China South of the Clouds

Traveling and Cooking in China's Yunnan Province

Where to Eat in Singapore: A Guide for First-Time Visitors

September 4th, 2017

Singapore has long been known as a great culinary destination. Thanks to a population of Malay, Chinese, and Indian descendants who have been living side-by-side for generations, the island nation has some of the world’s most flavorful and unique foods. While the city is mostly famous for its hawker markets (where specialists cook up cheap, delicious dishes in tiny stalls), in the past few years the city’s high-end restaurant scene has also come into its own. Singapore now boasts a wide variety of international cuisines along with new restaurants from world-famous chefs and upscale eateries where locals put new spins on traditional flavors. But with so many amazing food options, how do you know where to start? I had the great luck to spend a few days in Singapore last summer (courtesy of a press invite to the city-state’s annual food festival). Here are some of my favorite stops:

Keng Eng Kee Seafood
If there’s one dish that travelers think of when they think of Singapore, it’s the city’s famous chilli crab, a sweet, spicy dish of whole crab that is first flash-fried and then stir-fried with a mix of chile paste, tomato, eggs, and aromatics. At Keng Eng Kee Seafood the chefs make a delicious version of the dish as well as other local specialties like black pepper crab and “salted egg” prawns, a preparation using salted egg yolks, evaporated milk, butter, and fish sauce that is wildly popular all across the city—and surprisingly delicious. (; Blk 124 Bukit Merah Lane 1 ,#01-136)

328 Katong Laksa
Another local specialty, laksa, combines tender noodles and seafood with a rich, chile-infused coconut broth. At this newly renovated (now fast-food-styled) eatery, the soup is mixed with small shrimp and topped with thin slices of flavorful cockles, and the noodles are cut up so that you can eat the whole thing with just a spoon. Dump in some extra chile sauce and grab a sweet calamansi lime juice or a fresh coconut to go with it. (216 East Coast Rd)

Tiong Bahru Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice
A good rule of thumb in hawker centers is that the best stalls have the longest lines. And this busy spot in the popular Tiong Bahru center always has a queue of people waiting for its simple, flavorful chicken rice. The stand offers a few dishes, but the classic is the steamed chicken. It comes with a couple slivers of cucumbers and chile and garlic sauces, but the real treat is the rice itself, which takes its flavor from the chicken broth. (#02-82 Tiong Bahru Hawker Center, 30 Seng Poh Road)

Jian Bo Shui Kueh
Another stall in Tiong Bahru, Jian Bo Shi Kueh, specializes in chwee kueh, or “water cakes.” (In fact, the name of the stand, “shui kueh,” is an alternate name for the dish.) These little bites of steamed rice flour are topped with an umami-rich sauce made from slowly-cooked radish, and the two elements together are a delightful combination of tender texture and fantastic flavor. They’re often eaten for breakfast, but they’re a great snack any time of day. (While you’re there, make sure to also check out the array of sweets offered at Tiong Bahru, like the shaved ice topped with fruit pictured above.) (; #02-05 Tiong Bahru Hawker Center, 30 Seng Poh Road)


Ya Kun
While chwee kueh is a flavorful way to start the day, Singapore’s most popular breakfast is actually something a little more familiar to Western palates—soft-boiled eggs, coffee, and toast. But this is no regular eggs and toast. The eggs come hot, in their shells, so that you can decide how firm you want them (crack them right away for super runny whites, or leave them 3-5 minutes to firm up a bit), and they’re served with soy sauce and white pepper. And then there’s the toast, which is spread with kaya, a jam-like mixture of coconut milk, eggs, and sugar flavored with pandan leaves. The most famous version is served at Ya Kun, a business that has been around since the 1930s and also serves French toast with kaya. (; various locations)

National Kitchen
As a nation of immigrants, Singapore doesn’t have one specific indigenous food style, but for unique, only-in-Singapore flavors, look no further than the foods of the Peranakans. Cooks in this community of locally born descendants of mixed ancestry (usually the grand-children, great grand-children, etc, of Chinese or Indian immigrants who married local Malay women), have combined the flavors of disparate ancestors over the years and developed a fusion of cooking styles that has taken on a character of its own. At National Kitchen, a gorgeous restaurant in the National Gallery Singapore, celebrity chef Violet Oon, the grande dame of Singaporean food, serves upscale versions of dishes like kueh pie tee, a small fried crispy tart shell filled with stir-fried vegetables and shrimp, and buah keluak ayam, a dish of chicken stewed with keluak nuts that turn the broth black. (; National Gallery, 1 St Andrews Road; 9834-9935)

Zam Zam
A different style of the local fusion cuisine can be found at this Indian-Muslim restaurant that first opened in 1908. It’s a favorite with both visitors and locals and is particularly known for its venison dishes, like deer murtabak (a stuffed, fried, pancake-like bread), which are only available on the weekends. On other days, try the chicken murtabak, nasi goreng merah (Indonesian-style fried rice), and some local fish head curry, plus a cold glass of sweet rose-flavored milk to wash it all down. (697 North Bridge Road; 6296-7790)

While “fusion” cuisines have always been the bedrock of the Singaporean food scene, the term nowadays usually refers to a cooking style that has become popular among high-end chefs in the past few years. A handful of locals (and international transplants) have brought cutting edge western cooking techniques to the city, and they’re using them to turn local ingredients and into creative new dishes. At Labyrinth, a spot known for its “inventive modern cuisine,” chef LG Han reinvents classic Singaporean and Western flavors with dishes like fish and chips in a pea soup foam, or a Hiroshima oyster “laksa” made up of a grilled oyster and coconut jelly “noodles” flavored with a “snow” made by chilling laksa broth with liquid nitrogen. (; Esplanade Mall, 8 Raffles Avenue #02-23; 6223 4098)

Tippling Club
Another fusion restaurant, this lovely spot is owned and run by Aussie transplant Chef Ryan Clift and is extremely popular for its visually stunning experimental cuisine and its inventive cocktails. While not all the dishes incorporate Asian flavors, Clift often plays with riffs on local favorites; his Newton’s Oyster Omelette, for instance, turns a hawker center dish made from eggs and oysters mixed with a bit of potato starch into a small bite of raw oyster, tender potato, and broken sous-vide egg topped with pureed chive and a single chive flower. (; 38 Tanjong Pagar Rd; 6475-2217)

28 Hong Kong St
Once you’re done eating, make sure to stop by this popular speakeasy-style bar for an after dinner drink. The resident cocktail guru, Peter Chua, just won Diageo’s contest for best bartender in Southeast Asia, and the drinks he and his colleagues dream up are a perfect mix of Singaporean flavors and old-school techniques. The Coppertone—a take on a Manhattan made with rum, coconut oil, and pineapple—tastes like a day at the beach in all the right ways. (; 28 Hong Kong St)

Photos: Georgia Freedman (1), Courtesy of Keng Eng Kee Seafood (1), Georgia Freedman (7)