Singapore: Noms (part one)

October 28, 2016 • 10:30 am

There are two reasons why a visit to Singapore is a goal of all true foodies. First, it offers the food of many cultures, as this small country (720 km²) is a mixing pot for both people and cuisine. On tap: Malaysian food, Chinese food, Indonesian food, Indian food, Indonesian food, Buddhist vegetarian food, and even some remnants of British food, as in my breakfast below shows. Second, virtually all the famous dishes of this land are available at “hawker centres”, where dozens and dozens of small stalls occupy large open-air markets, lining corridors in which there are tables. Many stalls specialize in only one type of food, like fish soup, chicken rice (which can be considered the national dish of this land), and so on.

You simply go to one or more stalls, pick up your dish or dishes, and take your grub to a table. With a group, you can sample many different dishes at a single meal. The dishes are relatively cheap, too: between $4 and $6 Singapore for a large dish, with one Singapore dollar equal to about 0.72 US dollars.

When I arrived at Changi Airport at 6:30 a.m., pretty well rested, my friend Melissa Chen and her lovely parents Michael and Annie met me, and they wanted me to begin my visit with a genuine Singapore breakfast. Fortunately, Terminal 3 in the airport has a real hawker centre right on the spot, and that’s where we went.

Breakfast included classics, clearly influenced by the British but with a local twist. There was with condensed milk and sugar (invariably called “Coffee C” C” as opposed to “Coffee O”, which is black coffee. If you say “coffee” by itself, you get coffee with milk instead of condensed milk, and also with sugar.) Alongside the Coffee C below are two very lightly fried eggs, so runny that they become a soup when you break them up. Those are served with some soy sauce and a sweet soy-ish sauce resembling hoisin sauce.

The coffee beans here are often roasted in a wok, sometimes with sugar and margarine or pineapple skin, and then brewed by pouring hot water through a sock-like cotton strainer (called, of course, a “sock”). The Singaporeans are justifiably proud of their strong, tasty coffee.


The eggs, beaten up with some soy and hoisin-like sauce.


Alongside is another local classic, “kaya toast,” made by taking thick slices of bread, cutting them in half to make them thinner, and then frying them and covering them with butter (lots of it!) and a jam made from coconut milk, eggs, sugar, and pandan leaves (Pandanus amaryllifolius). Pandan leaves are ubiquitous, and impart a green color and fragrant note to many sweets as well as being a flavoring agent in many regular dishes.


Frying the bread for kaya toast:


Michael had another Singapore staple eaten for both breakfast and lunch: mee siam, thin homemade noodles in a tasty and spicy broth with lime, shrimp, egg, bean sprouts, tofu, peppers (the black pile that looks like caviar just below the egg) and many other goodies. It’s like amped-up ramen noodles.


We went to the Maxwell Road Hawker Centre for lunch, with four aisles, each lined with dozens of stalls. At the entrance is a Buddhist shrine that, I’m told, is supposed to bring luck and prosperity to the hawkers.


One of the aisles of the hawker centre (I suppose this would be called a “food court” in the U.S.):


Some of the stalls showing how they specialize. Here’s a stall serving the famous chicken rice of Singapore. Each Singaporean has strong opinions about where to get the best version of this dish.


Chickens waiting to be braised, boiled, or roasted (chicken rice can be served all three ways):


Fresh sugar cane juice on offer, along with various other juices and sweet bean curd desserts:



A stall specializing in the local coffee. Many people take it out in plastic bags into which they insert a straw:


This one has four types of “pan cakes”, which are more like spongecake rolls than American pancakes:


$ 0.60 translates to about 42 cents in American money.


I would have to try all four. Here’s a peanut and what looks like a red bean pan cake. The green comes from pandan leaves.


This stall, the one with the blue and red sign far away, is very popular–look at the line! It serves only fish soup.


A popular chicken rice stall. You can see the line going off around the corner:


A stall specializing in drinks (click to enlarge):


Rice dumpling with vegetables:


Shrimp fritters:


And our lunch. Here’s chicken rice (the rice is cooked in the chicken broth with other flavorings as well, so it’s delicious on its own). You add some chicken (on the bone) and flavor it with delicious chili sauce (each stall has its own secret recipe) along with soy sauce and another sweetish hoisin-like sauce. We also got a dish of chicken livers:


We also had char kway teow, fried flat rice noodles with Chinese sausage, clams, fish cake, and prawns. I love those wide, chewy noodles.


And a very famous Singaporean dish: oyster omelet. It consists of an omelet fried on a hot skillet with potato starch to give it a thicker consistency. When the omelet is nearly done, it’s topped with fresh oysters, with are only lightly cooked, and bean sprouts. The combination of thick egg and oyster is incredibly addictive.


We washed down lunch with big glasses of sugar cane juice (left) and lime juice, made with very small limes that resemble Key limes but are less bitter:


Melissa, Annie, and Michael, about to tuck into lunch.My “food folder”, containing the field guide to Singapore food compiled for me by Melissa, is by my plate.


We had dessert at my request, because I do love the shaved-ice desserts in Singaporean, Indonesian, and Malaysian cuisine. Here is cendol, an Indonesian dessert made with rice flour, shaved ice, grass jelly, agar, red beans, and other goodies. It’s all mixed together and eaten like a soup as the ice melts. This light and cold dessert is the perfect ending to a heavy Singapore meal:


Ais kacang, a related shaved-ice dessert. A tall mound of shaved ice is drizzled with brightly colored fruit syrups combined with red beans, palm seeds, sweet corn, grass jelly, and sweetened agar:


After a meal like that, you need digestive assistance, and good luck cats (found everywhere in Chinese- and Japanese-influenced cultures) are there to help. I can haz nap, plz?



43 thoughts on “Singapore: Noms (part one)

  1. Perfect timing as it is about lunch time here. Otherwise this would be cruel and unusual punishment.

    Still kind of cruel. I’ll be having pizza for lunch, a rare thing. Though it is the best pizza in town, 1) that’s not saying much considering the town and 2) it doesn’t compare to what you’ve been eating!

    I want, in this order, the shrimp fritters, the char kway teow, the chicken rice and then the peanut pan cakes.

    I love a lot of things about Asian cuisines, but you can keep the red beans out of my desserts.

  2. I went to a Singapore food festival once when I was at CMU. Student run, so very simple stuff, but it was wonderful all the same. What a treat going to the source must be!

    Also – oyster omelets! I had one of those at an Asian food street fair here in Ottawa about a year and a half ago. They’re … different 😉 And now I realize where they came from. (I thought they were Taiwanese!)

  3. In ’91 I was in Singapore, flying with Singapore Airlines I had to stay one night in a hotel (Amarna, IIRC) due to some logistic problems. All included in the flight price of course.
    Dinner was a buffet: there was a European, a Chinese and a Malaysian buffet, ad libitum.
    I chose mainly Malaysian, and I think I have rarely, probably never, eaten better, it was absolutely fabulous. Especialy the seafood (keeping AC Clarke’s third law in mind: pure magic). When I think of it my mouth starts watering again, after 25 years!

  4. I had to go to Singapore on business 30 years ago, and I remember the food being great then (and in nearby Kuala Lumpur as well). One of these days I want to go back for pleasure.

  5. How does he do it?
    Everywhere he goes great spreads of the most delicious food.
    It is really beyond understanding why the Professor (Emeritus) does not already weigh fifty stone and require an electic cart to get around

    1. Or not.

      “Comey is not saying that these emails were recovered from Clinton’s server, or from Wikileaks, or … he’s not saying anything. He’s leaving the whole situation infuriatingly vague. Which is … typical. James Comey is not some squeaky-clean outsider. He’s a long time Washington player who knows exactly what he’s doing. There doesn’t seem to be anything in his letter that requires that he blow up this election.”

      1. The new frenzy will continue. I liked the one saying that Hilary could likely beat him from a prison cell.

    2. Its sus that the FBI are reopening the email saga just now … perfect timing for a round of destabilisation/hassles for the new president. And bloody little Julian has released more stuff – though it doesnt look overly exciting. Right on cue, yesterday Putin said something vaguely anti Trump, aren’t we innocent. And uglyface Donald has been saying how he wishes America had Libel laws like Britain so he could sue and silence critics and potential critics to his hearts content a la David Irving who Deborah Lipstadt only beat because the Jewish community raised tens of millions to fight the case and even then she was hospitalised at the end of it all.

    1. Generally the French cuisine is better in Belgium. In France you can get excellence, of course, but some shoddy stuff too. Never in B.
      Had some outstanding zander (perch-pike) with crispy morelle mushrooms in a shady cellar in Montpellier a decade ago (yes in F not in B). After Singapore the best nom I ever had.

      1. I’ve had terrific luck in France. But I’ve mostly eaten out in local places in rural France.

        I’ve had some major disappointments in Paris and therefore avoid the big names and go for small neighborhood places, where we’ve had wonderful food.

        I love Belgium; but I have only rarely eaten out there. Mainly, I drink their wonderful beers when I’m in Belgium!

        I have friends to stay with in Belgium, so I haven’t eaten out much.

      2. My food disappointment has been Italy.

        I’ve had decent food there; but nothing great. (Especially considering the prices.)

        The best pizza I’ve ever had was in a little sidewalk place in Paris! (Run by Italians however.)

        Best meal I’ve had in Italy: Simple fried sardines in a little seaside cafe in Lazio.

      1. Looks like chicken backbones — cut off on either side of the spine. I bet when they make great chicken broth when they are roasted, mmmm.

        1. Yes, clearly chicken heads, neck and vertebral column. No clue what they do with it, but in all probability something very yummy. ☺

      2. Ok goose I can see – if the beak is somehow unusual. The tail is evident. It’s overall much larger than the chickens below, and all consistent.

  6. I’m engaged to a woman from Singapore. If you’re a foodie, the best choice you can make in life is marrying a Singaporean.

    I’ve been to the red dot twice now. Your post reminds me why I love going back (despite the long flight times).

    1. My partner is from Penang, which is at least on a par with Singapore for food (IMHO); unfortunately neither he, nor his mother, nor any of his sisters can cook: they were brought up with servants for that sort of thing. So just check before signing anything.

  7. Here is Taiwan is a dish known as stinky tofu (chou tofu). The truly best kind smells like – and I am not exaggerating – human excrement. I mean, REAL excrement. Nevertheless, it is a great tasting dish, served with spicy cabbage. If it is offered in Singapore, I recommend giving it a try. It changed my life. As the saying goes, “Stinky tofu walks alone.”

    1. What the hell?

      Reminds me of that Scandinavian ‘delicacy’ where they bury fish underground until it rots and then serve it to —-stupid—- curious tourists.

  8. Welcome to Singers, Jerry. A little grey and overcast today, but at least that means it’s not sweltering! Looking forward to seeing and hearing you on Monday.

  9. One of my favourite kinds of posts on WEIT: the mind-blowing, alternately fascinating/frightening food photo post, which I always seem to read just when I’m really hungry.

  10. Love Singapure. My two suggestions: baby fried squid and, of course, the famous Singapore chilli crab.

  11. Actually Kopi C is with evaporated (non-sweetened) milk. Kopi is the one with condensed milk. In the coffeeshops you can’t get coffee with fresh/UHT milk

    I don’t think the soft boiled eggs (not lightly fried) come with sweet soy sauce – is that dark soya sauce together with the light?

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