Singapore is one of the most efficiently run cities in the world, and the handprints of its capable government are everywhere – from the immaculately kept roads to the high hygiene standards. Part of its success is due to its small size and agility to move with the times. This can also be attributed to its historical and geographical position as a bustling free trading port when it was established in 1819 by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. Its predominantly immigrant population grew in tandem with its economic growth. The main ethnic groups in the 19th century were led by a vast majority of Chinese, Europeans, Indians and Malays. These core groups, with the Chinese Hokkiens and Teochews making up the greater part of the community, still exist today as shown by neighbourhoods such as Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Lam (the Malay district). This richness and diversity are reflected in the multi-cultural cuisine and the wide range of culinary treasures unique to this island.
- Black pepper crab
- Chili crab
- Claypot rice
- Crepe filled rolls, popiah
- Fried prawns with chili
- Fried spring rolls
- Grilled stingray with sambal
- Hainanese chicken rice
- Hakka stuffed beancurd yong tau foo
- Hot pot with various meats, dipping sauces & soup bases
- Indian mutton soup, sop kambing
- Oyster omelet
- Pork bone soup, bak kut teh
- Prawn noodle soup
- Rice noodles in spicy soup, mee siam
- Roast chicken and rice nasi ayam
- Spicy chicken soup with noodles, soto ayam
- Spicy coconut milk noodle soup, laksa
- Stuffed Indian bread, murtabak
- Teochew braised goose
In Singapore, it is hard to define where Chinese or Peranakan influence ends and where Malay or Indian influence begins. This wonderful melting pot of cultures and cuisines can take something as simple as noodles and infuse it with wonderful spices such as turmeric, tamarind, chilli and galangal, resulting in a dish that is neither Malay, Indian nor Chinese, but uniquely Singaporean. Its traditional food fare is considered predominantly Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine and includes dishes such as beef rendang, sambal prawns and asam fish head curry.
It is very common in Singapore to find several dishes representing different types of cuisine in one restaurant list. Hotel coffee shops, food halls and local kopitiams (traditional breakfast and coffee shops) feature perennial favourites. Hawkers’ stalls are more specialised and Singaporeans will go out of their way to eat the best bak kut teh, laksa or prawn mee soup.
Chinese food forms the base of Singaporean cuisine and includes a range of cooking methods and regional styles, such as Cantonese, Hokkien, Sichuan, Shanghainese and Teochew. There are numerous Singaporean versions of regional favourites such as Hainanese chicken rice or yong tau foo (beancurd stuffed with minced fish and vegetables). These differ from the original in the greater intensity of flavours – for example, the Singaporean version as opposed to the original Hainan-style dish involves serving hotter chillies and darker, more flavourful soy sauce with the boiled chicken. Singaporean taste buds, often used to stronger, more robust flavours, will often reach for the soy sauce with sliced chili, or chilli sambal, to go with their every meal.
Peranakan or Nyonya food, the country’s indigenous cuisine, blends Chinese and Malaysian ingredients and cooking methods. Combinations can include oyster sauce (Chinese influence) with coconut milk and toasted peanuts or belacan (prawn paste) with ginger and garlic. A classic Peranakan dish is otak-otak, a coconut based fish dish, seasoned with galangal, chilli paste and other herbs wrapped in banana leaf and grilled over flames.
Although Indians make up less than 10% of the population, their long-term presence is felt in their strong influence on food. The majority of Indians in Singapore are Tamils from the southernmost state of India as well as Sri Lanka. Southern Indian-style banana leaf restaurants abound – using banana leaf as the ‘plate’, a pile of rice forms the base and enjoyed with a wide selection of spicy fare. This can include pappadom (thin, crispy wafer), chicken or prawn masala, marinated vegetables and spicy curry dishes. Traditionally, the meal is eaten with hands, but in Singapore, forks and spoons are more often used.
FOOD & DINING CULTURE
Singaporean food is southeast Asian fusion food at its best. Spices from India combined with coconut from Thailand meet yellow Hokkien noodles stir-fried Cantonese-style in a hot wok and served with lime and sambal-chilli sauce, a Peranakan favourite condiment. Many of these dishes have evolved from the roving hawkers who sold popular snacks off carts that rolled through kampungs (villages). They became fixed roadside hawkers serving everyday staples that ranged from stuffed roti prata (flaky Indian bread), nasi lemak (coconut rice with peanuts and sambal), satay to Hokkien mee (thick yellow noodles).
The Singapore government’s zealous adherence to strict hygiene standards meant that most of the roadside stalls were brought indoors in the late 1980s. Under state auspices and fairly low rent, a filling and flavourful meal can be had for US$2 to US$3, often in an air-conditioned, clean environment. Food lovers are spoilt for choice in any of the city’s over 100 hawker centres and eating out is often cheaper than cooking at home.
Surrounded by water, seafood features highly in the Singaporean diet – whether it is fried noodles with shrimp or fish head curry or crispy fried sotong, squid. Many seafood items are combined with hearty Hokkien sauces to create dishes such as Hokkien mee with squid, prawns and vegetables cooked with a generous brown sauce. While the majority of Singaporeans are Hokkien, there are very few Hokkien restaurants in the city. But its influence on hawkers’ food is evident in such popular dishes as popiah (crêpe-filled spring rolls) and Hokkien bak ku teh (boiled pork ribs in seasoned soup).
Fine dining must compete with the amazing value of local fare – tasty everyday food at very low prices. Not surprisingly, local food is rarely found in fine dining outlets. Most of these upscale venues have European characteristics with wine featuring prominently at the table. Several decades ago, hotels headed the fine dining movement but independent restaurants quickly followed. Since the 1990s, Singapore has built a reputation for world-class restaurants led by Les Amis, Gunther’s and Iggy’s. Its talented chefs who openly embrace multi-cultural influences in their cooking are attracting attention regionally – Justin Quek is Singapore’s most prominent chef to export his skills to China. His marriage of French cooking with strong Asian influence reflects Singaporeans’ openness and very practical attitude about food – if it tastes good, they will embrace it.
WINE & BEVERAGE CULTURE
Choice of beverages customarily depends on the type of cuisine. For example, with Indian food, a salty or sweet lassi (yoghurt drink) may go with the meal. With Peranakan dishes, it may be fresh young coconut or other fresh fruit juices and with Chinese food, tea. Over time, given the tropical climate, cool beverages such as soft drinks and canned juices have become popular.
Among alcoholic drinks, it is beer that became a staple alongside local favourites like fragrant, coconut-scented nasi lemak. Tiger beer, which is now on its seventh decade of operation, is Singapore’s iconic brand and an international drink brewed in seven countries and consumed in over 60. Beer, with its refreshing character, low alcohol and inexpensive price, was the drink of choice until wine began to make inroads into the market beginning in the 1980s.
Currently, the country has one of the most knowledgeable wine communities in Asia, with scores of small tasting groups that meet religiously every week or every fortnight. The former Draycott Wine Club deserves mention as a closely knit group that served as a beacon for wine lovers discovering wine in the 1980s and 1990s. The media met this passionate group with equal enthusiasm, spawning publications such as Wine & Dine, The Wine Review and Cuisine & Wine Asia. While wine continues to grow in popularity, it is still largely limited to Western restaurants and efforts to marry wine with local flavours are still in their infancy.
WINE AND SINGAPOREAN CUISINE
Singaporean cuisine’s bold and intense flavours are a challenge to pair with wine. It is not just the spices and chilli, which can be tongue-numbing, but the combination of these spices along with a barrage of flavours – salty dried shrimps or anchovies, sweetness from coconuts or gula malaka (palm sugar) and sour notes from lime or tamarind. All of these qualities tantalise and delight but often leave little room for wine’s more subtle flavours. However, among Singaporean locals who like to experiment and have an equal passion for wine as well as food, certain combinations have resulted in big smiles and satisfied taste buds.
The generous use of sugar in many dishes means off-dry and medium-sweet wines can work well by acting as a foil for the array of spices and enhance a dish’s sweetness. The cool serving temperature of wines such as German Rieslings, off-dry Alsace whites and Moscato d’Asti gives refreshment value by cooling the mouth, offering firm acidity and at the same time, balancing the spiciness in the food. Sparkling wines are great refreshing companions to Singaporean food. With spicier food, opt for simpler flavours such as Italian Prosecco, German Sekt or a New World counterpart. When the spices and flavours are not overpowering, a full-bodied style Champagne can work well.
Red wine lovers also have a wide variety of options since the richness in many sauces is a good match with fruity red wines with modest tannins. Cool climate red wines possess firm acidity and Pinot Noir is the best option for a wide variety of Singaporean food. New Zealand and cool climate Australian Pinot Noir are excellent choices since the prominent fruit, moderate tannins and fresh acidity offer a nice counterpoint to savoury dishes.
RECOMMENDED WINES FOR SINGAPOREAN CUISINE
- Southern Rhone
- Red Burgundy
- New World Chardonnay
- Spanish White
- New World Sparkling