It’s difficult to describe what exactly Singaporean cuisine is. It’s not like the other Asian cuisines where you can say that a certain dish is uniquely Japanese, or Chinese, or Indian, or Filipino. Rather, Singaporean cuisine, like many other facets of the nation’s characteristics, is made up of the recipes and ingredients that Singaporean citizens have brought from their home countries, modified over time by exposure to the many other cultures and tastes present. Perhaps the most famous meal in Singapore is Hainanese chicken rice, an extremely simple dish made up of rice cooked in chicken broth or chicken fat, boiled chicken, a light soup on the side, and your choice of dipping sauce, usually spicy. Like many things in Singapore, it isn’t entirely clear where it comes from. Although the name suggests that it’s a dish taken from China’s Hainan Province (an island at the southern tip of China), it’s also a fairly common meal in Malaysia.
At first, I thought it was ridiculous that such a plain meal would become the face of Singaporean dining, but after spending the last three months in Singapore, I’ve come to appreciate it. It’s a dish that doesn’t have much in terms of taste – there’s only so much you can pack into boiled chicken and rice – but somehow, the restaurants in Singapore that specialize in it have all mastered it. I think part of the appeal, part of the reason it’s so famous, is because the taste is so basic and natural that you can never get sick of it. This last week, for example, I had it three or four times, a fairy low number compared to some of the busier weeks I’ve spent in Singapore. And yet each time, I was satisfied, and went home happy because I ate a meal that was cheap (around $3-4USD), healthy, and filling.
Nasi Lemak, another rice dish, is also quite famous. Unlike simple-flavored Hainanese chicken rice, I would describe a Nasi Lemak dish as quite full of flavor – and at at some restauraunts I’ve eaten at, the flavor is bountiful to a fault. The rice is cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf, which gives it a fragrant and cooling touch. I imagine this is to serve as a counterbalance, a palate cleanser of sorts for the extremes provided by the sides that come with the rice.
My personal favorite Nasi Lemak comes from Adam’s Corner, a small 24-hour outdoor restaurant just a short walk away from away from our flat, which serves as the unofficial rally point for my group of friends after a night out. I order the chicken Nasi Lemak, which comes with cucumbers, fried chicken, a fried egg, VERY salty dried anchovies, and a very spicy chili paste on the side. A lot of my western classmates don’t enjoy it – they say it’s simply overwhelming. But my Singaporean classmates are all in love with the meal, and personally, it reminds me a lot of the cuisine from my home in the southern islands of the Philippines. This is unsurprising, as Mindanao is known for having quite a bit of Malaysian influence.
Nasi Lemak and Hainanese Chicken Rice are dishes that, for lack of a better term, I would describe as street food. They’re both quite cheap and common in Singapore, and often served by mom-and-dad style restaurants that often only offer outdoor seating and may not exactly meet health or cleanliness standards in the U.S. However, these types of foods are probably the most characteristic of Singapore, and the restaurants that serve them can often be found densely concentrated around Hawker Centres, which are sort of like outdoor food courts. The popularization and government support of these centres have all but eliminated actual street foods in Singapore and have made eating this kind of cuisine much more sanitary and tourist friendly.
However, if you’re still not convinced and want to go somewhere where that offers an opportunity to try all these different foods but in a much more upscale setting, I suggest going to the food street in Kampong Glam. Right next to the beautiful Masjid Sultan and the quirky Haji lane, this street offers a variety of cuisines, from Malaysian to Thai to Persian to Lebanese, all in a much more tourist-friendly and traditional sit-down setting. The prices are much higher and comparable to sit-down restaurants back home, and I honestly couldn’t justify eating there except to splurge on a weekend dinner with the flatmates, especially given the easy access to equally delicious food at much cheaper prices.