A Guide to the Spices of Singapore

A mouth-tingling tour through the best spicy food in Singapore

There are few things that unite Asian cuisine like the humble chilli pepper. The whole continent is beloved of this fiery little ingredient and spicy food in Singapore is no different. The peppers themselves vary: the Kashmiri chilli is deep red, mild and smoky. In Thailand, the bird’s eye is small but mighty in its bright and piquant nature. Venture over to the Chinese province of Hainan, and you’ll discover their round and fearsome yellow lanterns. Whereas in Bangladesh, the naga is one of the hottest chillis known to mankind.

With the diversity of Asian restaurants in the city, Singaporeans are spoilt for choice when it comes to restaurants specialising in spice. So, put on your chilli boots, BYO glass of milk and join us on a tantalising tour of Singapore’s hot dishes. You may even see a talking coyote, but don’t worry – that’s just the spice doing it’s thang.

Know your Scoville

The rating scale for chillies is called the Scoville scale, developed by American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in 1912. The scale ranges from the gentle bell pepper and smokey paprika to those that rate in the hundreds of thousands. The Bhut jolokia, a.k.a. the ghost pepper, measures in at a million Scovilles (not one for the spice averse).

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Sichuan for the adventurous

The first stop on our trek drops us off in Chinatown, at the heart of the Sichuan dining scene. The unique thing that sets the cuisine apart is its iconic Sichuan pepper. These mouth-numbing nuggets are not actually chillies but rather small fruits that are collected and dried out. They release a small amount of the chemical hydroxy alpha sanshool, which allows the mouth to experience more flavour. This is used to accentuate the prolific use of peppers in Sichuan hot pots, Kung Pao chicken and dan dan noodles. You can find Sichuan cuisine all over Singapore, but our tip would be to make a beeline for Tong Fu Ju in the Downtown Core.

Spice it up in Little India

We’d be remiss in our spicy tour of Singapore without taking a trip to Little India. Indian food is famously fiery, and the spiciest dishes are in curry houses and tandoori joints on Racecourse Road. The role of the chilli in Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani cooking is as varied and diverse as the nations themselves. Up in the Kashmir region, they use it to add colour and depth to hearty meat dishes. Whereas in the fish-heavy cuisine of Dhaka and Chittagong, it adds a top-note to delicate fish curries. All over India they make chutneys and pickles to complement thalis and dosas. In Goa, they add it to vindaloos that are popular with the tongue-numb the world over. We can’t promise all of the above in one place, but at Anjappar you stand the best chance of getting a taste of it.

Thai something properly painful

The subcontinent isn’t the only part of Asia where they use chilli to make the most of their other ingredients. The humble chilli is only as good as its partners, after all, else we’d be eating them on their own. They activate pain receptors in the brain, inducing salivation and increasing the surface area of the tastebuds. Thus, when you eat chillies, they make the things around them taste better.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Thai cuisine, where a balance of flavours is fundamental. They take their plentiful bird’s eye chillies, which feature in almost every meal, and combine them with other ingredients. Sour elements such as citrus fruits and tamarind, intense bursts of salt in fish and soy sauce are paired with the sweetness of coconut milk or palm sugar. These flavours mixed with fresh fish, meat and crunchy vegetables create a dreamy taste and layers of texture. Try it out in BeerThai House Restaurant, a hidden neighbourhood gem amongst the streets of Kallang.

Singapore spicy food

Local Singaporean food itself doesn’t miss out on the spice train. The native cuisine of the city is packed with heat, nowhere more than in the national dish, Singaporean chilli crab. While the national dish may not be as fiery as the name suggests, it still packs a punch. Singaporean chilli crab can be found at any self-respecting seafood joint. Peranakan cuisine also packs a serious punch in dishes such as their laksa, an iconic soup crammed with fresh fish, cockles, shrimp, bean curd and a healthy dollop of sambal chilli paste. Find the best of it that you can at any of these top Peranakan restaurants across Singapore.

And so concludes our tour: the final furlong of the fire foray. Your humble guide bids you adieu, and wishes you only the best in your newly-found finesse for fire in the city-state. All the best, chilli fans – now, show Singapore what your tastebuds are made of.