The 40 Singaporean Foods We Have to Eat Before We Die

From the famous Chili Crab to everyone's favourite Chicken Rice, here are the 40 Singaporean dishes that you need to eat before you die.

The island-nation has a huge population of foodies, people really obsessed with eating day in and day out. Of course, when you love eating, you have got to have the very best. In fact, Singaporeans will queue up endlessly, travel to the best food stalls and hawkers, and even at any time of the day. Tourists and locals alike are enchanted with their favourite food whether it's the humble dish that your uncle made for you or the ultra-expensive meal that a boutique Japanese restaurant served you.

1. Chicken Rice
Wherever you go -- crowded hawker stalls, shopping centre food courts, luxury hotels, and even at the Singapore Zoo, you can't resist the delicious flavour and taste of their famous Chicken Rice. Often dubbed as the "national dish" of Singapore, this dish is either made of steamed or boiled chicken that is served with fragrant oily rice plus the sweet sliced cucumber and vegetables. It may look so simple but you can never go wrong with it. Other variants include roasted chicken or soy sauce chicken. Don't miss the savoury dipping sauces such as the premium dark soy, the chili with garlic, and the pounded ginger. Any combination will do to suit your discriminating taste.

2. Char Kway Teow
If you don't mind the cholesterol then indulge in this favourite Singaporean habit of eating a high-fat hawker choice - the Char Kway Teow. This stir-fried flat rice noodle dish has wonderful ingredients composed of dark and light soy sauce, chili for some heat, de-shelled cockles, Chinese sausage wonderfully sliced, green bean sprouts, Chinese chives, and occasional prawns and eggs. The most important part of this dish is the good “wok hei” or breath of wok, the qualities and tastes imparted by cooking on a wok using high heat. These days, many cook are now choosing to omit the cockles but Char Kway Teow will always be incomplete without the addicting rich fried pork lard pieces.

3. Wonton Mee
If you notice, the dumplings with their flowy translucent skins resemble wispy clouds when suspended in the soup. Conventionally speaking, many locals would prefer the dry version of the noodles. Even though wonton noodles look simple, the perfect one is hard to achieve. The thin egg noodles need to be of the right texture, the sauce has to be well-balanced, and the pork or shrimp dumplings ought to be juicy and meaty. At many places, you’ll find the sliced Chinese BBQ pork or char siew is often dry and red with artificial dye but that doesn't prevent foodies who seem to value the noodles and dumplings.

4. Chai Tow Kuay
This is not the traditional carrot cake that your American friend or British office mate loved. The carrot ingredient is more like a white radish grated into rice flour and steamed into large cakes. These cakes are then cut up into small pieces and then fried with preserved turnip, fish sauce, eggs, soy sauce, spring onions, and garlic. It is also known as chye tow kueh or fried carrot cake.

5. Chili Crab
Another national signature, chili crab is one of the most requested dishes for anyone who comes to Singapore. There are more than a dozen ways to do crab (black pepper, salted egg yolk, cheese-baked, etc) but chili crab remains the bestseller.

6. Bak Kut Teh
It means pork rib tea in Hokkien or Fujian, Bak kut teh is made of meaty pork ribs that have been patiently boiled for hours with a generous load of pepper, medicinal herbs, pepper, and spices. Coolies were said to rely on this dish as a tonic to ensure good health and strengthen their bodies. There are two styles -- the clear, peppery Teochew broth and the darker, more herbal Hokkien stew. You tiao (fried crullers) are the perfect croutons for soaking up the sou while a hot pot of Chinese tea (ideally Tieguanyin) helps dissolve or wash down the fats ever-present in the meaty ribs.

7. Sambal Stingray
Singaporeans love their seafood and they love their spices. Sambal is a versatile chili paste blended with spices, shallots, candlenuts, and often belachan (fermented shrimp paste). Sambal-coated cuts of stingray are wrapped in cleaned banana leaves and grilled to smoky perfection. The sweet, tender flesh is a perfect canvas for all the complex spices and BBQ flavor.

8. Fried Hokkien Mee
Yet another dish favored by hardworking laborers of the past. Thick yellow egg noodles mixed with rice vermicelli are cooked in a rich seafood stock, and tossed with prawns, squid, small strips of pork belly and deep-fried lard pieces. A small kalamansi lime is always given should you prefer some tangy juice to cut through the greasiness of the dish.

9. Rojak
Rojak is actually a Malay word used to describe something made from a random mix of unrelated things. Fortunately, any derogatory undertones are erased when one refers to the fruit salad that bears the same name. It has an odd mixture of ingredients that include bite-size pieces of fruits, vegetables, dried tofu, fried you tiao (dough fritters) and cured cuttlefish are tossed in a prawn paste sauce topped with crushed peanuts. Grated bunga kantan (pink ginger buds) add a sensuous fragrance. The result is a wild mix of sweet, spicy, sour, and savory flavors.

10. Bak Kwa
The chewy and gummy snack Bak kwa (dried meat) is made from pork although now halal versions made from chicken exist. These squarish BBQ meat sheets are popular as gifts for friends and relatives during Chinese New Year. It can be eaten on its own, with bread or with homecooked food.

11. Economy Rice
Possibly one of the best value meals you can get at hawker centers and food courts. Choose from a wide array of meats, vegetables, and side dishes to accompany white steamed rice. Popular choices include sweet and sour pork, curry chicken, steamed egg custard, braised tofu, and stir-fried mixed vegetables. It’s predominantly Chinese food, and very much like what many Singaporeans would make at home.

12. Kway Chap
Delicacy for some, Fear Factor food for Joe Rogan fans out there. The Chinese have always made full use of the animal they eat. In this case, pork offal (stomach and intestines in particular) are braised until tender in soy sauce and herbs along with meat, tofu, boiled eggs, and fish cake. If you are lucky, a pig’s tongue and ears may be available too. Best eaten with kway (rice flour sheets) in the broth but some opt for steamed rice or yam rice. The tangy chili dipping sauce is a must.

13. Or Luak / Hao Jian
This Southern Chinese dish is another popular grease-heavy supper favourite. Potato starch is mixed into the egg batter to give it a thicker and semi-gooey consistency. Oysters are added just a few seconds before serving so that they are not overcooked.

14. Katong Laksa
This is a Peranakan-influenced dish consisting of thick rice vermicelli in a rich, spicy coconut gravy. The soup is thick, opaque, and slightly gritty from the abundance of grounded dried shrimp, which gives it the umami kick. The Katong version has noodles cut into smaller lengths, so they can be easily scooped up with a spoon alone, along with a good amount of soup. No chopsticks or forks are given. Stir in the dollop of sambal and fragrant laksa leaves or daun kesum and inhale.

15. Fish Head or Fish Soup Bee Hoon
The freshwater toman (snakehead fish) is boiled in milky fish stock along with a handful of healthy greens. Fish head aficionados will devour the bony meat, lips, cheeks, and eyeballs. If you’re squeamish about fish head or prefer boneless convenience, go for the boiled fish slices or fried fish chunks, which are just as popular.

16. Yong Tau Foo
One of the healthier options in the hawker food arena because it features fresh vegetables and tofu. Yong tau foo (stuffed bean curd) will see items stuffed with fish paste or minced meat paste (Hakka-style). Pick the items you like (including choice of noodles) and have it served either dry-style with generous lashings of sweet sauce and chili, or soup-style with clear soybean and anchovies broth (some stalls offer a curry gravy option).

17. Bak Chor Mee
Bak chor mee (minced pork noodles) gained some notoriety a few years ago when it starred in a satirical podcast. A good rendition of this popular Teochew dish will have fluffy minced pork, succulent stewed mushrooms, crispy tee por (small deep-fried pieces of flatfish or sole), springy noodles in a dark vinegary sauce. Let the hawker know if you wish to omit the sliced liver pieces.

18. Peranakan Kueh
These desserts are a carnival of color, much like the culture of the creators. Under the Peranakans’ deft touch, simple local ingredients like tapioca, banana, glutinous rice, coconut milk, and gula melaka (palm sugar) are transformed into a huge assortment of delectable kuehs.

19. Bak Chang
The legend is somewhat morbid -- Chinese peasants throwing rice dumplings into the river to distract fish from eating the body of beloved poet and patriot Qu Yuan who drowned himself as a protest against corruption. Today, more than 2,000 years later, these dumplings commemorate his life during the Duan Wu Festival. The rest of the year, they are a great snack in a pack. The Hokkiens who love salty food fill the glutinous rice dumplings with braised pork belly, mushrooms and chestnuts. The Peranakans lean towards the sweeter side with minced spiced pork and chopped sugared melon strips.

20. Kaya Toast
Kaya is a coconut custard jam, sweet and fragrant. When slathered onto thin slices of warm toast with ample butter, the sandwich it makes is simply divine. Down it with a cup of thick black coffee. Many Singaporeans have this for breakfast supplemented by two soft-boiled eggs with soy sauce and pepper.

21. BBQ Chicken Wings
In many hawker centers, you will see rows of chicken wings glistening and turning on a roasting spit. Singaporeans love ordering these wings as a side dish, frequently as a large plate to share among family and friends. Best eaten hot and with a garlic chili dip. A spritz from calamansi limes adds a sweet tang to the wings. This finger food is great with beer or sugarcane juice.

22. Chin Chow Grass Jelly
The kids love the slippery jelly, and the adults appreciate its yin or cooling properties. Dubbed chin chow (immortal grass), grass jelly purportedly helps prevent indigestion and lower blood pressure. The herb Mesona Chinensis is boiled and cooled to make deep black slabs of firm yet chewy jelly. It can be made into a drink or served in a bowl as dessert. Modern toppings like palm seeds, longan, and honey sea coconut make this traditional dessert more appealing to youngsters.

23. Teh Tarik
Teh tarik or pulled tea is tea with showmanship. Indian tea-makers pour a stream of hot milk tea back and forth between two vessels held as far apart as possible. It looks a lot easier than it is. The result is a frothy drink that’s well-mixed. You can request for teh halia (milk tea with ginger) as well.

24. Satay
This is Southeast Asia’s rendition of the kebab with a few unique twists. There’s the peanut dip, sweet and spicy. The marinade of local spices totally transforms the meat. The thin wooden skewers made of bamboo or stem of coconut leaves. And the refreshing sides of chopped raw cucumber and onions, along with ketupat (rice cakes steamed in woven coconut leaves). It’s a joy to watch your satay being grilled over an open charcoal fire. The aroma heightens the anticipation and the enjoyment.

25. Ayam Penyet
What? Flattened chicken? Yes, that’s what ayam penyet is. Large pieces of chicken are smashed with a mallet to allow the marinade of many spices to permeate thoroughly. The chicken is then deep-fried to a crisp golden brown. It’s originally Indonesian but has taken Singapore by storm in the past few years. Ayam penyet is usually served with lots of crispy batter, fried bean curd, tempeh (soybean cake), and vegetables. The real star is the delicious sambal belachan relish that’s an explosion of complex flavors.

26. Ngoh Hiang
Once the snack of choice at street wayang (theatre) performances, this medley of fritters is now popular as a teatime nibble. It’s a strange combination of deep-fried bean curd, prawn fritters, pink pork sausages, liver rolls, fish cakes, century eggs, and cucumber slices. Ngoh hiang (five spices) itself refers to the Hokkien minced-pork roll that is made with lots of five-spice powder but can also be used as the generic name for the fritters.

27. Nasi Lemak
Singaporeans are in love with lemak (richness bestowed by coconut cream). The Malay breakfast dish of nasi lemak (rich rice) has rice cooked in coconut milk served with a spicy sambal, fried anchovies, fried peanuts, and perhaps an egg and cucumber slices. It’s simple but satisfying. The Chinese have adopted the dish and thrown in a multitude of other side dishes like sausages, fried chicken wings, luncheon meat, fish cake, and various cooked vegetables.

28. Mee Siam
Despite its name, Mee Siam (Siamese noodles) did not come from Thailand. It’s a Malay breakfast dish. Pre-fried thin rice vermicelli is served in a spicy light gravy made from taucheo (fermented bean paste), dried shrimp, sugar, and seafood stock. Tamarind gives the dish its signature tartness. Toppings include cubed fried bean curd, chopped chives, and sliced boiled egg. But note, there are no cockles in Mee Siam.

29. Indian Mee Goreng
This Indian-Muslim classic of spicy fried noodles is a hybrid invented in this region in the 1950s. Indian immigrants borrowed the use of the wok from the Chinese and started frying yellow egg noodles with their own ingredients -- tomatoes, egg, green chilies, mutton mince, cabbage, and diced potatoes. It takes skill to wok-fry the noodles to a moist but not mushy ensemble. Oddly, in Singapore, mee goreng tends to sport a bold, almost garish red appearance not found elsewhere.

30. Popiah
Sometimes lauded as the Asian burrito, this healthy snack is like a Chinese spring roll that’s not deep-fried. The name popiah refers to the soft, paper-thin skin made from wheat or rice flour. It’s smeared with a sweet sauce, chili sauce, minced garlic and is used to wrap ingredients like braised turnip or bangkuang (jicama), carrots, bean sprouts, Chinese sausage, shredded omelette, crushed peanuts and even shrimp or crab meat. Many Singaporeans love to hold popiah parties at home, as rolling your own popiah (easier than it looks) can prove to be the best entertainment at times.

31. Roti Prata
You will find roti prata (flatbread) in practically every neighborhood in Singapore. Watch as the Indians knead and flatten an oiled ball of dough, and flip it with practised flair until the dough is a tissue-thin sheet. This is then folded into multi-layered pancakes and griddle-fried til crisp. It’s usually served with curry or a sprinkle of sugar. Nowadays, prata makers get creative with all kinds of fillings and combinations -- cheese, mushroom, durian, ice cream, honey, banana, cashew nuts, and even sardines.

32. Murtabak
These are huge and for the very hungry. The dough is similar to that used in roti prata, but it is super-sized and stuffed with minced mutton and onions. Like roti prata, murtabak is often fried in a pool of ghee or oil. Chicken and sardine versions have surfaced for those who find mutton too gamey.

33. Otak/Otah
It isn’t clear how the name otah or otak (brain) came about for this snack, but perhaps it is brain food after all since it’s predominantly made of fish. Fish that are mashed and mixed with coconut milk, chili paste, and spices, wrapped in banana leaves and grilled over charcoal. Otak is a frequent accompaniment to dishes like laksa and nasi lemak, although it’s also eaten as a snack on its own.

34. Fish Head Curry
Waiter, there’s a decapitated head in my soup! Well, that’s the highlight. A whole large head of red snapper stewing in curry gravy. Surprisingly, there’s a lot of meat to be had on the bony head, but the best (and most tender) part is the cheeks. This dish is purely a Singapore creation. About 30 years ago, an Indian restaurateur here decided to use fish head (not an Indian delicacy) in his curry to please Chinese customers. It became a runaway hit, spreading evenly across the Causeway to Malaysia.

35. Nasi Padang
The cuisine of Padang from Sumatra, Indonesia, features many spicy dishes to go with rice. A bedazzling smorgasbord of more than 30 dishes is available at some places. Nasi Padang also suits communal dining as a group can share dishes and enjoy a bigger variety at the same time.

36. Dum Briyani
Briyani or biryani originated from Persia and eventually found its way into the hearts of spice-loving Singaporeans. The fluffy basmati rice grains, dappled gold, and orange from saffron and spices, go so well with meat and gravy. Dum cooking is the method where pre-fried boiled rice is layered with par-cooked meat, and then pressure-baked in a sealed vessel. This way the meat infuses the rice with its flavours.

37. Curry Puff
The curry puff is possibly the country’s favorite tea-time snack. Deep-fried like samosas, these are generally filled with curried potatoes, chicken, and a slice of egg. The popularity of the curry puff has spawned puffs with other fillings like sardines, black pepper chicken, tuna, and sweet yam.

38. Goreng Pisang
The Malay snack of goreng pisang (banana fritters) has found fans from all races in Singapore. The deep-frying helps caramelize the natural sugars in the bananas, making them even sweeter than before. Some Chinese versions have an unusually delicate and puffy batter.

39. Ice Kachang
Shaved ice desserts are always a popular treat in the hot tropics. Ice kachang (ice with beans) evolved from the humble ice ball drenched with syrup to be the little ice mountain served in a bowl, drizzled with creamed corn, condensed milk, gula melaka and brightly coloured syrups. Dig into it and you’ll discover other goodies hidden within -- red beans, palm seeds, and cubed jellies.

40. Cendol
This dessert is named for the soft, greenish noodle bits it comes with. The very best cendol is still the simplest -- just coconut milk, shaved ice, gula melaka, light green cendol, and a dash of salt. These days, other toppings like kidney beans, grass jelly cubes, creamed corn, and even durian paste and vanilla ice cream have found their way into this dessert.

So much for the fun choices of Singaporean dishes, do you know other delicious food selections not featured here?

This article was originally posted in my Going to Singapore blog.

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