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by Deanna Ting | December 12, 2012

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Chilli crab is one of Singapore's signature dishes

In Singapore, you’re most often greeted with a “Have you eaten?” rather than a “Hello.” Calling Singapore food-obsessed would be an understatement. This is a country where dining out is a national pastime, and the food options are both endless and delectable. 

“When you look at the breadth of dining in Singapore, you get almost everything,” explains Serene Tan, regional director, Americas, for the Singapore Tourism Board. “ It’s amazing. You can have the most spectacular street food five minutes away from one the top fine-dining restaurants in the world. That’s pretty hard to come by anywhere else.”

Singapore’s reputation as a culinary destination has certainly risen over the past few years. In 2012, four of its restaurants were named to S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna’s elite list of “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.” Celebrity chefs like Joël Robuchon, Susur Lee, and Daniel Boulud each have restaurants in Singapore. This is also a place where even the humblest of hawker center foods are as highly revered as a plate of top-quality sashimi or foie gras.

It’s that high-low mix of epicurean delights, along with the country’s unique blend of cultural influences — Chinese, Malay, Indonesian, and Indian among them — that makes Singapore such an exciting gastronomic destination. Herewith are the top five can’t-miss dining experiences that any incentive or meeting trip to Singapore should try to include. 

1. Breakfast at Ya Kun Kaya Toast
The perfect way to start the day in Singapore often involves breakfast at Ya Kun Kaya Toast, a chain of small coffee shops (known as kopitiams) throughout Singapore, which first opened back in the 1940s. Take your group to one of its many outposts to try the famous kaya toast — ultra-thin slices of toast that are buttered and then spread with kaya, a green coconut jam made from fragrant pandan leaves, eggs, sugar, and coconut milk. To eat it the way locals do, order a set that comes with two made-to-order soft-boiled eggs and a steaming cup of kopi (coffee). Add as little or as much white pepper and sweet soy sauce to the mixture of runny eggs to your preference, then dip you buttered jam toast into the eggs and enjoy.

2. Hawker Centre Fare for Lunch  
There are literally dozens of notable hawker centres, or open-air food courts, throughout Singapore, each of which serves up some of the most authentic Singaporean street food to be found. One of my personal favorites is the Maxwell Road Hawker Centre in Chinatown, which has more than 100 different food stalls. If there’s one thing to try here it would have to be the Hainanese chicken rice from the Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice stall. The buttery slices of fresh chicken are served with a bowl of steaming chicken broth and fragrant semolina rice that you can garnish with sweet soy or chili sauce. 

Other street food favorites include carrot cake (fried cubes of steamed rice flour with white radish); char kway teow (stir-fried flat rice noodles); fish head curry (much more appetizing than it sounds); laksa (spicy noodle soup); nasi lemak (coconut rice with sambal chili, anchovies, roasted peanuts, and a hard-boiled egg wrapped up in a banana leaf); oyster omelet; popiah (a Singaporean take on spring rolls); rojak (a salad-type dish); and roti prata (Indian-style flatbread served with curry).

3. Chilli Crab for Dinner  
Chilli crab, like kaya toast, is one of Singapore’s most iconic dishes and is perfect for sharing among a group of diners. Local restaurants like Jumbo Seafood and Long Beach Seafood at the East Coast Lagoon Food Village specialize in this exquisite seafood dish — a whole crab laden with a sweet-and-savory chili sauce. Don’t forget to order plenty of mantou (steamed or fried bread) to scoop up all of that chili crab sauce. 

4. Fine Dining at Its Best
Singapore may not be home to any Michelin-starred restaurants just yet (Michelin has yet to publish a Singapore “red” guide) but there are plenty of Michelin-starred chefs and critically acclaimed restaurants to be found here. 

If you really want to treat your incentive or meetings group to the very best in Singapore’s fine-dining scene, head to any one of the top restaurants included on S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna’s exclusive list of “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants” for 2012: Iggy’s (ranked 26th), Waku Ghin (ranked 39th), Les Amis Restaurant (ranked 53rd), and Restaurant ANDRE (ranked 68th). Restaurant ANDRE, the eponymous restaurant from chef Andre Chiang delivers refined, exquisitely executed "French nouvelle" cuisine in an intimate 30-seat dining space. Waku Ghin, an elegant 8,000-square-foot restaurant at Marina Bay Sands is the first outpost of acclaimed Australian chef Tetsuya Wakada’s outside of Sydney. Here, groups can feast on sea urchin with caviar, or melt-in-your-mouth wagyu beef. 

5. Perfectly Peranakan 
If there’s one particular cuisine that is unique to Singapore (and its neighbor to the north, Malaysia) it’s Peranakan, also known as Nyonya food. It’s a cuisine — and a culture — that evolved from descendants of the early Chinese settlers who came to the British Straits settlements like Singapore, and married local Malay and Indonesian women. While you can taste many Peranakan dishes at the local hawker centres, it’s worth heading to restaurants like The Blue Ginger Restaurant and Candlenut Kitchen for a fuller Peranakan dining experience. Must-try dishes include otak otak (spicy fishcakes roasted in banana leaves); kueh pie tee (delicate pastry shells filled with shrimp, bamboo shoots and turnips); beef rendang (a beef stew made with coconut milk and spices); and, for dessert, cendol (shaved ice topped with coconut milk, sugar, red beans and pandan-flavored jelly).