ECONOMY

‘The taste of nostalgia’: five top spots for classic Singaporean food

This article is part of a guide to Singapore from FT Globetrotter

The traditional food of Singapore can be tricky to define. Its influences, drawn from across Asia, join together to form a unique (and delicious) offering.

Singaporean food was originally produced as calorific fuel for manual labourers and evolved over centuries of tremendous political, economic and social change. The depth and diversity of just the carbohydrates and fats on offer mirrors the many ethnicities and cultures that the dishes are derived from.

Some traditional dishes are recognisably part of a distinct ethnic tradition. The origins of Hokkien mee, fried yellow-wheat noodles often served in a tangy prawn broth, can be traced to southern China. If you’ve ever ordered “Singapore noodles” in a Chinese restaurant in the UK, you were probably served a variant of this.

Hokkien mee at New Ubin Seafood — the origins of the noodle dish can be traced to southern China

Others showcase Singapore’s blending of cultures. One of the country’s most famous dishes is Singapore laksa, a fiery noodle soup. The noodles are a Chinese influence but there are many south-east Asian additions in the complex spice base, from fermented shrimp paste to galangal. The coconut milk that enriches the sauce is also a typically south-east Asian ingredient. This dish is thought to originate in the Peranakan culture, created by Chinese traders who migrated to the Strait of Malacca from the 15th century onwards, married Malay women and whose descendants later settled in Singapore.

European trade and colonisation brought further culinary additions. Kaya toast, a breakfast of toasted white bread, butter, coconut jam and a soft-boiled egg, is believed to have been invented by Chinese cooks in the 19th century who had worked on British ships, improvising a meal similar to one they had served to the crew.

Migration in the 20th-century brought further innovation. Fish-head curry was first served in Singapore in 1949, a twist on the traditional Indian fish curry that was intended to appeal to Chinese diners who relished the meaty cheeks and distinctive flavour of the head.

I visited Singapore often as a boy (we had family there, and across the Johor Strait in Malaysia), and the old-world dishes thrill youthful taste buds — as comforting as pies, mash or pasta might be to a European child.

My three favourite dishes were char kway teow, a rice noodle dish fried in lard with chunks of Chinese sausage and scrambled duck eggs; nasi lemak, the Malay dish of rice enriched with coconut milk and served with crispy anchovies, toasted peanuts and an aromatic sambal; and — best of all — dosas, the fermented southern-Indian lentil and rice pancake that was and remains my breakfast of choice.

Stretching dough at Springleaf Prata Place
Stretching dough at Springleaf Prata Place

When I returned to Singapore as the FT correspondent in late 2015, I found tastes had changed. A new generation of Singaporeans were office workers and queued for lunchtime bowls of ramen. Japanese cuisine was seen as a sophisticated choice and also thought to be a healthier option. Business lunches were often at Italian restaurants. German food was popular, perhaps because it gives a starring role to pork, as Chinese cooking does, but also because European restaurants place less emphasis on family dining and more on giving diners a chance to talk.

The “hawker” style of traditional cooking, so called because it used to be served by vendors hawking food from carts in the streets, seemed at risk of disappearing.

But there are still places where the link to Singapore’s past can be found, and while elements of the preparation may be automated or centralised, the unbeatable theatre of this old-world food — stretching out the dough for prata by hand or tossing the noodles for kway teow in a hissing wok — will always have a place in Singaporean hearts.

Below I’ve included a selection of places to taste some of my favourite traditional Singaporean dishes. Food is a touchy subject in Singapore, so I should stress that this is an individual choice, and owes much to the accidents of when and how I encountered these restaurants.

FT Globetrotter map - classic Singapore food

Springleaf Prata Place

396 Upper Bukit Timah Road, The Rail Mall, Singapore 678048 (Other branches across singapore)

  • Good for: Speed. The classics and prata specials come whizzing out of the kitchen

  • Not so good for: Side orders. Curries that you order alongside the bread tend to limp along much later, often after you’ve wolfed down the bread

  • FYI: The basic prata is its bestseller, according to the chain’s founder (but constant innovation is a smart way to keep its name in the press and social media) (Website; Directions)

Springleaf Prata Place’s takes on the traditional Singaporean flatbread include the Plaster Blaster (top left) — a twist on eggs Benedict — and the MurtaBurger (bottom left): minced lamb and cheese
Springleaf Prata Place’s takes on the traditional Singaporean flatbread include the Plaster Blaster (top left) — a twist on eggs Benedict — and the MurtaBurger (bottom left): minced lamb and cheese
Prata is crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside
Prata is crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside

This is a chain specialising in prata, a flatbread made with wheat flour, egg and ghee and then fried so it is crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. They also do a good dosa. My favourite location was the one in the Rail Mall in Bukit Timah, a strip of shops close to the Rail Corridor, a disused train line that is now a ribbon of greenery stretching across the island and was my ideal place to go for a morning run.

I went here regularly with a Japanese friend. It was a very tranquil relationship as neither of us spoke each other’s primary language. Instead, we bonded over short bursts of exercise followed by peacefully stuffing our faces with fried carbs.

Das Pratwurst: Springleaf Prata Place’s nod to Germanic cuisine
Das Pratwurst: Springleaf Prata Place’s nod to Germanic cuisine
The popular chain has branches across Singapore
The popular chain has branches across Singapore

The classic prata is usually eaten with a dipping sauce of fish curry or chicken curry. I could never taste much meat in the sauce, just a reminder of the animal.

However, Springleaf Prata Place’s true passion is serving up bold twists on the classic. The MurtaBurger is a prata stuffed with minced lamb and cheese. The Prata Goreng is a version of the classic Malaysian noodle dish mee goreng but with strips of prata taking the place of the noodles. You can guess what Das Pratwurst features. The best of these twists, in my book, is the Plaster Blaster, which is a rendition of eggs Benedict, but with the eggs and hollandaise sauce nestling on a prata rather than muffins or brioche.

Rochor Beancurd House

745 Geylang Road, Singapore 389653

  • Good for: History. This is a chance to see what Singapore was like before its postcolonial transformation into a sanitised city of office blocks and malls

  • Not so good for: Soy-haters. The non-bean curd options are limited

  • FYI: There’s a juicy family saga behind the origins of the shop, according to the Straits Times (Website; Directions)

Rocher Beancurd House offers the chance to experience the Singapore of old
Rocher Beancurd House offers the chance to experience the Singapore of old
The shop is the go-to spot for bean curd with fried-dough fritters
The shop is the go-to spot for bean curd with fried-dough fritters

This restaurant in Singapore’s red-light district is the place to go for the Chinese dish of you tiao — sticks of fried dough served with soy-milk soup. By modern standards, Rochor Beancurd House is simplicity itself. It opens directly on to the street and customers sit at plastic tables on the pavement.

There is no air conditioning (usually ubiquitous in steamy Singapore), and the menu focuses on sweet treats. If bean curd is not to your liking, they also have excellent Portuguese egg-custard tarts and butterfly buns — deep-fried balls of dough with a crispy, sugary skin.

Soy-haters, look away: at work in Rochor Beancurd House 
Soy-haters, look away: at work in Rochor Beancurd House 
Tubs of bean curd — however, the menu does offer alternative sweets such as Portuguese egg-custard tarts
Tubs of bean curd — however, the menu does offer alternative sweets such as Portuguese egg-custard tarts

The Geylang district offers a glimpse of an older and seedier Singapore. Alongside sex workers, its narrow streets and low-rise traditional buildings are a hangout for drug dealers and illicit gamblers.

Old Chang Kee

Branches across Singapore

  • Good for: A cheap snack — a curry puff is S$1.50

  • Not so good for: Atmosphere. These are usually no-frills spots to grab a quick bite rather than somewhere to linger

  • FYI: The origins of the curry puff are obscure but one suggestion is that it was inspired by the Cornish pasty. Like the British snack, the puff has crimped edges (Website; Directions)

Founded in 1956, Old Chang Kee now has branches around the world
Founded in 1956, Old Chang Kee now has branches around the world
Curry puffs: the stars of the show at the restaurant chain
Curry puffs: the stars of the show at the restaurant chain

The curry puff is Singapore and Malaysia’s answer to the samosa, the endlessly rewarding trick of wrapping meat in a pastry crust. The puff is the star of the show at Old Chang Kee, where it comes with chicken, beef, potato or prawn fillings. This restaurant is a chain, with branches across Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia. It opened a pop-up in London in 2017, and followed up with two permanent stores in the UK capital.

What it offers is reassuringly familiar, at every branch. Alongside the puffs are other classic dishes like nasi lemak and laksa noodles. It isn’t prized for innovation but for the taste of nostalgia.

The curry puff’s origins are obscure, but some believe the snack was inspired by the British Cornish pasty
The curry puff’s origins are obscure, but some believe the snack was inspired by the British Cornish pasty
The nasi lemak at Old Chang Kee is also well worth sampling
The nasi lemak at Old Chang Kee is also well worth sampling

Chang Chuan Boon founded the first Old Chang Kee in 1956 at a stall opposite the Rex Cinema in Singapore’s Little India neighbourhood. From the 1980s, the business was transformed into a chain with a centralised production facility serving multiple outlets across the island. Singaporeans might say this is a bit like recommending Greggs to a tourist in Britain or suggesting that a visitor to the US goes to a hot-dog stand, but that’s precisely my point.

BK Eating House

21 South Bridge Rd, Singapore 058661

  • Good for: People-watching. There’s a constantly changing mix of tourists, office workers and pensioners in search of cheap eats and a spot to pass half an hour

  • Not so good for: Heat. The restaurant is open to the street, and can get sweltering in the afternoons

  • FYI: BK Eating House was once famous for its mee sua (fried wheat-flour noodles), but the vendor who made the noodles moved out a few years ago and set up shop diagonally opposite (Website; Directions)

The ‘toast set’ at BK Eating House
The ‘toast set’ at BK Eating House
The café is ‘the Singapore version of a greasy spoon’
The café is ‘the Singapore version of a greasy spoon’

This is the Singapore version of a greasy spoon. The café on the corner of South Bridge Road and Circular Road is set a few streets back from the Singapore River waterfront, but could be a different world. The bars on the waterfront serve European and American commodities traders their after-work pints. BK Eating House is frequented by backpackers in search of hangover cures and elderly Chinese men having their morning cups of strong coffee.

BK Eating House is a few streets back — and a world away — from the glitzy waterfront
BK Eating House is a few streets back — and a world away — from the glitzy waterfront
Before work, the author used to enjoy a kopi kosong — black coffee without sugar — at the café
Before work, the author used to enjoy a kopi kosong — black coffee without sugar — at the café

When I lived in Singapore, the FT’s offices were in a scruffy and dilapidated block on Circular Road, and this café was an ideal spot to drink coffee and read the newspaper before work. I ordered kopi kosong — “coffee zero”, or black coffee without sugar — and occasionally the “toast set” (also known as kaya toast): slices of toasted white bread, served with butter, coconut jam and runny soft-boiled eggs.

New Ubin Seafood

Branches at Chijmes, Tampines and Zhongshan Park

  • Good for: Family meals and reunions with old friends

  • Not so good for: Formal dining. This is a homely sort of place

  • FYI: The restaurant first opened on the island of Pulau Ubin, off Singapore’s north-east coast, before moving to the mainland in 1992 (Website; Directions)

Chicken satay at New Ubin Seafood . . .
Chicken satay at New Ubin Seafood . . .
. . . which is famed for its tze char (‘cook and fry’) style of cooking
. . . which is famed for its tze char (‘cook and fry’) style of cooking

New Ubin Seafood is famous for a style of cooking known as tze char: literally, “cook and fry” but usually taken to mean a hearty home-cooked feast. My favourite branch of the business is now closed, but friends recommend the location at Chijmes (pronounced “chimes”), a historic complex in the city centre.

Fish with sambal and ‘stink beans’: Vasagar’s favourite dish at the restaurant
Fish with sambal and ‘stink beans’: Vasagar’s favourite dish at New Ubin Seafood
The restaurant’s Chijmes branch
The restaurant’s Chijmes branch

The restaurant serves traditional dishes like Hokkien mee and satay — grilled skewers of chicken, mutton or pork. Alongside the classics you might find distinctively new or borrowed dishes, such as foie gras satay or rib-eye steak, the latter served on a chopping board and diced into cubes so it can be picked up with chopsticks.

My favourite dish was the sambal fish with petai beans, an aromatic green vegetable known as the “stink bean”, not because of how it smells when you eat it but because of the gassy after effects. This is a place to come with forgiving friends or old lovers.

Jeevan Vasagar is the author of Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia. He is a former FT Singapore correspondent

Photography by Arabelle Zhuang

Where do you like to go to enjoy traditional Singaporean food? Tell us in the comments

For our other insider city guides, visit ft.com/globetrotter or follow FT Globetrotter on Instagram at @FTGlobetrotter



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