Singapore Cuisine

City of the Merlion
Peranakan Cuisine

“Singapore is one of the few great cities of the world which still work.” — Philip Atlee [1]

“Modern Singapore food is, in fact, all about fusion.” — Molly O’Neill [2]

Vanda orchid Miss Joaqim, Singapore natgional flower

Vanda Miss Joaquim,
Singapore’s National

Can a city-state have its own cuisine? It would seem so, as Singapore is a multicultural city, a major crossroads of the Pacific, with many influences in its cooking which have developed some unique aspects.

Singapore, with a population of a little over  million, has been an independent country since 1965.

Singapore was settled as a modern city by Stamford Raffles of the East Indian Company in the early 19th century and was later part of the British colony of Malaya.

Before that, as a local port and trading post, the ancestor of the modern city dates to the ancient empire of Srivijaya, when Singapore was known as Tamasek.

The city’s present name comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “City of the Lion.” The modern symbol or mascot of Singapore is the Merlion, a mythical creature with a lion’s head and the body of a fish. [6]

In modern times Singapore has developed as a major seaport and center of sea and air traffic and a big trading and financial center.  Singapore has attracted people from neighboring Southeast Asia — Malays, Indian and Chinese, especially from South China.

Some of these Chinese married local Malays and evolved a unique style of cooking that combines elements from Chinese cuisine with local flavors.

This is the Nonya or Peranakan cuisine. You would mostly eat it in private homes rather than in restaurants, although this is changing. Chicken and Rice is a hallmark of the Nonya cooking.

Fans clamor for Chicken with Rice and Chili-Ginger Chicken.  You could buy these dishes from street vendors or nowadays in fancy restaurants.

Other Singapore Fusion dishes —

  • Fish Steamed in Banana Leaves
  • Singapore Satay
  • Vegetable Pilaf — an Indian-influenced dish

Street Food: Singapore has developed outdoor eating stalls, now world-famous for their variety and outstanding taste.  Sate is serious business here, highly evolved with many varieties. Singapore cooks have a distinctive local variety of Peanut Sauce used for Sate or Gado Gado.

Singapore Noodles: It’s a term you’ll see wherever you go, although not usually in Singapore itself.  Among the Chinese diaspora, or at least their menu writers, “Singapore Noodles: has come to be used to describe a stir-fried noodle dish made with extra Curry Powder.

Singapore Noodles

Singapore Noodles

Not a bad dish usually, but not specially Singaporean either.  Legendary cook Germaine Swanson has published a recipe for her version of Singapore Noodles, which uses Ginger, Cardamom and Red Chilies, but no Curry Powder. [4]

Important kinds of food eaten in Singapore include several schools of Chinese food, plus Indian, Malayan and Indonesian cuisines, including such rice dishes as Nasi Minyakas well as the blend known as Peranakan.

Since Singapore has become a world-class financial center with expatriates and travelers from all over the world, it is also a good place to enjoy cuisines of the world, running from Russia to Japan.

Singapore has become one of the most complete and varied places to eat in the world. Recent years have seen a new dining room opened by Japanese-Australian chef Tetsuya Wakuda and the rise of new local chefs like Justin Quek,Loh Lik Peng,and Cynthia Chua,Taiwanese chef André Chiang, and Australian cook Ryan Clift.

Lion Custard Powder

Lion Custard, a Colonial Artifact

There is also a kind of lingering nostalgia for foods of the Colonial era, ranging from Roast Beef with Yorkshire Pudding to puddings like Bird’s and Lion.

Singapore is a center of Asian Fusion food, and some famous places serving it are The Epicurean  Kitchen, the Blue Lantern, Devagi Sanmugam or Violet Oon’s own kitchen, of which more later.

New Asian Cuisine: Modern Singapore has become the center of an evolving New Asian Cuisine, with elements from many sources —

  • Cambodian
  • Chinese
  • Indian
  • Malaysian
  • Thai
  • Vietnamese

all combined with local ingredients.

Three Spot Gourami
A Local Fish

“We’re obsessed with food.  It’s our culture.” — Violet Oon [3]

Some good sources of information about Singapore cooking can be found on the Internet and in print, notably the writings of Violet Oon.

Oon, who has been called the Galloping Gourmet of Singapore, has traveled abroad to promote Singapore food and tourism on behalf of her Government.  She has opened her own restaurant in Bukit Timah Road, and developed a multimedia operation devoted to writing, publishing, cooking, catering and teaching about Asian food.

A simple recipe from this multicultural Fusion crossroads is Green Beans with Prawns.

Green Beans with Prawns


4 large prawns, such as Tiger Prawns
1 pound green beans
1 – 2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoons water
Salt and pepper


First we de-vein, shell and clean the prawns thoroughly and cut them into bite-sized pieces.

We clean and trim the green beans, removing the strings and cutting them into diagonal slices, about 1 inch long, and also peel and crush the garlic.

We heat a wok  and when it is hot, add the oil and stir-fry the garlic, then the prawns. When the prawns turn pink, we add the green beans and stir-fry quickly for about a minute and a half, stirring all the time.  We then add the water, cover the wok, and reduce the fire to very low. After about 3 more minutes, we add salt and black pepper or white pepper to taste and serve immediately.  This dish goes well with hot chili oil on the side.

It’s like a Bach fugue: many disconnected parts that fit together exquisitely.” — Violet Oon on Singapore cuisine

For Further Information:

[1] Philip Atlee, “The Makassar Strait Contract (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1976)  —
[2] Molly O’Neill, “Pan Asia: For a taste of the new continental cooking, try Singapore,” New York Times Magazine, February 1, 1998, pp.61-–
[3] Margaret Sheridan. “Touring Gourmet Brings Us Singapore’s Hawker-style Cuisine, New York Times, May 19, 1998 — profile of Violet Oon.–
[4] Germaine Swanson‘s Singapore Noodles, “Plain and Simple: Low-Fat Spicy Noodles, New York Times, February 10, 1999. —
[5] “Singapore cuisine,” article, Wikipedia —
[6] “Merlion,” article, Wikipedia.–
[7] Recipe Sources: Rasa Malaysia  – Easy Asian Recipes —
All Recipes – Singaporean Recipes
Violet Oon’s
cookbooks —
[8] C. V. Monin, Atlas Universel (Paris: Lecoffre, 1822) for map of Singapore around the time of Raffles — one online site has detailed scanned copies of this old map series. —
(9) Howie Khan, “Extreme Eating,” New York Times TMA Magazine, September 15, 2013.






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