Whether you’re expat or local, or just visiting, one thing’s for sure: You haven’t fully experienced Singapore until you’ve tried ALL these essential Asian dishes!
Is Singapore truly a food paradise? Ask anyone who lives here and (we can assure you) the answer would be a resounding ‘YES’. The city’s rep for being an incredibly diverse food haven is known far and wide, thanks to its multi-cultural people and allegiance to affordable hawker fare. To help you navigate your way through this food capital, we’ve come up with the 30 Asian dishes you absolutely, die-die must try in Singapore!
Print out our list of must-eat dishes at the end of this article so you can tick them off as you feast. And while you’re at it, don’t miss our guide to how to order coffee and tea in Singapore like a local. Want even more authentic local experiences? Check out our guides to cultural activities and outings in Singapore for families and all the best museums for kids to teach them about local history!
1. Roti prata
When it comes to the ultimate Singaporean comfort food, nothing comes close to a plate of this crispy Indian flatbread, best served with spoonfuls of fish curry (or a little sprinkle of sugar for the smalls if they prefer). These days, roti pratas are served with any sweet and savoury topping. Think: banana, sausages, honey, chocolate and even ice cream! Don’t forget to wash it all down with a piping cup of Teh Tarik (pulled hot milk tea) or a tall glass of frothy Teh Cino Ais (iced tea with frothy condensed milk).
2. Yong tau foo
Topping our list of rainy day local foods is yong tau foo. As one of our favourite Asian dishes, this is a deviation of a traditional Hakka Chinese dish, served soup-style. If you’re a newbie, don’t be afraid to dive in! It’s not as complicated as it looks! At a typical yong tau foo stall, a varied selection of food items will be on display. All you have to do is grab a bowl and fill it up with your chosen items. These will then be sliced, boiled in a clear broth and served with rice, noodles or own its own. Or, at several stalls, you may ask for your items to be deep-fried, too! We recommend dumping loads of chilli into your bowl for maximum heat (and shiokness).
3. Fish head steamboat
Enjoyed communal-style, fish head steamboat is best eaten over burning charcoal. Trust us, it adds depth to the flavours of that soupy broth we all love. Select from different fish types and enjoy it with vegetables, yam and seaweed. Don’t forget the additional side dishes like braised egg, beancurd skin and preserved fried vegetables, too.
4. Nasi padang
In the mood for a huge, carb-loaded feast? You’re looking for nasi padang. A miniature spread of rich meats, vegetables and spicy sauces with steamed rice as the base. Head to your local hawker centre, fave food court or eating house to choose from a wide array of dishes, including ikan bakar (grilled fish in a spicy-sweet sauce), ayam lemak cili padi (chicken cooked in a chilli padi gravy) and fresh ulam (a type of Malaysian salad). If there are two tips we can offer for enjoying nasi padang, it’s a) order up a variety of meats and b) put on your baggy pants for this – expect major post-meal bloat (as with all Asian dishes, let’s be honest). Calories well spent, if you ask us!
5. Tau huay
We’ve got no shortage of 24-hour prata shops to satisfy our midnight hunger pangs, but if you’ve got cravings for something a little sweeter, you need to turn to a warm bowl of tauhuay, which is a bowl of delicious chilled beancurd. Growing up, this was often our breakfast of choice, and we’re pretty darn sure your kids will love it too (who could turn down a bowl of silky sweet goodness?). When it comes to tauhuay, we’re pretty old school so we opt for the classics like Selegie Soya Bean (no custard-like beancurd for us!). Make sure you buy a couple of fried dough sticks on the side to dip into your beancurd!
An Asian take on salad, rojak is a sweet yet savoury (and if you’d like, spicy) concoction of sliced cucumber, chopped fruit, roasted peanuts, fried dough fritters – this is a mandatory ingredient – and bean curd mixed with a rich peanut sauce. Some stalls even throw in cuttlefish (major yum!) and bean sprouts to the mix. We’re huge fans of the savoury Indian variation as well with dough balls, prawn fritters and fish cakes making up the mix.
7. Bak kut teh
Nothing hits the spot like a piping hot bowl of BKT. This well-loved local dish comes in two variations, both of which are essential Asian dishes you have to sample! The peppery Teochew BKT (which is a lot more common), and the herbal-based Klang version – both offers different slightly flavours but still tasty. We’d travel to the ends of the earth (okay fine, across the island) for those tender pork ribs and peppery broth.
8. Ice kacang
Ice kacang (pictured top) is essentially the Asian equivalent of a snow cone, or perhaps even a Slurpee, in a bowl. This mound of ice, dripping in sweet, coloured syrup hides within it an array of treats including red beans, sweet corn, grass jelly and of course, the much sought-after atap chee (the immature fruit of the nipa palm). More than just a dessert, ice kacang is also a communal treat, so grab a couple of spoons and dive in! Tip: If you’re sharing with fussy eaters (the toppings are notoriously hated by the smalls), order up the ice kacang kosong, which is the same dessert, sans extras but with lashings of sweet, multi-coloured syrup.
Commonly found in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, lontong actually refers to compressed rice cakes usually eaten in place of steamed rice. While it can be eaten with anything – like gado gado and rendang – the local term refers to these bite-sized rice cakes bathed in a spicy coconut vegetable stew. This Asian dish is also topped with sambal and toasted desiccated coconut, mmm!
Calling all dessert fiends! Featuring the holy trinity – coconut cream, palm sugar and pandan leaves – chendol’s main component of shaved ice is perfect for cooling off on a sweltering sunny day (read: every day). We especially love slurping up those green jelly noodles (made of rice flour) and accompanying mushy red beans. Warning: chendol is usually cloyingly rich, so we suggest having it on its own or sharing with a friend.
11. Mee rebus
Literally meaning ‘boiled noodles’ in Malay, mee rebus is a popular staple dish in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Made with yellow egg noodles, spicy yet sweet creamy gravy (think a thicker, nuttier curry), the local version is topped with a hard-boiled egg, limes, green chillies, bean sprouts and fried firm tofu. Oh, and don’t forget a sprinkling of fried shallots. Sometimes served with beef slices, this is our go-to meal for when we’re flat out broke. But still, an essential Asian dish to try!
12. Mee soto
Few things channel warm and cosy like this spicy noodle dish. Its original version, the soto ayam, is a spicy chicken broth. Plus it’s bursting with flavour, thanks to the generous amounts of powdered turmeric and sliced lontong (rice cakes). Throw in yellow noodles and you’ve got yourself a hearty bowl of mee soto. The best rendition includes slices of succulent chicken meat, a crispy begedil (a deep-fried potato patty) and spoonfuls of sambal cili kicap (sweet and spicy soy sauce). Mmm!
Indulge your sweet tooth without breaking the bank (or your seams) by picking up a couple of these colourful bite-sized sweets – from layered jellies and sweet sticky rice balls, to starchy coconut-covered pieces of steamed tapioca. The putri salat: A double-layered dessert with a green custard above and sticky rice below is loved by plenty of smalls – though there’s a 99% chance that they will pick off the rice. Kueh lapis is a huge hit as well for its multi-layers, great for kids to peel off and eat layer by layer.
14. Chilli crab
Be prepared to get your hands dirty when you’re chowing on this (unofficial) national delicacy. Consisting of sambal, vinegar, tomato paste and egg, it’s best mopped up with steamed or deep fried mantous, or buns. The art of eating chilli crab lies in the ability to extract the fresh, firm meats from within the shells, savouring the crab roe, and then dipping the fried mantous in that thick, sweet chilli gravy. Definitely one of our favourite Asian dishes to eat. Psst, it’s also one that easiest to tick off your list!
15. Fish head curry
Legend has it that this dish was created by a man named MJ Gomez, who ran an Indian restaurant along Sophia Road and catered to his clientele of Chinese businessmen by adding fish heads to his spicy, tangy curry. Unlike regular ol’ curry, this iconic delicacy (and one of our fave Asian dish) boasts robust, savoury flavours thanks to the ingenious addition of countless spices and the tang of tamarind that melds perfectly with the flavours of the fish head. Go on, you know you want to try it.
16. Kaya toast
You haven’t had breakfast in Singapore till you’ve had this staple! It’s simple: a crispy thin toasted bread, smothered in coconut jam and a cold slab of butter. Served with two half-boiled eggs (which is, FYI, best enjoyed with dark soy sauce and pepper). This sweet start to the day goes perfectly with a steaming cup of bitter kopi, or a cup of iced Milo for the smalls (sprinkle on some extra Milo powder to make it a cheeky Milo dinosaur) – they’ll love it!
While the true origin of the dish is uncertain, it’s said that this Asian dish hails from North India. The Singapore version is often referred to as nasi briyani. It’s similar to Malay nasi minyak, a bowl of saffron-coloured rice served with curry gravy. The rice is the fragrant Basmati grain, which cooks to a wonderfully light and fluffy texture. A chicken or mutton gravy (usually a big heaping) is served along with it. And don’t forget to add acar, a sour yet spicy vegetable pickle made with carrots, cucumbers and pineapples.
18. Dim sum
Hailing from Hong Kong, dim sum has a big following in Singapore. We’d go as far as to say it’s on par with Sunday brunch… because it is. In fact, it may even be better! A style of Cantonese cuisine served up in bite-sized portions in tiny steamer baskets or plates, these were originally side dishes to a meal, but have now taken centre stage as the main course. Ones you must try include the har gau (shrimp dumplings), siew mai (open topped shrimp or pork dumplings) and liu sha bao (salted egg yolk custard buns). We’ve got a soft spot for the almond coated prawn and mango balls ourselves. Essential Asian dishes to try for breakfast!
19. Char Kway Teow
This fried rice noodle dish may not score major points for presentation but we guarantee you that it’s darn tasty. What you’ll get is a plate of brown flat rice noodles, stir-fried with fishcake, egg, bean sprouts, and seafood (usually prawns and cockles), in sweet, dark soy sauce. It’s no secret that this Asian dish doesn’t register high on the health-o-meter, but we just can’t resist digging into a plate of this savoury sin.
This dish, originally from Kerala, India, is one of Indian cuisine’s lesser-known gems. It’s a fermented rice batter pancake with crispy edges and a soft fluffy centre, often eaten for breakfast. While it’s good with curry (Kerala fish curry especially), try dipping it in coconut milk then dabbing it into some orange sugar for a truly decadent breakfast.
21. Nasi lemak
Next to roti prata, nasi lemak should be your next indulgent brekkie of choice. Translating roughly to ‘fat rice’, it’s also the perfect late-night treat: coconut rice topped with amazingly crispy fried chicken, fried prawns, a fried egg, a dollop of spicy-sweet sambal and sliced cucumbers for ‘balance’. Other variations include a hard-boiled egg, fried fish, otah or fish fillet (though why would you give up fried chicken?).
22. Hokkien mee
This deceivingly humble-looking dish made with rich stock, prawns, squid, pork belly and lace cube is said to derive from China’s Fujian province. The much-loved local version is admittedly greasy… But, it has a generous serving of seafood, and is wonderfully spicy when mixed with heavenly sambal.
23. Pandan cake
Tea time here may not be as elaborate an affair as it is in England, but that’s not to say the kids should miss out on a darn good midday treat like a slice of chiffon pandan cake. Light, fluffy and with a heady dose of pandan sweetness, it pairs perfectly with a steaming mug of Milo. A classic after-school treat.
24. Wanton mee
A good wanton mee should be a medley of wildly contrasting textures. Firm springy noodles drenched in sauce, soft dumplings that fall apart in your mouth and succulent slices of char siu pork with a good bit of charring. It’s pretty easy to score the best rendition of wanton mee at any hawker centre: simply queue at the stall with the longest line (also known as the foolproof Singaporean way).
25. Oyster omelette
A night market fave in Taiwan, this popular street food is often offered in generous portions. Egg is mixed with starch to form a thicker omelette, fried in lard and features fresh, plump oysters, charred to a tender crisp. Dip it in zesty chili sauce for a feisty kick.
26. Beef rendang
This rich, beefy dish is truly a labour of love, taking many hours of slow-cooking to achieve that thick, dry gravy. If you find yourself at any Malay family celebration and there’s a good chance you’ll find a hearty pot of beef rendang as the centrepiece. The original dish from Minangkabau is said to be drier and with less gravy, but the newer renditions at nasi padang stalls offer a creamier sauce. We’d take both any day!
27. Hainanese chicken rice
Arguably one of Singapore’s most iconic dishes, chicken rice is a perennial fave thanks to the huge flavours packed in a seemingly simple dish. The staple of the show – the roasted or steamed chicken – impresses no matter the choice (though there’s nothing like the first bite of that glazed, glistening chicken skin). Coupled with that gingery-fiery chilli, fragrant rice cooked in broth and wholesome soup (which the kids can’t enough of), it’s no wonder this dish is a fave for all. Got a kid who’s a fussy eater? They will LOVE this.
Thick rice noodles in a rich, spicy broth and a generous serving of prawns and cockles? Sign us right up! Variations range from the rich and flavourful nyonya laksa – a coconut-based gravy with plenty of cockles, fishcakes and prawns – to the tangy assam laksa, which uses sour tamarind as its base.
29. Chye png (economy rice)
Depending on what you order, ‘economy rice’ can be one of the cheapest ways to enjoy a great lunch. The concept is simple. All you need to do is choose from a massive variety of meat and vegetable dishes and get a serving of rice to go with it. It’s certainly not fancy at all, but this is good and honest blue-collar cuisine. And available at pretty much any food centre in Singapore!
It’d be silly to claim that skewered meat on sticks is a unique creation, but what makes satay pure magic is the accompanying subtly sweet peanut sauce. More contemporary stalls add a dollop of pureed pineapple into the sauce, something that may offend staunch purists. A good satay has a moist texture with a smoky flavour and is served up with a chunky peanut sauce and lots of onions, rice cakes and diced cucumber on the side.
Photography lead image: Nathania Tirtaputra