What does it mean to be Singaporean? After a short 3 day visit to the tiny island located off the southern coast of Malaysia, I have yet to develop a clear answer to this question. What I do know is that culture in Singapore can be described as diverse and eclectic due to the immense influence of immigration. This cannot be better represented through Singaporean cuisine, which is mostly comprised of food from Malaysia, China and India. Although cost of living in Singapore is high, Hawker Centers make it possible for those on a budget to try out all of the different foods Singapore has to offer.
Hawker Centers are essentially massive food courts located all throughout the city. Unlike Vietnam, Singapore no longer has a “street food” scene because the government doesn’t allow vendors to crowd the pristine streets. Instead, all of the street vendors sell their food inside Hawker Centers. Hawker culture goes back to the founding of Singapore, since the first people to inhabit the country were predominately male immigrant workers. Up until the 1860’s the male to female ratio in Singapore was 10:1, so street food was necessary to feed all of the hungry male workers who had no women to cook for them and needed a cheap source of food. It wasn’t until the 1940’s that the male female ratio evened out and home cooking became more popular than street food. However, Hawker stalls remain a popular option and are still a huge part of Singaporean culture.
Now that you have some background information on Singaporean food, it’s time to dive into my quest to discover the wide breadth of Singaporean cuisine. When immigrants first started coming to Singapore, the different ethnic groups stuck mostly to themselves. However, overtime the different cultures began to mix and we are now left with a nice combination of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. I was in Singapore with my friend Mike and the first place we ate at was a corner restaurant called Mufiz Prata Corner, right down the block from our hotel. It offered Indian Muslim food and we got a mixture of Indian and Malay dishes. We ordered Chicken Murtabak (originally from India), which is pan-fried bread filled with chicken, onion, garlic and egg and served with a mildly spiced red curry. Although it was pan-fried, the bread wasn’t too greasy and the curry served with it was so rich with a variety of Indian spices. We also got a second bread dish called Masala Thosai. Thosai, or dosa, is fermented pancake made from rice batter and black lentils. There are different variations of Thosai, but Masala Thosai is stuffed with potatoes, onions and spices. We were pretty hungry so we decided to order a third dish called Mee Bee Hoon. Originating from Malaysia, Mee Bee Hoon is a noodle dish cooked with a bunch of different spices and peppers and topped off with a fried egg. The meal was so good (and cheap! Only $12 Singapore dollars for the three dishes and two drinks) and a perfect introduction to food in Singapore.
For dinner that night we checked out Lau Pa Sat, a huge hawker center situated amongst a group of skyscrapers in the financial district of town. Filled with both locals and tourists, the place had a very lively atmosphere and seemed like the kind of place you could meet up with a group of friends and just hang out for a few hours. The place was gigantic and Mike and I didn’t know anything about any of the stalls, so we just wandered over to an area that was really crowded. We figured if there were lots of people there, the food must be good. I ended up ordering Indian food again, but this time I got a set meal that came with naan, rice, okra, potatoes and barbequed chicken. The portion was pretty big and a great deal for only $7!
While my first day in Singapore was all about the Indian food, I switched gears and ate only Chinese food my second day. We took the subway to Chinatown in the morning and found ourselves at Maxwell Food Center, another huge hawker center. Mike and I shared a plate of Hainanese Chicken and a bowl of chicken rice porridge. The Hainanese were one of the last Chinese dialect groups to settle in Singapore, but their influence on Singaporean cuisine is significant. To make Hainanese chicken you boil the chicken in stock with garlic, ginger, chicken fat and srenpine leaves. I thought the dish had great flavor, but the chicken was a little fatty for my taste. I did however love the rice porridge. Being Chinese, rice porridge is definitely comfort food and reminds me of home. There were a bunch of stalls selling the porridge, but one stall in particular, called Zhen Zhen Porridge, had a huge line so I naturally had to try a bowl from that stall. I ended up waiting in like for almost 20 minutes, but it was definitely worth the wait. The consistency was pretty thick and it was a very hearty meal.
For dinner that night Mike and I headed downtown to eat in an area that was mostly populated by tourists and expats working in the financial district. All of the restaurants sat alongside the water and overlooked the downtown skyscrapers and the Marina Bay Sands. Prices were not cheap, but it was a cool place to be. We ordered a sizzling beef hotplate, sweet and sour chicken, and Chinese cabbage cooked with garlic. I have to admit, it wasn’t the best Chinese food I’ve had. But, it was enjoyable because for some reason Chinese restaurants don’t exist in Saigon so it satisfied my Chinese food craving.
That night on our way home we stopped for some dessert at Mufiz Prata, the same place we had lunch the first day. Mike got Tissue Pratha with chocolate which is essentially a giant cone shaped crepe covered with chocolate. AMAZING!
The next day I wandered around Little India in the morning and shared an order of Egg Thosai with Mike. It was kind of hard to taste the egg, but the bread and sauces were delicious. And the thosai was huge! Literally over a foot long! Shortly after that we hit up the food court in Gelang Serai Market to grab some lunch. I got an order of Nasi Lemak, a traditional Malay dish. Nasi means cooked rice and Lemak means savory coconut. The rice is steamed in coconut milk and then wrapped in banana leaf. The rice is unbelievably rich and I had a hard time eating the entire portion of it because it’s so heavy. In addition to the coconut rice there was a piece of fried chicken, egg and some raw vegetables. Mike got a bowl Seafood Laksa. Laksa, a Chinese and Malay thick noodle dish, is served in a spice based gravy with coconut milk.
And of course, being the unhealthy, fast food loving American that I am, I had to have one last meal at the airport.
Thanks for reading about my Singapore food journey, stay tuned for another post on Singapore coming soon!