Last Updated: July 23, 2019
Singapore may be a young nation, since we only achieved independence 54 years ago. But our multicultural history actually started a good 700 years ago.
Our ancestors are mostly immigrants, and all of them brought their own food heritage to our sunny shores. Not all of us can speak or understand our dialects, but we certainly can still appreciate the dishes from each dialect group.
Lest you think that traditional dishes from each dialect group are boring, here are 15 dialect dishes which have been passed down from generation to generation, but with a modern twist!
Hokkien is the largest dialect group in Singapore, and I’m sure most of us know little bits and pieces of the language.
Sadly, most of the younger generation can’t really converse in Hokkien. But with our strong food culture, traditional dishes like kong bak bao, ang ku kueh, mee sua and more can still be found in Singapore. Maybe these modern takes on our traditional dishes would generate more interest!
Fluffy bao sandwiching a glistening slab of juicy pork belly — what’s not to love? Our Chinese version of braised pork sliders, the classic kong bak bao 扣肉包 is a must-try.
Aside from our traditional version which uses braised pork belly, here are some other versions which might appeal to more adventurous palates.
What could be better than Singapore’s national dish combined with the classic kong bak bao?
Bao Makers came up with the Chilli Crab Bao (S$6.80 per piece), so take a bite and stop wondering.
Sandwiched between the golden-brown buns that are deep-fried to crisp perfection, juicy crab meat was drenched in a generous amount of chilli crab sauce. A new take on chilli crab and kong bak bao!
What about kong bak bao combined with satay? That’s exactly what Hideout has done with its Pan Grilled Satay Chicken Kong Bak Pau (S$9.50).
Deep-fried like mantou, this kong bak bao was stuffed with purple cabbage, cucumber, crushed nuts and a slab of satay chicken. Hideout uses chicken thigh meat dry-rubbed with satay seasoning before grilling it in a pan for a slight char.
Add a little spice to your life with the Masala Chicken Bao (S$3.90) from BAOBAO. This kiosk serves up fusion and modern versions of the traditional kong bak bao, so take your pick.
Spiced chicken chunks drenched in cilantro yoghurt sauce certainly added a different spin on the usual kong bak bao. It’s lighter on the palate than the usual pork baos, and the sauce added a zesty kick.
How can we miss out on Hokkien mee, if we’re talking about traditional Hokkien dishes? This is one of my personal favourites, and I only wish I had the stomach space and time to search out and try all of the best spots in Singapore.
Simply prepared but scrumptious to the last strand of noodle, it’s one of those comforting and homely dishes. Of course, there’re a few zhng-ed versions out there.
Again, we can’t seem to get away from salted egg yolk dishes. Mian Wang 1971 brings us a unique rendition of Hokkien mee that’s in line with recent food trends.
The Salted Egg Calamari Hokkien Mee (5.50) was aromatic and indulgent. If you enjoy salted egg dishes, then this will be right up your alley.
Surprisingly, the combination of Hokkien mee and salted egg calamari rings worked quite well. Rich and buttery with a crisp texture, the calamari went well with the smoky and savoury gravy.
For something with a bit more kick, the Sambal Belacan Pork Belly Hokkien Mee (S$5.50) from Mian Wang 1971 will do nicely.
The glorious pile of pork belly was tossed in the wok and served with homemade sambal belacan. Smoky and nutty, the sauce enhanced the umami pork belly.
Mian Wang 1971: 537 Bukit Batok Street 52, Singapore 650537 | Opening Hours: 11am – 9pm (Tue – Sun), Closed on Mon | Facebook
Ang ku kueh, or red tortoise cake, are traditional Hokkien kuehs which I’m sure many of us have seen or tried. Soft and chewy with delicate skin made of glutinous rice flour, these sweet treats are typically filled with sweet mung bean, peanut or yam.
For a taste of tradition with a modern twist, stalls have started using more exotic fillings.
If there’s a way to add durian into a dish, I’m pretty sure Singaporeans will find it. Poh Cheu Soon Kueh & Ang Ku Kueh 寳洲手工制作筍粿红龟 has added the ‘King of Fruits’ into the typical ang ku kueh.
The Durian Ang Ku Kueh (S$1.10) is made with a mung bean paste and infused with durian essence. Its subtle durian aroma is great for those who can’t take much durian.
Perk up your afternoon tea with the Coffee Ang Ku Kueh (S$1.10) from Poh Cheu! Before even biting into the chewy treat, you’d be able to smell the strong coffee fragrance.
Bursting at the seams with thick and smooth coffee paste, the blend of sweet and bitter flavours featured distinctly in this kueh.
It’s great for afternoon tea, especially if you need a caffeine boost.
The Teochew dialect group is the second biggest in Singapore, and back in the 1900s, they settled along the Singapore River. That explains why steamed pomfret is such a popular Teochew dish!
Aside from fish dishes that are light on the palate, the Teochew are also famous for savoury treats like gua hweh (liver roll), orh luak or orh nerng (oyster omelette) and popiah. Don’t forget the all-time favourite, orh nee.
These modernised versions are sure to breathe life into the usual traditional dishes.
As a Teochew nang (literally ‘Teochew person’), one of the traditional dishes I love the most is popiah.
Thin popiah skin is wrapped around julienned vegetables like stir-fried turnips, carrots and beansprouts, along with egg and sometimes dried shrimp.
There’s just something comforting about biting into a tightly-wrapped popiah, with ingredients bursting with flavour in your mouth. Aside from traditional fillings, some places have gotten really creative with what goes into their popiahs.
For fusion Japanese popiah, the Seafood Wasabi Mayo Popiah (S$4.10) from Souperstar really hits the spot.
The combination of fresh shrimp, crab sticks, tuna, seaweed and lettuce came together really well with the light wasabi mayonnaise. It actually tasted like a salad wrapped up in popiah skin!
Who knew popiah could be a dessert too? The Durian & Jack Popiah (S$5.90) from HAWKERMAN combines the best of both worlds into one yummy roll.
Chewy and delicate popiah skin was stuffed with a mix of coconut ice cream, jackfruit bits and durian. The durian flavour was particularly prominent, while the tropical notes from the coconut ice cream followed after.
HAWKERMAN: 10 Eunos Road 8, Singpost Centre, #B1-128/129, Singapore 408600 | Tel: +65 8110 5218 | Opening Hours: 11am – 10pm (Daily) | Facebook
Ah, my favourite course at typical Chinese banquets. Orh nee is a traditional Teochew dessert that’s basically yam paste served with gingko nuts and coconut milk.
Nowadays, dining places have been coming up with versions of orh nee that aren’t quite the usual steaming bowl of fragrant yam paste.
This rendition of the traditional Teochew dessert from CreatureS may look different from what we’re used to, but rest assured that it tastes just as yummy.
The Orh Nee Glace Mousse Cake (S$10) is a tad pricey, but the price tag is well worth it. Layered between light genoise sponge, the coconut mousse contrasted with the chunky yam paste. CreatureS has even added the white-and-purple glace for a touch of elegance.
Another twist on the traditional orh nee, the Yam Brulee (S$10) from Beast & Butterflies in M Social Singapore presents yam paste in the form of a crème brulee.
Served with caramelised sugary crust and a scoop of fragrant coconut ice cream, this creamy dessert is one-of-a-kind. It’s lighter on the palate than the usual thick orh nee, and finishes off with a sweet snap from the caramelised sugar.
Beast & Butterflies: 90 Robertson Quay, M Social Singapore, Level 1, Singapore 238259 | Tel: +65 6657 0018 | Opening Hours: 7am – 11pm (Daily) | Facebook
When you think of the Cantonese, you’ll probably think of boisterous conversations and Hong Kong style dim sum.
Dishes like chee cheong fun, siew mai, char siew bao are popular and common in Singapore, along with meatier ones like roast duck. Egg tarts are also a must-have if you’re talking about Cantonese food.
There are two kinds of chee cheong fun commonly found in Singapore, but the Hong Kong version is the one that’s typically found at dim sum places.
This popular Cantonese breakfast food is made with steamed rice rolls and drizzled with thin soy sauce. Fillings include char siew, shrimps, you tiao or sometimes beef. But if you’re looking for something more interesting, we’ve found some unique chee cheong fun creations too.
This stall is a hidden gem in the staff canteen within Singtel Comcentre serving up Fried Chee Cheong Fun (S$2.80).
A combination of two beloved local dishes — carrot cake and chee cheong fun, this dish has the characteristic wok hei of carrot cake but also the chewy and smooth bite from the rice rolls.
Not the most typical of chee cheong fun dishes, but it’s definitely a dish to shake things up.
Singtel Comcentre Staff Canteen: 31C Exeter Road, Singtel Comcentre, #01-00, Singapore 239732 | Opening Hours: 7.30am – 2.30pm (Mon – Sat), Closed on Sun
Now, this is something really unique.
The skin of Nasi Lemak Chee Cheong Fun (part of S$178++ set menu) at Restaurant Labyrinth is made from scratch using rice, tapioca flour and coconut milk.
This avant-garde chee cheong fun contains crispy chicken skin, ikan bilis and egg yolk gel, which are the usual ingredients in nasi lemak. There’s even nasi lemak sambal in this dish!
Restaurant Labyrinth: 8 Raffles Avenue, Esplanade Theatres On The Bay, #02-23, Singapore 039802 | Tel: +65 6223 4098 | Opening Hours: 12pm – 2.30pm & 6.30pm – 11pm (Tues – Fri), 6pm – 11pm (Sat & Sun), Closed on Mon | Website
Cantonese dishes include a variety of dim sum, but my go-to order has always been siew mai. Bite-sized and meaty, these little morsels are made of minced pork paste and prawns.
My favourite spot for siew mai is definitely Tiong Bahru Pau (中荅鲁包点), which never fails to serve up a hearty portion of handmade siew mai. But if you’re feeling fancy, go for some of these other more atas versions.
This isn’t an ordinary siew mai dish — it’s bursting with colours and flavours. The Mini Pots, or Siew Mai (S$15) from Janice Wong Singapore is a feast for the eyes and tastebuds.
It includes the Portobello Rosemary & Caviar, Shrimp & Fish Roe and Scallop With Olive Oil Caviar. Each piece comes with caviar or roe that will explode with flavour in your mouth.
This is a siew mai dish worth splurging on.
Janice Wong Singapore: 93 Stamford Road, National Museum Singapore, #01-16, Singapore 178897 | Tel: +65 9712 5338 | Opening Hours: 11am – 11pm (Mon – Thurs), 11am – 1am (Fri & Sat), 11am – 6pm (Sun) | Website
Another take on modern siew mai comes from BLOSSOM 喜悦 in Marina Bay Sands. This contemporary Chinese restaurant brings us Steamed Siew Mai With Quail Egg (S$7.80 for four pieces), prepared with finesse.
What’s special about this siew mai is that it’s topped with a deep-fried quail egg, setting it apart even from other modern renditions.
BLOSSOM 喜悦: 2 Bayfront Avenue, Marina Bay Sands Hotel Lobby Tower 2, Hotel Lobby, L1-05, Singapore 018972 | Tel: +65 6688 7799 | Opening Hours: 11.30am – 5pm (Mon – Fri), 11am – 5pm (Sat, Sun & PHs) | Website
I’m sure there are many more modern versions of dialect dishes that we didn’t manage to cover. What’s your favourite traditional dish, and is there a quirky version of it?