As a Singaporean, there are many things I find hard to explain to tourists, like why we like Durians. Or why the Esplanade is shaped like one. If you are also constantly perturbed by trying to explain Singapore style food and our unique ‘colloquial’ (read, Singlish) ordering techniques, this list is for you.
Being such a diverse cultural hotpot, Singapore cuisine is something you will never get bored of, which also constantly evolves and integrates. We might bastardize many original food dishes around the world, but that’s what makes them uniquely Singaporean in the end. Anyone who was born and raised in Singapore, or stayed here long enough, will understand the following list of food things that baffle overseas visitors.
1. Long queues mean good food
Singaporeans are suckers for queuing, and the sure fire way to know where a place has good food, is to follow the long, snaking queue. If a restaurant doesn’t have a queue, we’re somehow not that hungry.
2. Yan can cook, so can you
If you’ve ever heard this phrase from a Singaporean and asked, “who the heck is Yan?”, here’s a quick explanation. Before Gordon Ramsay, Anthony Bourdain, Jamie Oliver and all the fancy Michelin star chefs, there was Martin Yan.
He appeared on local television and inspired a whole generation of chefs with his catch phrase “If Yan can cook, so can you!”. That’s what I scream out loud before I cook instant noodles.
3. Sushi is dipped in a mixture of soy sauce and wasabi
Japanese tourists will be appalled by how we eat our sushi- dipped in a mix of soy sauce and wasabi. Yes, that’s not how it’s done in Japan, but most Singaporeans will eat their sushi this lazy way, with a lot of wasabi to boot.
4. 50 cents McDonalds Ice Cream
Do you remember when McDonald’s soft serve ice cream used to be 50 cents? No frills, no toppings, cheap vanilla ice cream on a cone for just 50 cents. They still have it at McDonalds these days, but a good price increase of 60% now. It’s just not the same anymore.
5. It’s not cheap to get drunk in Singapore
As compared to the rest of the world, drinking is really expensive in Singapore. You don’t see that many of us getting drunk at pubs and bars because we simply can’t afford the insane alcohol tax.
6. We love Bubble tea
There’s hundreds of bubble tea shops all around Singapore, and the craze for it doesn’t seem to end. We thought we got over it, but apparently Singaporeans still love their starch and ‘less sugar’ tea.
7. We used to love Donuts
Unlike the obsession for donuts that Americans have, Singaporeans seem to be pretty bored of it despite Krispy Kremes finally entering the market.
8. Durians smell lovely
The smell of durian might be described as ‘pungent’ by foreigners, but true Singaporeans are drawn to the smell of durians like, well, how Singaporeans are drawn to durian. We even have a building shaped like a durian (the Esplanade), that’s how serious we are about our national fruit.
9. Milo dinosaur
‘Milo dinosaur was “indisputably” invented in Singapore’, as quoted by Wikipedia. I mean, who would have thought that adding extra heaping spoons of Milo powder to a Milo drink, would make it taste so much better?
10. You can find any mainstream cuisine in the world here
Thinking of having Japanese cuisine tonight? French? Italian? North Indian? Moroccan? Singapore has it all.
11. Malaysia always has better [insert dish name]
Let’s face it- Singaporeans love Malaysian food as much as our own and most of us find the Malaysian version better. We even have Malaysian food courts so we can have across-the-border dishes like Penang Laksa, Klang Bak Kut Teh, KL Hokkien Mee right here in Singapore. Although it still tastes better in Malaysia.
12. Dim sum is almost like a religion
We are equally fervent about our dim sum as citizens in Hong Kong. Halal dim sum, midnight dim sum, rainbow foie gras dim sum- these are all examples of the lengths we go to enjoy our dim sum fix.
13. We drink our local coffee/tea in a hundred different ways
Think Italian espresso is the only fancy schmancy coffee? Singaporeans have our own list of customization phrases for our ‘Kopi’ (coffee) as well. Every custom term can be combined to produce different variations. Example: “Auntie, Kopi o, gau, siew dai, peng!”. This applies to tea as well, or ‘Teh‘.
14. You won’t understand what we’re ordering
“Uncle, Char Kway Teow yi bao, mai hum, mai hiam, da bao, steady bo?” This is a perfectly legit example of ordering food in Singapore, utilizing English, Mandarin, dialect and Singlish all in one sentence.
You probably also won’t understand when we describe a food as ‘jelak’ or ‘siap’. Yes, we speak funny here.
15. KFC used to be a full service restaurant
Complete with waiters, metal fork, knives and fried chicken on plates. Pepsi also came in a proper glass instead of disposable paper cups.
16. Food transcends all races
Malay style Halal dim sum, Chinese style Nasi Lemak, Indian style chicken rice. Our food spreads across all races because we are one multicultural nation.
17. ‘Cold Storage’ butter
‘Cold Storage’ butter actually refers to SCS butter. I think the story was that in the past, this well-known brand could only be found in Cold Storage Supermarkets. It’s still my favorite butter to go with kaya toast, as will many generations of Singaporeans swear by.
Some Singaporeans feedback that SCS stands for Singapore Cold Storage, but I’ve been unable to verify this fact as the official brand website itself doesn’t state it. Let me know if there’s an actual source I can go to.
18. Everyone has a different opinion of where the best chicken rice is
My personal favorite is at Ming Kee Chicken rice, but ask another 10 Singaporeans and you’ll get 10 different answers.
19. And also, every Singaporean eats their chicken rice slightly differently
Even though Chicken rice is such a popular dish in Singapore, there is technically no agreed standard method on how to eat it. Some people add minced ginger, some add dark sauce and chili, some eat the rice first then the chicken, some the other way round. Some like to eat chicken thigh, some like breast meat. Some like it roasted, some like it steamed.
20. We grew up with the ice cream tricycle uncle
The familiar ringing of the bell in the neighborhood always drove kids into a dessert-craving frenzy. After extorting $1 from your parents, you get to enjoy a block of ice cream wrapped with bread or biscuit wafers.
21. We eat breakfast foods anytime of the day
Screw the rules. We like to eat our nasi lemak, prata, porridge and dim sum whenever we feel like it. There are countless stalls serving ‘all-day breakfast’ Singapore style.
Related Guide: Best Breakfast Places in Singapore Better Than Brunch
22. Chewing gum is banned
Chewing Gum has been banned since 1992, and only gum with therapeutic value is allowed into Singapore. The story is that some a**hole stuck gum on our metro’s door sensors, jamming the entire train system. The Prime Minister got pissed, and BAM, no more chewing gum in Singapore.
Due to much misunderstanding on the word play arrangement, ‘Chewing Gum’ is referred to as a noun, not an action verb. There are all sorts of food gums like Guar Gum or Cassia Gum, but specifically the product class ‘Chewing Gum’ is banned, so buying/selling/importing Chewing Gum is not allowed in Singapore.
23. The best local food is in the hawker centres, not food courts/shopping malls/hotels
Any true blue Singaporean will attest to our love for hawker food. The more ulu (in the middle of nowhere) the place, the blacker the wok, the better the food tastes.
24. We miss A&W
In 2003, the last A&W outlet at Heartland Mall closed down, and this American chain left Singapore’s shores. Now, many Singaporeans scramble to A&W when visiting Indonesia, trying to get a taste of nostalgia. Specifically, we miss the waffle, curly fries and root beer float. Come back to Singapore A&W!
25. Stout and raw egg
There is an old belief that adding raw egg to stout is considered be an aphrodisiac in many Asian countries, including Singapore. You’ll sometimes see uncles sneaking an egg into their Guinness stouts, which they’ll claim just gives them more ‘energy’.
26. We all drank chicken essence during the exam period
Somehow parents think that Chicken Essence will make us magically remember the 300 pages of math formulas we studied the night before.
27. We add chilli to everything
28. The national pastime is eating
In case it still wasn’t clear what Singaporeans do in their spare time, it’s eating.
Related Guide: Famous Local Foods To Eat in Singapore Before You Die
Editor’s End Notes
If you are a Singaporean reading this, I hope you can relate to most, if not all, of these described food things. Share this article with your foreign friend, which might give them some insights to why we do what we do.
Are there any more unique Singapore food things/habits/styles I left out? Leave a comment below and let me know. You can also leave a comment on which point you think is the most relevant to you 🙂