Just how popular is eating in Singapore? Well, Yahoo has over 2,880,000 entries for “Singapore restaurants” in English alone, about one entry for every two residents! Regarded by everyone from casual travelers to world-weary expatriates as a veritable UN of Foodies, just about every major international cuisine can be found in Singapore in varying degrees of price and quality.
There are literally thousands of restaurants in this 26 square miles of land, so you won’t have to go far for great BBQ ribs or authentic wood fired Tuscan pizza. But why not be a little adventurous and go native? From around the region you will find a little bit of everything, from Southern China to Northern India, Vietnamese to East Timorese, Malaysian, Thai and even grilled lamb with rose yogurt sauce from Iran! There are far too many restaurants to list them all, but here’s a few tips we’re sure will get your tummy satisfied…
Think Global, Eat Local.
Singaporeans are gym and diet pill crazy for one good reason; the huge selection of great food! It’s no secret that Singaporeans love to eat and drink with a passion. Just turn on the local TV or open a local magazine and you’ll find that half the content is about the thousands of eating options on the island and around the world! If you’re a new arrival, figuring out when and where and what to eat can be mind boggling task, yet with a sense of adventure and an open mind, you’ll find it’s really an exciting experience.
The Singaporean authorities impose very high standards of cleanliness, so wherever you eat, whether a Hawker Center or in the finest restaurants, hygiene should not be a concern at all. Most food outlets will display a rating card, with a grade from A to E, with A being the best. To keep up to date on whether your favorite place has been keeping up to standards, you can look for them here.
So sit back with some kopi (local coffee, made with coffee beans fried in margarine) a popiah (a Hokkien specialty) and we’ll set you on the right path; what you should know about the tastes and styles of your new island home’s food and drink offerings. Just be careful not to put too much chili on your padi… and if you do, wash it down with an ice-cold Tiger beer!
China is a big country, with an appetite to match. The range and diversity of dishes are such that you could eat a different dish every day for the rest of your life without repeating a single one, should you be so inclined. There are over eighty different styles of cooking, so the variety is the most diverse on earth, but mainly, they are classified by which of the five main areas of China they come originate.
If you spend enough time here in Singapore, you’ll eventually find yourself in the company of a Chinese expat, and he or she will eventually tell you that the Chinese food in Singapore isn’t that authentic, and whatever you might have been eating in the US is not Chinese food at all. It’s the same as having a hamburger in Beijing, so don’t be disheartened. But what exactly is Chinese food?… here’s a brief but concise guide to the kinds of Chinese restaurants here in Singapore, which can range from the subtle Cantonese to the spicier Szechuan cuisines.
No matter what type you order, you can count on rice or noodles accompanying your dish, dry or wet (without broth or with).
Rice is rice, but you’ll find noodles made from several types of grains and in a variety of styles and colors.
Chinese meals usually consist of rice accompanied by plates of several types of meats, like pork, poultry, fish and veggies. Just remember not to clean your plate when visiting friends, as your host will take this as a sign that you’re still hungry.
The Cantonese makes up 15% of the Chinese Singaporean population. They speak a different dialect, and are known for their creativity with simple ingredients. It’s been said that Canton is where all Chinese want to eat. If you’ve eaten in a Chinese restaurant in the west, it’s more than certain you’ve eaten Cantonese. Think Dim Sum (steamed or fried dumplings stuffed with meat, seafood, sweet sauces and herbs), Spring Rolls, Won Ton Soup; all known for their subtle flavorings. As for meats, famous Cantonese dishes include crispy deep-fried chicken and roast suckling pig, and one dish this writer kindly asks all to avoid, for ecological reasons, is shark’s fin soup. It’s so popular that the world is quickly running out of sharks.
Three worthy places for Cantonese in Singapore:Yum Cha Restaurant, 20 Trengganu St #02-01 (Off Temple St), (S) 058479, Opening hours: (Mon – Fri) 11:00am – 11:00pm, (Sat, Sun and PH) 9:00am – 11:00pm, Tel: 63721717
Sha Tin Kitchen, 8/10 Lor 3 Geylang (S) 388861, Opening hours: 11:30am – 2:30pm, 6:00pm – 11:00pm, Tel: 67472483, 67447087, Fax: 67472483
Zui Fairprice Live Seafood Restaurant (with buffet steamboat service), 220 Up Thomson Rd (S) 574352, Opening hours: 11:00am – 2:30pm, 5:30pm – 11:00pm, Tel: 6455 2033, Fax: 6455 7554
The Hakka are a minority in Singapore, famous for the Hakka women who came to Singapore during the early 20th century to work in construction sites, lugging bricks around. They wore headgear similar to the Samsui women and were called such, and one of their favorite dishes is called Fried Hokkien Mee. Using a combination of egg noodles and rice vermicelli (beechoon) they would stir-fry it with pork, prawn, squid, chives, bean sprouts and lots of garlic, then simmer it in a rich pork and seafood soup stock. This is a simple worker’s dish, always served steaming hot with fresh lime and a dollop of spicy chili paste on the side or top. Lor mee is another delicious Hokkien noodle dish, which is served in a rich, thick, dark soy sauce-based broth with fishcakes, sliced meat rolls and bean sprouts.
Another Hokkien favorite is the Popiah. Much like the Vietnamese spring roll, these rolled thin pancakes (made from wheat flour) are bigger and heartier. Stuffed to bursting with shredded veggies like Chinese turnips, carrots, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, prawns, eggs and Chinese sausage, depending on your appetite, order one for a snack or two for a meal. Tightly rolled and chopped, each one is then seasoned with garlic, chili paste and a delicious dark sweet bean sauce. You’ll be a lucky person if you’re invited to a "popiah party," where the ingredients are laid out and you get to make your own popiah just the way you like!
Three worthy places for Hokkien in Singapore:Come Daily Fried Hokkien Prawn Mee, Block 127 Lor 1 Toa Payoh #02-27 (S) 310127, Opening Hours: (Tue – Sat) 10:30am – 10:00pm, (Sun) 9:00am – 7:00, Closed on Mon. Tel: 6251 8542, 9671 7071
Kim’s Cuisine, 101 Beach Rd #01-01 The 101 (S) 189703, Opening Hours: 11:00am – 1:00am, Tel: 6336 1721 Fax: 6336 1723, Catering Hotline 8113 1330, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Yong Huat, 125/127 East Coast Rd (S) 428810, Opening Hours: 8:00am – 8:00pm, Catering and delivery services: 96301370
Teochew food, from the region around Swatow, China, is known for slow, low-fire roasting and steaming, with minimal usage of lard and seasonings. Teochew are mostly known for their crystal clear soups, which are cooked at a low simmer for a perfectly light taste. Equally famous is Congee, or rice porridge. Congee is a very simple sit down meal, perfect for breakfast, lunch or dinner; a steaming bowl of thick rice porridge served with many side dishes of meats and veggies and sauces to choose from for a feasting experience!
Teochew is famous for it’s seafood as well, including the classic steamed fish or braised fowls, mostly goose or duck. Their style is noted for it’s delicate yet robust flavors and is oilier than most Chinese cooking. More popular with Singaporeans and Southern Chinese and suitable for western taste-buds is Char Kway Teow, which are flat rice noodles fried with fresh seafood like shrimps, mussels and cockles, with bean sprouts, egg and Chinese chives thrown in, seasoned from mild to spicy with a thick chili paste. If you’ve ever had "Singapore Noodles" abroad, more than likely it was a rice vermicelli cooked in Teochew style. Surprisingly enough, you won’t find this dish on the menus in Singapore.
Three worthy places for Teochew in Singapore:Chiw Kee Teochew Fishball Noodle, 505 Beach Rd Golden Mile Food Centre #B1-47 (S) 199583, Opening Hours: 8:00am – 11:00pm, Tel: 6295 3930
Teochew Garden Restaurant, 298, 300, 300B Beach Road, B1-03/08 The Concourse, (S) 119554, Opening Hours: 11:00am – 2:15pm, 6:00pm – 9:15pm, Tel: 6292 3833, Fax: 6292 7320
Liang Kee Teochew Restaurant, 30 Robertson Quay #01-10/11, Riverside View Apartment, (S) 238251 Tel: 6734 7900
Not so common in Singapore, if you mention Szechuan cuisine, most locals immediately envision platters of hot, spicy food like shredded beef fried in chilies – so hot you’ll burn your taste buds. But there’s so much more to Szechuan cuisine than just spicy dishes. Szechuan is considered to be one of the more ‘gourmet’ Chinese cuisines, (and the price usually reflects this outside Szechuan). It’s therefore mostly popular with westerners and nomadic herdsmen.
A note when eating
Oil and water don’t mix, which is why drinking water is no help when eating spicy foods. You see, most spices are oily and the water just rolls on over the spice. Do what the Chinese do, eat rice instead to absorbs the hot chili oils.
Szechuan dishes have a thicker texture, which is achieved by stir-frying the food until it’s quite dry, crusty even, then tossing it in a spicy sauce, which concentrates the flavors in the dish. Containing many flavors like sweet, sour, bitter, hot, salty, aromatic and fragrant, its the spices like red chili and fagara (Chinese pepper, a berry from the prickly ash tree), which wakes up your taste buds, making them more sensitive to all the flavors.
So while there are spicy dishes like the "Hot and Numbing Fish" or the world famous "Kung Pao Chicken," Szechuan also creates such gems as the "Tea Smoked Duck" a subtle smoky dish made by smoking a duck over camphor wood and fragrant tea leaves at a low heat. Chilies came to Szechuan in a trade with the Italians, who went home with Szechuan Noodles, calling them spaghetti.
Three worthy places for Szechuan in Singapore:Peony-Jade Restaurant, Blk 3A Clarke Quay #02-02, (S) 179021
Opening Hours: lunch 11:00am – 3:00pm, Dinner 6:00pm – 11:00pm, Tel: 9633 9146, 6338 0305, Fax 6338 1532 (Peony-Jade) / 6338 1532 (office)
Seletar Hill Restaurant, 16 Jalan Selaseh (S) 808440, Opening Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner except Mondays and closed for lunch on Saturdays. Lunch 11:30am – 2:30pm, Dinner 5:30pm – 9:30pm (Sun – Fri), 5:30pm – 9.30pm (Sat), Tel: 6483 0348, Fax: 6481 5935
Szechuan Court and Kitchen, Level 3, Raffles The Plaza, 2 Stamford Road (S) Opening Hours: Lunch Daily Noon – 3:00pm, Dinner Daily 6:30pm – 10:30pm, Tel: 6431 6156, Fax: 6338 2862
Text and photos by Jeffree Benet for The American Club Singapore