Everything You Need To Know About Singapore’s Hawker Food
What to eat, where to eat and tips on etiquette.
Singapore sure does loves its food; eating is like a national sport in a country where mealtime is a near-sacred institution. Small talk revolves around lunch plans and a huge part of this island’s cultural identity is wrapped up in feasting.
Unfortunately, it’s also the most expensive country in an otherwise cheap neighbourhood, and you can all too easily drop a few hundred dollars on a fancy dinner here. But fear not, because there is another option: you can go to a hawker centre, have a great meal and escape with change from $10.
Unlike much of Asia, Singapore got rid of its street vendors long ago. From the 1960s they were moved into hawker centres, where they remain today. Don’t expect tablecloths or waiters as most food centres are quite basic, but delicious and cheap food is almost always a certainty.
What to eat
This dish sounds dull, and it even looks a little boring – but looks deceive, my friend. It’s Singapore’s national dish which means everyone has an opinion about who does it best. The rice is cooked in stock, and at most stalls, there’s a choice between roast or steamed chicken, which is then thoroughly doused in chilli with ginger or garlic.
The perennially popular Tian Tian Hainan Chicken Rice at Maxwell Food Centre (stall #01-10/11) is surely one of the best. Wee Nam Kee at Gluttons Bay is also excellent, and gets extra points for always having fresh ginger and chilli on hand.
The famous Lau Pa Sat Hawker Centre near Raffles Place is part of the well-trodden tourist path. At night, the street behind it is closed off, tables are dragged onto the asphalt, and a dozen or so stalls sell massive plates of their best satay. All of them are pretty similar, so there’s no need to be picky.
If you’ve never had stingray, you’re in for a treat. While you might think stingray meat would be too bony or full of cartilage, it’s in fact tender, delicious seafood at its best. Add in a spicy sambal sauce and a squeeze of lime and you’re onto a winner. There are good options at Newton Food Centre (Heng Heng BBQ, stall #01-31), Gluttons Bay and Chinatown Complex (Chang Ji Cooked Food, stall #02-197).
When you have something as rich as an oyster, it only makes sense to pile eggs on top and fry it up, right? Add some spicy sauce, and you have a delicious oyster omelet. It’s an exceptionally rich dish to attempt on your own, so try to make it a team effort. Hup Kee Fried Oyster Omelet at Newton Food Centre (stall #01-73) is definitely worth a go.
For a fruit and vegetable salad, rojak is remarkably rich – it doesn’t bother with subtlety. Full of strong flavours competing to dominate the dish, it’s often served with roast peanuts, cucumbers, dough fritters or bean curd. It also comes with a healthy slug of sweet sauce made from prawn paste and tamarind. Try it at Toa Payoh Rojak at Old Airport Road (stall #01-108) or at Soon Heng Rojak (stall #B1-23)
These piles of carbs and grease are everything the body needs to grow outwards. Char Kway Teow, in particular, has a reputation for being an artery clogger. This dish of thick rice noodles, often with eggs, chives and sliced Chinese sausage, was once served to labourers who needed a calorie-rich meal, but now, it’s mostly office workers adding it to their waistlines. You’ll find it at many food centres, but Lau Fu Zi Fried Kway Teow at Old Airport Road (stall #01-12) does a good version.
A slightly lighter option is Hokkien Mee, which is a seafood noodle dish served with sambal sauce, or sometimes a dark soy and chilli. Nam Sing Hokkien Fried Mee at Old Airport Road (stall #01-32) is a local favourite. For something a little different, try Noodle Story at Amoy Street Food Centre (stall #01-39), which serves a delicious Singapore-style ramen. But come early, because they often run out by about 8pm.
Despite the name, this isn’t a cake nor does it contain any carrot. Instead, it’s large rectangular slabs of radish cake which are steamed and then fried whole, topped with garlic, eggs, fish sauce, dried shrimp and spring onions. There’s a light and a dark version – both are worth a try. Ah Heng Carrot Cake at Newton Food Centre (stall #01-28) does a good version of both.
This is a tangy, spicy soup often made with spicy curry coconut milk, rice noodles or rice vermicelli and chicken, prawn or fish. The many varieties of laksa can be found at most food centres. One of the best is 328 Katong Laksa (53 East Coast Road), which has its own streetside store.
What to drink
Lime juice is an excellent choice to wash all these delicacies down with. For beer, Tiger and Heineken are everywhere and run $6-8 for a longneck (which is a great relief in a city where beer prices can only be described as punishing). If you’ve been coddled by inner-city life and insist on craft beers, you can have them at Smith Street Taps (Chinatown Complex, stall #02-62).
Where to go
#1 Maxwell Food Centre, 1 Kadayanallur Street, 069184 (get there via Chinatown and Tanjong Pagar MRT stations)
This is a massive food centre with more options than most sane people could handle in one, or possibly 50 sittings. It’s usually more crowded at lunch than dinner. Right across the road (tucked away behind the Buddha’s Tooth Temple) is the equally cavernous Chinatown Complex (335 Smith Street 050335). Both are worth a visit.
#2 Makansutra Gluttons Bay, 8 Raffles Ave, Singapore 039802 (get there via Promenade and Esplanade MRT stations)
This hawker ‘best-of’ collection brings together well-known stalls from other food centres and puts them all in one spot, so it’s not a bad option if you’re pressed for time. It’s next to the Esplanade theatres and looks out towards some of Singapore’s best-known landmarks. Note: It’s very compact, so the stalls aren’t numbered.
#3 Old Airport Road, 51 Old Airport Rd, 390051 (get there via Dakota and Mountbatten MRT stations)
Although it has all the ambience of a warehouse, this is one of the oldest, largest and best-loved hawker centres in Singapore. It’s the real deal – with more than 150 stalls here you could effectively show up every day for months without running out of new dishes to try.
#4 Newton Food Centre, 500 Clemenceau Avenue North 229495 (get there via Newton MRT station)
This is a place for dinner and late-night eats, but it also opens late, so don’t bother with lunch. There’s lots of good food here, and once you make your way past the touts, it’s a pleasant place to sit too. A small note of caution, though: a few vendors have been known to upgrade customers to the most expensive version of any given dish. This is easily avoided by stating the listed price of the dish when you order (e.g. “I’ll have the eight dollar prawns”).
#5 Amoy Street Food Centre, 7 Maxwell Road 069111 (get there via Tanjong Pagar and Telok Ayer MRT stations)
This food centre is another drab, utilitarian building, although it has been decorated with a few thematic murals. It’s a busy lunch spot for office workers, and it’s all but impossible to get a seat here around midday. But don’t dismiss it too soon – there are some very good stalls here that are certainly worth the visit.
#6 Lau Pa Sat, 2 Shenton Way, Singapore 068804 (get there via Telok Ayer and Raffles Place MRT stations)
Perhaps more than any other food centre listed here, this one is aimed at tourists, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing worth eating (although it can be a little more expensive as a result). It’s worth heading there at night, though, when Boon Tat Street is closed off and taken over by satay sellers.
A few tips on hawker etiquette
If you see a packet of tissues on a table, that means someone has already reserved it. This is called a “chope”, and ignoring it is the height of rudeness. Everyone chopes before lining up for food, and if you want a seat you should do the same. You’ll need to shell out for a pack of tissues anyway, because most stalls won’t hand out napkins with their food.
Also, during lunch, hawker centres are often packed. It can be a little overwhelming. If you can wait until after 1:30pm, they start to empty out a little. If not, just join the longest queue – there’s almost always a good meal at the end of it.
(Images: Timothy McDonald)
Check out Qantas flights to Singapore here or check out our fare finder below.