A New Voice
Greetings from Singapore! In order to spread the blogging fun around, I agreed to do a blog on something that is near and dear to my heart: Eating in Singapore! Eating out here is an amazing experience, with literally thousands of restaurants within this small area.
Food and Culture
When we were studying up on the culture, it was clear that food hold great importance for Singaporeans. It’s probably the number one topic to use if you are looking for a way to start up a conversation with a local. Just ask a local for their favorite place to get Chicken Rice – the national dish of Singapore and you can be guaranteed to have a long conversation. In fact, most people consider eating out to be the national pastime of Singapore!
First, we probably need to address a couple of concerns we had (and you likely do too) about food here.
(1) Despite what you have heard about Asian food, they do not eat a lot of exotic food – at least not in Singapore (China and Korea – that’s another story, but not for this blog). There are some things you won’t likely get in the U.S., but nothing too challenging. You can find more daring “delicacies” if you truly want them, but they aren’t that common.
(2) You can eat anywhere here safely. Restaurant safety standards are impeccable. Each restaurant is inspected frequently. Residents have almost no concern about the safety of their food – no matter how the place looks.
Food and Culture
The food choices are driven by the culture and heritage in Singapore. The population of Singapore is made up of 3 major groups. The majority of the Singaporeans are of Chinese descent (around 75%), with 15% Malays, and 7% Indian. As such, the food is heavily influenced by these groups. Interestingly, the typical restaurants have a variety of food from each of these ethnic groups. As I shared earlier, the national dish of Singapore is Chicken Rice – a dish originally from China that most Singaporeans eat at least weekly. It’s really as simple as it sounds – chicken and rice. The chicken is boiled to keep it tender and the rice is cooked with chicken stock and ginger to keep it moist and flavorful. It’s often served with spicy chili sauce. Although it’s simple, it is very tasty…and even my picky American kids will eat it.
The other signature dish of Singapore is Chilli Crab. Crabs are stir fried whole in a sauce of tomato and chili. They are usually eaten with the bare hands, making it quite a messy experience. It is also a very tasty dish, but can be on the pricey side.
Where to Eat
Now that we’ve discussed a bit about the flavors of Singapore, let’s talk about where to eat. There are essentially 3 levels of eating establishments that you can frequent in Singapore. The first is the “traditional restaurant” that you might think of in the US. Somewhere you go in, get seated, get waited on, etc. The restaurants would not be too different than what you might find in the US. Fast food all the way up to 5-star dining experiences await you. In fact, many Western chains have a presence in Singapore – Pizza Hut, Dominos, KFC, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Popeye’s, Chili’s just to name a few. They each have their own Asian flavor, but when you want fried chicken, you can get fried chicken.
The only thing we really miss…Mexican food. We finally found a couple of places serving fair approximations, but it’s not the same as Mexican food from the border.
The second level is the food court. This concept is basically the same as the mall food court in the US, but with a couple of differences. There are literally hundreds of malls across Singapore and almost all of them have a food court or two. These food courts usually have 10-20 food stalls that serve a variety of types of food and are located on the top floor or in the basement. You’ll see a Thai stall, next to a Chinese stall, next to a Vietnamese stall, next to a Korean stall. The prices amaze. Meals in the food courts usually go for around $4.00-9.00 SD. Note that the 1 SD = 0.73 USD, so you can eat a decent lunch for $3.00-6.00 US.
Typical Sunday Lunch from WCG – $4.00 SGD
Finally, if you are looking for an interesting and very inexpensive eating experience, you should go to a hawker center. These are open air markets that are usually near local housing centers (HDBs) where local sellers cook and sell food. You can easily eat at a hawker center for $3.00-$5.00 SD. It’s quite an interesting experience as the “hawker” seldom speaks English. I rarely know what I’m ordering unless I have a Singaporean friend with me and ordering still involves a lot of pointing. Nevertheless, I have had some great meals at these locations.
A few other interesting points about eating out.
(1) I’ve gained impressive chopstick skills. Since I had never really used chopsticks in the US, this took a little getting used to. I took some good natured ribbing from my office mates on the first couple of outings. Graciously, someone usually went to find me a fork and spoon when I got too far behind. Perhaps they didn’t have all afternoon to wait on me to finish! When Singaporeans use a fork/spoon, they do so differently as well. They eat with the spoon and use the fork to shovel the food onto it.
(2) Food courts, hawker centers, and even some smaller restaurants do not have napkins. The first time I went, I looked everywhere for them. They aren’t there. Someone later explained to me that you have to bring your own. Singaporeans carry tissues around with them for this very reason. The tissues also serve a secondary purpose. Being such a small area with so many people, space is at a premium. Seating is very minimal. When you arrive at the food court, the first thing you must do is leave your tissue on the table to mark your seat. Then you go and get your meal. People are polite…they will not move your tissues or take your seat. It would be a great faux pas to take someone’s marked seat. If you don’t have tissues, you can really mark your table with just about anything.
(3) The food is spicy…but not too spicy. Asians as a rule like spicy food. I haven’t encountered anything in Singapore that was too spicy for me…Thailand is a different story. When they say it is spicy…look out! That being said, they don’t expect foreigners to be able to handle spicy food. They always look worried when I order, even when I tell them I’ll be okay. In fact, I usually have to tell them to make the dish like they normally would. If not, I’ll get the American version (where they add less chili).
(4) The low-carb diet is unheard of in Asia. A meal without rice or noodles is nearly impossible. I wasn’t a huge rice fan when I came, but I’ve learned to embrace it (or go hungry).
(5) Drinks are small, and there are no free refills. That was quite a shock. Some of this is cultural. Many, in fact probably most Singaporeans, do not drink with their meals. They often get something after the meal is over, but they usually eat their meal without drinking. When they do drink, they get the usual coffee, tea, or soda, but there are more interesting choices. One of the choices you can get regularly is barley. It’s tasty…but unusual.
Here are a few of our other unusual favorite items:
Jonathan’s New Favorite Food – Chinese Baozi – We call them by the Malay word Pau – steamed dumplings filled with lots of different things – Jonathan likes coffee flavored, I like the lotus paste, and Michael likes the chicken. There’s something for everyone!
Unexpectedly, we’ve learned that Singaporeans love toast. Nearly every kopitiam (coffee shop) offers toast all day. Our favorite is probably Toast Box – these are located all over Singapore. They are famous for their kaya toast – a delicious jam made from coconut and eggs, and sweetened with sugar. You can’t go wrong with this!
Finally, one of our recent discoveries is Indian food. Michael and I have liked curry since day one, but one of our new favorites is Roti Prata. This is a delicious fried flatbread that can be filled with things like cheese, eggs, or even chocolate. So good!
I’m going to Keep on Eating
I hope I’ve given you a good picture of what eating in Singapore is like. Hopefully, I’ve also convinced a few of you to come experience what Singapore has to offer. I’ve tried a lot of things…but I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. I’ll keep trying new places…and let you know what I find!