Food for thought: 5 ways to experience Singapore’s taste obsession

There’s a local greeting in Singapore that perfectly embodies this country’s relationship with food: “Have you eaten?”

Olivia Lee
01 October 2022
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Singapore

There’s a local greeting in Singapore that perfectly embodies this country’s relationship with food: “Have you eaten?”

Food is at the heart of Singaporean culture, where eating is a national pastime, not just a necessity. Never have I experienced such fierce debates among friends as on the topic of food – which stalls sell the best prawn noodles, where can you find the most tender chicken, where’s the best durian come durian season?

And where good food is concerned, no queue is too long and joining the back of a snaking line of people to sample some of the most raved about hawker food is well worth the wait.

To put it simply: if you are a foodie, you’ll love Singapore. And you certainly must try these five culinary experiences at the very least…

1. Head to a hawker centre

Hawker culture is at the heart of Singaporean community life – so much so that it was inscribed as ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ by UNESCO in 2020.

These community food halls are open from morning to night, selling everything from crispy roasted duck and steamed pork buns to more eclectic (but equally delicious) choices like kway chap. The food is amazingly cheap – most dishes cost between $3-$6 (1.80-3.50) – and usually cooked right in front of you.

As the late Anthony Bourdain wrote about his 2017 visit to Singapore: “Singapore is possibly the most food-centric place on Earth, with the most enthusiastic diners, the most varied and abundant, affordable dishes — available for cheap — on a per-square-mile basis. The hawker centres (basically, food courts where individually-owned mom and pop operations serve street food from tiny shops and booths) are wonderlands of Chinese, Indian, and Malay specialties.”

With 115 hawker centres across Singapore, there’s plenty to choose from. One of my favourites is East Coast Lagoon, a large open-air centre by the beach that’s particularly vibrant at night. The sambal stingray (stingray grilled on a banana leaf, topped with spicy sambal sauce) and chicken satay (grilled over open coals) are perfect washed down with Tiger beer. Another favourite is Chinatown Food Complex, with a sprawling market downstairs and hundreds of food stalls on the first floor.

2. Eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant

As of 2022, there are 67 restaurants with a Michelin Bib Gourmand and 52 with at least one Michelin star – the most Singapore has ever had. That’s nearly as many as London in a city that’s half the size. Seven of Singapore’s restaurants have made it into ‘Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants’ and three have even made it into the ‘World’s 50 Best’. Good food is virtually a given when you visit Singapore.

If you’re looking to splash out, one Michelin-starred Labryinth is one of the best around and a fine example of “mod-Sin” cuisine. Here, you can enjoy fresh food and age-old recipes with a real contemporary twist. Likewise, Candlenut is the world’s first one Michelin starred Peranakan restaurant which features unique dishes lovingly reimagined from chef Malcolm Lee’s grandparents.

If budget is a concern, look no further than Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle – a humble kopitiam (coffee shop) with a Michelin star, serving noodles with crispy fried fish, minced pork and dumplings for under $10 (£6).

And don’t miss Fishball Story, a quick-serve eatery that is proud of its Singaporean hawker heritage. Founded by young chef Douglas Ng, the brand prides itself on premium quality ingredients and a superior taste, made possible by the recipe Douglas has perfected which has been handed down to him over generations.

3. Taste Singapore’s multiculturalism

Singapore is known for its multiculturalism – a mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian, Peranakan and other ethnicities. You’ll find these diverse influences throughout Singapore’s dining scene, although certain neighbourhoods embody certain cultures more strongly.

If you want great Chinese food, naturally there’s Chinatown. Oriental Chinese Restaurant is one of the most authentic I’ve tried. From the outside it’s a little intimidating, given most of the signs are in Chinese, but you can tell it’s good because there’s always a long queue. It serves up amazing, tongue-numbing Sichuan cuisine paired with an icee cold beer to wash it down.

For Indian cuisine, there’s Little India – a pocket of Indian culture quite distinct from the rest of Singapore. I recommend trying prawn vadai (crispy, chewy, savoury donuts deep-fried with large prawns) from Sky Lab hawker stall in Tekka Centre.

For a taste of local Singaporean food, be sure to order the likes of laksa (a coconut milk and spiced noodle soup), chilli crab and chicken rice which can be ordered from almost everywhere in Singapore.

4. Join a food tour

Sometimes the best spots in Singapore can also be the hardest to find. A food tour near the start of the trip can help you get your bearings – especially if you want to eat your way through everything in this list.

One of my favourite companies is Withlocals, because of their commitment to local experiences led by local people. They offer a range of personalised tours in Singapore, including a ‘10 Tastings of Singapore’ that introduces you to some of the city’s finest street food. You’ll walk through a variety of neighbourhoods led by a local guide, trying quintessential treats like teh tarik (milk tea) and rojak (a tangy and spicy Javanese fruit salad).

There is also Wok ’n’ Stroll, a passionate food company who can lead you on foodie tour from farm to table in the Kranji countryside, take you to the tastiest stands at the hawker centres and help you explore the culinary secrets of the Kampong Glam district.

5. Visit a food festival

It’s no surprise that a country as obsessed with food as Singapore would have a roster of festivals to celebrate it. One of the calendar highlights is the Singapore Food Festival, an annual event towards the end of each summer.

Its goal is to commemorate local food culture and share it with the world, with a diverse programme of experiences based on the pillars of heritage and innovation. This year, there were free masterclasses from some of Singapore’s leading chefs, a festival village packed with food stalls, food tours, cooking classes and more.

But this is Singapore, which means there’s always some kind of foodie event happening. Visit during the month of Ramadan and you’ll find night-time bazaars serving all kinds of hearty dishes to ‘break fast’ with. Visit during Chinese New Year and you’ll find Chinatown engulfed in red paraphernalia, with a tangle of street stalls selling snacks and sweets. Visit during Cocktail Month or Negroni Week and you’ll find all kinds of unique drinks, with tasting menus to match.

Ultimately, whatever time of year you visit, you’ll find something to celebrate. And what better way to celebrate than with good food?

Feeling inspired?

Reimagine your dream visit to Singapore now by heading over to the official website.

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