This vigour, coupled with the wide range of fresh produce offered, means eating here is an experience you will not soon forget. While there are a number of Western, Thai, Korean, and Japanese cooking styles available, a trip to Singapore is not really complete until you’ve taken a journey through the following cuisines, which are found all over town.
Malay cooking has a long and rich history. Rice or nasi is eaten with every meal and comes in many forms, from plain white rice to the elaborate nasi minyak, a saffron rice cooked in ghee and served at weddings.
Ingredients such as banana leaf used for steaming food, dried fish, kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass and turmeric also feature prominently. Chilli is also present in many dishes. This is often incorporated into the sauce or mixed into a rich paste and used as a condiment called sambal. Satay, popular throughout the region, is the Malay version of the kebab.
Arab traders who brought the Muslim faith to Southeast Asia also introduced the kebab, and the locals embellished the meat with spices before being grilled. Rendang is another popular dish, which consists of meat stewed in a rich coconut curry. This delicious dish was originally used to tenderize and disguise tough meat. A Malay influence can also been seen in one of the island’s signature dishes, chilli crab. For this tasty dish, whole crabs are steamed and then served up in a rich, spicy, chilli sauce.
Chinese food is often enjoyed, and the full diversity of Chinese cuisines may be sampled, from the simple elegance of Cantonese to the rich and spicy foods of Sichuan. The most popular Chinese dish available is probably chicken rice. Originating from the island of Hainan it is a lunch time favorite consisting of poached chicken served in a simple sauce with chicken broth and chicken flavored rice. Hokkien mee is another favorite: egg noodles are fried with pork, prawn, squid and bean sprout and garnished with lime and chilli sauce.
Teochew steamboat-style cooking is also common. In it, vegetables, meat and seafood are dipped by diners into a bubbling broth which is placed at the center of the table. Another specialty is drunken prawns. Not for the light-hearted, prawns are brought to the table alive and doused in liquor to be inspected before disappearing back to the kitchen for cooking!
Peranakan food, a fusion of Chinese and Malay cooking can also be tried here. Traditional Chinese dishes and ingredients are embellished and often improved with coconut, turmeric, pandan leaf and other indigenous Malay flavors. Laksa is a good example of this. It is a combination of noodles, prawn, bean sprout and quail egg served in a coconut spiced soup and often garnished with coriander. Most Malay cooks are Muslim and therefore do not use pork, however this meat is used by Peranakan chefs who will, for instance, serve pork satay.
Peranakan however, is not the only fusion food available in this cosmopolitan island. Colonial influences still abound, and afternoon tea is served at many hotels. Kaya and bun is a popular snack consisting of coconut jam eaten with traditional British bread. Also ubiquitous is the curry puff, a combination of curry vegetable wrapped in a piece of puff pastry.
Indian food is popular and eaten all over the island. Snacks such as roti prata, a fried flat bread are enjoyed by many and are especially popular with late night revellers on their way home. Murtabak a Muslim dish where roti pancakes are layered with meat and covered in a curry sauce is another favorite, often eaten for lunch. Many Indian restaurants and homes serve food on banana leaves after the southern Indian custom, and people are encouraged to eat with their fingers. All over town fish head curry can be sampled. Apparently unknown in India, this dish takes a fish’s head (believed by the Malay to be the sweetest, most succulent piece of meat) and cooks it in a rich Indian curry sauce.
Originally published in Global Gourmet.