Do you know your nasi lemak from your nasi goreng?
Singapore has its own food language, much like the informal lingo of the locals, called Singlish.
The hybrid vocabulary reflects the broad range of the country’s immigrants, taking words from Malay, Tamil, Hokkien, Cantonese, Mandarin and other Chinese languages. Be prepared to hear words on the street like shiok, which means awesome. And lah, and can can, and OK lor. Singlish is colourful, snappy, expressive, and is part of Singapore’s unique heritage, just like its vibrant cuisine.
You have a list of where to eat in Singapore but street food is where the fun is. Familiarise yourself with the dishes and eat like, and with the locals! Here below is my list of the most popular street foods to try in Singapore.
A steaming bowl of rice noodles, swimming in a coconut curry soup. One of the more internationally known dishes from Singapore, this soup is packed with flavours of galangal, dried shrimp paste, shallots, chilies, lemongrass, and cooked in a seafood stock, thickened and made mild with coconut milk.
One of the most simple looking dishes but jam packed with flavour. You can have poached or roasted chicken – I prefer to get a bit of both for variety. It is served with white rice which is cooked in fragrant stock. The most important elements are the additions – I like it with lots of chilli with every spoonful of rice, but you can also add ginger and sesame oil dressing.
I want to take two minutes here to tell you about one of the first friends I made in Singapore. Someone who is still one of my closest friends today. If you want to skip this part, please scroll down to the image.
My second day at work, and maybe fifth day in the country, I had to run an errand so took a bus during my lunch break to Orchard, which was just two stops away from the office. On my way back, I was waiting at the bus stop when I saw this girl. She looked Indian, probably the same age as mine. I could’ve sworn she looked familiar. She saw me staring at her, our eyes met, and we looked away. My bus arrived, I got on, and she got on as well. Holding on to the railing, I asked her “Are you from Dubai?” She said, “No.”
“Are you?” she asked.
“Yes, I’ve just moved to Singapore. I work down the road at xx”
“Oh!” she smiled. “I know xx who works there.”
“Ah, that’s so cool.”
One more stop to go.
“So… I actually live close by,” she said. “Maybe we can get a drink or coffee sometime.”
Shuffling around, making way for people who were getting ready to get off at the next stop, at my stop, I smiled. She had such a beautiful, positive energy about her. “Yes! That would be awesome,” I said. Almost too eager.
My stop arrived. Oh oh. New city, new sim card. “I don’t know my phone number,” I said nervously, as I saw my opportunity to make a new friend slip away.
AH! Wait a minute! I reached into my handbag, grabbed my business card, and handed it to her as I jumped off the bus.
I stood there, smiling as the bus drove away. What a strange but delightful encounter!
Lo and behold, that evening – ping! Email from a Kalyani Iyer. The girl on the bus!
Whoever I tell this to, I say it sounds like a boy meets girl love story. And it kinda was We hung out all the time, she showed me the ins and outs of her home city, we took buses and trains to places far and wide, we went for martinis and sushi after work, breakfasts on weekends, I met her parents. We became close. And still are to this day.
On one of our breakfast dates, Kalyani asked me to meet her at Tekka market in Little India where she introduced me to this dish called carrot cake; it’s something I’ll always associate with her, and our shenanigans together in Singapore.
Carrot cake is not the dessert kind we all know. It’s not made with any carrots at all! The reason it’s called carrot cake is because it is made with daikon radish, which in a Chinese dialect refers to both, daikon radish and carrots. It consists of rice cakes made with rice flour and radish, fried with eggs, spring onions, soya sauce, and pork lard, topped with spring onion. This is the ultimate hangover food, comforting when most needed. Just like my Kaly
Char kway teow
A dish made with flat wide rice noodles, stir fried with egg, soy sauce, shrimp paste, chili, Chinese sausage and shrimp. Its quite cheap and cheerful, hearty and filling. It used to be known as the poor man’s meal but has now become the ultimate local favourite.
Bak chor mee
Literally meaning “minced meat and noodles”, this dish consists of egg noodles, topped with pork mince, slices and liver, some dumplings, seafood, and a soya chili vinegar sauce. You get other dry/soupy variations as well such as with fish/ prawn balls but the purist version remains pork based. It is filling, with a rich broth, noodles, meat, seafood – such a good value for money meal. And dishes like this is why I put on 6 kilos in six months of living in Singapore. Must try on holiday though!
It is a south-Indian flat bread served with a fish or mutton curry (gravy only, no meat). Prata stalls (not paratha or parota) are seen all over Singapore, many open late into the wee hours. The texture of the dough differs, anywhere from soft and chewy to flaky, fluffy, crispy, and anywhere in between.
Chendol is an iced dessert. It apparently originated in Indonesia and the word ‘jendol’ in Javanese refers to ‘bulge’ which is green worm like jello. Singapore’s traditional version of chendol consists of coconut milk, strips of green rice flour jelly, shaved ice, gula melaka (palm sugar), and red beans. For a local special, try one with durian! Strike two must-haves off your list.
Drink in a bag
Singapore is full of kopitiams (traditional coffee shops) around every corner so do as the locals do and get yourself a kopi (coffee), teh tarik (black tea with condensed milk), or iced Milo (yep, the infamous powdered chocolate milk) in a bag. It’s an experience to be had!
Read about other local drinks here.
Have you tried any of these? What’s your favourite?
This is the second of a three-part Singapore series. You can read Where to Eat in Singapore here, and coming up next week is an itinerary for 3-4 days in the city. Let me know if you have any questions so I can address them there. X
DISCLOSURE – I was a guest of Your Singapore Arabia on this trip, however I’ve been to Singapore before and these posts are solely a collection of my favourites. All opinions are my own.