Guide to Singapore food
Singapore cuisine is rich in variety and depth thanks to our multi-racial culture, history and geographical importance. The best way to describe our cuisine is as an amalgamation of the best dishes from all over Asia. Since the 1800's, immigrants have been bringing and re-creating their favorite dishes from their hometowns to Singapore. Over hundreds of years, these dishes manifested into local cuisine of its own, developing the distinct Singaporean flavour they are famous for today. For example, the "Hainanese Chicken Rice" in Singapore today ironically tastes nothing like the one in Hainan, China where it originated from - and that is a good thing because we find it tastes much better!
Many travelers have come to realise that one of the best reasons to visit Singapore is for the glorious food. Eating out has become a national past time for many of us who are always venturing out to the different corners of our island to discover the best food and it's not difficult to see why!
"Hawkers" is a term derived from our past where food sellers would "hawk" their wares on the streets of Singapore. Today, the food selling conditions have vastly improved and hawkers sell their food in designated hawker stalls and when many rows of them are grouped together they form a "Hawker Center".
An excellent way to get a taste of Singapore food culture that is delicious and authentic is at these "Hawker Centres". These are open air dining areas with a large variety of local cuisines. Most tourist enjoy hawker centres such as "Newton Food Centre" as its near Orchard Road, where you can sample popular local dishes such as Chilli Crab, Sambal Sting Ray, char kway teow, oyster omelets and carrot cake but its mostly seafood based. Locals normally refer to this place as a tourist trap, because prices are marked up significantly. And indeed there was this notorious incident where some tourists were overcharged over "Tiger Prawns" that ran into the hunderds and the hawker stall was forced to close down by the government for months! Also, the variety is lacking.
Many locals now regard Old Airport Rd Hawker centre as the true and best place to enjoy local food. Prices are cheap, the variety is extremely large but the only bad thing is its quite a distance from the city, about a 15 mins drive with no other attractions nearby.
It is also common to find air-conditioned versions of these "Hawker centres" in nearly every single shopping mall at the basement or top level, and they are called "Food Courts". The food there is generally sub-par and more expensive than what you can find at hawkers.
For the hawker stalls that have are famous, most of them have ended up opening their own restaurants, some have air-condition some don't. These "Hawker Restaurants" specialise in a certain dish and very much retain that authentic taste that made them famous, but prices are marked up to almost double of what you pay in a hawker centre. Most of us locals are okay with that as after all we are paying for the best variation of these dishes. A very popular one for Chicken Rice is "Boon Tong Kee" and for Bah Kut Teh, "Song Fa Bah Kut Teh" along Clarke Quay.
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The fast food in Singapore is not unlike the fast food you see around the world, with many international and USA food chains setting up franchises in Singapore. The taste might be slightly different, with the food catered slight to local flavors. As a Singaporean, I dislike eating fast food in foreign countries and I feel the fast food in Singapore is far superior, probably because of how its catered to local tastes.
If you're a tourist give our fast food a miss or at least try the Asian fast foods we have, like Yoshinoya and Pepper Lunch for something different.
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Restaurants & Cafes
Singapore's restaurants are some of the most stylish and innovative you will be able to find in the region. We have the generic foreign restaurants such as California Kitchen, Chillis and TGIF but give those a miss so you can sample more oriental flavours. Because our culture is influenced by all parts of Asia such as Japan and Korea, we have many Korean BBQs and Japanese ramen bars around the island.
If you're after the local taste, you can dine at the "Crystal Jade", "Din Tai Fung" or "Imperial Treasure" chain of restaurants which serve oriental dishes in a nice atmosphere. These restaurants are a hit with many locals for their good quality dim sum and "zhi char" dishes. These are the more mid-end versions of local Chinese cuisine. For a nostalgic dim sim experience check out Red Star Restaurant, one of the first dim sum restaurants in Singapore which still retain the decor, service and flavours they had when they first opened in the 1950s.
A more high end way to sample local seafood would be at Seafood chains "No Signboard", "Jumbo" and "Long Beach". They are pricier for sure and cater more to seafood where you can enjoy local favourites such as the "chilli crab" and "fish head curry".
Lastly, a place to sample high end chicken rice which is probably Singapore's most famous dish would be Chatter Box at the top floor of the mandarin oriental, where you can experience an amazing (but perhaps over priced) hainanese chicken rice at $20 USD complete with a panoramic view of the city. For some people the atmosphere and high quality of the dish here makes it worth it.
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Apart from dining areas like Dempsey Hill which cater more to the mid-high end market, if you have more money to splurge and want to try the very best restaurants in the world, the place to go to would be the new openings at Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa.
Marina Bay Sands features the famous "Mortons Steakhouse" and at Resorts World Sentosa, you can find L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon and Joël Robuchon Restaurant - both as you could tell from their names were opened by Michelin star chef Joël Robuchon. Be prepared to experience unique fine-dining menus at these places but also be prepared to shell out at the very minimum of $200 / per person.
If you're after a local taste, we highly recommend Dozo, a upper mid end dining restaurant ($60 USD pp) that offers a delightful fusion of local and international cuisine.
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Buffets are always an in thing in Singapore partly due to the "kiasu" nature of Singaporeans, a term for people who always want to get their value for money - and buffets are one way to do that.
It is highly recommended to try one of the "Steamboat Buffets" you can find along Bugis Junction or China Town. A steamboat buffet is basically where they provide you an unlimited selection of usually decent but not high quality ingredients, cooked in a "hot pot". Everyone shares from this pot and you can choose Soup Base flavours such as "Ma La" (very spicy), "Tom Yam" (Sour Thai Style), "Gingseng Chicken" and "Pork Rib". As the food takes some time to cook, having a steamboat buffet makes for good conversation and bonding, something prevalent in Chinese culture and dishes. Its a big favourite with locals and it costs 15-18 USD per person and has a very authentic taste, but you should only try these stalls if you have a strong stomach as they aren't the most hygienic, otherwise its advisable to try one of the hotel steamboats instead.
Apart from steamboats, the five star hotels have a wide variety of buffets catering to all types of cuisine, usually international or seafood. Be prepare to shell out at least $60-80 USD for a buffet in any of these restaurants. Popular ones include "The Line" @ Shangrila Hotel and Carousel, widely regarded as the best international buffet in Singapore. The Straits Kitchen Buffet at the Grand Hyatt hotel is another recommended place to sample local dishes in a hotel / buffet style setting. It provides a wide variety of local cuisine, an ideal setting to sample the many different flavours of Singapore.
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Bakeries & Cakeries
We have quite the booming bakery industry, with popular local chains being "Bread Talk", "Polar" and "Four Leaves". Polar is well known for their signature curry puffs and sugar rolls, four leaves for their mini-breads and Bread Talk for their wide variety of breakfast favorites.
A particular local favourite hailing from Indonesia is "Bengawan Solo" which is popular for their "kuehs" and cakes. Their "Pandan Cake" which is green in color from the flavouring of juice from Pandanus amaryllifolius leaves is a national bestseller. Its common for homesick Singapore's to ask their relatives to bring these cakes over for them and they are sold at really good prices.
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Although there is a "Coffee Bean" and "Starbucks" in every mall, do try out our local coffee shop chains like "Ya Kun Kaya Toast" and "Killiney Kopitiam" which are extremely popular with both locals and tourists. This is where you can sample local coffee treats like "Kaya Bread", "Teh Tarik" and even local favourite "Curry Chicken rice" from Killiney.
Also, Singapore was once upon a time swept up in "Bubble Tea" fever - in the past you could find bubble tea stores everywhere you went. Bubble tea is basically milk tea in various different flavours with chewy tapioca balls (optional) and its definitely worth a try and is refreshing respite in the Singapore heat. Bubble Tea has made a small come back in recent times and two of the most popular ones that remain today ironically come from other Asian countries, "Koi Cafe"(Taiwan) and "Gong Cha" (China) but they serve the best bubble tea Singapore has ever had and are the reason why the crazy started all over again!
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Dessert & Snacks
Singapore street snacks are some of the tastiest one around. Popular snack shops are "Old Chang Kee" where you can try their famous curry puffs and fried sotong and "Bee Cheng Hiang" where you can find tasty "Bah Kwa", also known as barbecued meat. Korean, Japanese and Taiwanese street snacks are aplenty too.
Apart from the many generic yogurt and gelato ice-cream shops you will find in Singapore, there are also certain local deserts unique to Singapore. One of this is "ice kachang" which you can always find in hawker centre dessert shops, a dessert which is grinded ice with a variety of flavours and toppings and can be extremely delicious.
One very popular store serving Chinese based desserts is called "Ah Chew desserts", located along Liang Seah street across the road from Bugis Junction. You can order local favourites such as "Fresh Milk Steamed Egg with Hashima", "Black Sesame Paste", "Avocado Milkshake" and "Mango sago" which are unique desserts you will usually not be able to find outside of Asia.
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