Nowhere is Singapore’s diversity more evident than in its cuisine. Here’s my list of six dishes you must try when you visit this small island nation.
Mutton Murtabak & Teh Tarik
This was my absolute favorite meal during my time in Singapore. The morning of my last day in this small city-state, I explored Kampong Glam. After taking in views of the gorgeous golden dome at the Masjid Sultan, I was hungry; I hadn’t had breakfast yet.
Lucky for me, I was near Singapore Zam Zam. The green and white awning boldly declared it as the one and only location of the storied restaurant, in operation since 1908. The inside opened onto the street, with its white tiles reminiscent of a butcher shop. I was led past small plastic tables, filled with men who appeared to be regulars, to an empty table in the back.
I chose the mutton murtabak and a glass of teh tarik, despite my lactose intolerance. Murtabak is made of minced meat, egg, and onions, all wrapped in fried dough. My dish was filled with mutton a.k.a. lamb. Teh tarik translates to pulled tea and is made with a sweet condensed milk.
It was heavenly. My waiter knew I was a tourist (my huge camera was a dead giveaway) and watched me take my first bite from afar. When he came over to ask how it was (after I inhaled everything), he looked quite pleased to hear “It was delicious.”
Hainanese Chicken Rice
Like many American travelers, I get my restaurant recommendations from Anthony Bourdain’s travel shows. This is how I found out about Maxwell Food Centre. Centrally located and popular with both locals and tourists, cheap eats abound at these food stalls.
Bourdain famously visited Tian Tian Chicken Rice for its namesake dish. When I arrived at lunch time, the line stretched back into the far corner of the food hall. Luckily, a fellow traveler had the inside scoop from a friend who previously lived in Singapore. Ah Tai Hainanese Chicken Rice, located a few steps away, was founded by a former Tian Tian chef. With a much shorter line, I was able to taste the popular Hainanese chicken rice dish.
At first bite I was underwhelmed. The chicken breast was moist, but didn’t have much flavor. After adding the soy and chili sauce, it tasted much better. I had made the American mistake of assuming the sauces were optional, when in fact they’re an essential part of the meal. The dish comes with vegetables, rice, and soup, making it a complete meal for under $10 USD. As in other hawker centers, you’ll have to buy a drink from a separate beverage vendor.
This dish consistently appeared while doing food research for Singapore, and with good reason. Created in 1956 and initially sold from a pushcart, chili crab is now the country’s unofficial national dish and most popular export. After seeing the expensive price tag and hearing about the spicy sauce, I had all but given up on sampling it before leaving.
Luckily, I was able to try this local favorite during my last meal in Singapore. Shortly before heading to the airport, I ate lunch at New Ubin Chijmes. Originally built as a Catholic convent in 1841, Chijmes is now a complex of upscale restaurants and shops.
Through my cousin, I connected with his friend, a Singaporean marketing professional who works for New Ubin. The chili crab consists of an entire crab stir fried in a thick, sweet and spicy chili sauce. Thanks to my special connect, the chef catered to my American palate and made the sauce less spicy, similar to ketchup. It was yummy and a memorable end to my time in Singapore.
Hokkien Prawn Mee
When you’re only in Singapore for 4 days and want to taste all the things, you have to do strange things. Like eat dinner for breakfast. That’s how I ended up having prawn mee for breakfast at the Golden Mile Complex.
This hawker center was a short walk from my hotel in Kampong Glam. It was still early in the day, but there were already quite a few locals putting in their orders. Once I bit into my first forkful of noodles, I understood why.
Hokkien prawn mee, or Hokkien mee, originated with the Hokkien people of southern Fujian province in China. It’s comprised of yellow noodles and thin vermicelli noodles, along with prawns, squid, and egg. Served with lime and sambal paste (which is crazy spicy), it made for a hearty start to the day.
Fried Carrot Cake
Contrary to its name, this meal does not involve carrots or cake of any kind. It’s actually a savory dish made of fried white radishes, also known as white carrots. The recipe calls for rice flour, garlic, eggs and, depending on the variety, soy sauce. This dish is a perfect example of Singapore’s rich diversity. It originated in the Southern Chinese province of Chaoshan and was brought to the island by Teochew immigrants.
I first encountered this fried rice cake at the Queens International Night Market; I loved it so much that I made a point to seek it out in Singapore. This plate is from Satay by the Bay, the food court inside the famous Gardens by the Bay. Though the price was a bit higher than at other hawker centers, the fried carrot cake was still succulent and tasty. I washed it down with a homegrown brand of lager, Tiger Beer.
Singapore is not only the birthplace of delicious dishes like chili crab, but also inventive cocktails. The Singapore Sling was invented circa 1910 at the Raffles Hotel. It’s made of two parts gin, one part cherry brandy, and one part juice (a blend of orange, lime, and pineapple).
My last night was spent soaking up the sunset at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel’s rooftop bar. Most folks know this 5-star hotel and its boat-shaped roof thanks to the movie Crazy Rich Asians. As I sipped on my sweet (and expensive) Singapore Sling, I was treated to a spectacular view as the sun set and the city lit up.