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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Singapore

Historic Diet

Singapore Food - BBQ pork
BBQ pork

The island of Singapore has a number of indigenous foods, but as a small island few foods are truly indigenous to the island itself. More commonly, as the earliest settlers arrived they brought with them new foods that were left on the island and later grew to become common. Among those foods that arrived earliest and hence made up a substantial part of the historic diet are a few foods native to the region, including bananas, oranges, and breadfruit. As a sparsely populated island for thousands of years these foods and later arrivals aren't as important as later arrivals brought by the Chinese and Europeans.

Among the indigenous and early arriving fruits and vegetables were oranges, bananas, breadfruit, mangos, guavas, taro, cassava, wheat, rice, spinach, garlic, shallots, beans, and melons. Like the diverse plant life, animals were also present, but in limited numbers on the island. Generally speaking, chicken, duck, boar, and water buffalo were in the region as a whole, although if these animals were consumed by the historic people in Singapore is unknown. It was and still is the fish and other sea life that dominates the diet of the locals when it comes to proteins as mackerel, tuna, squid, stingray, red snapper, anchovy, shrimp, and crab are all prevalent in the surrounding waters.

Culinary Influences

Singapore Food - Chinese New Year dish
Chinese New Year dish

Singapore's food is a rather recently inspired cuisine. Since the island was very sparsely populated for much of history, the food is based more significantly on the immigrants in the past century than it is based on historic introductions and variations. This recent history of the country's food makes Singapore's cuisine quite different from neighboring countries, although the influences are much the same.

The first great influence on the food of Singapore came from the inhabitants in the mid-1800s. These people were primarily ethnic Malays and they brought with them their traditional foods and ingredients.

The British and Chinese arrived in great numbers to Singapore in the last century and each has introduced multiple changes. The most important change is not the foods they brought, but the tastes they brought. Today western food and Chinese food are the dominant foods in the country and there is almost no semblance of the historic Malay diet. In fact nearly all Malay foods in Singapore today are local versions of Malay dishes and in some cases may not even seem like the same dishes.

Due to this strong outside influence and the foods that these people brought with them to Singapore, the foods seems to be more "Chinese" than anything else to an outsider. However as the country is based on modernization and technology, nearly every "ethnic" food one can think of can be found in the country, including Indian, Japanese, Italian, French, and American restaurants.

Staple Foods

Noodles: noodles are a common base in numerous dishes
Rice: rice is cooked in numerous styles and accompanies most meals

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Hainan Chicken Rice: the national dish is chicken and rice served with soy sauce, broth, cilantro and chili paste as well as ginger paste for dipping
Satay: simply grilled meats seasoned with local spices

Dining Etiquette

Most of Singapore's population is ethnically Chinese, but the small country is quite diverse and there are substantial populations of Hindus and Muslims most of whom are Indian and Malay respectively. Due to this diversity, be sure you know who you are eating with or who is dining in the restaurant you are in. If the company is primarily Muslim or Hindu there are a couple specific rules you must follow.

If in the presence of Muslims you must dress very conservatively, which means your entire legs and arms should be covered; for women their heads should also be covered. Muslims don't eat pork or drink alcohol so don't order these items if in the presence of Muslims. If you are eating with Hindus, cattle are sacred so you should avoid eating beef. However, if eating with the ethnic Chinese their staple protein is pork or seafood so be sure you know who you are eating with so you know what to avoid. If in doubt, or just to be cautious, order chicken, fish (if you eat fish don't flip it over as the ethnic Chinese believe this will tip over the boat of the fishermen), or a vegetarian meal.

If meeting locals for a meal punctuality is generally important, especially in business meetings. Before entering a house or restaurant check to see if others have left their shoes at the door; if so you should do the same then greet everyone personally, elders first. If meeting Muslims, don't touch a person of the opposite sex unless the woman initiates the contact by extending a hand.

Let your local counterpart arrange the seating and in many cases your local host will order food for the entire table so you have multiple dishes to choose from. With or prior to the food being served you may be offered a beverage, but don't take a sip until your host invites you to do so. When you drink try to hold the cup on the bottom with your right hand and support it with your left hand on the side. Once your host invites you to drink, you may also begin to eat.

Food is often served family style and accepting all food that is offered to you is a must. If you are not served by the host, take food from the communal dishes very carefully. If there is a serving spoon, be sure that spoon doesn't touch your plate; if there is no serving spoon, pick up food from the communal dishes with the back end of your chopsticks. Speaking of chopsticks, this is the prominent form of eating in Singapore; in most restaurants and even some homes, spoons, forks, and knives are available. Also be sure to only use your right hand to eat and only bring food to your mouth with your right hand, even if using a spoon or chopsticks.

When you finish eating, leave a little food on your plate (but finish all of your rice) then place your chopsticks back on the chopstick rest on the side of your plate. If you are eating in a restaurant, you will probably find that a service charge has been added, but if not tip about 10-15% of the total bill.

Celebrations & Events

The festivals in Singapore are numerous and fairly diverse as the population consists of Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and Hindus. The events in Singapore are the result of religion, ethnicity, and local culture, but today it seems everyone celebrates all the events, not matter his or her religion or ethnicity.

The majority in Singapore is Buddhist and their most important celebration is Vesak Day, which takes place each May, 5. This celebration though is very mild compared to others in the country as it is celebrated with alms giving and charity, which often times includes the making and giving of local foods to the poor and/or sick.

In Singapore, the Muslim holiday of Eid al Fitr is commonly referred to as Hari Raya Puasa, which is a celebration that occurs immediately after Ramadan; Ramadan is a religious holiday that requires fasting for 30 days. Hari Raya Aidilfitri is celebrated with satays (kebabs), ketupat (rice cakes), and numerous street foods, including cakes, pastries, and fruits.

Among the Hindu celebrations, the most important is probably Deepavali, which is a festival of lights and cleansing. As many of the Hindus are ethnic Indians, the foods served on this event in Singapore are typically traditional Indian Foods, but this celebration rarely expands beyond the borders of Indian neighborhoods so for an outsider, the foods seem no different than they typically are in the neighborhoods, although more people will be present.

A couple more food events in Singapore are secular in origin, but still involve great food and celebration. Chinese New Year is celebrated by nearly everyone in the country and involves numerous ethnic Chinese Foods & Drinks. While the Mid-Autumn Festival, also Chinese in origin, involves the preparation of moon cakes and other sweets.

Drinks

Singapore has every drink you can think of, however they are best known for their bubble tea, which is tea made with tapioca and some spices. If you want other varieties of tea, you can get black tea, green tea, tea with sweetened condensed milk, or just plain with sugar. Juices, coffee, soft drinks, and milk are also readily available in any one of the country's many convenient stores.

As an international city with a huge foreign presence any alcohol you desire can be found in Singapore. Not just types of alcohol, but also specific international brands. Any bar or restaurant will have a selection of regional and international beers, wines, and hard liquors.

The tap water is generally safe to drink in Singapore. If you do drink the water (or the ice or salads washed in the tap water), many people may have trouble adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to if you are not from the region.

This page was last updated: March, 2013