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Chef Elizabeth Haigh explores Singapore's eclectic cuisine

Whether it’s laksa or kaya toast, Singaporean cuisine is full of flavour. Chef Elizabeth Haigh, author of cookbook Makan: Recipes from the Heart of Singapore, selects her highlights.

By Elizabeth Haigh
Published 2 Jul 2021, 08:00 BST
Prawn satays are a popular street food in Singapore.

Prawn satays are a popular street food in Singapore.

Photograph by Getty Images

In Singapore it’s very common to greet each other with “Are you hungry?” or “Shall we get some food?” rather than “Hello, how are you?” We live by our stomachs and are very proud of it, too. 

Singapore is a hub for all sorts of cuisines. The Peranakan Chinese or Straits-born Chinese are the descendants of immigrants from the southern provinces of China, who settled in Malaysia and Singapore. Their unique fusion food combines Chinese with influences from Malay, Indian, Thai, Indonesian, Dutch, Portuguese and, of course, English cuisine.

Peranakan men refer to themselves as ‘Baba’ (Uncle), while women are ‘Nonya’ (Auntie). It’s no surprise the cuisine is called Nonya after the women: the matriarchal recipes are passed down from generation to generation and every woman is expected to master them. Nonya food is tangy, aromatic, spicy and herbal; the curry dishes are more on the fragrant side than just powerful spice heat. Key ingredients are coconut milk, lemongrass, tamarind, galangal and turmeric. 

I adore this cuisine because it really plays on your tongue with multiple sweet and sour notes. 

Singapore’s hawker centres are home to the best food stalls in the world. These Aunties and Uncles each specialise in one dish, and make and sell it until they retire. Some of the hawkers specialise in barbecue dishes, such as belachan fish wrapped up in aromatic banana leaves or otak-otak (fish cake) or satays. 

When visiting Singapore, we order satays by the dozens — of mutton, chicken or beef — and sit outdoors for hours eating them with buckets of beers, until the mosquitoes start to pinch. Satays to me are the most satisfying bite from a barbecue because you can slather them with sticky, rich peanut sauce or have them plain with a good squeeze of lime juice (go for calamansi lime, if you can get hold of them). For me, it’s pure happiness on a stick.

This is an edited extract from Makan: Recipes from the Heart of Singapore, by Elizabeth Haigh, published by Bloomsbury Absolute (RRP: £26).

Elizabeth Haigh's three must-try Singaporean dishes


1. Nonya laksa
This spicy noodle soup packs a punch. Variations include asam curry or Nonya laksa; the latter is usually made with chicken bones and topped with prawns. 

2. Kaya toast breakfast
Kaya is a coconut jam/curd that’s spread on toast along with plenty of butter. It’s traditionally served with soft-boiled eggs, a dash of soy sauce and ground white pepper. 

3. Chendol
This dessert comprises a mountain of ground shaved ice topped with coconut cream, gula melaka (coconut palm sugar) and chendol (green mung bean jelly).

The essential ingredient

Belachan is a fermented shrimp paste that’s integral to most Southeast Asian cuisines and usually comes as a block you crumble and toast or roast. It’s pungent and adds a salty, rich, shrimp flavour to dishes like sambal.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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