What is it about Southeast Asia and street food? For some reason, the humid air, cool evenings and lines of affordable, delicious street fare just go perfectly together. In my experience, there is no better place to indulge your taste buds in an informal setting than the UNESCO-endorsed street-side food treasures of Singapore.
One of the main reasons for that is the island nation’s obsession with cleanliness. Some neighboring countries may offer cheaper street food and in greater variety but none can match the government-regulated order and hygiene that Singapore offers. Eat to your heart’s content in the knowledge that tomorrow’s stomachache will be from overindulging and not salmonella.
Does Singapore Have Good Street Food?
Here are 5 Singaporean street foods I absolutely adore. A dish each for breakfast, lunch and dinner, then a light snack and dessert. I’ve found few visitors ever try them. Don’t make that mistake!
1. Bak Chor Mee (Minced Pork Noodles)
One of the most popular street dishes in Singapore is Bak Kut Teh (pork rib soup) and it often overshadows, particularly for tourists, what I think is the far superior Bak Chor Mee.
Despite being lesser known, it is still found in a variety of unique concoctions by vendors all over Singapore. The standard ingredients of Bak Chor Mee include minced pork meat, pork liver, sliced mushrooms and fish cake. As with many Asian dishes, it is the unique chili vinegar sauce that gives this hearty dish its telltale and memorable flavor.
Many stalls may also top the dish off with crispy fried ikan bilis (anchovies). You also get to choose which noodles you want. Then, the ultimate decision: do you prefer it dry or as a soup? In a sense, it is almost an Asian noodle version of the make-it-yourself hamburger. Ideal for an afternoon meal between your shopping treks.
2. Kaya Toast
One of the unfortunate consequences of ‘Breakfast Included’ is that most tourists just don’t wander out of their hotels until after the first mealtime. Meanwhile, all over the world, the early morning bustle creates a mishmash of street vendors plying absolutely scrumptious, calorie-loaded (you’re on vacation, stop counting!) dishes to the masses. In Singapore, the simple, unassuming breakfast classic of Kaya Toast deserves a go.
‘Kaya’ translates as ‘rich’ and that is about as accurate as you can get describing this coconut-based spread. The light green jam is made of coconut milk, eggs and sugar, and then flavored with wonderfully fragrant pandan (screwpine) leaf. Available either grainy or smooth, kaya infuses every bite with a heavenly dose of sweetness.
Kaya toast is often a combination of both butter and kaya spread between two triangles of lightly toasted bread. The interaction of sweet and salty on your tongue is pure bliss. Add a cup of coffee and just… wow!
3. Sambal Stingray
When it comes to the Singapore seafood scene, Chili Crab pretty much takes the crown… as well as second and third place. That, and a general aversion to trying food with a more ‘exotic’ appearance means that disproportionally few visitors ever get to discover the treat for your taste buds that is Sambal Stingray. To discover the breadth of what makes a country tick, build up the courage to step outside your gastronomic comfort zone.
‘Sambal’ is a slightly pungent sauce made from mixing fish sauce and vinegar (you can appreciate the punch that comes with that!), blending in finely-chopped ginger and shallots, and finishing up with sugar and lemon juice. The sweet-and-sour tingle from the sambal is the perfect accompaniment to the dense, flaky stingray flesh.
In Singapore, it is usually cooked wrapped in banana leaf over a fire. This all-natural method stews the meat in its own juices, giving it an exquisite smoky taste. Served slathered in the sambal and with onions and lemons on the side, it is the perfect evening dish.
4. Yau Char Kway
Care for an oil-fried ghost? Yep, that’s the translation from Chinese of this wonderful light snack that I’m finding difficult to write about because I am so distracted by memories of its taste. Quite similar to crullers, they are basically strips of crispy fried dough served with a thin soy sauce, chili sauce and vinegar dip.
While you are not likely to forget the name now (or, at least, the translation), most travelers to Singapore come and leave without ever discovering it at all. For others, it becomes just a minor addition to a main dish such as chicken porridge. Take my word for it, nothing beats tearing off crispy-but-pliable pieces, dipping and popping them in your mouth, free of other distractions.
I’ve found that while the crullers themselves are rather similar wherever you buy them, your addiction to this treat is actually based more on the dip. There are virtually infinite ways to combine soy sauce, chili sauce and vinegar in different ratios but some stalls do it just right. You’ll have to try it at many places (lucky bugger) before you find your perfect match.
5. Ice Cream from Ice Cream Uncle
Singapore’s street food scene boasts a parade of desserts with the most popular being classics like Ice Kachang and Chendol, or newcomers such as Tissue Prata. But to me, none of them can compare to the sheer bliss of chomping into a regular bread-wrapped chunk of ice cream from the Ice Cream Uncle.
No, that’s not the name of a chain of restaurants. Singaporeans respectfully refer to all older people as ‘Auntie’ or ‘Uncle’. The Ice Cream Uncle is always an older gentleman who pedals a refrigerated box about the city. The ice cream itself is your standard garden variety Wall’s but served between waffles, white bread or rainbow (colorful pandan) bread.
But somehow, the Ice Cream Uncles know just when to appear as the blazing equatorial sun is at its hottest and you are famished. I implore you, skip the ice cream at that store and make straight for him. Just thank me later.
What Is the Most Popular Street Food?
Singapore’s fusion of races and cultures is a wonder to behold both socially and gastronomically. Its obsession with food is almost comedic (there were 2-hour lines when good ol’ simple A&W reopened there recently). Of course, we foodies are the winners because the competition is so intense.
Oh, and one thing to not find out the hard way – whenever dining out in Asia, it is a good rule of thumb is to ask the vendor to go easy on the spices.