Singapore’s Unbelievable Food Culture

Singapore has an amazing and irrepressible food culture
Singapore has an amazing and irrepressible food culture
A cousin and an uncle of mine at a “steamboat” restaurant at Golden Mile. As you can see, food’s a serious business here! :-)

Over the years I witnessed surprise and mild disbelief on the faces of those to whom I unabashedly gushed, “Singapore has the best food in the world.” Apart from the problem of the “-est” suffix that we Americans tend to put on all kinds of opinions, I think what led to all the confused looks in the first place was the idea that I was comparing Singapore’s national dishes to those of other countries. Obviously, there’s no real way to compare shepherd’s pie to boeuf bourginon, other than to say they are both hearty comfort foods from the countryside.

What I had meant to say all these years, with benefit of hindsight, is that “Singapore has one of the most vibrant and irrepressible food cultures I’ve ever seen.” On this most recent of what are now annual visits to see family, I attempted to get a better grasp on this food culture. I should note that even a book-length article would be insufficient to adequately explain Singapore food culture. This piece is meant solely as an introduction, which means I won’t be going into detail on how the dishes are cooked or what ingredients they are composed of. I won’t even begin to scratch the surface of the many choices available to Singaporeans every hour of every day.

And before we can get to that introduction, I need to acquaint you with Singapore’s “Yes, but…” way of thinking. In recent years Westerners have become acquainted with the high (never to be met) expectations of Asian parents. Well, imagine an entire country made by Asian parents (death penalty for drug possession!) and you have a partial glimpse into Singapore.

The “Yes, but…” rubric can be applied to anything. Examples include:

That’s a nice car.”

Yes, but I’d really like a different one” OR “Yes, but I actually had to do a lot of work to get it customized this way.”

Sounds like you have a great job.”

Yes, but really I want to get a promotion.” OR “Yes, but my friend has a great job that I think is quite fascinating.”

So here we just see the “never good enough” ethos that has been successfully passed down from Asian parent to Asian child. For those unable to accept a compliment, deflection is necessary, even at the risk of awkward tangents.

When you realize that many Singaporeans you will speak with have been tasting good food and have been conscious of its quality for at least two decades (and sometimes many more) you come to understand that there is a vast, fixed, immovable gulf of discernment between you and them. Hence:

“Oh, auntie, this chicken rice is so good.”

“Meh you think so? Yes, but next time I take you another place much better!”

I left Singapore days before turning nine years old, so I had still been learning to love and understand certain dishes, and had not yet had them hundreds of times in the way that makes any of us experts in any particular food culture. When I return to Singapore as an adult, I’m desperately trying to connect the indescribably happy Christmas-morning feelings that run through me as I walk through a hawker center with the discriminating tastes of a food enthusiast who lives with the French.

So this “Yes, but…” is also related to the “never good enough” ethos, but it’s combined with the “insider knowledge” desire that Singaporeans carry, and which often leads many of them to a kind of disappointment when they try a new place because inevitably it will not be as good as the “best of all time” place they have established for almost every category in their heads. Yet, the probability of that happening doesn’t dissuade them from verifying it for themselves, bite by bite.

Singaporeans usually aren’t reluctant to share their favorites. They will often tell you why their place is the best and why yours is simply not good enough. Sometimes they refuse to name their favorite place, preferring to keep it as their own secret. It’s all done in a good spirit though: the chase after wonderful food.

The reason I could see the “Yes, but…” culture so clearly among the Singaporeans is due in part to my residence with the French. I call the Gallic variation the “pas mal” life. The French seem to fundamentally lack the ability to say something is good or great, only that it is “not bad.” Now, emphasis can be added here by the way or the tone in which you pronounce “pas mal.” When the French won the World Cup a couple years ago, you can imagine there were a lot of “pas mals” being slung around to slurry renditions of the national anthem (alas, I was in Singapore when they won, so I didn’t witness such scenes myself).

So, for this introduction to the Singaporean palate I’ve created a fictional average weekday. Hence there’s no mention of dim sum or brunch, or even a luxurious evening steamboat/hotpot night. It is unlikely that any but the most gluttonous would eat at the intervals I am proposing in my fictional day, but I offer them as part of a mosaic to help you see that unlike for the French, for whom the “kitchen is closed” between meals, for Singaporeans, eating is always one suggestion, one smell, or one look in a window away…

0800. This is a quick breakfast that might be eaten swiftly by those on the way to work: a toast set. You’ll start with two half-boiled eggs (I once referred to these as “soft boiled” until I realize that the British think of that as a hard-boiled egg with a liquid center, perfect for dipping “soldiers” in). Half-boiled means that a lot of the egg is cooked and white, but not yet enough for it to have become solid and formed in the shape of the egg. You crack these open into a saucer, add soy sauce (sweet or salty) and/or pepper (black or white) and use them as a sort of gravy for your bread, which is usually crustless white bread, lightly toasted and topped with butter, butter and sugar, or butter and kaya (a smooth and dreamy coconut jam).

This set comes with your order of a hot beverage, usually coffee or tea. Since coffee is grown in countries all around Singapore, the variations in roasting and preparing lead to such a variance in the local coffee that you can really taste the difference. Once you have decided whether you are a coffee or tea person, you order that beverage with your toast set almost 100% of the time.

Singapore Coffee Naming Conventions. Kopi, which is coffee in Singapore, is not espresso-driven European-style coffee. Firstly, it’s made from robusto, not arabica, beans. Those beans are roasted with butter or margarine (and sometimes sugar). This leads to the shells turning oily, brown, and caramelized, but not burnt. Once those beans are ground, they are brewed in a long-spouted pot that is poured inside a small cloth sack that acts as a filter. Locals will speak about different pouring techniques, different water temperatures affecting the flavors that come out. Following? You’re now ready to order your “kopi.”

Kopi. This is coffee and sweetened condensed milk. Fresh milk really wasn’t on offer during the days this coffee found its place in Singapore, so the canned tradition continues.

Kopi C. This means the coffee comes with unsweetened evaporated milk and sugar. It’s better for those without a sweet tooth.

Kopi C Kosong. With evaporated milk, no sugar.

Kopi O. Sugar, no milk.

Kopi O Kosong. No milk, no sugar. This is your traditional “black coffee” order.

The same naming conventions apply to tea, which is “teh” in Singapore.

1000. Much of the office crowd is at work by this time so this is often a breakfast time of shift workers or of retirees. This is the time of morning when I would eat dishes that I smile just to type the names of. There’s chwee-kueh (I’m rendering these names phonetically in English, but most times they are Chinese or Malay words), chee cheong fun, you tiao, porridge, and nasi lemak, or even one of my favorite dishes, Chinese carrot cake (not a dessert at all, and on which I opined about in a previous visit). These dishes are starchy, filling, hot, and are often accompanied by some kind of chilli paste, which is the condiment that adds zest to so many Singaporean dishes.

1200. Lunch. As at dinner you have literally hundreds of options. Kuey teow, wanton mee (soupy or dry), mee siam, bak chor mee, laksa, fish ball soup, and chicken/duck/char siew rice just to name some of my favorites. The fish ball soup is a go-to favorite of mine, and I could be happily given a prison sentence in which I was only allowed to eat chicken or duck or pork with rice every day for the rest of my life (like this instagrammer who at the time of this article is on his 835th consecutive day of posting a photo of chicken rice). There’s often a leaf or two of steamed bak choy as a token “vegetable” but it’s often blanched in a non-vegetable stock: a reminder that in Asia vegetable dishes are not always vegetarian.

1400. It’s mid-afternoon. You could avail yourself of a place like Bread Talk, which is a chain version of a local favorite: the Chinese bakery, the answer to Paris and Vienna’s bakeries and patisseries.

Unlike the offerings from those two cultures, many of the choices you’ll find in Singapore feature a soft, brioche-like bread, and even better, have savory, meat-filled options right next to the traditional sweet and creamy ones. Don’t want kaya-stuffed rolls? There are dreamy luncheon meat rolls (spam in brioche bread) or small hot dogs warmly hugged by slightly sweet bread (another take on a hot dog, sans ketchup). You grab a tray, a set of tongs, and go to work!

At traditional Chinese cafes and bakeries you can find white paus. Pau means bun in Chinese. These are soft white bread rolls stuffed with (you guessed it!) sweet or savory ingredients. Not too much food (they are gone in a few bites), but they can easily fill you up.

1600. Singapore is a former British colony so tea time is an established custom, but at this hour I might pull you away from the traditional high tea that you can enjoy at a number of fancy hotels to an Indian Muslim tea shop, where you can enjoy one of my favorite beverages in Singapore, teh tarik. As I talked about this beverage with friends and family, we tried to zero in on a rubric to figure out where you could get this beverage.

Teh tarik is not available at every coffee shop. If you go to a coffee shop that serves prata or roti then 9 times out of 10 they will also have teh tarik. “Tarik” means “pull” in Malay and the hot tea, with milk and sugar added is “pulled” by long pours from one container to another, which both cools the drink to a drinking temperature but also creates a silky, velvety texture. With your teh tarik you might snack on prata or roti (think of variations on naan — roti just means “bread” in Malay) which might come to you in variations of sweet or savory flavors (are you seeing a trend yet?) That said, prata can just as easily be part of that 1000 breakfast time.

1800. Dinner time! As adventurous as most Singaporeans are with food, they are unlikely on a given weeknight to say, “I’m going to try something I’ve never tried before.” They are often tired and hungry, yet despite that, are willing to queue for up to 30 minutes at the very best food stalls, and they aren’t in experimenting mood. They know what they want and order that.

Having been trained by the French to dismiss lines (which happens to coincide with my own disinclination) I was happy to go to the stalls with short to nonexistent queues. I was never disappointed, in part because I have not developed the extremely high standards of the Singaporeans who have lived there their entire lives.

Singaporean dinner favorites might include barbecue stingray, bakut teh (which is also a good breakfast), fish-head curry, chili or black pepper crab, oyster omelette, or otak otak. Any of these might be enjoyed with a side dish of sambal (which is a type of spicy sauce) “ladyfinger” (what okra is called in this part of the world, and is one of my favorite vegetables, when prepared properly).

Singapore has four national languages: Chinese, Malay, Tamil, and English. This state of affairs acknowledges the existence of four ethnic groups that mostly populate the vibrant and ever growing country: the Han Chinese, the Malaysians (of which Singapore was once a part when it was in the Federation of Malaysia), South Indians, and English speakers from all over, though by and large from Commonwealth countries. The Chinese are the dominant ethnic group, and Buddhism, widely observed by many of these Chinese, is a dominant religion. This religious and ethnic diversity comes out in the food, but some native Singaporeans might note in this introduction a bias in my choices of dishes towards Chinese and Malay dishes. I do actually really enjoy Indian food, but I feel that I’m still learning dishes beyond standard kormas, vindaloos, thalis, and briyani (which is spelled biryani in the UK and other places), and I wanted to populate my list with dishes I’ve personally tried enough to speak intelligently about.

2000. Did you think we were done? Nope! Time to have dessert. There are entire restaurants and food stalls entirely given over to this course. If you are going home after this, it’s safe to eat durian, as you won’t have to subject your companions to the durian breath that inevitably follows consumption of what is known as the “king of fruits” and is certainly the most expensive fruit I’ve ever eaten. You’ll see me pondering as I eat it as I continue to struggle with how to describe the taste. Creamy and rich refer to texture and could just as easily be applied to butter, yogurt, or avocado. Durian’s smell is what scares people off, but it’s the taste which keeps them coming back. Often the practical thing is to eat mangosteens afterwards to cut through a bit of that richness (and smell).

But if exotic smelly fruit that has an exterior which smells like wet trash isn’t for you, there are so many wonderful fruits that cost a fortune to buy in other parts of the world, but sell here for pennies. Dragonfruit, longan, lychee, rambutan, papaya, passionfruit, guava, jackfruit, and my personal favorite, the mango. You’ll find stalls everywhere that have these cut into bite size portions in cups that you can take with you to eat.

Want something more substantial than fruit? You’ll find cakes, waffles, and gelato at all hours of the night alongside traditional desserts like ice kachang, cendol, egg tarts, all of which might be washed down with bubble tea, again with more flavors and variants than you can possibly imagine.

2200. You may remember Second Breakfast as a staple of hobbits, but with Singaporeans, especially on a late night, there might be second dinner, or supper! A favorite late night dish might be anything greasy they might find, but also the aforementioned porridge or bakut teh.

I haven’t forgotten about drinks, particularly the cold ones garnished with an entire cupful of ice. My personal favorite is barley water (which can be served cold or hot), but there’s also calamansi juice, lemon juice, rose-flavored pink-colored bandung, and Milo (a very well-known brand in Australasia that has seemingly infinite brand extensions), just to name a few.

So I hope upon reading this that you might begin to understand why I speak about the richness, perhaps even exuberance, of Singaporean food culture. All of the hawker food I’ve spoken about above is only one slice of what’s on offer, because of course Singapore has traditional restaurants, cafes, and fine dining as well. Singapore is one of the few non-French countries that has a Michelin Guide and the street food section is some of the least expensive food you’ll buy anywhere in the world, right next to real estate which is some of the most expensive in Southeast Asia. As you wander through this tropical paradise, eat the food and chat with the friendly locals, it will become readily apparent to you that Singapore’s hard-working citizens don’t eat to live, but live to eat, and that’s a very legitimate part of why they make their lives there, and others are tempted to.

Special thanks to Daphne Yeo and Carolyn Chua who looked over these thoughts and offered some helpful corrections.

Singaporean-born American in Paris. I connect, educate, and build, AMDG. Follow my adventures at www.theamericaninparis.com.

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