SINGAPORE — There are many ways to define a nation's soul. As a food writer, I always defer to what its citizens eat. It might not be the most accurate measure by any means, but the correlation is undeniable. Here, we take a look at the food and drinks that preoccupied the minds of people in Singapore in 2019, as indicated by the top 10 food searches on Yahoo. Some are surprising but most are completely expected, underlining not just our love for food, but our undying passion for food that is familiar, comforting, and uniquely Singapore.
These days, with the shortage of cockles in Singapore, laksa has not been as pleasurable a dish as it used to be. Which says a lot for a bowl made with a rempah concoction of lemongrass, galangal, ginger and chillies and doused liberally with coconut milk. Laksa comes in variations, with some preferring the more tangy Penang laksa to the creamy curry one. It is served with thick wheat noodles, cockles, taupok, and egg, and sprinkled with thinly cut fragrant laksa leaves. Some shops serve theirs with the noodles cut so that you only need to use a spoon which means more laksa gravy for everyone!
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Ah, bandung – the beverage with the confusing moniker. This drink is a sweet concoction of rose syrup and condensed milk that is steeped in nostalgia. I cannot remember a time when this drink did not exist in the Singapore that I live in. Although often confused with the city in Indonesia, bandung actually means 'connected pair' in the Malay language, which aptly explains the two ingredients that make this drink. There have been variations on this well-loved glass of pink, but the original still tastes best.
8. Teh Halia
There's something about the humble halia (ginger) that makes some people salivate. Yet, there's also nothing more divisive. Some embrace its earthiness, heat, and spice with aplomb while others find those very elements off-putting. But put it in a warm cup of teh tarik (black tea with sugar and milk), and you have yourself a beverage that soothes and calms the soul. Have it with some epok-epok or kueh for a perfect mid-day breather.
7. Char Kway Teow
It's sweet, it's spicy, and it glistens under the weight of lard. Say what you want, but the best char kway teow in Singapore is... Nah. I'm not that foolish to proclaim a version as champion when it involves food as contentious as this. When it comes to char kway teow, everyone has their favourites—and they will defend it come hell and high water. There are hawker stalls that have laboured under the weight of 50 years of char kway teow-making, and for them, churning out close to 500 plates daily is but a typical day in the kitchen. However you prefer yours, there's one thing everyone can agree on for a perfect dish: that elusive wok hei—a fragrance that comes from a well-seasoned wok, precise control of fire, and steady hands.
6. Bak Kut Teh
Which is better? A peppery bak kut teh or a herbal one? Well, the verdict is still out on that one. Why not enjoy both versions? At its core, bak kut teh simply means meat bone tea and is a broth of herbs and spices that is simmered with pork ribs. Are you on team Teochew (clear soup with distinct peppery notes) or team Klang (a cloudy broth with a herbal after taste)? Bak kut teh is often enjoyed with a side of crispy youtiao (fried dough strips) or rice, and though more commonly eaten for lunch or dinner, makes for a wonderful breakfast meal to start your day right.
5. Fish Bee Hoon
With the year-end’s cool monsoon season, nothing says comfort more than a piping hot bowl of fish bee hoon. It comes in two variations – one with milk and the other, a clear base. I've seen many types of fish used, including pomfret, toman, and garoupa. Still, the more common option is the meaty batang (mackerel). The recipe for fish bee hoon is relatively simple, too, and involves very few ingredients. But here, quality is paramount – some stalls pride themselves on a broth that has been boiling for days on end to produce the richness in flavour. Eat it with a saucer of chilli padi drenched in light soya sauce and you have yourself a winner.
4. Bubble Tea
You know bubble tea fever had reached its peak when ride-hailing app Grab rolled out its bubble tea subscription plan in October. These days, one need not look far to get our paws on a cup of milk tea. With a staggering 47 (and counting) brands of bubble tea in Singapore, it's hard to choose a favourite, especially when each brand has a slightly unique beverage proposition to make theirs stand out. So what do we do? We relent, throw our hands up in the air, and order "one milk tea, large, with pearls, 50% sugar." Resistance is futile, despite bubble tea not being terribly healthy. Moderation, my young padawan. Moderation.
3. Singapore Sling
A long, long, long time ago (think before 1915), one Ngiam Tong Boon, a Hainanese bartender working at the Long Bar in Raffles Hotel, created the Singapore Sling. As with most great inventions, Tong Boon probably never imagined the kind of worldwide fame his cocktail would enjoy. The Singapore Sling is a gin-based cocktail inspired by a gin sling—an American gin drink that is flavoured, sweetened and served cold. Although the recipes vary, the common permutation includes gin, brandy, and the juice of citrus fruit. Unlike a classic cocktail with a strict ratio of spirits, the Singapore Sling differs from bar to bar and is re-created based on written notes and memories of colleagues.
2. Hainanese Chicken Rice
How do you take our unofficial national dish, Hainanese chicken rice – slathered in soya sauce? Or with a bit more discipline – a polite dip of braised chicken into soya sauce first, followed by a brief swash of chilli, before consuming it with fragrant, ginger-spiced rice? Hainanese chicken rice was created by immigrants from Hainan in southern China and adapted from the Hainanese dish Wenchang chicken. It's comfort food that deserves a good solid second place.
1. Dim Sum
Is there anything that threatens to destroy your diet faster than a meal at a dim sum restaurant? Those darn small portions on a plate make you question: "Is it enough? No? Let's order more!" It's a slippery slope from a plate of siew mai, and BBQ pork puffs to a whole table spread full of baos, carrot cakes, yam cakes, chicken feet, and har kow. Our obsession is further exacerbated by dining options that run the gamut from high-end establishments to the more simple outfits that have withstood the test of time. I reckon that we enjoy the communal aspect of eating dim sum, a food made to be shared. Without doubt, Singaporeans’ love affair with dim sum is palpable, which is how it found itself at the top of the list of the most searched food on Yahoo.