Eating in Singapore presents a world’s worth of options, from humble local street food to top-notch international cuisine. With so many cultures in one place, you can eat your way around the globe, limited only by the capacity of your stomach.
Though I wouldn’t consider myself a foodie, I am an adventurous eater, and I enjoy experiencing a culture through its food. I generally gravitate toward everyday local favorites, rather than the high-end restaurant-of-the-moment. Though I’m not one to plan out every meal, I do try to ensure I’m not missing out on something essential. Sometimes, however, I cast strategy aside, and out of convenience or necessity, I just settle in to whatever food establishment presents itself.
So, that being said, my ratio of planning to opportunism in Singapore was about 50/50. I know I didn’t check off everything I “should” have eaten. Thanks to (friendly) interrogations by taxi drivers, I’m still wracked with guilt that I didn’t eat the chili crab. “Have you had X? Have you had Y? Please tell me you tried the chili crab!” I’m sorry, Singapore! I’m sorry! It just… didn’t happen. (Actually, I tried to have it for lunch at No Signboard. However, the restaurant isn’t really geared toward solo diners, so I was forced to abandon the effort. Anyway, eating crab is a lot of work.)
Still, with the limited time I had, I did manage to cram in a lot of tasty culinary experiences (had to have something to go with the beer…). Here are my favorites.
BREAKFAST: KOPI & KAYA TOAST
Searching for a place to grab an early breakfast near Chinatown, I read that coffee and toast was kind of a thing (thanks, Lonely Planet). It sounded so mundane, I just had to check it out. In reality, it’s kaya toast and kopi, which make things a little more interesting. Kaya is a sort of jam made from coconut and eggs (though the coconut flavor is subtle-to-absent). Kopi is thick, strong coffee served with condensed milk, which makes it slightly sweet.
Ya Kun Kaya Toast (18 China Street)
I took Lonely Plant’s suggestion and headed to Ya Kun Kaya Toast in Far East Square. This grande dame of toast spots, in business since the 1940s and now a thriving chain, is described as a good place to people watch. However, I was up so darned early (8 am) that the only people to watch were those cleaning up the square from the night before. As would be expected from a place found in a guidebook, they’re … well-prepared … to steer tourists toward the standard set meal of kopi, kaya toast, and soft-cooked egg. Regardless, I did enjoy my breakfast.
Despite my server’s strong recommendations, I vetoed the eggs. Though the thin, crispy toast is tailor-made for dipping, I just cannot, canNOT do runny eggs anywhere in the world. Instead I just got the kopi and a couple slices of toast with kaya and butter sandwiched between them. There’s definitely nothing to complain about when it comes to bread with tasty spreads.
YY Kafei Dian (37 Beach Road #01-01)
Having “discovered” the magic of toast with kaya, I was more than willing to try other variants of this not-so-basic breakfast. One night, my cab driver remarked that there was a very good breakfast place right around the corner from my hotel. (Singaporean cab drivers seem to love giving recommendations.) So the next day I gave YY Kafei Dian a try and encountered a version I liked even better than Ya Kun’s toast – the kaya toast bun. The bread was much thicker and softer, slightly sweet, and toasted just enough to give it a crispy outer layer. I probably would have gone back for a second (or third!) order, but the lines were prohibitively long and I had sights to see.
>> Pro tip: Ask your cab driver for food recommendations.
LUNCH: HAWKER CENTER FOOD TOUR
Though, as I said, I’m not a hard-core foodie, I have become a fan of local food tours. Besides introducing you to the local cuisine, they also help you pick up tidbits about local culture and get the lay of the land around the area you’re visiting. Unlike typical sightseeing tours, they have a social component to them as well. Instead of focusing entirely on the guide, you can converse over a meal with both locals and fellow visitors.
I especially recommend food tours for solo travelers who don’t want to spend all their meals dining alone. Additionally, in cultures where sharing food is the norm, it gives you a chance to try a wider variety of dishes than you would get solo.
>> Pro tip: When traveling alone, find some dining buddies by joining a food tour.
Vayable: take a tour with a local
For my lunch on my second day, I booked a lunchtime tour through Vayable, which links travelers up with “unique experiences offered by local insiders.” Most of the guides are just regular people who are passionate about a specific subject or activity and want to share their hometown with visitors. (Airbnb is now doing something similar with their Experiences offering.)
>> Pro tip: If you want to check out a Vayable tour, use this link and I’ll get a referral bonus. Then you can refer your friends and get a bonus, too!
My guide, Lynn, worked in financial services software during the week and offered food tours on the weekends, just for fun. She said she likes meeting new people and sharing Singapore’s diverse cuisine with visitors. Usually she takes small groups (maybe 2-4 people), but she made an exception for me, warning I might not be able to try as many foods without others to share the eating responsibilities. However, when we met, she’d kindly brought a friend to help us make our way through more dishes.
Hawker centers: More appetizing than they sound
After meeting at the Budda Tooth Relic Temple, we headed over to the Chinatown Complex Food Center (335 Smith Street). There Lynn explained what exactly a hawker center is: a multi-storey, open-air building with food stalls and seating areas. Street food vendors can sell their wares, and diners can build a meal from a huge variety of inexpensive food choices, all in one place. Hawker centers are essentially a cleaner, better-organized answer to food carts. After trying several dishes, we got into Lynn’s car and drove out to the Old Airport Road hawker center. Though not centrally located, it is one of the oldest, largest, and, by many accounts, best food centers in Singapore.
At both places we visited, the food was simple, but delicious. While we were eating, Lynn explained the significance and origin of each of the dishes. Highlights included
- Hainanese chicken rice: poached chicken and rice cooked in seasoned chicken stock, one of Singapore’s national dishes
- Peranakan Laksa: spicy seafood and noodle soup (Peranakan is essentially the intersection of Chinese and Malay culture local to the areas around the Malay archipelago)
- Hokkien mee: a mixture of rice and egg noodles stir-fried with egg, prawns, squid, and pork; it originated with Chinese workers who would make a meal of left-over scrap noodles from the noodle factories
- Carrot cake: neither carrot nor cake, it’s a savory (and delicious) dish of fried and seasoned pieces of white radish (sometimes translated as carrot) mixed with rice flour (“cake” being the translation for anything made of flour)
- Sugar cane juice: sweeter than, but as refreshing as, lemonade on a steaming hot day
- Iced kopi: because it’s iced coffee
This tour was a fabulous deal. For US $30 (tips appreciated), I got
- Two friendly dining companions
- Great conversation with locals
- A feast of signature Singaporean dishes that included 3 beverages, 3 soups, 3 main dishes, 2 desserts (and I might have forgotten something!)
- Transport between two hawker centers (Chinatown and Old Airport Road) and a ride back to my hotel
DINNER: BREWS AND BRISKET
There’s nothing so quintessentially Singaporean as craft beer and brisket.
Ok, that’s definitely not what they say.
I have to confess, however, that I only made it to dinner twice. Just like I couldn’t manage to drink as much as I wanted in Singapore, I also couldn’t eat as much. It might not seem that way, given the length of this post, but heat (eventually) kills my appetite.
My beer-and-brisket adventure was one of those cases of food opportunism. After some hard-core beer sampling at Little Island Brewing Company (Block 6 Changi Village Road #01-01/02; last stop before my flight home), I was getting pretty hungry. Fortunately, they just happen to have a fantastic BBQ joint on the same property. Singapore can definitely hang when it comes to global food trends, including giant piles of falls-apart-amazing brisket and pork belly.
Sadly, I have no photographic evidence of this meal beyond the beer. However, as much as I like brisket, a pile of meat is really not that picturesque, so let’s move on.
Ok, I’m not sure this counts as a snack or self-inflicted torture, but I just had to get some durian. The previous time I’d eaten durian, at a mall in Hong Kong, it tasted like a blend of pineapple and mildly stinky cheese. Not exactly delicious, but intriguing.
I’d heard a long time ago that the huge, spiky, stinky green fruit has a sort of mixed reputation in Singapore. Many people LOVE it, but the smell is so strong that it’s not allowed on public transit. So of course I had to try some while I was there.
In search of…
On my last day, walking around the Joo Chiat/Katong area in search of the colorful Peranakan town houses, I passed lots of fruit shops, which reminded me that I had not yet checked durian off my list. I stopped at several vendors, but they all denied me my durian. One shopkeeper said they wouldn’t have any until the next day (sadly, I’d be gone). Another said he wouldn’t be able to cut it until after lunch, maybe 2 pm. I have no idea why, but no amount of cajoling could change the guy’s mind. Time was running out; how was I going to get my durian?!
Fortunately Lonely Planet had the answer, and it was on my way back to the hotel. The guide book recommended a shop called Durian Culture (77 Sims Avenue), which is one of several open-air stalls lined up along Sims Road in Kallang. As LP described it, the manager sort of sounded like a durian sommelier, who would help you select one to suit your tastes.
This is in fact what happened. Several grades of durian were on display, with different prices and apparently different flavor profiles. The manager asked me what I liked, and reading my blank look correctly, choose a cling-wrapped styrofoam box from the mid-high price range (Singapore $15, or about Us $11), saying that it was a good sweet one.
Knowing that I couldn’t take the leftovers with me, I endeavored to eat all of it. Having failed to secure chili crab for lunch at No Signboard, I was pretty hungry, so I thought I was up to the task.
So I sat myself down at a rickety picnic table, tore into the cling wrap, picked up a piece and…
Imagine eating a creamy, sticky, somewhat stringy mass of something that tastes like a combination of butterscotch and lighter fluid. Try to smile while you do that. Think about the fact that you’ve just spent $11 for this experience.
>> Pro tip: Do not attempt to eat three large pieces of durian without some water to wash it down. Durian Culture is not in the water business, so I had to tough it out until I found a convenience store.
After a few bites, the lighter fluid flavor dissipated and I was left with a slightly fruity butterscotch taste, which really wasn’t bad. My initial assessment of durian stands: not exactly delicious, but intriguing. I’d try it again, but maybe not in such large quantity. There’s got to be a reason people love that stuff.
AND NOW I’M HUNGRY
Writing this post made me super hungry for Hokkien mee. I figured there must be a place in Chicago where I could get some, but after Googling and Yelping, I came up empty. The closest thing to Singaporean cuisine I could find was a Malaysian restaurant. How can this be? Someone needs to set up a hawker center here! (Only, maybe call it something else…) Anyone know where I can get some Singaporean food? I even looked up Hokkien mee recipes, but honestly, making my own prawn stock is a bit too advanced for me.
What about you? What foods do you crave from your travels? How do you satisfy these cravings?
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