A Taste of Singapore
Hawker centers offer a flavorful journey through the culinary melting pot that is the Lion City
Ask any Singaporean where the best hawker food is and you’re sure to spark a lively conversation as everyone has their own favourite food haunt. The Michelin Guide Singapore entered this debate in 2016, when its inaugural list gave one Michelin Star to Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle. Run by hawker Chan Hon Meng, his hawker stall at Chinatown Food Complex sells chicken rice and noodles for only $2, making it the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred meal. Food reviewers rave about how Chan’s chicken meat is very tender and wrapped in crispy skin that has been roasted to perfection.
Singapore’s hawker centres are culinary havens that give an excellent introduction to Singapore’s food culture. Home to many stalls, these open-air complexes sell a wide variety of cheap food. All Singaporeans, whether they’re rich or poor, are likely to crave Singaporean food.
Singapore’s hawker history started in the 1800s, when street hawkers offered up cheap and delicious food. These street hawkers were often unhygienic, so the Singaporean government started a project to build hawker centres.
Between 1971 and 1986, the government built pavilions filled with concrete and tile stalls, each with electricity and water that made the buildings a hygienic new home for Singapore’s street hawkers. The hawker centers were built at housing estates, transportation hubs and other popular gathering places. Today, there are over 100 hawker centres all over Singapore, filled with more than 6,000 food stalls. These humble stalls provide not just nutrition for hungry Singaporeans, but are also important places where people bond over their favourite eats.
Like most Singaporeans, I’ve always loved hawker food. As a child, one of the reasons I loved my father was because he would buy me carrot cake every night from the Bukit Timah Market hawker center. The name of the Singapore carrot cake is misleading because it isn’t made of carrots. Instead, it is made by frying cubes of rice flour with eggs. I loved the contrast of crunching down on the crispy egg coating to enjoy the soft deliciousness of the flour cubes.
I’ve lived in the West for 12 years, in Oxford and New York and when I was overseas, I missed hawker food, especially the deliciously sweet and savoury char keow teow (flat noodles in soya sauce fried with sausage and clams) and the crisp and fluffy prata (fried Indian pancake). One thing I love about Singapore is that these two of my favourite dishes are easily found in most Singaporean hawker centers, so it’s simple to get the fix for my food addictions.
Since Singapore is a melting pot of Chinese, Malay and Indian cultures, for first time visitors I would probably take them to Chinatown Food Complex for Chinese hawker food, Adam Road Food Center for Malay food and Tekka Center for Indian food. Chinatown Food Complex is home to many great Chinese hawker stalls that sell dishes like black pepper crab, bak kut teh (herbal soup with pork ribs) and frog porridge.
Little India’s Tekka Center is where I would bring visitors to enjoy fragrant curries. I would recommend the dum briyani (an Indian spiced rice dish with meat or vegetables) and Indian rojak (mixed fritters of dough, potato and shrimp). A good place for Malay food is Adam Road Food Center. This hawker center is famous for its nasi lemak (a fragrant rice dish cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf, accompanied with omelette, fried fish and anchovies). There are a few good nasi lemak stalls at Adam Road Food Center but the most famous one is Selera Rasa Nasi Lemak. This is renowned because the Sultan of Brunei likes the nasi lemak there so much that he always gets his staff to buy a packet of nasi lemak for his breakfast whenever he’s visiting Singapore.
Hawker centers are the best place in Singapore to explore the country’s rich food heritage. If you’re ever in Singapore, do visit a hawker center to get a taste of food paradise.