For such a small country, Singapore sure has a thriving food scene. Lucky for visitors, most of its staple dishes are affordable and easy to find inside bustling hawker centres.
With major influences coming from the Malay, Chinese, Indonesian and Indian communities, you’ll find a wide variety of dishes in the city-state. If you’re not sure where to start, ask a local for their recommendations and they’ll no doubt have a long list of restaurants and stalls for you.
From the flavourful Hokkien mee to a carrot cake that has nothing to do with dessert, here are five dishes you need to try in Singapore (or Australia).
“Hokkien mee is a street food which was originally created by the Hokkien people from the Fujian province of China. It’s sold on every corner in Singapore,” says Alan Han, who serves the noodle dish at The Old Raffles Place in Melbourne.
Singapore-style Hokkien mee is made with a mix of thick egg noodles and thin rice noodles, as well as prawn, pork belly, squid and egg. The dish gets its distinctive flavour from being braised in prawn stock.
Fish head curry
Fish head curry is a dish with a South Indian influence, which is also very popular among the Chinese community of Singapore. “In the 1960’s a gentleman by the name of Mr. Gomez [originally from Kerala, India], came up with the flavours just to cater for the Chinese workers,” explains Singaporean-born Sashi Cheliah on the series Asia Unplated.
The head of a fish, most often red snapper, is stewed in a hot and flagrant curry with eggplant and okra.
“A lot of people are quite squeamish eating the fish head,” says Chan. “There's actually so much meat on a fish head. I think the cheeks are probably one of the sweetest parts of the fish.”
When Singaporeans talk about carrot cake, it has nothing to do with dessert, or even carrots. Their carrot cake is savoury and made with grated radish and rice flour that is shaped into cubes and steamed. The cubes are fried to order in a wok with ingredients like kecap manis, preserved turnip, garlic, eggs and chilli.
“It’s typically Singapore, only Singaporeans do it this way,” says Han. “It’s not really a meal, it's more of a snack [and is] most popular in the morning for breakfast, but it can be eaten around the clock.”
For a plate full of fragrant biryani, head straight to one of the many Muslim-Indian restaurants of Singapore. Popular in Southeast Asia, you’ll also find different versions in some Middle Eastern and African countries.
Basmati rice is cooked with spices like star anise, cardamom and cinnamon, and mixed with a curry (chicken and mutton are especially popular in Singapore).
“The spices are very intense,” says Cheliah about his biryani. “The flavour is intense, and it's a little spicier than what you get in Eastern or Northern India.”
Promoted by the country’s tourism board as one of Singapore’s national dishes, chilli crab is actually not that hot. The tomato-based sauce coating the mud crabs contains a bit of chilli, but is more on the savoury and sweet side.
“It’s very messy to eat. You must use your hands; you can’t use a spoon or chopsticks. You also use mantou, Chinese buns, to soak up the sauce,” says Han.
Once you’ve had chilli crab, make sure to try the almost equally popular black pepper crab.
Catch Diana Chan and friends cooking and eating their way across Asia in Australia in the brand-new series, Asia Uplated with Diana Chan. Airs on SBS Food at 8pm Thursdays from 19 December 2019 to 20 February 2020, or catch up on SBS On Demand. Follow the five to try series here.