Singapore is a melting pot of cuisines from around the world, and many Singaporeans are obsessive gourmands who love to makan ("eat" in Malay). You will find quality Chinese, Malay, Indian, Japanese, Thai, Italian, French, American and other food in this city-state.
Eating habits run the gamut, but most foods are eaten by fork and spoon: push and cut with the fork in the left hand, and eat with the spoon in the right. Noodles and Chinese dishes typically come with chopsticks, while Malay and Indian food can be eaten by hand, but nobody will blink an eye if you ask for a fork and spoon instead. If eating by hand, always use your right hand to pick your food, as Malays and Indians traditionally use their left hand to handle dirty things. Take note of the usual traditional Chinese etiquette when using chopsticks, and most importantly, do not stick your chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice. If eating in a group, serving dishes are always shared, but you'll get your own bowl of rice and soup. It's common to use your own chopsticks to pick up food from communal plates, but serving spoons can be provided on request.
Keep an eye out for the Singapore Food Festival, held every year in July. During the last three festivals, all visitors to Singapore smart enough to ask for them at any tourist information desk received coupons for free chili crab, no strings attached!
Singapore is justly famous for its food, a unique mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian and Western elements. The following is only a brief sampler of the most popular dishes.
The most identifiable cuisine in the region is Peranakan or Nonya cuisine, born from the mixed Malay and Chinese communities of what were once the British colonies of the Straits Settlements (modern-day Singapore, Penang, and Malacca).
- Chilli crab is a whole crab ladled with oodles of sticky, tangy chili sauce. It's spicy at first, but the more you eat, the better it gets. Notoriously difficult to eat, so don't wear a white shirt: just dig in with your hands and ignore the mess. The seafood restaurants of the East Coast are famous for this. Be sure to get a side order of fried mantou (small sweet buns which have been deep fried for a crisp exterior) to mop up the sauce too. For a less messy but equally tasty alternative, ask for black pepper crab.
- Kaya is a jam-like spread made from egg and coconut, an odd-sounding but tasty combination. Served on toast for breakfast, canonically accompanied by runny eggs and strong, sweet coffee (kopi). Exists in two distinctive styles; the greenish Nonya version, colored with pandan leaf, and the brownish Hainanese version.
- Laksa, in particular the Katong laksa or laksa lemak style, is probably the best-known Singaporean dish: white noodles in a creamy, immensely rich coconut-based curry broth, topped with cockles or shrimp. Be warned that the common style found in hawker centers is very spicy, although you can ask for less/no chili to dial down the heat. The Katong style is much less spicy and is generally found only in Katong itself (see the East Coast page). Singapore laksa is very different from Penang laksa, which is a spicy, sourish, clear soup made with a tamarind-infused broth.
- Mee siam is rice flour noodles served in a sweet-sour soup (made from tamarind, dried shrimp and fermented beans), bean curd cubes, and hard-boiled eggs. Though the Chinese, Malays and Indians all have their own versions, it is the Peranakan version that is most popular with Singaporeans. You will largely find this at Malay stalls.
- Popiah, or spring rolls, come fresh or fried. They consist of a filling of boiled turnip, fried tofu, pork, shrimp with a slew of condiments, wrapped in a thin crepe smeared with sweet dark soy sauce and eaten like a fajita. They are related to the lumpia and runbing of other Chinese communities in Asia.
- Rojak means a mixture of everything in Malay, and there are two very different types. Chinese rojak is a salad of pineapple, white turnip, cucumber, tau pok (fried bean curd) with thin tiny slices of bunga kantan (torch ginger flower buds), tossed in shrimp paste sauce and sugar, then sprinkled with crushed peanuts. Indian rojak consists of mainly fried fritters made from flour and various pulses with cucumber and tofu, with sweet & spicy sauces.
- Satay bee hoon is rice vermicelli (bee hoon) served with the same peanut and chili sauce used for satay, hence the name. Usually, see hum (cockles), dried squid and pork slices are added.
- Ice cream is just as it is in Western countries. However, in Singapore, there are various local flavors such as durian and red bean which are not available outside the region and are certainly worth a try. To impress the locals, try asking for ice cream in roti (bread).
Besides these dishes, the Peranakans are also known for their kueh or snacks, which are somewhat different from the Malay versions due to stronger Chinese influences.
The Malays were Singapore's original inhabitants and despite now being outnumbered by the Chinese, their distinctive cuisine is popular to this day. Characterized by heavy use of spices, most Malay dishes are curries, stews or dips of one kind or another and nasi padang restaurants, offering a wide variety of these to ladle onto your rice, are very popular.
- Mee rebus is a dish of egg noodles with spicy, slightly sweet gravy, a slice of hard boiled egg and lime.
- Mee soto is Malay-style chicken soup, with a clear broth, shredded chicken breast, and egg noodles.
- Nasi lemak is the definitive Malay breakfast, consisting at its simplest of rice cooked in light coconut milk, some ikan bilis (anchovies), peanuts, a slice of a cucumber and a dab of chili on the side. A larger ikan kuning (fried fish) or chicken wing are common accompaniments. More often than not, also combined with a variety of curries and/or sambal (see below).
- Otah/Otak is a type of fish cake made of minced fish (usually mackerel), coconut milk, chili, and various other spices, and grilled in a banana or coconut leaf, usually served to accompany other dishes like nasi lemak.
- Rendang, occasionally dubbed "dry curry", is meat stewed for hours on end in a spicy (but rarely fiery) coconut-based curry paste until almost all water is absorbed. Beef rendang is the most common, although chicken and mutton are spotted sometimes.
- Sambal is the generic term for chilli sauces of many kinds. Sambal belacan is a common condiment made by mixing chili with the shrimp paste belacan, while the popular dish sambal sotong consists of squid (sotong) cooked in red chili sauce.
- Satay are barbecued skewers of meat, typically chicken, mutton or beef. What separates satay from your ordinary kebab is the spices used to season the meat and the slightly spicy peanut-based dipping sauce. The Satay Club at Lau Pa Sat near Raffles Place is one popular location for this delicacy.
Malay desserts, especially the sweet pastries and jellies (kuih or kueh) made largely from coconut and palm sugar (gula melaka), bear a distinct resemblance to those of Thailand. But in the sweltering tropical heat, try one of many concoctions made with ice instead:
- Bubur cha-cha consists of cubed yam, sweet potato, and sago added into coconut milk soup. This can be served warm or cold.
- Chendol is made with green pea noodles, kidney beans, palm sugar, and coconut milk.
- Durian is not exactly a dish, but a local fruit with distinctive odor you can smell a mile away and a sharp thorny husk. Both smell and taste defy description. If you are game enough you should try it, but be warned beforehand — you will either love it or hate it. The rich creamy yellow flesh is often sold in places like Geylang and Bugis and elsewhere conveniently in pre-packaged packs. This 'king of fruits' is also made into ice cream, cakes, sweets, puddings, and other decadent desserts. Note: You're not allowed to carry durians on the MRT and buses and they're banned from many hotels.
- Ice kachang literally means "ice bean" in Malay, a good clue to the two major ingredients: shaved ice and sweet red beans. However, more often than not you'll also get gula melaka (palm sugar), grass jelly, sweet corn, attap palm seeds and anything else on hand thrown in, and the whole thing is then drizzled with canned evaporated milk or coconut cream and colored syrups. The end result tastes very interesting — and refreshing.
- Kuih (or kueh) refer to a plethora of steamed or baked "cakes", mostly made with coconut milk, grated coconut flesh, glutinous rice or tapioca. They are often very colorful and cut into fanciful shapes, but despite their wildly varying appearance tend to taste rather similar.
- Pisang goreng is a batter-dipped and deep-fried banana.
The cheapest and most popular places to eat in Singapore are hawker centers, essentially former pushcart vendors directed into giant complexes by government fiat. Prices are low, hygiene standards are high (every stall is required to prominently display a health certificate grading it from A to D) and the food can be excellent — if you see a queue, join it! The lack of air-conditioning may seem somewhat unbearable to foreigners, but a visit to a hawker center remains a must when in Singapore. However, be leery of overzealous pushers-cum-salesmen, especially at the Satay Club in Lau Pa Sat and Newton Food Centre at Newton Circus: the tastiest stalls don't need high-pressure tactics to find customers. Touting for business is illegal, and occasionally a reminder of this can result in people backing off a bit.
To order, first chope (reserve) a table by either parking a friend by the table or, in the more Singaporean way, dumping a pack of tissue onto the tabletop. Note the table's number, then place your order at your stall of choice. Some stalls will deliver to your table, in which case you pay when you get your food. However, note that some stalls (particularly very popular ones) have signs stating "self-service", meaning that you're expected to get your food yourself and you pay on order. Although, if it is quiet and you are sitting nearby, they will usually deliver anyway. At almost every stall you can also opt to take away (called "packet" or ta pao (打包) in Cantonese), in which case employees pack up your order in a plastic box/bag and even throw in disposable utensils. Once you are finished, look around: if there are signs asking you to return your tray, take your dishes to the tray return station (usually clearly marked). This is part of a government initiative that has been pushed out in recent years encouraging diners to return their own plates so as to reduce the burden on the cleaners. If there are no signs, you can leave your dishes on your table, where a cleaner will come by to pick them up.
Every district in Singapore has its own hawker centers and prices decrease as you move out into the boondocks. For tourists, centrally located Newton Circus (Newton MRT), Gluttons Bay and Lau Pa Sat (near the River), are the most popular options — but this does not make them the cheapest or the tastiest, and the demanding gourmand would do well to head to Chinatown or the heartlands instead. Many of the best food stalls are located in residential districts away from the tourist trail and do not advertise in the media, so the best way to find them is to ask locals for their recommendations. A good example is the Old Airport Road Food Centre in a residential area near Dakota MRT station which rarely has many tourists and is a true Hawker Centre for locals. And if you miss western food, Botak Jones in several hawker centers offers reasonably authentic and generously sized American-restaurant style meals at hawker prices.
Despite the name, coffee shops or kopitiam sell much more than coffee — they are effectively mini-hawker centers with perhaps only half a dozen stalls (one of which will, however, sell coffee and other drinks). The Singaporean equivalent of pubs, this is where folks come for the canonical Singaporean breakfast of kopi (strong, sugary coffee), some kaya (egg-coconut jam) toast and runny eggs, and this is also where they come to down a beer or two and chat away in the evenings. English proficiency can sometimes be limited, but most stall owners know enough to communicate the basics, and even if they don't, nearby locals will usually help you out if you ask. Many coffee shops offer tze char (煮炒) for dinner, meaning a menu of local dishes, mostly Chinese-style seafood, served at your table at mid-range prices.
The usual international coffee chains such as Starbucks and the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf can be found in many shopping malls. More discerning coffee drinkers may consider visiting the local cafes that serve coffee brewed with greater skill and care than these international coffee chains.
Found in the basement or top floor of nearly every shopping mall, food courts are the gentrified, air-conditioned version of hawker centers. The variety of food on offer is almost identical, but prices are higher than prices in hawker centers and coffee shops (depending on the area, it is slightly more expensive in tourist intensive areas) and the quality of food is good but not necessary value for money.
International fast food chains like McDonald's, Carl's Jr., Burger King, KFC, MOS Burger, Dairy Queen, Orange Julius, Subway etc are commonly found in various shopping malls. Such restaurants are self-service and clearing your table after your meal is strongly recommended. In addition to the usual suspects, look out for these uniquely Singaporean brands:
- Artease Cafe. This home-grown brand offers a variety of premium tea and toppings in interesting flavors. They also serve great coffee.
- Bengawan Solo. Singapore version of Indonesian cakes, Chinese pastries and everything in between. The name is taken from the name of a famous river in Java.
- BreadTalk. This self-proclaimed "designer bread" chain has taken not just Singapore but much of South-East Asia by storm. Everything is jazzily shaped, funkily named (eg. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Bacon) and baked on premises. Just note that, to the Western palate, almost everything is rather sweet.
- Jollibean. Fresh soy drinks, beancurd and tasty mee chiang kueh Chinese pancakes.
- Killiney Kopitiam. Serves kaya toast, kopi and ginger tea (with ice or without); waiters at the original Somerset location shout your order towards the back with gusto.
- Mr Bean. Offers a variety of soya bean drinks, ice-creams, and pastries snacks.
- Old Chang Kee. Famous for their curry puffs, but their range now covers anything and everything deep-fried. Take-away only.
- Ya Kun Kaya Toast. Serves the classic Singaporean breakfast all day long: kaya toast, runny eggs and strong, sweet coffee (plus some other drinks). Arguably one of the more successful chains with branches in as far as South Korea and Japan.
Singapore offers a wide variety of full-service restaurants as well, catering to every taste and budget.
As the majority of Singapore's population is ethnic Chinese, there is an abundance of Chinese restaurants in Singapore, mainly serving southern Chinese (mostly Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese) cuisines, though with a large number of expatriates and foreign workers from China these days, cuisine originating from Shanghai and further north is also not hard to find. As with Chinese restaurants anywhere, food is eaten with chopsticks and served with Chinese tea. While Chinese restaurant food is certainly closer to authentic Chinese fare than hawker food is, it too has not managed to escape local influences and you can find many dishes little seen in China. Depending on where you go and what you order, prices can vary greatly.
Being a maritime city, one common specialty is seafood restaurants, offering Chinese-influenced Singaporean classics like chili crabs. These are much more fun to go to in a group, but be careful what you order: gourmet items like Sri Lankan giant crab or shark's fin can easily push your bill up to hundreds of dollars. Menus typically say "Market price", and if you ask they'll quote you the price per 100 g, but a big crab can easily top 2 kilos. The best-known seafood spots are clustered on the East Coast, but for ambience, the riverside restaurants at Boat Quay and Clarke Quay can't be beat.
Singapore also has its share of good Western restaurants, with British and American influenced food being a clear favorite among locals. Most of the more affordable chains are concentrated around Orchard Road. French, Italian, Japanese and Korean food is also readily available, though prices tend to be on the expensive side, while Thai and Indonesian restaurants tend to be more affordable.
One British import much beloved by Singaporeans is high tea. In the classical form, as served up by finer hotels across the island, this is a light afternoon meal consisting of tea and a wide array of British-style savory snacks and sweet pastries like finger sandwiches and scones. However, the term is increasingly used for afternoon buffets of any kind, and Chinese dim sum and various Singaporean dishes are common additions. Note that many restaurants only serve high tea on weekends, and hours may be very limited: the famous spread at the Raffles Hotel's Tiffin Room, for example, is only available between 3:30 PM-5 PM.
Singaporeans are big on buffets, especially international buffets offering a wide variety of dishes including Western, Chinese and Japanese as well as some local dishes at a fixed price. Popular chains include Sakura, Pariss, Vienna, and Todai.
Most hotels also offer lunch and dinner buffets. Champagne brunches on Sundays are particularly popular. Popular spots, like Mezza9 at the Hyatt on Orchard, will require reservations.
Unlike most other shops, restaurants in Singapore usually do not include the additional charges (7% GST and 10% service charge) in their list prices.
While Singapore has been previously described as a place with excellent casual dining but a lack of fine dining options, the opening of the two casinos has led to several of the world's top chefs opening branches of their restaurant at the integrated resorts. Celebrity restaurants that have set up shop at Marina Bay Sands include Santi, Waku Ghin and Guy Savoy. Prices are generally what you would expect for eating at a fine dining restaurant in the West.
Pop up dining options or supper clubs are normally dinner events hosted by local chefs. While a relatively new concept in Singapore, it is gaining popularity with more and more local chefs opening up their homes to guests. Authentic food and dining in the company of new friends is a new trend that is catching up in Singapore. BonAppetour is a great place to discover such dining options.
Singapore is an easy place to eat for almost everybody. Many Indians and a few Chinese Buddhists are strictly vegetarian, so Indian stalls may have a number of veggie options and some hawker centers will have a Chinese vegetarian stall or two, often serving up amazing meat imitations made from gluten. Chinese vegetarian food traditionally does not use eggs or dairy products and is thus almost always vegan; Indian vegetarian food, however, often employs cheese and other milk products. Be on your guard in ordinary Chinese restaurants though, as even dishes that appear vegetarian on the menu may contain seafood products such as oyster sauce or salted fish — check with the waiter if in doubt. Some restaurants can be found that use "no garlic, no onions".
Muslims should look out for halal certificates issued by MUIS, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore. This is found at practically every Malay stall and many Indian Muslim operations too, but more rarely on outlets run by the Chinese, few of whom are Muslims. That said, the popular Banquet chain of food courts is entirely halal and an excellent choice for safely sampling halal Chinese food. Many, if not all, of the Western fast-food chains in Singapore, use halal meat: look for a certificate around the ordering area, or ask a manager if in doubt. A few restaurants skimp on the formal certification and simply put up "no pork, no lard" signs; it's your call if this is good enough for you.
Jews, on the other hand, will have a harder time as kosher food is nearly unknown in Singapore. Nevertheless, kosher food is still available near Singapore's two synagogues at Oxley Rise and Waterloo Street in the Central Business District; check with the Jewish Welfare Board for details.
Celiac disease is relatively unheard of in Singapore, so don't expect to find information on menus about whether dishes contain gluten or not. A few exceptions to this include Cedele and Barracks @ House.
Singapore's nightlife has both increased in vibrancy and variety over the years. Some clubs have 24 hr licenses and few places close before 3 AM. Any artist touring Asia are pretty much guaranteed to stop in Singapore, with superclub Zouk in particular regularly clocking high on lists of the world's best nightclubs. Singapore's nightlife is largely concentrated along the three Quays — Boat, Clarke, and Robertson — of the Riverside, with the clubs of Sentosa and nearby St James Power Station giving party animals even more reason to dance the night away. Gay bars are mostly found around Chinatown. Drinking age is 18, and while this is surprisingly loosely enforced, some clubs have higher age limits.
Friday is generally the biggest night of the week for going out, with Saturday a close second. Sunday is gay night in many bars and clubs, while Wednesday or Thursday is ladies' night, often meaning not just free entrance but free drinks for women. Most clubs are closed on Monday and Tuesday, while bars generally stay open but tend to be very quiet.
For a night out Singapore style, gather a group of friends and head for the nearest karaoke box — major chains include K-Box and Party World. Beware that the non-chain, glitzy (or dodgy) looking, neon-covered KTV lounges may charge much higher rates and the short-skirted hostesses may offer more services than just pouring your drinks. In Singapore, the pronunciation of karaoke follows the Japanese "karah-oh-kay" instead of the English "carry-oh-key".
Alcohol is widely available but very expensive due to Singapore's heavy sin taxes. You can bring in up to one liter of liquor and two liters of wine and beer if you arrive from countries other than Malaysia. Changi Airport has a good range of duty-free spirits at reasonable prices, but cheap wine is non-existent. Careful shopping at major supermarkets will also throw up common basic Australian wine labels.
Alcohol is haram (forbidden) to Muslims, and most Muslim Singaporeans duly avoid it. While most non-Muslim Singaporeans are not puritanical and enjoy a drink every now and then, do not expect to find the binge-drinking culture that you will find in most Western countries. Unlike in most Western countries, public drunkenness in socially frowned upon in Singapore, and misbehaving yourself under the influence of alcohol will certainly not gain you any respect from Singaporean friends. Do not allow any confrontations to escalate into fights, as the police will be called in, and you will face jail time and possibly caning.
Prices when eating out vary. On the other hand, drinks in any bar, club or fancy restaurant remain extortionate. On the upside, happy hours and two-for-one promotions are common, and the entry price for clubs usually includes several drink tickets. Almost all restaurants in Singapore allow bringing your own (BYO) wine and cheaper restaurants without a wine menu usually don't even charge corkage, although in these places you'll need to bring your own bottle opener and glasses.
Tourists flock to the Long Bar in the Raffles Hotel to sample the original Singapore Sling, a sickly sweet pink mix of pineapple juice, gin and more, but locals (almost) never touch the stuff. The tipple of choice in Singapore is the local beer, Tiger, a rather ordinary lager, but there's been a recent microbrewery trend with Singapore's very own RedDot Brewhouse (Dempsey & Boat Quay), Archipelago (Boat Quay), Brewerkz (Riverside Point), Paulaner Brauhaus (Millenia Walk) and Pump Room (Clarke Quay) all offering interesting alternatives.
There are also many online alcohol stores that offer great value and convenience with doorstep delivery such as Cellarbration Singapore, Alcohol Delivery, Winelah and Cornerstone wines for you to shop from if you are looking for an affordable nightcap or as a gift for your host in Singapore.
Tobacco is heavily taxed, and you are not allowed to bring more than one opened pack (not carton, but a single pack!) of cigarettes into the country. This is particularly strictly enforced on the land borders with Malaysia. Many public places including hawker centres have restrictions on smoking, and it is prohibited in public transport as well. There is a total ban on smoking in all air-conditioned places (including pubs and discos), and strict limitations on where you can smoke outside as well (e.g., bus stops, parks, playgrounds and all except the designated sections of hawker centers are off limits). The designated zone should be marked with a yellow outline, and may have a sign reading "smoking zone".
Prostitution is tolerated in six designated districts, most notably Geylang, which — not coincidentally — also offers some of the cheapest lodging and best food in the city. The industry maintains a low profile (no go-go bars here) and is not a tourist attraction by any stretch of the word. Legally practicing commercial sex workers are required to register with the authorities and attend special clinics for regular sexually transmitted disease screening. However, please be prudent and practice safe sex--although most sex workers will insist on it anyway.
Orchard Towers, on Orchard Road, has been famously summarized as "four floors of whores" and, despite occasional crackdowns by the authorities, continues to live up to its name. Beware that the prostitutes working here are usually not registered, so the risk of theft and STDs is significantly higher. Some transgender women work at this establishment because the State does not allow them to obtain a license for sex work. Because they are considered illegal workers, they are subjected to constant raids, harassment, intimidation, imprisonment and other forms of degrading treatment and criminalization. They also face entrapment where police officers pretend to be customers.