Updated: Aug 22, 2020
One of the things that I looked for when travelling is the local food. I will ask the locals what are nice, special or uniquely local. Some "fear" food will be mentioned occasionally (locals like to challenge foreigners to their "specialties") and I will give them a try if I have the opportunity.
While reading articles on "fear" food around the world, I noted that some can be found in Singapore. I also read several articles written by Singapore locals, calling food in their own backyard as "weird" or "bizarre". This kinda tickles a little. The definitions of "weird" and "bizarre" have somehow became ambiguous when it comes to specialty food.
In this post, I will clarify on the so-called "weird" food that can be found in Singapore and introduce them to foreign travellers at the same time. They are not really "weird" but probably more "dare" for travellers. I will include locations that are in popular tourist spots so it will be easier to find them for those who are daring to try.
Below are 11 Singapore delicacies that are deeply rooted in the island nation. I excluded "dare" food that are imported from overseas, such as fish sperms, live octopus tentacles, puffer fish meat, etc, as they are usually served in restaurants, not of local characteristics and can be quite expensive. Most travellers would not be able to try them unless they are in a group of at least 3 or 4 daring eaters so as not to waste the food.
1. Chicken Feet
This item tops most weird food lists. Quite a number of articles cited chicken feet as the weirdest food and they are chewy with no meat. Those claws also look ugly and intimidating to most people, especially when they imagined the environment where those feet are stepping on. Funny, don't chicken eat, sleep and fight one other in that same environment?
First of all, what is weird about chicken feet? Isn't it part of a chicken? While some people eat the meaty parts (breast, wings and drumsticks) and discard the rest, others appreciate those "unsightly" parts more than the blander meat cuts.
Second, depending on how the chicken feet (or more elegantly called "phoenix claws") are prepared, their textures will vary. Chewy chicken feet are often stewed in soy sauce to maintain its original texture and collagen as much as possible. Other styles of eating chicken feet include boiling them in herbal soups, some are de-boned, steamed and served with sour-spicy dipping sauce, most are braised.
Those served in dim sum restaurants are usually braised, meaning they are fried lightly before stewing (Hong Kong style). This process softens the skin and allows it to be eaten easily. The wrinkled skin will detach itself from the bones when in the mouth without effort. The photo (above) shows some braised chicken feet and they are the "protagonist" of the chicken feet noodle.
Many people believe that the collagen in chicken feet are good for skin complexion and for healing wounds, which is why chicken feet are often used in herbal soups too.
Where to find?
- Some food centres, especially at dim sum restaurants, chicken noodle stalls, etc.
- Michelin-accoladed Ji Ji Wanton Noodle Specialist (基记面家) in Hong Lim Food Centre, Chinatown, is also a good place to try.
2. Chicken (or Duck) Parts & Offal
Apart from chicken feet, other chicken parts, such as head, neck and butt, and offal, such as heart, intestine, kidney, liver, gizzard, etc, can also be consumed. This applies to duck too.
Grilled chicken hearts on skewer has long been a Brazilian delicacy. Grilled chicken butts on skewer (known as "fragrance from 7 miles away", or qi li xiang, 七里香) is also a popular Taiwanese snack. The long duck necks are Chinese delicacy and priced higher than a cut of duck meat. Same as chicken feet, duck's webbed feet are also stewed and eaten. Duck liver is also a cheaper alternative to foie gras (goose's liver). Isn't it funny why no one ever say goose's liver is weird? Just because it is usually not served in its original shape?
The photo (above) shows a plate of chicken offal (hearts, kidneys, livers and gizzards). Each of the offal offers different tastes and textures to complement any meat cuts — if you know how to appreciate them. Offal are also cheaper and have more nutrition (vitamin A & B, iron, collagen, minerals, etc.) than the meaty cuts, which are mainly proteins.
The older Chinese generations know how to get all the required nutrition by eating a little of everything instead of just the meat. This works better than eating expensive health supplements that often result in either over-dosage or under-nourishment of certain minerals.
Where to find?
- Chicken and duck rice or noodle stalls in most food centres.
3. Century Egg
Century egg (pi dan, or 皮蛋) is a type of preserved egg made by preserving chicken or duck eggs in a mixture of clay, salt and lime. The egg, before peeling away the brown sawdust layer and shelled, has a pungent odor that smells like ammonia and this leads people to think they are preserved using "horse urine". And that is what scared some people off without even giving it a try. People always believe rumours.
While most westerners will find century egg to be weird, Asians should be very familiar with it as it has been around for centuries and used in a number of dishes, especially when eating minced pork (or chicken) congee (皮蛋瘦肉粥).
Century egg can be eaten without any preparations. When eaten on its own, it is usually accompanied by pickled ginger slices. In all other cases, century eggs are used as condiment for many dishes and soups due to their stronger flavours than normal eggs. The shelled eggs are not pungent and its taste is rather unique (unlike how some bloggers exaggerated). You have to try it to know how it tastes, not just trusting what others said.
Where to find?
- Most stalls that sell century egg minced pork congee (especially with dim sum), economic bee hoon, etc. Just look for black-coloured eggs (after being shelled).
4. Turtle Soup
Turtle soup is a Chinese cuisine that originates from China and Singapore. It can really be classified as one of Singapore's own local delicacy. And unbelievably, the United States also have a long history of making their version of turtle soup since the 19th-century. While most East Asian countries use soft-shell turtles to make the soup, the United States use common snapping turtles.
Most of the soft-shell turtles in Singapore are imported from China, which has over a thousand farms to rear the turtles for consumption (see Wikipedia).
Turtle soup in Singapore is usually herbal and is believed to strengthen the body and improve kidney functions. Turtle meat tastes like chicken and slightly chewy, almost similar to crocodile meat. But if you have eaten both of them before, you will be able to identify crocodile meat from their bones and turtle meat from their skins. The smooth and soft gelatinous turtle skin is a must in turtle soup or you will miss out the best deal. It is the skin that helps to improve skin complexion.
Where to find?
- Hong Lim Food Centre and Chinatown Complex in Chinatown.
- Berseh Food Centre in Little India.
5. Turtle Herbal Jelly
Turtle jelly is traditionally made from powdered bottom shells of a certain turtle specie, called the golden coin turtle, and other herbal ingredients for medicinal purposes. The golden coin turtle is actually an endangered specie and some other turtle species are used as replacement instead. The turtles are farmed in China for making the powder. Even so, they are still very expensive.
Most turtle jellies that are sold as dessert at very cheap prices are usually without the turtle powder, although they are still called "turtle" jelly (龟苓膏) in Mandarin. In English, the term "herbal jelly" is much more appropriate as the ingredients are mainly herbs. Therefore, there is no need to get too paranoid over them. The herbal jelly will still serve its medicinal purpose without the turtle shell component although the effectiveness may be milder.
Herbal jelly tastes bitter because of the herbs and are usually sweetened with a layer of sugar syrup, maple syrup or honey on top. Try it as a dessert instead of as a tonic.
If someone tries to sell you herbal jelly at high price, think twice. You may be over-paying for something that may not be in there. And you will not know the difference.