Singapore's supercharged food scene is mind boggling – it's remarkable that such a tiny island nation can cover so many regional cuisines and modern mash-ups. The colonial era port is a melting pot affectionately known as the little red dot. With a large expat community and cashed-up bankers, the city is speckled with slick cocktail bars and fusion restaurants. But its cheap eats are legendary, and a visit to a clean-as-a-whistle hawker centre should be top of your list – just tack onto a queue for a guaranteed good feed. (Many of the hawker dishes below, such as char kway teow and satay, you'll also find in neighbouring Malaysia - check out Adam Liaw's essential eating guide to Kuala Lumpur here). As a starting point, here are 16 foods and drinks to sample in Singapore.
Hainanese chicken rice is synonymous with Singapore. Photo: Quentin Jones
Hainanese chicken rice
Arguably Singapore's national dish (although hotly contested with Malaysia), this simple combo of chicken poached in stock, with rice cooked in the reserved broth, is the country's comfort food. Accompaniments include kecap manis (dark soy) and a garlic and chilli sauce. Don't be put off by the meat's glistening, gelatinous appearance. According to chef Susur Lee, it's all about the mix of textures and temperatures: "The soup has got to be hot, the rice has got to be hot, but the chicken can be room temperature. So it gives a very interesting temperature – when you're eating it's so important to have those kind of feelings in the mouth."
Try it at: The Tippling Club team recommends Tian Tian at the Maxwell Food Centre (1 Kadayanallur Street); insider tip: arrive at 11am to beat the queue.
Adam Liaw's Singapore chilli crab (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem
A word of warning: prepare to get messy. Not as spicy as you might expect, this crab is cooked in a tomato-based gravy, thickened with beaten egg. The chilli may sneak up on you; it tends to be a slow building burn. Order a side of fried mantou buns to mop up the sauce. For the full beachside experience, head for the East Coast Lagoon Food Village, not far from Changi airport.
Tip: Speaking of messy, carry a couple of packets of tissues, as most hawker stalls don't provide serviettes.
Also try: Black pepper or salted egg yolk crab.
Toast sandwiched with butter and kaya jam at Ya Kun Kaya Toast. Photo: Supplied
Kaya toast set
For a local breakfast, head to a kopitiam (coffee shop) for a kaya toast set. While it sounds like a strange competing combination, it works: take two barely-boiled eggs in a small bowl, sprinkle powdered white pepper and a dash of soy sauce to season, before gently mashing the eggs; thin crispy toast sandwiched with kaya (a thick coconut jam, sometimes flavoured with honey or pandan) and a 5mm thick slab of butter, is then dipped into the broken eggs. Order a kopi C, a strong black coffee with a dash of condensed milk. A breakfast set should set you back less than $5.
Also try: Steamed kaya bread; steamed squares of squidgy white bread – a thrifty way to extend the life of a loaf. Try both at: Ya Kun Kaya Toast, various locations, yakun.com.
Prata bread and dipping sauce (lontong rice cake, cabbage and tofu curry, centre). Photo: Annabel Smith
Prata and murtabak
Similar to roti, these flatbreads come with a small dish of curry sauce for dipping. Prata are flaky, while murtabak can be stuffed with egg, cheese or meat. Available at hawker centres and in the city's Little India precinct.
Also try: Murtabak and deer biryani at Zam Zam in Kampong Glam (697 North Bridge Road).
Tony Tan's char kway teow (recipe here). Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
Char kway teow
This flat rice noodle stir-fry is a street food staple with a distinct charry flavour thanks to the smoking wok. Slippery rice noodles are generally tossed together with dark and light soy, prawns, egg, garlic chives and bean shoots. Local versions may include a handful of cockles thrown into the wok just before serving.
Also try: Make Adam Liaw's Singapore-style dry wonton noodles recipe.
Wok-fried black 'carrot cake'. Photo: Annabel Smith
…But not as you know it – this is a wok-tossed dish, not cake slathered in cream cheese icing. Known as chai tow kway (not to be confused with char kway teow), the wok-tossed dish features glutinous lego-brick sized rectangles of radish/turnip cake. Small pieces of preserved turnip add an an unusual chewy-crunchy texture. Black and white versions are available – with the black using more of the dark and sticky kecap manis sauce. It's not much of a looker, but it's mighty tasty.
Bak kut teh - pork bone broth. Photo: Supplied
Bak kut teh
Well before the paleo tribe cottoned onto bone broth, the Chinese were slurping bak kut teh (translation: pork bone tea). The restorative broth is flavoured with a heady mix of white pepper, star anise and cinnamon. Stir the stormy sediment for a hug in a melamine bowl. The sustaining soup is served with a pork bone or two so be sure to suck the meat off for extra nourishment. Two versions are available - the darker, herbal Hokkien style and the clearer, peppery Teochew.
Also try: For more pork, try wantan mee – hokkien noodles with dark soy, greens and char siu pork.
Peranakan popiah rolls. Photo: Supplied
This Peranakan (Chinese-Malay cuisine of Malacca Straits origin) burrito of sorts, rolled with fresh crepe-thin spring roll wrappers, is stuffed with jicama batons, shredded lettuce, omelette or beancurd strips, crushed peanuts, perhaps rice puffs for crunch, and seasoned with chilli and dark soy. The roll is sliced into rounds which are dipped into chilli sauce – fun finger food.
Also try: Kueh pie tee: canape-sized crispy fried baskets filled with jicama and prawns. Try both at Kway Guan Huat (Joo Chiat Popiah); 95 Joo Chiat Road, joochiatpopiah.com
Ondeh ondeh have a molten sugar centre. Photo: Supplied
Kueh are cute bite-sized sweets in various shapes and flavours. Try ondeh ondeh – squishy spheres of glutinous rice flour and sweet potato, with a syrupy melted gulu melaka (palm sugar) centre, rolled in shredded coconut (pictured above). Nonya kueh lapis – stacked rainbow jellies flavoured with coconut and pandan – are a Peranakan specialty. Peel off and eat layer by layer for longevity.
Also try: Savoury kueh are also available, the chwee kueh rice cakes with pickled radish are a popular breakfast order at Tiong Bahru Hawker Centre, 30 Seng Poh Road.
Adam Liaw's Singapore-style barbecue chicken wings (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem
Satay and chicken wings
Bamboo skewers of meat are generally served with ketupat (compressed rice cake cubes), raw red onion petals and cucumber. Stab the rice cakes with the skewer tip and swipe through the excess coconutty, peanutty sauce. Boon Tat Street adjacent to Lau Pa Sat food centre in the city's financial district transforms into 'satay street' in the evenings, or head to East Coast Lagoon Food Village where coals glow mere metres from the shoreline, with staff steering the smoke with bamboo fans. Chicken wings are also a street food favourite, you'll find rows of them turning in specially made rotisserie contraptions.
Also try: American-style barbecue at Burnt Ends. Australian chef Dave Pynt is rumoured to be opening an outpost in Sydney. Stay tuned; Burnt Ends, 20 Teck Lim Road, burntends.com.sg; bookings recommended.
Assam laksa at Madame Kwong's Kitchen in Box Hill, Melbourne. Photo: Eddie Jim
You're probably familiar with the traditional curry-based laksa, so seek out the sour Penang assam version instead. The prawn paste and tamarind based broth is freshened up with fresh mint, ginger flower, pineapple, chilli and cute squash-ball-sized calamansi limes.
Also try: Fish head curry – the cheek flesh and eyeball are prized.
Chocolate H2O dessert with yuzu sorbet at 2am. Photo: Annabel Smith
Dessert for dinner at 2am:Dessert Bar
No, you don't have to stay up past your bedtime to try Janice Wong's desserts. However, like the name suggests, it's open til 2am. Desserts are available a la carte, or as a degustation with optional matched cocktails. Sit up at the bar and watch the Pacojet get a workout, with ice-creams churned to order. Three-course tasting menus ($48) are a good introduction, themed around 'playful', 'natural', 'zen' and 'favourites'. The chocolate based 'natural' menu may include the award-winning pastry chef's signature Chocolate H20 (aerated chocolate and water, picture above).
Also try: For a more low-fi treat hit the street where vendors sell ice-cream sandwiches in flavours such as durian (the prized yet stinky fruit). An ice-cream slab is either sandwiched between wafers or heaped into a folded slice of colour bread.
2am:Dessert Bar, 21a (upstairs) Lor Liput, Holland Village, 2amdessertbar.com
Bangkok-style street food: Pad thai at Long Chim, Singapore. Photo: Supplied
Pad Thai at Long Chim
Those curry-powder-yellow 'Singapore noodles' aren't a traditional dish, so skip that idea and head to Long Chim. Perth and Sydney boast their own outposts of David Thompson's Thai restaurant, with a Melbourne spin-off slated for January. The Singapore original is a dark and sexy space accessed via a secondary lift at the top of the shopping mall below the iconic 'boat'-topped Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino. Aussie expat Thompson's chilli-heavy menu packs a punch and is best tackled with a group. Crunchy veg, Chinese chive batons and a flourish of exotic pennywort leaves and vibrancy to everyone's takeaway favourite, pad Thai.
Level 2 (dining), atrium 2, the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, longchim.com.sg
Also try: Jump in line at Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle in Chinatown – the stall was awarded one star in the city's inaugural Michelin Guide last year.
Snack on free peanuts at the Long Bar. Photo: Supplied
Singapore sling at Raffles
The grand colonial hotel has been slinging Singapore slings – a frothy pink concoction of gin, pineapple juice, grenadine, cherry liqueur, Cointreau, DOM Benedictine, lime juice and bitters – for more than 100 years. While visitors aren't permitted inside the lobby, make a beeline for the Long Bar to sample the fruity tipple. Yes, it's a tourist trap (the classic cocktail will set you back $31 plus tax), so be sure to get your money's worth by scoffing free peanuts from the tabletop hessian sacks. The floor is littered with discarded peanut shells, while mesmerising motorised paper fans sway from the ceiling.
Also try: If you're after a drink with a view, avoid the queue for rooftop hotspot 1-Altitude (1 Raffles Place) and try Smoke and Mirrors atop the new National Gallery Singapore. The rooftop bar with an undulating mirrored counter overlooks the Formula One straight and historic Padang cricket oval, with Marina Bay Sands seemingly floating in the backdrop.
Fresh sugarcane juice with lemon. Photo: Annabel Smith
Hawker centre refreshments
Beat the humidity with a plastic cup of ice bandung - a pretty pink rose syrup cordial with a splash of condensed milk. Not feeling so rosy? Try a cup of chartreuse-coloured freshly pressed sugarcane juice (ask for lemon to cut through the sweetness), or a lime juice made with zippy calamansi lime cordial.
If you're after something milk based, skip the soy milk and try an iced milo or a tall 'milo dinosaur'. Or tote a plastic bag of iced coffee or iced teh tarik (milky 'stretched' tea).
Also try: If the humidity, or chilli, is getting to you, cool off with an ice kachung dessert, a sundae-like shaved ice pyramid flavoured with syrups and various toppings such as red beans, peanuts, sweetcorn and jellies. As Susur Lee says: "after you eat spicy food, ice kachang is sort of like, 'I'm OK now', my stomach's completely good – it's like putting out the fire".
Deconstructed chilli crab dish at Tippling Club. Photo: Supplied
Cocktails (and modern fusion food) at Tippling Club
Recently ranked at number 12 on Asia's best bars and 31 on Asia's 50 Best Restaurants lists, head for the Tippling Club for a tipple. Set inside a converted trio of traditional shophouses, Ryan Clift's (ex-Vue de Monde, Melbourne) moody bar-restaurant is a great space for a date night or slap-up meal. The restaurant side of things is as progressive as the cocktail list, complete with private dining room and whizz-bang development kitchen.
Also try: Labyrinth restaurant is another contemporary spot – chef Han Liguang's recent riff on chilli crab included mantou bun 'sand' and chilli ice-cream. Or pop into Chinese-pharmacy-turned-bar Druggists for 'Asian poutine' (chips slathered with either laksa, chilli crab or satay sauce) paired with a pint of one of the 23 globe-trotting craft beers on tap.
The writer travelled courtesy of Singapore Tourism Board. Meals at Long Chim and 2am:Dessert Bar were paid for independently.