One of the best (and mouth-watering) ways to acquaint yourself with a new city is by exploring the local food scene and there may be no better destination for this than Singapore. This melting pot of culture is home to some of the most diverse and delicious food in the world.
A Singapore Food Tour with Hello Singapore
Even more intriguing than the assortment of Malay, Indian, Chinese, and European dishes you’ll find throughout the city, are the restaurants and food stalls in which they’re served. From high-end restaurants in Marina Bay to the numerous food court Hawker Centres around the city, Singapore offers endless opportunities for the adventurous eater.
During our visit to Singapore in March, my fiancé and I were offered a rare and delicious opportunity to participate in a five-hour food tour led by a local guide with Hello Singapore. As any good self-professed foodies would, we eagerly accepted this invitation and ate a light dinner the evening before in preparation.
A little before 9 am the next morning, we donned our stretchy pants and met our tour group for a day of eating and exploring. Our group consisted of an older couple, Bill and Carol, as well as our friendly local tour guide, Kristie. As fate would have it, Bill and Carol happened to be from our hometown in the States! We could hardly believe it! After this surprising revelation and a brief breakdown of the itinerary from Kristie, we headed to the first of our nine stops!
Soon Soon Huat Curry Puff
Our first stop was Soon Soon Huat Curry Puff, a small restaurant on East Coast Road. Here we enjoyed some coffee and curry puffs! Curry may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of breakfast but in Singapore, it’s a common way to start the day. The curry puffs at Soon Soon are made fresh each day by the chef-owner and her mother.
The golden, flaky exterior of the puff is complemented by the warm, spicy potato filling. The Singaporean take on coffee, known as Kopi, offers a sweet juxtaposition to the subtle spice of the curry puff. Kopi is made by combining coffee with evaporated milk, sugar, and hot water. There are several types of Kopi including, Kopi-C, Kopi-O, Kopi Peng, and many more depending on how sweet you’d like your coffee. Personally, I opted for Kopi C!
We rounded off our curry puffs with a traditional Singaporean soft boiled egg. Per Kristie’s guidance, we mixed in a dollop of sweet, dark soy sauce into the egg yolk, creating a viscous soup. It sounds interesting, to say the least but the result was warm and savory. Perfect for dipping the last few bites of curry puff in!
Last but not least, we tried one of Singapore’s traditional dishes, known as carrot cake. It is not what you think though! This dish surprisingly is neither sweet nor contains any carrots. The main ingredients are rice flour and white radish, sometimes referred to as white carrot hence the name of carrot cake. The flour and radish are steamed, cut into cubes, and then fried with garlic and preserved radish. Of course, it was delicious as most things fried with garlic tend to be!
Kim Choo’s Shop
After a brief walk, we made our way to stop number two, a small shop named after its founder, Kim Choo. It specializes in rice dumplings, known as Nonya Bak Chang and Peranakan goods. If you’re unfamiliar with the term Peranakan, the word literally translates to ‘locally-born descendants of foreigners’.
The Peranakan community in Singapore is largely comprised of individuals with Straits-Chinese heritage, meaning they have Chinese ancestry but were born in the British-controlled Straits Settlements of Singapore, Penang, and/or Malacca. The shop’s owner, Kim Choo, is a Straits-Chinese Peranakan woman herself referred to as ‘nonya’ in the local dialect.
Kim’s shop not only sells her famous rice dumplings but also Peranakan clothing, porcelain and other snacks. We sampled the pork and rice dumplings, an oily, savory snack wrapped in an intricately tied bamboo leaf. We then sampled a traditional Peranakan dessert, known as Kueh Lapis, commonly referred to as the thousand-layer cake.
In reality, this colorful dessert has nine layers which are made of a combination of tapioca, rice flour, coconut milk, and pandan. Peranakans believe that each layer of the dessert represents a different blessing in life. Thus, it is customary to eat the dessert by peeling off one layer at a time, blessing by blessing.
Janggut / Katong Original Laksa
As we left Kim Choo’s quaint shop, we prepared ourselves for stop three, where we sampled a traditional Singaporean noodle dish, known as Laksa. There are many different iterations of Laksa and we sampled Katong Laksa, inspired by the Peranakans. Laksa is a spicy soup, flavored with coconut milk and dried shrimp and topped off with an assortment of seafood including prawns, cockles, and fish cakes.
Thick vermicelli noodles make up the base of the soup and are cut into bite-sized pieces. Perhaps, it was the delicious combination of seafood, the gritty texture of the soup, and the smell of fish radiating from the food stall but something about this dish reminded me of the beach. If you are a lover of seafood, Katong Laksa is a must!
Hawker Centre on Old Airport Road
One of the main attractions of Singapore’s food scene are the infamous hawker centres where dozens (sometimes even hundreds) of food vendors come together to create epic food court style dining centers for locals and tourists alike.
After a quick bus ride on Singapore’s impressive public transport (it’s as clean as you’d imagine it to be), we had our first taste of a Singaporean Hawker Centre at Old Airport Road. We were impressed by the ease at which Kristie navigated the crowded space as she scooped up several snacks for us to try including chicken and rice, popiah and sugar cane juice.
Like many countries in Asia, Singapore has its own unique spin on chicken and rice, thanks to the Hainanese. As its name suggests, Hainanese chicken and rice were created by Chinese immigrants from the Hainan province in the south of China.
The chicken is prepared by poaching in boiling water. Chicken stock is then used to cook the rice, along with ginger, garlic and pandan, providing a subtly sweet flavor. The dish is served with a dipping sauce of minced red chili and garlic, the customary dark soy sauce and a side of soup. It was a delicious and hearty meal and one that you should definitely try while in Singapore!
Next on the menu was popiah, a Hokkien snack reminiscent of a large spring roll or a burrito. Wrapped in a thin, paper-like casing of wheat flour, popiahs are stuffed with stewed turnip, jicama, bean sprouts, peanuts and meat or shrimp. The shrimp popiah was a crowd-pleaser among our tour group, especially the peanut sauce used for dipping.
To accompany the meal, we sipped on some refreshing and very sweet sugar cane juice. The juice is prepared by pressing peeled sugar cane and comes out as a yellow-green color. It’s a very cheap and very sweet beverage, perfect for a hot day which are quite plentiful in Singapore!
Old Corner Store in Kampong Glam
One of the most interesting aspects of Singapore is the unique pockets of culture you can experience in each of its diverse neighborhoods. Kampong Glam is a neighborhood that is known as the Muslim epicenter of Singapore. On Arab Street, you’ll find it difficult not to be entranced by the sight of a striking golden dome adorned with a crescent moon and star. This famous landmark is the Masjid Sultan Mosque.
On nearby Khandar Street, you may notice a yellow palace, or Istana, that was once home to the Malay Sultans in Singapore but which has since been transformed into the Malay heritage center. Throughout this neighborhood, you’ll find beautiful rugs, vibrant textiles, and of course, middle Eastern cuisine.
We began our visit to Kampong Glam at the Old Corner Stall on Baghdad Street with some sweet spicy ginger tea, known as Teh Halia. Teh Halia derives from the Malay national drink Teh Tarik, a milky, frothy sweet tea.
The tea is prepared by a special Malay method known as pulling, in which the tea is poured from one jug to another repeatedly as the distance between the jugs becomes larger. It’s quite an impressive sight to see! However, this method is not purely to show off but rather to create a layer of froth that sits on top of the tea. Although the weather was quite balmy in Singapore, to say the least, I enjoyed my Teh Halia very much!
Singapore Zam Zam in Kampong Glam
Post afternoon tea, we headed to the second floor of a busy Arab restaurant, known as Singapore Zam Zam, to dabble in some savory Murtabak. Murtabak is a thin dough stuffed with a combination of minced meat, eggs, and spices which is fried until it is golden. Singapore Zam Zam is one of the best and oldest places (they’ve been in business since 1908!) in Singapore to try the savory dish.
The restaurant looks pretty unassuming from the outside, however, just up the stairs is an entire second floor with long picnic tables. We found a spot at the end of a table alongside other hungry patrons. Kristie ordered us mutton murtabak, although there were several other different types available on the menu, including sardine, chicken, and deer.
The mutton murtabak was truly delicious which is not surprising given that it’s fried in oil. It looked a bit like a rectangular crepe and came in a large portion accompanied by a plate of cucumbers drizzled with a sweet and sour sauce. We happily shared ours with Bill and Carol. This meal was one of my favorites on our whirlwind food tour!
Komala Vilas in Little India
After Zam Zam, Kristie led us on a short walk to Little India. This was the neighborhood I was most looking forward to visiting due to my love of Indian food! Our first stop in Little India was at Komala Vilas, a vegetarian restaurant established in 1947. We sampled two dishes I had never had before called dosa and vada.
Dosa is a pancake made of lentil and rice flour that is served with sambar (a lentil-based, vegetable “soup”) and chutney for dipping. Vada is an Indian snack resembling a doughnut that’s made of fried lentil and onion and is also served with chutney.
In Indian culture, it is customary to eat with your hands, specifically your right hand, as it’s considered disrespectful to eat with your left! We had a bit of fun trying to navigate these rules which were especially difficult for Dave who is left-handed! I found the dosa and vada to be quite similar in taste and texture but obviously different in form. Overall, I thought these dishes were just okay; not nearly as flavorful as my beloved chicken makhani, also known as butter chicken (native Indians everywhere are rolling their eyes…).
Ganesan Villas Sweets & Savouries in Little India
As a girl with a sweet tooth, I’m not afraid of a little sugar. That being said…Indian desserts have introduced me to a whole different scale of sweetness! At Ganesan Villas, a little stall tucked away in a busy market in Little India, we sampled a couple of different types of Indian milk sweets, known as barfi.
Barfi, originating from the Persian word barf meaning snow, are primarily made of condensed milk and sugar, producing a milky white fudge (hence the reference to snow). We tried the plain milk barfi as well as the pistachio flavor. Personally, I loved them both! However, barfi and Indian sweets in general, are not for the faint of heart as these fudgy treats are ultra sweet in every bite!
Little India Coffeeshop
We finished our food tour with a round of Teh Masala at an unassuming coffee shop in Little India. Teh Masala is a tea beverage made with milk, sugar, cardamom and ginger. It’s typically served warm and has a bit of a spicy kick to it.
Many coffeeshops in the west have adopted this drink, resulting in what is commonly known as the Chai Tea Latte! Upon sipping my Teh Masala I could definitely see the similarity between this spicy beverage and the Chai Tea Lattes I’ve enjoyed at my local Starbucks in the States. It was pretty neat to try the original drink from which the western adaptation was inspired.
Our Singapore Food Tour: Food Coma Bliss!
As we wound down the tour, we bade farewell to Kristie and our new friends, Bill and Carol. We felt incredibly lucky to have had such an intimate tour experience during our visit to Singapore. We left Little India with full bellies, happy memories, and gratitude for our stretchy pants. Was the food coma worth it, you ask? Absolutely! Our food tour experience with Hello Singapore was fantastic!
Kristie was exceptionally friendly and knowledgeable about Singapore and its incredible cuisine. Throughout our food crawl, she made our experience even more personal by sharing her own experiences growing up and raising a family here. We couldn’t have asked for a more gracious host to explore Singapore’s food scene with us.
The food we sampled throughout our tour was varied and delicious! Over the course of five hours, we had the opportunity to sample a wide range of cuisine that we probably wouldn’t have tried had it not have been for the guidance of a local. With each bite, we walked away with a little more knowledge about how this food fits into Singapore’s greater tapestry of cultural nuances.
If this all sounds appetizing to you (pun intended), then why not book your own Singapore food tour? And don’t forget to rock your stretchy pants!