What do you get when you mix local street food with a famously orderly supercity? You get tightly-packed collections of street food stalls in structures nestled amid the sparkling skyscrapers of Asia’s most futuristic metropolis. So where to eat in Singapore? This is your guide to taking on Singapore’s iconic hawker centres!
“Die, die, must try!”
If you hear a Singaporean utter these admittedly strange words in an emphatic tone, they are most certainly talking about food. This quirky “Singlish” phrase meaning something a bit like “to die for” is just one of the ways that the food-enamoured Singaporean locals express their fervent love of a certain dish – but more often than not, this charming saying is probably referring to their favourite food stall in Singapore’s iconic food hubs: hawker centres.
Unlike many of their Asian counterparts, Singapore is not a city where you’d likely find a haphazardly organised food stand on the side of any given downtown road. In the mid-20th Century, Singapore was just beginning its rise into economic power – and with it, urban reform at breakneck speed. In Singapore’s early years, street food was set up everywhere throughout the city, but were unlicensed. The result was questionable hygiene and plenty of food poisoning – hardly a problem that a growing supercity should have.
Eventually, this prompted the government to shuffle illegal street hawkers away, while gathering the reputable hawkers into massive, centralised centres: hawker centres. After the first of its kind was built in 1971, hawker centres began popping up all over the city, but with an important caveat: if a hawker wanted to operate at a hawker centre, they were required a license by the environmental ministry to ensure hygiene and food safety.
Today, there are over 100 hawker centres throughout Singapore, and they’ve become a local staple for the very best of street food in an otherwise shiny, glossy cityscape. For locals that have grown up with these city food courts, strolling in and ordering is an easy feat – but for a rookie, making sense of a hawker centre is a challenge. To help you get a handle of a Singorean hawker centre, we rounded up our top tips for doing it like a local.
Dress for the occasion (and the weather)
Unlike much of Singapore, hawker centres in the city are completely un-air conditioned. In a toasty city like equatorial Singapore, the weather is hot year-round, with temperatures within these densely packed centres reaching up to 38* Celcius. So, don’t expect to don any of your best threads in this super-local food courts.
Most locals will tell you that a comfortable t-shirt or tank top – paired with a comfortable pair of shorts and sandals – are your best dress code bet in hawker centres. Don’t let the heat and humidity scare you away, though. Locals will tell you that with the discomfort of the weather comes the promise of Singapore’s best food!
Handling your cash (hint: ditch the plastic)
Lots of visitors to Asia are taken aback by just how reliant the local economy is on cash. In much of Southeast Asia, your plastic won’t get you far with street food vendors or even some restaurants – and Singapore’s hawker centres are no different. While you’ll have no problem using your credit card in most Singaporean bars, clubs and restaurants, hawker centres are strictly “no plastic” zones, and cash is mandatory.
Make sure you’ve got enough smaller bills, too, since food in hawker centres are much cheaper than other restaurants – and hawkers are unlikely to have change for your larger bills. Plus, foreign currency is not accepted in hawker centres, so be prepared with Singaporean cash only – leave the USD at the hotel!
Conquer the queues
In hawker centres, it’s all a popularity contest. The best food stalls are consistently the ones with the longest queues (news travel fast in Singapore, with locals recommending their favourite stalls to their friends with a hearty, “die, die, must try!”). If you wander into a hawker centre without much of an idea of what you want, head to the stalls with a line out the door. During peak hours, it’s not unusual to wait a good 30 minutes in a popular stalls line – but the wait will be worth it!
Picking your stall
When it comes to the centre’s best stalls, a good indicator of how good the food tastes is hung all over one of the stall’s walls. Since food reviews are a popular part of nearly every Singaporean newspaper, hawkers will often laminate and frame good reviews of their own food to hang on their wall. Like TripAdvisor before the digital age, this is one of the most charming ways you can spot the best grub in the centre without ever having to Google it!
Snagging your seat
During hawker centre “rush hour”, finding an open seat can be a pretty big challenge. Hawker centres might have a collection of different food stalls, but the seating space is shared between all of the centre’s stalls. To combat the overcrowding (and to ensure that they can spend 30 minutes queueing up for their favourite stall) Singaporeans have come up with some pretty charming ways of reserving their seat.
If you see an umbrella or packet of tissue paper at an open seat, consider it saved and move on. That’s because locals will use these otherwise insignificant little items – called “chopping a seat” in Singlish – to hold their seat while they queue up. When visiting a hawker centre, bring along a pack of tissues with you to hold your seat while you line up to order – you’ll look like a local in no time!
What to eat
Every hawker centre is different, but there are a few dishes that have become synonymous with the Singporean hawker centre. Local favourites are barbeque chicken wings, fried carrot cake, satay and the ubiquitous Singaporean delicacy of chicken rice. Most hawker centres will also have the favourites hokkien mee and char kway teow as well, and you’re likely to find the cultural staples of roti prata and nasy bryani in some as well. For dessert, try out some ice kacang or chendol!
Where to go
There are over 100 hawker centres all over Singapore, and you’ll find a few culinary gems in each and every one of them. The biggest and most popular centres, though, are located in some of the city’s most popular ethnic enclaves.
Chinatown Complex Food Centre
As the largest food hawker centre in Singapore (over 260 stalls!), Chinatown Complex Food Centre is the metaphorical mecca for foodies in the city. Some especially tasty dishes here are the Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice, and the steamed dumplings at China La Mian Xiao Long Bao stall.
Maxwell Road Hawker Centre
Maxwell has made it into a handful of foodie television shows because it’s home to so many delicious stalls. Some of the best are Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice stall, and Hoe Kee Porridge. This centre is a quick stroll from the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum, which makes it a great stopping off point during some sightseeing!
Tiong Bahru Market Hawker Centre
Since this hawker centre is partially open-air and recently renovated, this is one of the most comfortable centres in all of Singapore. The obvious staple here is chicken rice, but if you’re feeling adventurous, give Koh Brothers Pig Organ Soup a shot!