In Singapore, food is viewed as crucial to its national identity and a unifying cultural thread. Singaporean literature declares eating a national pastime and food a national obsession. Food is a frequent topic of conversation among Singaporeans. Religious dietary strictures do exist; Muslims do not eat pork and Hindus do not eat beef, and there is also a significant group of vegetarians/vegans. People from different communities often eat together, while being mindful of each other's culture and choosing food that is acceptable for all.
Other than local Singaporean cuisine, it is also common in Singapore to find restaurants specialising in cuisine from a great variety of countries around the world.
Chinese soup travelling street hawker in Singapore circa 1880.
Since its founding as a British port in 1819, Singaporean cuisine has been influenced by different cultures due to its position as an international shipping port. Singapore is geographically located in between the Pacific and Indian oceans but it also has the shape of a peninsula and an island at the same time, where various cultures and trades used to and continue to occur. Indonesia is located to the south, Thailand, China, the Philippines and Malaysia are located to the north and India is located to the west. Since Singapore's geographical position is surrounded by various Asian countries, there is much diversity in food and culture.
The culture of Singapore is made up of diverse influences from different continents and countries. Hence, the Singapore cuisine can be said to be culturally enriched. Singaporean cuisine has also been influenced by its colonial history, as it established as a Britishcolony from the early 19th century until the mid-20th century when it became part of Malaysia before becoming independent; Singapore was also occupied by Imperial Japan during the Second World War.
It is believed that certain dishes that are part of Singaporean cuisine today predates the arrival of Raffles in 1819, some of these dishes include laksa, biryani and betel quid. However, it is unknown when these dishes arrived in Singapore, as historical records on them are largely scattered and inaccurate as these dishes were largely made by early Singapore immigrants at home and not served in an establishment. Adaptation of various dishes that were prepared by early Singapore immigrants to suit the ingredients and taste preferences were how some of the dishes were created, some examples of such dishes are Fish head curry,Kaya toast and Hainanese chicken rice, which are culinary staples to Singaporean cuisine today.
Hawker center in Bugis village
A large part of Singaporean cuisine revolves around hawker centres, where hawker stalls were first set up around the mid 19th century, and were largely street food stalls selling a huge variety of foods These street vendors usually set up stalls by the side of the streets with push carts or bicycles and served cheap and fast foods to coolies, office workers and those that did not cook at home. Although the street vendors provided early Singapore immigrants with cheap and fast meals, these stalls were unhygienic, due to the lack of supporting infrastructure such as waste disposal, a steady supply of fresh water and limited sanitation practices. Starting in the 1960s, the Singapore government started enforcing more rules and regulations for street hawkers and relocated these vendors to more permanent locations with the construction of wet markets and hawker centres across the country.
Today, when dining out, Singaporeans often eat at hawker centres, coffee shops or food courts rather than restaurants, due to convenience, a wider range of options and affordability. These hawker centres are widespread, cheap and usually feature dozens of stalls in a single complex, with each stall offering its own speciality dishes. Well-known hawker centres among tourists include Telok Ayer Market, Maxwell Food Center, Lau Pa Sat and Newton Food Centre. Coffee shops are non-air conditioned versions of food courts and are commonly found island-wide, usually at the bottom of blocks of HDBflats. Hawker centres are the place where people can experience all kinds of different cultural food in one place. Hawker centres, or open air food courts, have come to define Singaporean food culture. Popular markets like Old Airport Road Food Centre in Geylang, Golden Mile Food Centre on Beach Road and Maxwell Road Food Centre in Chinatown offer the best of Chinese, Malaysian and Indian cooking, melded into foods that are uniquely Singaporean. Some well-known Singaporean hawker or kopitiam dishes includes kaya toast, chilli crab, fish head curry, laksa, roti prata and Hainanese chicken rice, which is widely considered to be one of Singapore's national dish.
In 2018, Singapore hawker culture was nominated by Singapore's National Heritage Board (NHB), National Environment Agency and Federation of Merchants' Associations Singapore for inscription into UNESCO's Representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The nomination was submitted in March 2019 and approved and inscribed on 16 December 2020. UNESCO described the hawker centre as "‘community dining rooms’ where people from diverse backgrounds gather and share the experience of dining over breakfast, lunch and dinner."
A common greeting for many Singaporean Chinese comes in the form of the question "Have you eaten?", asked in various Chinese dialects. It is one way of expressing a greeting to another person. It is also possible to assume that this is how Singaporeans think about meals and food. Since Singapore is a multicultural nation there is a diverse range of people who might have different and restricted diets, such as Muslims and Hindus. Since Singapore is influenced by many different regions, religions, and cultures, there are also many events or anniversaries. During the Lunar New Year, people eat nian gao, which is originally from China, and is traditionally eaten around the Chinese New Year. It is an extension of Malay cuisine but influenced by the Chinese and Indians – not to mention the Arabs, British and other immigrants who have contributed to making Singapore one of the world's most important trading ports.
Singapore food internationally
Bak kut teh, one of the foods often associated with Singapore
Singaporean food is a significant cultural attraction for tourists and visitors. Some Singaporean dishes have become internationally known. In 2011, four Singaporean dishes were included in the list of 'World's 50 Most Delicious Foods (Readers' Pick)' – a worldwide online poll by 35,000 people held by CNN International. They are Hainanese chicken rice (13th), chili crab (29th), Katong Laksa (44th) and roti prata (45th).
Anthony Bourdain brought international attention to local food available in hawker centres on his show, No Reservations. He featured Tian Tian Chicken Rice and Maxwell Food Centre on the programme. Bourdain also publicly spoke about hoping to feature four Singaporean dishes in his upcoming food hall in New York City.
Gordon Ramsay participated in a 'Hawker Heroes Challenge' held in Singapore in 2013, in which each competitor made three dishes. Ramsay's chili crab was voted the best, but he lost on the other two dishes. Losing to Ryan Koh representing 328 Katong Laksa and Foo Kui Lian representing Tian Tian Chicken Rice, he graciously accepted defeat. He mentioned being in absolute awe of the hawkers, and was humbled by how they welcomed him into their kitchens and taught him to cook.
YouTube personality Mike Chen, better known by his username Strictly Dumpling, has created several videos bringing attention to local cuisine on his channel. Over the course of 13 videos he highlighted Singaporean street food, hawker centres, local buffets and restaurants. These videos have a combined view count of over 17 million views.
Singaporean cuisine has been promoted as a tourist attraction by the Singapore Tourism Board. The Singapore Food Festival, held every year in July, is a celebration of Singapore's cuisine. The Overseas Singaporean Unit also organises Singapore Day in major cities around the world as a platform for Singaporeans living abroad. One of Singapore Day's major draws is the local Singaporean hawker food, which is prepared on-site by well-known hawkers specially flown in for the event.
Singaporean food can be divided into six types: meat, seafood, rice, noodles, dessert and snacks. Singapore is especially renowned for its seafood. Chili crab and black pepper crab are two quintessential dishes that dominate the scene and are greatly recommended to tourists. Another favourite is sambal stingray. In the meat category, Hainanese chicken rice is the most popular dish. Essentially, it is rice cooked with chicken fat, served with boiled chicken, accompanied with chili sauce. Three noodle dishes stand out in Singapore cuisine. "Fried Hokkien mee" comprises fried egg noodles with prawns, sliced pork and gravy. "Nyonya laksa" is composed of rice noodles served in a coconut prawn broth, and "Char Kuey Teow" is stir-fried rice noodles with prawns, Chinese sausage, lard and cockles. In the dessert category, tau-suan is one of many types of desserts commonly found in hawker centres around Singapore. Tāu-suàn (split mung bean soup), is a dessert of Teochew origin. It is a sweet and starchy soup made from split mung beans, usually eaten with Youtiao. In the snack category, kaya toast is the representative dish, primarily due to the use of kaya. "Kaya kopitiams" are a common sight on the island. These affordable coffee shops dish out bread toasts, spread with coconut egg jam and butter, served with coffee and tea as well as two soft boiled eggs.
The dishes that comprise "Singaporean Chinese cuisine" today were originally brought to Singapore by the early southern Chinese immigrants (Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese). They were then adapted to suit the local availability of ingredients, while absorbing influences from Malay, Indian and other cooking traditions.
Most of the names of Singaporean Chinese dishes were derived from dialects of southern China, Hokkien (Min Nan) being the most common. As there was no common system for transliterating these dialects into the Latin alphabet, it is common to see different variants on the same name for a single dish. For example, bah kut teh may also be spelt bak kut teh, and char kway tiao may also be spelt char kuay teow.
Bak kut teh (肉骨茶; ròu gǔ chá), pork rib soup made with a variety of Chinese herbs and spices.
Beef kway teow (牛肉粿条; niú ròu guǒ tiáo), flat rice noodles stir-fried with beef, served dry or with soup.
Bak chang (肉粽; ròu zòng), glutinous rice dumplings, usually filled with pork, mushrooms and stewed egg, steamed in bamboo leaves. Although it is Chinese in origin, it is also a favourite in Peranakan cuisine.
Bak Chor Mee (肉脞面; ròu cuò miàn; 'minced pork noodles'), egg noodles with minced pork, braised mushroom, pork meatball and other ingredients, served dry or in soup. Usually the flat, tape-like mee pok noodle is used.
Ban mian (板面; bǎn miàn), hand-made flat noodles served with vegetables, minced meat, sliced mushrooms, and an egg in an anchovy-based soup. Noodle variations are common. "Ban mian" refers to flat, long noodles; "mee hoon kuay" (米粉粿; mí fěn guǒ; 'rice vermicelli cake') refers to flat, rectangular noodles; "you mian" (幼面; yòu miàn; 'thin noodles') refers to thin noodles.
Chai tow kway (菜头粿; cài tóu guǒ), also known as char kway (炒粿; chǎo guǒ) or carrot cake, is a dish of steamed radish/daikon cakes diced and stir-fried with garlic, egg, chopped preserved radish, and sometimes with shrimp. This dish comes in black (fried with sweet dark soy sauce) or white (fried into an omelette) versions, with a chilli paste sometimes added.
Char kway teow (炒粿条; chǎo guǒ tiáo), thick, flat rice noodles stir-fried in dark soy sauce with shrimp, eggs, beansprouts, fish cake, cockles, green leafy vegetables, Chinese sausage and fried cubes of lard.
Char siu (叉烧; chā shāo), also romanised cha-su, cha siu, cha sio, caa siu and char siew, is barbecued pork in Cantonese cuisine.
Chicken noodles is an egg noodle dish with diced chicken meat.
Chwee kueh (水粿; chúi-kóe), a type of steamed rice cake served with preserved radish.
Crab bee hoon (螃蟹米粉; páng xiè mí fěn) is a rice vermicelli dish served with whole mud crab. It may be served dry or in soup and sometimes in a claypot.
Duck rice (鸭饭; yā fàn), braised duck served with rice cooked with yam and shrimp. It can be served simply with white rice and a thick dark sauce, or with braised hard-boiled eggs, preserved salted vegetables, and hard bean curd (tau kua) on the side. Teochew boneless duck rice is a similar, but a more refined dish. The duck is deboned and sliced thinly, allowing the sauces to seep into the meat. Roasted duck rice is also commonly sold.
Fish ball noodles (鱼丸面; yú wán miàn), similar to bak chor mee, except that fish balls are used instead of minced pork.
Fish soup bee hoon (鱼片米粉; yú piàn mí fěn) is a Singaporean soup served with sliced fish pieces, green vegetables and bee hoon.
Frog Leg porridge (田鸡粥; tían jī zhōu) is served with frog legs, scallion, ginger and thick black sauce in a claypot with porridge in another claypot.
Hae mee (虾面; xiā miàn), stir-fried prawn noodles cooked in a broth made from prawn heads and pork bones, topped with ingredients such as prawns, sliced pork belly, squid, egg, lard, and served with sambal chilli and lime at the side.
Hokkien mee (福建面; Fújiàn miàn), egg noodles and rice noodles stir-fried with egg, slices of pork, prawns and squid, and served and garnished with spring onion, lard, sambal chilli and lime (for adding lime juice to the dish).
Ham chim peng (咸煎饼; xián jiān bǐng), a deep-fried bun-like pastry sometimes filled with bean paste.
Kaya toast, a traditional breakfast dish. Kaya is a sweet coconut and egg jam which is spread over toasted bread. Combined with a cup of local coffee and a half-boiled egg, this constitutes a typical Singaporean breakfast.
Kway chap / kuay chap (粿汁; guǒ zhī), a Teochew dish of flat, broad rice sheets in a soup made with dark soy sauce, served with pig offal, braised duck meat, various kinds of beancurd, preserved salted vegetables, and braised hard-boiled eggs.
Mee pok (面薄; miàn báo), a noodle dish characterised by its flat and yellow appearance, varying in thickness and width.
Min chiang kueh (面煎粿; miàn jiān guǒ), a thick, chewy pancake with a ground peanut and sugar filling. Other variations include grated coconut and red bean paste. This traditional snack also is served in blueberry, cheese and chocolate varieties.
Oyster omelette (蠔烙; háolào), a dish of omelette cooked with fresh raw oysters, tapioca starch and eggs.
Pig's brain soup (猪脑汤; zhū nǎo tāng), a soup dish comprising pig brain with Chinese herbs.
Pig fallopian tubes, a dish comprising stir-fried pig Fallopian tubes with vegetables and sambal chilli.
Pig's organ soup (猪杂汤; zhū zá tāng; 'pig spare parts soup'), a soup-based variant of kuay chap
Yong Tau Foo (酿豆腐; niàng dòu fǔ), a dish that contains a varied selection of food items, including tofu filled with ground meat mixture or fish paste, fish balls, crab sticks, an assortment of vegetables and meat.
Youtiao (油条; yóu tiáo), also called yew char kueh (油炸粿; yóu zhá guǒ), fried dough crullers similar to those served in other Chinese cuisines around the world.
Yam ring (佛钵; fú bō), a deep-fried ring of taro filled with stir-fried ingredients
Situated between Malaysia and Indonesia, Singaporean Malay dishes are influenced by the food of the neighbouring Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Java and the Riau Islands. Despite absorbing regional influences, it tends to be adapted to local tastes and differs from their counterparts in neighbouring countries. Although Malays, such as the Orang Laut, are native to Singapore, most Malays in Singapore today are descended from native Indonesians or native Malays from present-day Malaysia. . Hence, Singaporean Malay cuisine features a unique set of influences, especially from Minang cuisine. Spices and coconut milk are common ingredients, although Chinese ingredients such as taupok (tofu puffs) and tofu (known as tauhu in Malay) have been integrated. Many Chinese and Tamil Muslim adaptations of the following dishes also exist. As almost all Malays are Muslims, pork is not used as it is prohibited in Islam.
Acar, pickled vegetables or fruits with dried chilli, peanuts, and spices. Indian and Peranakan versions can also be found.
Assam pedas, seafood and vegetables cooked in a sauce consisting of tamarind, coconut milk, chilli, and spices.
Ayam penyet, fried chicken dish consisting of fried chicken that is smashed with the pestle against mortar to make it softer and a relatively new culinary phenomenon of Indonesian origin.
Putu mayam rice flour noodle served with sugar and coconut usually eaten for breakfast.
Roti prata, a local evolution of the Indian paratha. It is a popular dish for breakfast and supper. It is a fried bread pancake that is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. The dough is flipped to attain the right texture, then cooked quickly on a greased stove and served with curry or sugar. A plethora of modern variations are available, including egg, cheese, chocolate, masala, durian and even ice cream.
Laksa lemak, a Peranakan dish of vermicelli noodles and fried bean curd served in a creamy coconut sauce with slices of shrimp, fish, and cockles.
Fish head curry, a dish created by Singapore's Malayalee (an Indian ethnic group from Kerala) community with some Chinese and Malay influences. The head of a red snapper (ikan merah, literally "red fish") stewed in curry consisting of varying amounts of coconut milk and tamarind juice, along with vegetables (okra and eggplant are common). Usually served with either rice or bread.
Kari debal / Devil's curry, a Eurasian Singaporean curry dish with Portuguese and Peranakan influences. Includes chicken, cabbage, sausage, and bacon pieces stewed in a curry sauce.
Kari lemak ayam, a Peranakan chicken curry with a coconut milk base
Katong Laksa, a Singaporean thick rice noodles (bee hoon) in a coconut curry gravy with prawn and egg. Sometimes chicken, tau pok (beancurd puffs) or fish cake may be added.
Kueh tutu steamed rice flour pastries with a sweet shredded coconut or peanut filling
Kueh pie tee, a thin and crispy pastry tart shell filled with a spicy, sweet mixture of thinly sliced vegetables and prawns.
"Western Food" in hawker centres where "Singapore-style" chicken chop (topped with black pepper or mushroom sauce), chicken cutlet, pork chop are available. These are usually served with fries/mashed potato, coleslaw and baked beans. This style is often called "Hainanese Western food" due to the fact that it traces its origins to Hainanese immigrants who worked as cooks in the kitchens of Western employers.
Singaporeans also enjoy a wide variety of seafood including fish, squid (known as sotong in Malay), stingray, crab, lobster, clams, and oysters.
Popular seafood dishes include:
Black pepper crab, hard shell crabs cooked in a black pepper sauce. Salted Egg crab and buttermilk crab are also common.
Chilli crab, hard shell crabs cooked in chilli sauce, usually served with man tou, or deep fried buns.
Oyster omelette, an oyster omelette mixed with flour and fried, served garnished with coriander.
Sambal lala, soft shell clams fried with sambal sauce
Sambal stingray/hang hir (魟鱼; 魟魚; hōng yú), smothered in sambal and served on banana leaf, also known as ikan bakar in Malay.
A durian stall in Singapore
A wide variety of tropical fruits are available all year round. By far the most well known is the durian, known as the "King of Fruits", which produces a characteristic odour from the creamy yellow custard-like flesh within its spiky green or brown shell. Durians are banned on public transport, elevators, certain hotels, and public buildings because of their strong odour.
Singaporean desserts have a varied history. A typical food court or hawker centre dessert stall will usually have a large variety of desserts available, including but not limited to:
Bubur cha cha, a dish of pearled sago, sweet potatoes, yams, bananas, black-eyed peas, pandan leaves, sugar, and salt cooked in coconut milk and served hot or cold.
Chendol, basic version consist of pandan jelly strips with coconut milk and gula melaka syrup with shaved iced; other ingredients which could be added are red beans, sweet corns, ice cream and even durians.
Cheng tng (清汤; qīng tāng), a light, refreshing soup with longan, barley, agar strips, lotus seeds and a sweet syrup, served either hot or cold. It is analogous to the Cantonese Ching bo leung.
Kueh lapis is a rich, multi-layered cake-style kueh using a large amount of egg whites and studded with prunes.
Kueh modak are rice flour dumplings stuffed with coconut and palm sugar.
Lapis sagu is also a popular kueh with layers of alternating colour and a sweet, coconut taste.
Orh-nee (芋泥; yù ní), a Teochew dish consisting of taro (locally known as "yam") paste, coconut paste and ginkgo nuts.
Pulut hitam, a creamy dessert made of black glutinous rice and served with coconut cream.
Tau suan (豆爽; dòu shuǎng), mung beans in jelly, served hot with dough crullers.
Ice cream sandwich
Wafer ice cream sandwiches are a popular dish sold by street vendors operating carts on busy street corners. These carts carry a variety of flavours, including but not limited to vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, coffee, sweet corn, coconut, and durian. While some vendors sell their ice cream in cups or cones, as is common in the West, the more popular variant is on slices of bread or between wafers. The ice cream consists of sealed blocks which are sliced to order and then placed on a single slice of over-sized, often multicolored bread. This can be either white bread or a slice of multicolored, slightly sweetened bread (dyed with food colouring and flavoured with pandan leaf extract). A sandwich costs around S$1 but may cost up to S$2 or more in downtown areas and tourist spots.
Chin chow drink (仙草水; xiān cǎo shuǐ), grass jelly made into a sweet beverage.
Kopi, the local coffee in Singapore. Singapore's kopi lingo is mixed with various languages.
Kopi: Coffee with sugar and condensed milk
Kopi-O: Coffee with sugar
Kopi-O-Kosong: Coffee without sugar and evaporated milk
Kopi-C: Coffee with sugar and evaporated milk
Kopi-Peng: Iced coffee with sugar and condensed milk
Kopi-Siew-Dai: Coffee with less sugar and condensed milk
Kopi-Siew-Siew-Dai: Coffee with little sugar and condensed milk
Kopi-Ga-Dai: Coffee with extra sugar and condensed milk
Kopi-Gao: Coffee with sugar, condensed milk and extra thick concentrated coffee
Kopi-Di-Lo: Coffee with no dilution
Kopi-Poh: Coffee with extra dilution
Lemon barley drink
Water chestnut drink
Horlicks, malt milk drink. Variations include the Horlicks Dinosaur, a standard Horlicks drink topped with a scoop of Horlicks powder.
Milo, chocolate/malt milk drink. Variations include the Milo Dinosaur, a standard Milo drink topped with a scoop of Milo powder.
Sugarcane juice, usually blended to order from fresh sugar cane stalks.
Teh halia tarik, ginger tea with "pulled" milk (tarik)
Singapore Sling. While the cocktail was invented in Singapore's Raffles Hotel, and is still served at the hotel's Long Bar, it is not common in most Singaporean bars.
Singaporean dishes uncommon in Singapore
Singapore style noodles (星州炒米粉; xīng zhōu chǎo mí fěn), an American Chinese dish featuring fried rice vermicelli flavoured with yellow curry powder, is not found in Singapore. The close relative to this dish is fried bee hoon (thin rice noodles).
Singapore fried kway tiao (星州炒粿条; xīng zhōu chǎo guǒ tiáo), a dish featuring fried thick, flat rice noodles flavoured with dark soy sauce commonly available in some Chinese restaurants in Canada and the United States, is also not a Singaporean dish. The dish most resembling it is char kway teow.
^"The man behind fish head curry". The Straits Times. 10 December 2017. He (M.J. Gomez) came to Singapore from Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala, in the 1930s before returning to get married. After the birth of his first child, a daughter, he returned to Singapore, only to get caught here during the war. Mr Gomez then came to Singapore again, and later brought his family over. They lived in Sophia Road, where he started his restaurant, Gomez Curry, which later moved to nearby Selegie Road.