After completing my Masters degree at the University of Waterloo this past August, I visited Southeast Asia for a month. This month was spent half in Singapore, and a quarter in Indonesia (Bali) and Malaysia respectively.
Southeast Asia consists of two geographic regions: Mainland Southeast Asia, also known as Indochina, comprising Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, and Vietnam; and Maritime Southeast Asia, comprising Brunei, Malaysia, East Timor, Indonesia, Philippines, and Singapore.
Although I was born at the Grand River Hospital in Kitchener, I moved to Singapore shortly after birth and only returned to Canada to complete high school and university. Having lived 16 years in Singapore, I have always wanted to share the beauty of Singapore to the world.
I still remember one of the very first doctor visits I had in Canada.
Doctor: Where are you from?
Doctor: Oh, they teach English in China? Your English is good!
Maple: … Hmm I don’t know if they teach English in China but I’m from Singapore.
Doctor: So is that the North part of China…?
Maple: …. … ….
And I never went back to the same doctor – Singapore is actually here:
Singapore is widely known as a food paradise. Although it is only the size of a dot on the world map, you can probably find every possible type of cuisine in there, maybe except fried maggots. If you are fan of Masterchef, you would know that one of Joe’s most memorable dish he had ever eaten – a sea urchin and caviar dish from Singapore. Since gaining independence in 1965, Singapore had evolved from a simple port city to a sophisticated developed city-country, with a reputation for being one of the cleanest, least corrupt, richest yet safest country in the world.
Here is a map of the subway system in Singapore:
There is almost a mall at every single subway stop. For malls in Canada, regardless of whether you head to Cambridge centre, Fairview mall, or Conestoga mall, you can generally find the same stores. In Singapore, despite having similar big brand stores in the various malls, there are also numerous unique boutiques in each one, which makes it impossible to ever “finish” shopping in Singapore. Moreover, each mall usually has a basement full of street foods that can be snacked on or “quick bites” where you can grab and go. The food court is typically located on the highest level of the mall. Unlike Canada, there will always be independent food vendors at each mall compared to the fast food chains we have at food court here.
Canada’s malls’ food courts have very repetitive food options. There usually will be the same burger place, fried chicken place, poutine place, Canadian Chinese place, Greek place etc. Although there is a good variety of foods, it is usually the same few chain vendors like A&W, KFC, NYF, Thai Express, Bourbon chicken etc. In comparison, Singapore has the complete opposite trend. It is uncommon to have same chained vendors, but independent vendors at the various mall tend to focus on selling the same local delicacies. There are so many local favourites that you will never really run out of options. A meal at the food court cost about $10.
A cheaper alternative to the food court will be the coffee shop. In Canada, coffee shop literally translates to a shop that sells coffee and maybe some snacks or sandwiches. In Singapore, coffee is not the main focus of the coffee shop. The coffee shop is basically a “food court” located in the midst of a neighborhood, with no air-conditioning (Singapore hovers around 30 degrees daily). There will be one store selling beverages (usually the owner of the coffee shop), and all the others selling different types of food.
That is a typical Singaporean breakfast – Kaya (coconut egg jam) toast, soft boiled eggs and coffee. The soft aroma of pandan leaves with buttery goodness of coconut combine to become an unbeatable jam combination. If you love coconut butter, you will love kaya.
A cup of coffee shop coffee costs less than $1, and it tastes quite different Timmies in Canada.
Coffee first becomes Singaporean kopi with the roasting process: the beans are roasted with butter or margarine (or lard!), and sometimes sugar, to lend them an especially rich, dark character. The shells turn oily and aromatic, caramelized and browned, but not burnt.
Since I only started learning how to drink coffee after I returned to Canada (and I drink it black), I could never get used to the slightly sweet aftertaste of black coffee in Singapore. By the way, coffee is referred to as “kopi” in Singapore, which simply means coffee in Malay. Hence, coffee shop is also known as Kopitiam, which is a mush of Malay and Hokkien. Singaporeans are king of mushing words together.
Despite the Asian population and British colonial heritage, coffee, not tea, is the national drink of Singapore. Actually, strike that—kopi is the national drink of Singapore; order “coffee” somewhere and you’ll be handed a cup of Nescafe.
Ordering kopi in Singapore requires a great amount of research. Typically, kopi is ordered in dialect. For example, the default kopi is served with sweetened condensed milk (yes no fresh milk used). For black with sugar, it is kopi-O. For coffee unsweetened but still with milk, it is kopi-C (which means fresh). For straight up black coffee with nothing in it, it is kopi-gosong. For iced coffee, it is kopi-peng. For strong coffee, it is kopi-gau. Jeeez! Why is life so difficult!?
Despite my love for coffee, my favourite drink to order at coffee shops is actually Teh-C, which translates to milk tea (with evaporated milk). Milo is also an extremely popular drink to order, with variations such as Milo Dinosaur and Milo Godzilla.
Milo is added to hot or cold water and/or milk to make a malted chocolate beverage. It does not dissolve readily in cold milk, and so retains the gritty texture of its raw state. Milo can be stirred into steamed milk to make a drink akin to hot chocolate or cocoa. Variations include “Milo Dinosaur” (a cup of Milo with an extra spoonful of powdered undissolved Milo added to it), “Milo Godzilla” (a cup of Milo with ice cream and/or topped with whipped cream) and “Neslo” (combined with Nescafe powdered coffee).
A meal at the coffee shop will probably cost a little less than the food court due to the lack of air conditioning, around $7 – $10.
For the cheapest form of eating out in Singapore, hawker centers will be your best bet.
At first glance, these stalls resemble walk-in closets, cluttered with cooking equipment and ingredients, but don’t let their size fool you—these cramped little kitchens punch far above their weight.
Hawker centers are basically open air food courts which host a variety of providers, each of which usually specializes in one or just a few dishes.
Hawker centres sprang up in urban areas following the rapid urbanisation in the 1950s and 1960s. In many cases, they were built partly to address the problem of unhygienic food preparation by unlicensed street hawkers.
Each table in the hawker center is labeled with a number. This is how the ordering process works – you get in line at the vendor, order your meal, and they will deliver it to you once you tell them your table number. No tips required and you don’t pay until you get your food. You can easily have a big satisfying meal at the hawker center for less than $5.
You can find the same varieties of food at each of the above – food court, coffee shop or hawker centre. It just depends on how clean, quiet, or cooling you want your eating environment to be. Due to the vast amount of food conveniently available in Singapore, packing lunch to work is really not part of their culture. It will probably cost more money and hassle to buy and prepare groceries than to just eat out for $3.
Here is a fantastic list of famous local foods to eat in Singapore. If you are a food lover, Singapore is definitely a vacation you will never forget.
Here are some of my personal favourites.
Char kway tiao, which is rice noodles stir-fried in dark soy sauce. It is savory and usually a little tingly sweet at the same time. The crunch from the bean spouts, slight fishyness from the cockles, and smoothness of the noodles make this the must-try dish in Singapore. THIS – not those “Singapore-style fried noodles” nonsense they serve at restaurants in Canada – is da Singapore signature noodles. *cough Ben Thanh cough.
I honestly have no idea where you would order “Singapore-style fried noodles” in Singapore.
This is my sister’s favourite – Oyster omelette. The Singapore version is a little starchier and wetter than the traditional Taiwan version I think.
Chicken and lamb satay! Singapore is a multicultural city, resulting in a wide abundance of ethic foods. It is also because of this, majority of Singaporeans are effectively bilingual with English and their own mother tongue. It is almost like French in Canada. However, instead of only learning it until Grade 9, Singaporeans are expected to continue learning both languages until Grade 10-12, depending on when students can prove that they are proficient.
Today, the ethnic Chinese form 74.2% of the Singaporean population, with the country’s original inhabitants, the Malays, comprising 13.3%. The Indians make up 9.2%, and Eurasians and Asians of different origins making up a combined 3.3%.
Growing up in Singapore developed my love for trying out new and different foods. I really enjoy seeing how the same ingredients can churn out different fascinating flavours under different hands.
This is how “take-out” generally looks like in Singapore.
In Canada, being vegetarian in Canada means eating mostly vegetables. In Singapore, it means this:
Mock meats… tofu and noodles. Not exactly as healthy as western vegetarians I guess, as vegetarian meals in Singapore can get very oily.
Roti Prata is my personal favourite!
Growing up, we rarely ate rich and heavy cheesecakes or sugar-laden muffins.In fact, there was a “donut craze” in Singapore a while ago where people would stay in line for hours just to get Krispy Kreme donuts. That just showed how rare it is for Singaporeans to have those very common daily sweets we have here in Canada. I personally enjoy having more traditional dessert or very light icy desserts while in Singapore, and that is probably due to the very hot and humid weather. Imagine having a red velvet cake on a 30 degree day. Yuck.
The taro paste is hands-down my favourite dessert in the world. In Singapore, taro is also known as yam whereas in Canada, yam refers to sweet potato. The starchy vegetable creates an extremely creamy and satiating base. My brother’s favourite variation also includes coconut milk, which adds an unbeatable fragrance.
There are numerous coconut milk-based desserts in Southeast Asia. A very popular one is the Ice Kachang. This is a variation I had in Penang, served with ice-cream. This dessert is basically shaved ice with toppings such as corn, grass jelly and Azuki beans, drizzled with syrup. The Singapore version has the “toppings” underneath the ice, so we have to dig through the ice to get to the treasures.
The cendol is my Dad’s favourite.
The dessert’s basic ingredients are coconut milk, jelly noodles made from rice flour with green food coloring (usually derived from the pandan leaf), shaved ice and palm sugar. Other ingredients such as red beans, glutinous rice, grass jelly, creamed corn, might also be included.
I do not deny – first impression? Those look like weird green worms! They are generally tasteless but soaks up the wonderful creamy coconut milk.
I had about 15 coconuts in month!
Durian is also widely available even in grocery stores when in season. Because durian has such a strong smell, it is usually banned on the public transportation system to be considerate to people who hate them. For a few years I really hated durian. It was because my dad bought tons of durian home and everything in the fridge – including milk – became durian flavoured. I was traumatized! However, I finally snapped out of that and am back to lovin’ it. :)
Singaporeans are not as fortunate as Canadians, as we have an abundance of farms, fresh produce, and Canadian milk. Singapore has very limited land and no natural resources. Therefore, most things are imported. The apples arent’t as sweet in Singapore for sure. Another noticeable difference between Singapore and Canada is that there are no milk bags. Milk is also not separated into skim, 1%, 2%, and 3.25%. It is just normal milk versus “low-fat” milk, which I am guessing is about 2%. Full fat milk is also no more expensive than any kind of low fat milk. Skim milk is a rare find in Singapore.
A Singaporean friend was so amused that I poured milk from a bag.
Anywho, thank you for reading about my food adventures in Singapore! It is a wonderful place to visit and if you are planning to, please feel free to get in touch with me if you need any “local” tips and advice. However, after being back in Canada for so many years, I am slowly losing the Singaporean in me. As Singapore is constantly evolving at an alarming speed, every visit back is always filled with surprises.