local food
Photograph: Ahmad Iskandar Photography

Where to get classic local dishes and its modern updates

Craving the flavours of traditional local dishes but curious to try something new – why not both?

Delfina Utomo

It's only human to stick to the familiar and comforting. But it’s also human to be intrigued by something shiny, new... and delicious. While we stand by classic local dishes, we also adore what some restaurants have done to modernise and elevate Singaporean cuisine. The rise of Mod-Sin might have purists going off on social media but take a minute, sit down and try some of what these joints have to offer.

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More of a snack than a proper dish, the humble otah comprises fish paste mixed with chillies, garlic, shallots and lemongrass, then wrapped in banana leaves and flame-grilled – there’s a lot of work that goes into each stick.

Stick to tradition: Spicy and cheap, the otah at Lee Wee Brothers is usually an accompaniment to a plate of nasi lemak. Choose from the original otah ($0.75), the non-spicy ($0.75) and other assorted flavours like fish head, squid, crab, fish roe and prawn ($1).

Mod it up: At Clan Cafe, the tea time staple is given a spicy twist. Combining a thick slab of rich mackerel and prawn otah with 18-month aged Comte cheese in a toasted brioche bun, the otah sandwich ($16) may be on the pricier side but for a sarnie this good, we’ll gladly part with our money.


The soul of Peranakan food and one of the nation’s go-to dishes, laksa encompasses thick noodles drenched in a rich and spicy coconut-based gravy that’s big on flavour.

Stick to tradition: If you’re walking past the iconic Thian Hock Keng Temple on Telok Ayer Street, step into the hidden Chong Wen Ge Cafe for its laksa ($10.90). Each bowl comes with two giant prawns sitting on a heap of noodles, with sliced fish cake and cockles in a fragrant and mildly spicy broth. Servings are generous so be prepared for a post-lunch food coma.

Mod it up: If you love laksa but hate the inevitable gravy splatter on your shirt, give the dry Nyonya laksa ($19) a try at National Kitchen by Violet Oon. The rice noodles are tossed in a thick coconut gravy together with the prawns, tau pok and beansprouts before it's garnished with a scattering of freshly chopped laksa leaves.


Har Cheong Gai

Singapore’s signature fried chicken is all about the prawn paste batter that’s used. It has to be fragrant (almost pungent) when served and must have the right balance of salty and umami.

Stick to tradition: There is now a reason to travel all the way to Yishun. The har cheong gai ($1.70/ piece) from Ah Tan’s Wings is marinated for two days so the meat fully absorbs the distinct prawn paste flavour before it is double fried in two different batters for maximum crispiness.

Mod it up: Who’s to say prawn paste should only be slathered on chicken? Over at Relish by Wild Rocket, a little meat switch-up awaits. Everyone says frog legs taste like chicken so har cheong frog legs are a no-brainer. Trust Willin Low the godfather of Singapore’s Mod-Sin cuisine to add it to his menu. Frog legs from Jurong Frog Farm are coated in thick prawn paste batter before they are fried till crisp. Priced at $10 per serving, this is one of the restaurant’s bestsellers.

Butter Chicken

If comfort eating is your thing, then a serving of butter chicken with toasty naan should do the trick. This North Indian dish originated in Delhi during the 1950's and has been exported around the world ever since. Singapore is no exception and this creamy chicken curry has fast become a local fave.

Stick to tradition: At $5 for a single serving, the butter chicken from Jaggi’s is a steal. Like most versions, it is thick and rich but Jaggi’s is also generous with the herbs, giving the dish more dimension. We’re fans as well of the generous portion – enough that you might have to order more naan to pair it with.

Mod it up: First things first, don’t get mad at the lack of meat in this dish. At Thevar, the vegetarian take on butter chicken uses a mound of shimeji and king oyster mushrooms as an alternative to poultry. The mushrooms are sautéed and served in an aromatic curry paste and garnished with grated paneer cheese. Served with a side of toasty naan, it’s best to dip and eat. Plus, at $16 for a hefty portion, we'd definitely recommend sharing this dish and ordering more modernIndian creations to share.

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