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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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)
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.
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
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.
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