Equatorial Gluttony: A guide to eating locally in Singapore’s hawker centres

Paul Dixon, co-author of the Southeast Asia Handbook, gives you the lowdown of what to eat on Singapore's enticing hawker menus.

A guide to eating at Singapore's hawker centres: Seafood stall by Paul Dixon

The tiny island nation of Singapore is slightly bigger than the Isle of Wight and weighs in at a lowly 187th in the list of the world's largest countries. However, as we all know, size has little to do with anything and when it comes to global culinary competitiveness, Singapore punches well above its weight with its staggering number of eateries and a food obsessed and cosmopolitan population willing to give anything on a plate a chance.

The 5 million population of the city state is dominated by three main ethnic groups: Chinese, Malay and Indian. These groups have not only brought food from their homelands to Singapore, but have also been influenced by each other. Examples of this include Peranakan or Straits Chinese cuisine, an exciting fusion brought about by centuries of intermarriage between ethnic Malays and Chinese, and Eurasian fare, which is typically Portuguese cuisine married with Indian, Chinese and Malay flavours.

There are also huge numbers of expatriate workers from Asia and beyond (who form around 30-40% of the overall population) all bringing their offerings to the table for the greedy masses to feast on. Of course, those with fat wallets might be drawn to flashy restaurants with water features and call bells, but in Singapore, food is the ultimate social leveller, and the place to get the island's best food is at the city's numerous and superb value hawker centres. It is here one will spot exhausted mainland Chinese builders queuing up patiently alongside a fat cat with a Mercedes parked outside for a bowl of celebrated fishball noodles.

Hawker centres are typically a collection of stalls each serving a different selection of dishes. They can be found across the island, in neighbourhoods, housing estates and in shopping malls, where they are slightly more sterile and known as food courts. A visit to one is highly recommended for any visitor. The choice of offerings can seem a little bewildering at first, though stalls have English signs and usually display pictures of their fare. However, the first challenge at a hawker centre is not what to eat, but where to sit. This is most apparent at lunchtimes when crowds of hungry office workers descend from their glassy towers looking for lunch.

The first task is to grab a table and then queue up at the stall one wishes to purchase from. This is done by choping (verb: to chope) a table, which means to reserve a table or seat. This can be done in a number of ways such as placing a bag on a chair, an umbrella on a table and in today's more austere times, a pack of disposable handkerchiefs seems to do the trick. Once a table has been choped  no-one will sit at it. If a punter can’t find an empty table to chope, then it is considered perfectly acceptable to hover over the shoulders of a diner who looks like she is about to finish and wait out her final slurps before leaping onto her still warm seat and choping it. This might offend the sensibilities of many British visitors, but in densely populated Singapore, niceties are secondary to pragmatism and it is the pragmatic rather than the polite that get to dine first. Once a table has been choped, you are free to browse the stalls and join the queue for the food you wish to purchase.

You pay once the food is handed over on a tray. Finally add condiments and weave precariously through the crowds to your choped table before getting stuck in. There are also stalls selling desserts, fresh fruits and juices, though this invariably means more queuing, so those in pairs or groups often get assigned food or drink fetching tasks.

A guide to eating at Singapore's hawker centres: Satay and teh tarik by Paul Dixon

WHAT TO EAT - 10 of the best dishes

Hainan Chicken Rice: Originating in Hainan, an island off southern China, this delicious dish is a big contender for Singapore’s national dish. Chicken is cooked slowly in a pork and chicken stock with garlic and ginger, then taken out and sliced and served alongside rice cooked in chicken stock. Finally, you have to take a couple of dipping sauces for your chicken which include mashed ginger, chilli and garlic and dark soy sauce. 

Hokkien Mee Fujian (southern Chinese province) style fried noodle dish made from a mixture of silky rice and egg noodles, garnished with prawns, fish cake, spring onions, a dollop of chilli sauce and a calamansi (Asian citrus fruit similar to lime) to squeeze over the top.

Mee Pok Teochew (southern Chinese) noodle dish made with flat and yellow noodles topped with fish balls, fish cake, bean sprouts, lettuce and minced meat. You can request either ‘dry’ or ‘soup’ and will be asked whether you want chilli added. This dish is universally loved by Singapore’s ethnic Chinese community and local director Eric Khoo even directed a film entitled Mee Pok Man, Char Kway Teow Leave your conscience at the door before getting your teeth into this working man’s favourite of fried flat rice noodles, sausage, cockles, egg, kale, shrimps and lard. Mention this to an overseas Singaporean and they’ll weep with nostalgia.

Rojak (Chinese and Indian): Malay for ‘wild mix’, can be found in Chinese or Indian varieties. The Chinese variety is significantly healthier and is made with pineapple, cucumber, bean sprouts, fried tofu and you tiao (deep fried fritters). The ingredients are chopped into bite sized chunks and dressed with a mixture of lime juice, shrimp paste, water, peanuts and sugar. The Indian variety is much heavier and consists of boiled potato, fried dough fritters, shrimp fritters and bean sprouts and covered in a sweet and spicy peanut sauce.

Fried Carrot Cake: Not the carrot cake of your genteel Sussex tearoom, but a Singaporean version made with fried white daikon and flour, eggs, garlic and spring onion and is the vegetarian’s dream sinful snack.

Laksa: Possibly the most celebrated Peranakan dish, this lip smacking noodle soup is loaded with calories and comes in a variety of forms throughout maritime Southeast Asia. The Singapore version, known as Katong Laksa, rivals chicken rice as a contender for national dish. Katong Laksa is a thick, rich fish and coconut broth with prawns, fish cake, cockles, tofu puffs, bean sprouts and egg served with noodles. The noodles are cut short so that the entire dish is eaten with a soup spoon, an added bonus for fumbling chopstick phobic visitors.

Roti Prata: Delectable Indian breakfast staple of fried flour pancake served with a side dish of vegetable curry. There are a variety of toppings including egg and onion, and modern times have seen the classic prata twisted to a sweet dessert with ice cream and jam toppings appearing on the menu board.

Satay: Classic Indonesian snack dish of skewered and grilled marinated meat, served with sliced cucumber, slithers of raw red onion, peanut sauce and ketupat (rice cake). Popular meat includes mutton, chicken and beef although it is possible to find pork, crocodile and beef tripe satay. Satay is sold by the stick and those with a decent hunger should be able to manage 10 to 15 comfortably.

Nasi Lemak: Singapore’s favourite breakfast dish is a simple, filling meal of coconut milk soaked rice, steamed until fluffy and adorned with dried anchovies, peanuts, sliced cucumber and hot and sweet chilli sauce. This dish can usually be found in the mornings at the hot drink stall in hawker centres as is wrapped in a banana leaf to form a pyramid.

A guide to eating at Singapore's hawker centres: Man making Hokkien Mee by Paul Dixon

WHAT TO DRINK

Fresh Lime Juice: Delightfully refreshing in the tropical heat, this drink can be found everywhere. For the best juice, look for signs reading Homemade Fresh Lime Juice. This is generally less sweet and has far greater zing factor.

Teh Tarik: Sweet and vibrant breakfast drink to accompany a spicy nasi lemak breakfast. This brew is made with black tea and condensed milk. Teh tarik means pulled tea in Malay, a reference to the pulling motion used during pouring.

Tiger Beer: Singapore’s very own beer, launched in 1932 and now found across the world and enjoyed at any time of day in Singapore’s hawker centres. Vendors will often provide a little bucket of ice with the beer to be added to the glass. Whilst this undoubtedly waters down the beer, without it the drink gets horribly warm in minutes. Be careful! Tiger Beer is famed among expats for its crunching hangovers.

...and a couple of NAUGHTY DESSERTS to beat the heat and increase the girth
Ice Kachang The Singapore equivalent of a snow cone, with shaved ice and red beans with aloe, sweetcorn and a liberal swirling of coloured syrup.
Mango sago ice with milk Superlative shaved ice dessert with mango, sago and sinful amounts of condensed milk.

A guide to eating at Singapore's hawker centres: Fruit stall by Paul Dixon 

WHERE TO FEAST

Chomp Chomp Food Centre (20 Kensington Park Road, Serangoon Garden Circus MRT to Kovan and it's a 5 minute taxi ride from here) This place is held dear in the hearts of many Singaporeans, though remains slightly off the beaten track for tourists, and offers a lively ambience, intense choping competition, whirling clouds of smoke from the woks and incredibly tall glasses of lime and barley water. Head here for delectable hokkien mee, chicken wings and stingray.

Old Airport Road Food Centre (Block 51, Old Airport Road, Mountbatten MRT) Whilst this place won't win any prizes for cleanliness, it's worth the trip from the city centre to see how the average Singaporean lives. Nestled in an HDB (type of public housing where more than 80% of the population lives) estate, and with a friendly neighbourhood atmosphere, this food centre is held in high regard for prawn mee and mutton soup.

Lavender Food Square (380 Jalan Besar, between Lavender and Farrer Park MRT stations then 5 min walk from either) Delicious dumplings, mainland Chinese food, chicken rice, frog porridge and a selection of dubious karaoke bars nearby add to a pleasantly rogueish ambience. Handy for those staying in Little India.

East Coast Lagoon Food Village (1220 East Coast Parkway, MRT to Bedok, 5 mins in a taxi or bus 401 from the city centre) Dine under the stars to the lapping of the waves, with a vista of planes roaring into Changi and a horizon lit up by what seems like a city of container ships. Here one can find superb value grilled seafood, char kway teow and a good weekend buzz in the mellow environs of the East Coast Park.

Maxwell Food Centre (Corner of South Bridge Road and Maxwell Road, Chinatown MRT) One of Singapore’s liveliest hawker centres. Expect queues of food fanatics at prized stalls. Hungry locals rave about the carrot cake, congee and fish soup with sublime yam rice.

Lau Pa Sat (formerly Telok Ayer Market, corner of Boon Tat Street and Robinson Road, Raffles Place MRT) First built in 1825 on piles overhanging the sea, this place has since seen major overhauls and is now housed in a beautiful octagonal Victorian iron structure shipped from Glasgow in 1894. Lau Pa Sat is in the heart of Singapore’s Central Business District and is popular with the office set. At weekends diners ravenously chomp excellent satay, grilled seafood and ice kachang accompanied by live music. 

A FEW FINAL TIPS:

*If you are at all concerned about the cleanliness of a particular stall search for a printed card displaying the letter A, B or C. These cards have to be displayed in each stall and are awarded annually for excellence in cleanliness and hygiene by the National Environment Agency. A is the highest award.

*Pubs in Singapore are notoriously expensive at about S$12-16 (£6-8) a pint and many locals use hawker centres for their socialising, particularly those around large housing estates. A large bottle of beer costs around S$7 (£3.50) and drinking at hawker centres is a great way to people watch, chat to locals, and soak up the local vibes. Many hawker centres show Premiership football at weekends.

*A meal with a non alcoholic drink should cost between S$4 and S$7 (£2-£3.50). Patrons do not need to clean their table after eating, staff will clear up after diners. Tipping is not necessary.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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