As a Singaporean, I share the same passion for Singapore cuisine and rich culinary culture as many other locals who just cannot stop talking about everything food-related. There are just so many local classics that I absolutely love! From local delights to savoury treats , whether they can be found in hawker centres or restaurants, the wide food variety in Singapore has kept me hooked every single day.
For locals and many tourists alike, Singapore is the ultimate food paradise. And when we say the ultimate food paradise, we mean it – there are countless dishes that Singaporeans are proud to call our own, with many originating from diverse cultures that make up Singapore’s vibrant society. The blending of different cultures and regional cuisines has paved the way for Singapore’s modern gastronomic landscape, where our rich and diverse culture is most apparent.
My recent visit to the SINGAPO人: Discovering Chinese Singaporean Culture exhibition by the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre has left me awe-inspired and enlightened about the food, language and Chinese cultural practices in Singapore. The captivating exhibition has expanded my understanding and appreciation of the rich Chinese culture in Singapore, and ignited the curiosity in me to explore and delve deeper into my own cultural roots.
One of the zones within the exhibition - When Cultures Meet - featured how the Chinese in Singapore developed unique takes on food, which has led to some of the most popular dishes in Singapore. Let’s take a closer look at how some of these came about as they evolved to accommodate our local preferences, and tweaked to perfection. We have also included some of our recommendations to the iconic, must-try local dishes, with some being within walking distance from the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre. Come along with us and indulge in a gastronomic journey!
1) The all-time favourite: Hainanese Chicken Rice
Listed as one of the best 50 foods worldwide by CNN in 2011 and recommended by internationally renowned personalities such as Gordon Ramsay and Anthony Bourdain, the Hainanese Chicken Rice has stepped out of home into the limelight of the international stage.
But did you know that the Hainanese Chicken Rice in Singapore likely evolved from a chicken rice dish from Hainan, an island off the southern coast of China? While the cooking hails back to its Hainanese roots, unique local twists were added to Hainan Island’s Wenchang chicken brought over by early Chinese migrants. In particular, the early immigrants learnt from the Cantonese in Singapore to plunge freshly boiled chicken into iced water to achieve tender flesh with smooth skin. They also replaced the smaller, bonier, and more muscular traditional Wenchang chicken with soft, white-cut tender chickens. These techniques have since been adopted and perfected by local hawkers over the decades. And, of course, we cannot forget the black sauce (not to be confused with the dark soy sauce), ginger sauce, and chilli sauce that always come paired with this signature dish.
As someone who grew up eating Hainanese Chicken Rice frequently, this dish holds a special place in my heart. It is perfect for sharing with my family, paired with delicious sides like braised soy sauce eggs and beansprouts. At the same time, it is also a dish that I enjoy on my own – whether it is for a quick lunch break, or an indulgent treat-myself meal.
In Singapore, this ubiquitous dish can be found in every corner of the island, from the bustling hawker centres and kopitiams (neighbourhood coffee shops) to upscale restaurants. Most Singaporeans would have their go-to spot for a chicken rice mix and personally, my favourites have got to be Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice at Maxwell Food Centre - a Hainanese food joint to check out - and Boon Tong Kee Chicken Rice which boasts nine outlets across Singapore. What draws me to these two established chicken rice brands is their incredibly tender chicken, chilli sauces that pack a punch and the enticing aroma of the chicken rice that lingers in the air, making you hungrier by the minute while waiting in line. They truly check the boxes for a satisfying chicken rice experience.
Fun fact: Did you know that “kopitiam” is a popular Singapore lingo, formed by combining the Malay term “kopi” (coffee) and Hokkien term “tiam” (shop)?
Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice
Address: 1 Kadayanallur St, Maxwell Food Centre, #01-10/11, Singapore 069184
Opening hours: 10:00am to 7:30pm daily; Closed every Monday
Pro-tip: Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice at Maxwell Food Centre is a 10min walk away from Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre - you can savour this quintessential Singaporean dish after your visit to the SINGAPO人 exhibition, plus many other local dishes at the famous food centre!
Boon Tong Kee
Check out the locations of the nine outlets in Singapore on the Boon Tong Kee website
2) The well-liked hawker food: Yong Tau Foo
I just cannot imagine my life without hawker centres (food centres with many stalls serving a wide variety of dishes and cuisines). Just like many Singaporeans, these communal spaces are an integral part of my life where I catch up with my family and friends over a hearty meal. And the hawker food that I have many fond memories of is Yong Tau Foo (tofu stuffed with meat and/or fish paste).
Typically served with different types of vegetables, some stuffed with meat or fish paste as well, I love how I can mix and match different ingredients to create different flavours every time. It was not until recently that I learnt about its origins and how Yong Tau Foo was brought to the region by the early Hakkas from northern China.
Did you know that dumplings are indispensable to the Hakkas when it comes to major festivals like Chinese New Year because they believe that dumplings bring good fortune? But when wheat was not commonly found in Southeast Asia, I thought the Hakkas were quite creative in replacing the dumpling skin with tofu and stuffing fish paste or minced meat into them to create Yong Tau Foo (which means “stuffed tofu” in the Hakka dialect)!
Today, our modern Yong Tau Foo contains more than just the original stuffed tofu. It includes a plethora of items, including fish balls from the Teochews, yellow noodles from the Hokkiens, chilli and sweet dipping sauces from the Cantonese, and fish paste stuffed in commonly found vegetables such as bitter gourd, lady’s fingers, and chilli. This is indeed a true representation of a melting pot of cultures, comprising ingredients from diverse dialect groups from China.
For me, nothing beats a plate of dry Yong Tau Foo drenched in sweet and flavourful sauce, sprinkled with sesame seeds. But what is best is that you can customise the dish to your liking, from the noodle choices such as flat rice noodles, rice vermicelli, egg noodles and more, to the accompanying ingredients to the gravy, and whether to have it in soup or dry with sauces. When the rainy season hits, nothing is better than a warm bowl of Yong Tau Foo with a combination of bee hoon and yellow noodles in laksa. This humble Chinese dish is perfect for anyone who enjoys variety, just like me.
3) The breakfast classic: Kaya Toast and Nanyang Coffee
A piping hot cup of Nanyang Coffee, a plate of crispy Kaya Toast and soft-boiled eggs is the classic breakfast combination that has won the hearts of Singaporeans and foreigners for many generations. The tantalising aroma of the fragrant coffee with the sweet and creamy pandan and coconut spread is a perfect match made in heaven. But have you ever wondered how this iconic “breakfast set” came about?
In the 19th century, Hainanese immigrants who worked as cooks in wealthy Peranakan households adapted the British breakfast of toast by replacing the fruit jam with kaya (a spread made from local ingredients - coconut milk, sugar and pandan leaves). They also roasted the cheaper and lower-grade coffee beans with corn, margarine, and sugar to conceal the bitter taste of the beans, creating flavourful and robust cups of Nanyang Coffee.
Today, Kaya Toast and Nanyang Coffee are synonymous with Singapore’s hawker culture and are widely available in almost all coffee shops and hawker centres. While the options for Kaya Toast have expanded from the classic charcoal-grilled to the modern steamed and French versions, nothing beats the traditional toast set that I grew up with. Crispy toast with cold butter and kaya dipped into a sweet and savoury mixture of soft-boiled eggs, dark soya sauce, and white pepper – mmhmm, it is a harmonious explosion of tastes!
Looking for the best breakfast place to have these signature toasts? Whenever I crave Kaya Toast, my go-to spot is always the dependable Ya Kun Kaya Toast. They have over 70 outlets conveniently located across the island, making it accessible for a satisfying quick breakfast. But if you are up for a more unique experience, visit Heap Seng Leong or Tong Ah Eating House instead. These traditional shops have been around for decades, and they serve up their Kaya Toast in the old-fashioned way. Do not forget to try their indulgent Kopi Gu You (coffee with butter)!
Fun fact: Did you know that there are two types of kaya in Singapore? The traditional Peranakan Nyonya Kaya has a distinctive green shade from pandan leaves while the Hainanese Kaya gets its signature brown tint from caramelised brown sugar.
Tong Ah Eating House
Address: 35 Keong Saik Road, Singapore 089142
Opening hours: 7:00am to 10:00pm from Thursday to Tuesday; 7:00am to 2:00pm on Wednesday
Pro-tip: Tong Ah Eating House is located 15min away from Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre by foot, or just a 5min stroll away from Maxwell Food Centre. This makes it a perfect coffee spot following your visit to the SINGAPO人 exhibition, or a pick-me-up after a sumptuous meal at Maxwell Food Centre.
4) The comfort food: Laksa
Bursting with bold flavours and cultural influences from the Chinese, Malay, and Peranakan communities,
Laksa is more than just a soup dish. It captures the essence of Singapore’s cultural heritage made up of many communities.
Laska was first made in Peranakan Chinese homes, which are known for the unique fusion of Chinese and Malay flavours in their cuisine. They created creamy and spicy noodle soup with coconut milk, fishcakes, and prawns, served with thick rice noodles or thin vermicelli, which became the base of the dish. Thereafter, other ingredients like tau pok (tofu puffs) and cockles were added, along with regional spices like lemongrass, chilli, and the famous belacan (fermented shrimp paste), giving Laksa its signature sweet and tangy taste.
When it comes to the origins of Laksa, there are many theories out there. Some believe that it was a result of Chinese immigrants infusing their culinary techniques with local ingredients from the Straits Settlements (modern Singapore and Malaysia) to serve up Nyonya (Peranakan Chinese) cuisine, including Laksa. Others claim that Laksa came through trade in major port cities like Singapore, Malacca, and Penang, where intercultural marriages led directly to the creation of unique hybrid dishes.
Regardless of its origins, this mouth-watering dish has become a beloved dish among many Singaporeans and tourists alike with its distinctive flavours, perfect combination of ingredients, and a slice of Singapore’s rich history. For me, I have grown up trying many variations of this delicious dish. My personal favourite is a rich and creamy Laksa, which I can never resist on a cold day. I love how the chewy rice noodles soak up flavours of the rich broth, bringing to every mouthful a burst of flavours and leaving me feeling contented. The essential sambal chilli adds a nice spicy kick and elevates the taste of the dish.
Fun fact: Did you know that even the history behind the name “Laksa” is also a complex matter? Some believed that it originated from the Hindi word “lakshah” (hundred thousand), while others felt that it came from the original Persian word “lakhsha” (noodles).
5) The most iconic: Chilli Crab
Who does not love Chilli Crab? Whether you are a local or a foreigner, you cannot leave the city without trying this famous seafood delight. Alongside the Hainanese Chicken Rice, Chilli Crab was also featured in the World’s Top 50 most delicious food by CNN in 2011. From its humble origins as a simple hawker dish to its current world-class status, the Chilli Crab has undergone some remarkable transformation over the years.
Said to be invented in the mid-1950s, the late Madam Cher Yam Tien, who started as an unlicensed hawker, incorporated tomato and chilli sauce into her conventional stir-fried crabs to give it a little more of a spicy kick, balanced with the sweetness of the tomato sauce. I believe she had no idea that she was creating a timeless masterpiece. The dish was also credited to famous local chef and restaurateur Hooi Kok Wai as he added eggs, lemon juice, tomato paste and sambal (a mix of chilli peppers and prawn paste) to Madam Cher’s recipe, creating the Chilli Crab dish we have today - succulent crab meat in a sweet, tangy and spicy gravy laced with eggs.
Growing up, I remember gathering around the dining table with the chatter and laughter of my extended family filling the air in a bustling seafood restaurant. Armed with crab crackers, we were always ready to dig into the scrumptious plate of Chilli Crab. That is why I always look forward to large family gatherings like this. Personally, I enjoy the sweet and spicy classic most when it is paired with fried mantou (Chinese buns). The deep-fried mantou with a crispy exterior and pillowy and soft interior soaks up the mouth-watering gravy. If you have tried Chilli Crab and want to be more adventurous in your seafood restaurant choice, try the trendy salted egg or Western-style black pepper versions. They are both equally delicious!
You can find Chilli Crab at almost every seafood restaurant island-wide. For those who are looking at trying authentic Chilli and Black Pepper Crabs, you can head to the famous Jumbo Seafood restaurant, which has six outlets around the city. Wherever you choose to indulge in this national treasure, you are promised a truly unforgettable experience.
Check out the locations of the six outlets in Singapore on the Jumbo Seafood website
6) The tastiest traditional snack: Curry Puff
If you are a true-blue Singaporean, you must have savoured Curry Puffs at least once in your life. These golden-brown pockets stuffed with curry fillings are a quintessential part of Singaporean food culture, and just like our diverse cultural heritage, curry puffs also have its roots traced back to the region’s fascinating multi-cultural heritage.
Said to be introduced by the British during their colonial rule, Curry Puffs seemed to be inspired by the British Cornish pasty and modified to suit local taste buds. Others believe that the pastry is a combination of a flaky exterior adapted from the Portuguese empanada and spicy filling, which took reference from the Indian samosa. The Chinese curry puff can also be traced to the Malay’s epok-epok, filled with sardines or potatoes and flavoured with spices.
The Chinese were then said to have added their take to the snack by adding chicken meat, and hard-boiled egg in the filling. The Indian’s samosa comes in the shape of a triangle or rectangle and is filled with spicy curried potatoes like the epok-epok. The many variations of “curry puff” reflect our country’s multi-cultural heritage as different ethnic groups living in close proximity to one another, facilitated cultural interactions in Singapore. Therefore, we are fortunate to be able to enjoy different renditions of “curry puffs” from various ethnic groups in Singapore!
Curry Puffs are my grandmother’s favourite snack. As a child, one of my fondest memories was accompanying her to buy epok-epok from Malay makciks (aunties) from the hawker centre, watching her converse fluently with them in the Malay language, and savouring them on the way home. Even now, every bite holds not just the flavours of potatoes or sardines but my memories of her, reminding me of the enduring connection between food, family, and our shared cultural identity. Possibly a result of my grandmother’s influence, I love getting these savoury and affordable treats from Malay makciks too. For the Chinese-style Curry Puffs, one of the top local favourite chains selling them is Old Chang Kee, which has more than 80 outlets across the island.
Curry Puffs have become a common and affordable staple in Singapore that can be found at many places. Whether it’s hawker centres, shopping malls or local neighbourhood stalls, this delectable treat has evolved with many crust types (buttery vs flaky) and fillings.
Pro-tip: Find some of the best Curry Puffs in hawker centres located in the vicinity of Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, all within a 15min walk, including Lau Pa Sat, Amoy Street Food Centre and Maxwell Food Centre.
With a dazzling array of culinary experiences brought together and adapted to suit local tastes and ingredients, Singapore’s gastronomy landscape is indeed a testament to the nation’s vibrant past and present, which we can all take pride in. I chanced upon this vibrant food history during my recent visit to the SINGAPO人: Discovering Chinese Singaporean Culture exhibition by the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre.
Beyond just mouth-watering local food, I discovered that many other factors, such as values and beliefs, festivals, and heritage collectively make up our unique Chinese Singaporean identity. With colourful and interactive exhibits that transported me to various themes and time zones, this is one of the most immersive and engaging ways I have experienced to learn more about the Chinese culture in Singapore. At the end of it, I even got a customised card based on my responses to the interactive exhibits – with recommendations of how to further explore Chinese culture in Singapore!
I believe that the exhibition will leave you with a newfound appreciation for our Chinese Singaporean heritage, just like how it did for me.
SINGAPO人: Discovering Chinese Singaporean Culture exhibition
Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre
1 Straits Boulevard, Singapore 018906
Nearest MRT Stations: Shenton Way MRT (EXIT 3), Tanjong Pagar MRT (EXIT D)
Opening hours: 2:00pm to 8:00pm on Monday; 10:00am to 8:00pm on Tuesday to Sunday. Opens daily, including public holidays.
Free guided tours: Every Saturday and Sunday; 3:00pm for the English tour and 4:00pm for the Mandarin tour
Find out more information about the exhibition on Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre’s website.
This story is written in collaboration with the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre.
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