them are real treasure troves of knowledge as they ferry passengers to and fro the many places to dine at around Singapore.
The usual suspects? It’s got to be Maxwell Road Hawker Centre, Old Airport Road Market and Tiong Bahru Market. But be warned; some of the breakfasts served in these places do call for an open mind. After you get over the fact that these dishes are pretty heavy as a first meal of the day, take a closer look. There are frog legs in congees#3 (a healthy chicken or fish substitute with only 0.3% fat), classic fried carrot cake#10 (not a dessert) and food served on banana leaves (a technique which is believed to make dishes taste, smell and look even better).
As noon approaches and more eateries start their day, get ready for a greater range of treats and interesting cuisines. Food reinvention is the rage of the town these days and the Joo Chiat area is the go-to place for some of the city’s hippest eateries. It is also the hotbed for Peranakan culture, which is a whole other topic on its own. (Imagine matriarchs auditioning their daughter-in-law’s cooking abilities by listening in as they pound on a stone pestle and mortar to produce a spice mix.)
If you are fascinated by this unique blend of local culture with Chinese, Malay, Portuguese, Dutch and Indonesian influences, delve even deeper by trying their cuisine – it is said that the success of Peranakan recipes lies in a single spice. If you are looking for a sugary snack instead, Ondeh Ondeh#14 is another must-eat. Infused with pandan flavours and filled with palm sugar syrup (known locally as Gula Melaka), these peculiar-sounding green balls explode with sweet and savoury delight upon being bitten. However, ensure that the entire Ondeh Ondeh is in your mouth before you chomp down – escaping errant liquids have stained the shirts of many unsuspecting victims.
For variety on a budget, try the local coffee shops known as the 'kopi tiam' (say 'ko-pee tee-yum') – commonly found in residential areas with many small stalls selling simple, local food. The plain looking but incredibly tasty chicken rice#5 is a perennial favourite, with many different versions claiming to be the best interpretation of the dish. Fancy a nice coffee or tea to combat the food coma? You have got to try the local roasts served with plenty of condensed milk, though the incomprehensible lingo of the local coffeeshop culture#19 can be daunting at times.
As the day winds down and the morning eateries end their day, a whole new myriad of eating experiences are switched on. Nasi Lemak, Chilli Crab and Laksa are some local favourites, but there are also other dishes that are well worth a trip.
Fish is said to be ‘brain food’ and in Singapore, and nothing’s better than a fresh fish head cooked in a thick and tangy curry broth. If you can empathise with why cheeks are the softest and eyeballs are revered at the table, ask for Fish Head Curry#11. Bone lovers can try Sup Tulang#8, a sweet, fiery red soup prized for the marrow contained within the mutton or beef bones it is stewed with.
If you are still not quite sure where to start, a trick would be to look for a place with the most banged-up woks – it is believed that the longer you use a pan (believe it or not, with minimal washing), the more wok hei#7 it has, and the better the food will taste. Or here’s an easier tip; Singaporeans are always ready to queue for the good stuff so should you be unsure of what to eat, look around you for the longest queue#48 and join it quickly!
The day doesn’t end with dusk. In fact, it is just time for a different kind of party. Sustenance is needed to survive in a city that comes alive at night, and late-night food options have somewhat developed into an institution of its own.
From fine dining experiences to the chaos-on-a-plate presentation of the sloppy but tasty Scissors Cut Curry Rice#13, you will continue to be spoilt for choice at every hour of the night. Look out for the durian stalls that line the streets, and find out what the fuss is all about. This king of fruits, actively banned on airlines, some hotels and most kinds of public transport is certainly worth a bite, or at least a whiff.
As you wander the streets, you might also be surprised by the appearance of breakfast foods, such as Roti Prata#16 on the menus of our supper places. Is it an early start to breakfast, or are our heavy breakfasts actually the remnants of a vibrant supper scene? It’s another mystery to unravel but this much is apparent – in this ravenous city the rules have been thrown out of the window.
Our dietary oddity is just one aspect of our strangely wonderful lives, but if you are truly curious or looking for a different kind of thrill, we would love to show you the other strangely wonderful things to see and do.
Strangely Wonderful Glossary
#1- Eating is our national past time- The joy of the local eating scene in Singapore is our national habit of having our breakfast food for supper.
#2- Hawker Centres- Singaporean food playgrounds, a place where foodies gather and delicious smells emanate from every square inch.
#3- Frog Leg Porridge- Fresh frogs legs in fresh porridge covered with a thick, peppery sauce. Tastes like chicken, kind of.
#4- Banana Leaf Plates- Dishes are better when they’re served on a leaf, a banana leaf. Singaporeans are down for anything that makes the dish taste or smell better.
#5- Chicken Rice- Can something that looks so plain taste like the soul of a million chickens? Yes. It’s chicken rice.
#7- Wok Hei- We believe the longer you use a pan, the better your food will taste. The Breath of the Wok is something every Singaporean craves – the smoky flavour imparted by an old wok and a skilled chef.
#8- Sup Tulang- A dish consisting of mutton or beef bones stewed in a sweet and spicy red soup. Prized for the marrow contained in the bones.
#10- Carrot Cake- In Singapore, carrot cake has no carrot and it’s definitely not a dessert. It’s a radish cake fried with eggs and served with chilli.
#11- Fish Head Curry- They say fish is brain food and in Singapore, nothing’s better than fish head. The cheeks the softest part, and the eyeballs, are reserved for only the special at the table.
#13- Scissors Cut Rice- How does something that looks so bad taste so good? Savour one of the most sloppiest but tastiest dishes in Singapore. A fusion of Hainanese and Colonial Cuisine, this dish puts a refreshing twist to your good old pork chop. It’s layered with a good serving of curry and vegetables – making it a hot mess.
#14- Ondeh Ondeh- Exploding green balls of sweet and savoury goodness! Peranakan dessert made of glutinous flour, pandan leaf, coconut shavings and Gula Melaka.
#16- Roti Prata- An oily Singaporean pancake, hits the spot after a heavy night of drinking, or at any time of the day. An all-occasion fried flour-based pancake eaten with a variety of curries, or any ingredient its chef can imagine. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, after or before drinking or a sinful light bite. This is Singapore’s snack of choice.