About the food of Singapore

Downtown Raffles Place by Dem Romero

Downtown Raffles Place by Dem Romero

Imagine a land of sparkling skyscrapers built in a land so humid that, if you shut your eyes, you could almost feel the rain forest drip down onto your cheeks. This is Singapore, a slick, modern, island nation known for her diverse population, epitomized by an astounding four official languages (Chinese, English, Malay, and Tamil).

Where once towering jungle stood, glass and steel now touch the sky.

If you’re looking for sprawling nature, you’ll have to spread out a little, and explore her 50 other small islands.

Go Fly A Kite – Chek Jawa, Singapore by William Cho

Go Fly A Kite – Chek Jawa, Singapore by William Cho

Anthony Bourdain said of Singapore’s melting pot: “If you love food, this might be the best place on earth.”  The irony, of course, is that this spectacular food comes served in Food Courts, something I steer clear of in our Midwestern malls, where sad toothpicks of syrupy chicken are pushed in my direction, as unwelcome as they are flabby.

View from UOB Plaza by Jacklee

View from UOB Plaza by Jacklee

But food courts in Singapore are a different animal entirely. In the clean, often noisy kitchens which overlook clusters of metal tables and chairs, chefs are local stars – specialists in their specific cuisine, whether it be Indian, Chinese, Malaysian, or even Nonya (a popular blend of Chinese and Malaysian cooking styles).

While 80-90% of the food is imported, there’s still an incredible array of specialties, like Chili Crab or Chicken Rice  [Recipeor Chicken Satay (which we cooked for our Indonesian Global Table)… and, from the sounds of things, you just might get into a friendly brawl over the best food court to get it in.

And quite possibly over how to eat it.

Marina Bay and the Singapore skyline at dusk by William Cho

Marina Bay and the Singapore skyline at dusk by William Cho

Don’t let the simple names fool you;  when you actually bite down on the food of Singapore, you’ll uncover complex flavors in which ginger, garlic, and shallot come together over fragrant rice and under a sweltering layer of one of the many hundreds (thousands!) of local chilli sauces  [Recipe].

Daybreak at Changi Point by William Cho

Daybreak at Changi Point by William Cho

When I asked readers on our Facebook Page what they’d recommend, the list included such daydream-worthy items as Kaya (coconut milk curd) [Recipe], Oyster Omelets, and even bobor cha cha (a sweet potato and coconut milk tapioca custard). Spicy noodles called Laksa were mentioned several times, while others wrote to suggest Mee Goreng (fried noodles). There’s also a healthy Indian population, so roti, curried lentils, and rice pancakes (appam) are readily available.

I can’t complete this list without mentioning Bourdain’s recommendations for those of you who would like something a little more extreme: bone soup and shark head. The first involves using a straw to suck marrow out of blood red bones, while the second is… well… exactly what it sounds like, cooked shark head. Perhaps you’d like it with a few bites of coconut rice (nasi lemak)?

You go first.

Sunset at Changi beach Park Changi Point, Republic of Singapore Img by Calvin C Teo. Maps & Flag courtesy of CIA World Factbook.

Sunset at Changi beach Park Changi Point, Republic of Singapore Img by Calvin C Teo. Maps & Flag courtesy of CIA World Factbook.


  1. Marjan says

    Oh just reading this makes me want to go back to Singapore….I love love love Singapore and it’s food…..

    • Sasha Martin says

      You’re so fortunate you were able to go… I hope some day to sit in one of those amazing food courts (words I never thought I’d utter 😉 )

  2. I remember very well that Bourdain show…. made me dream!

    will be looking forward (as usual) to your next posts…

  3. Adeline says

    Looking forward to going home for a month to savor all the food and of cos to see my mum and bro! Chicken rice, nasi lemak, chilli crab…yummy.

  4. Brian S. says

    Until the government moved them into food courts called “Hawker centres” these were street vendors, and it’s a proud tradition. I remember reading about one old vendor, who, like many, had perfected one apparently simple dish, and his son asked him, isn’t it time you let me cook the dish, and the father replied, you have been working for me only twenty years, you are not ready yet!

    For music, I’ve chosen this modern Bhangra piece from India. Why? Well, there are Indians living and cooking in Singapore and, more important, this piece combines classic traditional singing and music with modern rock music and music from other countries… and that’s exactly what the food of Singapore does!

  5. Food courts are not all bad. Here in Atlanta, various Asian and Latin American nationalities have set up their own food courts, offering us a chance to sample a cook’s special dish. A food court can be a hybrid between street vendor and food truck operator (both either onerously regulated or forbidden by some municipalities) and a free-standing restaurant (which would almost require serving a full menu).

  6. Oh this is a place on my ever extending bucket list of travel! My friends’ father was transferred to Singapore when she was in high school and she her brother both ended up graduating from an American High School there. She would send letters with her accounts of life there and I have been super jealous ever since! I need to learn more about the food there, it all sounds delicious!

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