Bring an appetite with you to Singapore. There are few better cities for eating that runs the gamut from street food to fine dining. You can have fancy French or Asian fusion, rarefied Chinese, or Chilean tapas. All well and good, but explore Singapore's native dishes for the city's cheapest, most flavour-packed meals. And asking locals for their top picks is a great way to get street smart.
"Laksa makes me feel nostalgic for the time when hawkers peddled it from street carts," says tour guide Cindy Tay. "You could watch them squeeze the coconut flesh by hand to get the milk. Since then, it has been my favourite dish."
Singapore laksa is a Chinese-Malay hybrid said to originate in Katong district. Janggut Laksa (1 Queensway) claims the oldest, and some say the best, version, but 328 Katong Laksa (51 East Coast Road) is a close rival if you want to do the taste comparison.
"The true local laksa is based on coconut milk with white noodles and laksa leaves," says Tay. "The addition of raw cockles is a must. If you prefer a sourish taste, Penang laksa is made with pineapple, sardines and shrimp paste, but no coconut milk." Beast & Butterflies serves an upmarket, seafood-packed version of laksa in a stone bowl, while National Kitchen sees well-known Singaporean chef Violet Oon create a soup-less dry version full of flavour.
Hainanese chicken rice
This national dish and Singaporean obsession is chicken and oily rice poached in chicken stock with ginger and pandan leaves, served with sliced cucumber, and soy and chilli dipping sauces. "For me, the chilli is very important and must be fresh, so you get the best Hainanese chicken beside wet markets," says driver Lee Teng Yon. "Go to Whampoa Food Centre, the chilli and ginger there are outstanding."
He says the pale Cantonese version should be avoided by purists: "The chicken should be yellowish in the really authentic Hainanese version."
Budget versions of Hainanese chicken rice abound. Henry Hainanese Chicken Rice at Toa Payoh West Food Centre is worth the train trip. A terrific upmarket version is served at ChatterBox at the Mandarin Orchard Singapore Hotel.
Char kway teow
For this dish, flat rice noodles are stirfried in pork fat and pork lard, chilli and dark soy sauce, then mixed with egg, sliced fishcakes, Chinese sausage and spring onion. The Singapore version is notable for seafood such as cockles, and bean sprouts for freshness and texture. "I don't know what magic this dish has on me; I love the delicious sauce, and one with lots of cockles," says Cathy Chia, assistant director of marketing at Fullerton Hotels.
The Michelin Guide lauds the char kway teow at No. 18 Zion Road at Zion Riverside Food Centre for its robust flavours. For a healthier variation, Fried Kway Teow Mee in Golden Mile Food Centre dispenses with the lard and tops the noodles with blanched greens.
"Char kway teow isn't as common now because pork lard is considered unhealthy," says Chia. "A really good one should be cooked in a wok over charcoal, so you can taste the breath of the wok created by the smoke."
Indian rojak The ingredients in rojak reflect Singapore's cultural diversity. "We call someone who's a little bit all over the place a 'rojak person'," says food guide Abdul Rahim bin Mohammad. "The dish has a little bit of everything." Indian rojak is a mix of various fritters – tepong kelapa is made with grated coconut – potato and perhaps squid, which is dipped in a spicy, orange-coloured peanut sauce.
Tekka Centre in Little India has several rojak stands, but true converts should head to Ayer Rajah Food Centre, which Rahim says is even better. Abdhus Salam Rojak and Habib's Rojak stands are manned by second-generation experts. Near the airport, Al Mahboob Rojak (300 Tampines Avenue 5) is an entire restaurant devoted to rojak.
This savoury treat isn't a cake and contains no carrot. Daikon radish (which Singaporeans call white carrot) is combined with rice flour and steamed, roughly chopped and stirfried with eggs and preserved radish. It has a lovely, slightly charred flavour. "Go for the original white carrot cake," suggests Tanglin Gin distiller Bingming Thum. "Black carrot cake uses a sweet dark soy sauce that often hides an inferior product."
Expect queues at Michelin Guide-rated humble hawker stand Chey Sua Carrot Cake at Toa Payoh West Food Centre. Another popular budget version is at Lau Pa Sat food centre, where locals line up at Seng Kee Local Delight. Lots of lard is used to stop the radish from burning, explains Thum. "In some places, they'll add even more lard if you want your carrot cake extra crispy – bad for you, but delicious!"
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Visit Singapore and The Fullerton Bay Hotel Singapore.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale September 1.