Though the island city-state of Singapore may be small, it sure makes its mark through its deliciously diverse food scene. Known for its famous hawker centres, where Pan-Asian cuisine is sizzled and fried up before your eyes – Singapore is a food-lovers paradise.
What are Hawker Centres?
It is dusk at Lau Pa Sat, a famous hawker centre in Downton Singapore. Tired after a long day, office workers and their families pile onto rickety outdoor tables, grabbing a coffee, a Bandung (chilled milk with rose syrup) or a hot, steaming bowl of soup. At the edges of this noisy din, food vendors get to work, frying up sticks of chicken satay, steaming rolls of Roti Prata (flatbread) and spooning out bowls of Laksa (soup).
This is the heart of Singapore’s culinary scene, one of countless hawker centres that dot around this 24-hour city. A hawker centre is essentially an informal food hall, where street food vendors cram together into an enclosed or semi-enclosed space to offer up cheap, delicious, and hearty dishes to those on the go. A concept that is only just gaining traction in the West, these food-halls have existed in Singapore since the mid-20th century.
Hawker centres sprung up out of necessity, after government officials started to clamp down on unhygienic and unregulated street food practices. Whilst street food regulation has been the downfall of some street food scenes (see our article on Bangkok’s street food), Singapore simply moved its long-standing vendors into single, sanitary spaces. Thus birthing the foodhall.
The joy of the hawker centre is the communal atmosphere it creates, as families, friends, and businessmen alike all jostle together over excellent food. Most stalls simply offer one dish, passed down through generations of a single, family business – and the decades of refining is apparent the minute the dish hits your lips. Below, we’ve listed a few top Singaporean dishes that you simply have to try – and where you can find them.
Top Singaporean Street Food Dishes:
Hainanese chicken rice
Sometimes the best comfort food is the simplest. Essentially just chicken and rice, it is the complex process of blanching, poaching, and steaming that makes this so so good! The chicken is first boiled, then cooled in an ice bath, to maximise texture. It is then rubbed over with sesame oil, fried with garlic and ginger and carved. The chicken is served in rice that has been cooked in the fatty, garlicy, and gingery gravy – to give it an oh-so-delicious flavour. Served with soy sauce, sliced cucumbers, and coriander, this is a mouth-watering treat.
Best place to find it: Wee Nam Kee Hainanese Chicken Rice at United Square (S$4.80 per portion)
Bah kut teh (pork rib soup)
This classic soup emerged from Chinese immigrant communities. Born out of necessity, this broth was a way of making the most out of every morsel of meat, for impoverished workers to feed their families. In fact, it turned out to be a delicacy, and has been refined over generations to produce a complex soup packed full of cinnamon, garlic and fennel flavours. The pork ribs are simmered for hours, making them beautifully tender. Tofu and mushrooms are also commonly thrown in, for added texture.
Best place to find it: Song fa bak kut teh, multiple locations (S$9.85)
Fried Hokkien Mee (noodles and seafood dish)
This sticky, soupy dish is full of carby-goodness. Singapore noodles are well-known internationally, and here you can have them at their best. Fried egg noodles are fried in a shrimp-stock broth, garnished with fried pork scratchings and, of course, tasty shrimps. Fragrant and familiar, this gooey dish is perfect for a filling meal.
Best place to find it: Tian Tian Lai Fried Hokkien Prawn Mee, Block 127 Toa Payoh Lor 1 (S$4)
Roti Prata (rolled flatbread with filling)
This is a perfect snack for dunking or grabbing whilst on the go. Essentially an Indian roti (an oily, doughy, crispy flatbread), it is the filling that makes this so divine. Fill it with egg omelette and sausage for a breakfast treat, or beef or chicken. For extra flavour dunk it in a steamy bowl of massaman curry for a sweet kick.
Best place to find it: Casuarina Curry, Casuarina Road (S$2-4)
Best Hawker Centres in Singapore:
Fancy simply hitting a hawker centre and perusing the stalls for inspiration? Here are our top picks for the best hawker centres in Singapore:
Old Airport Road Hawker Centre:
This hawker centre in the Katong district is built into a vast two-story building. With 168 stalls, each offering tantalising dishes from Singapore, Malaysia, China, Thailand, India and even Europe, you’ll certainly find something for all palettes. Old Airport Road has existed since 1973, and for many, it’s a real favourite.
Roast Paradise – 3-hour roasted gourmet pork with a sweet, caramelised sauce
Springroll Skin – homemade spring rolls, wrapped in thin popiah and filled with healthy veg and peanut powder
Wang Wang Crispy Curry Puff – delicious puff pastry, filled with soft cream
Tiong Bahru Food Market & Hawker Centre:
This place is a particularly up-market centre, with outdoor, umbrella-covered trestle tables and three-storeys of food stalls. With 84 hawker stalls and countless tables, you’re sure to find a spot here. Whilst in the area, check out the beautiful buildings and cute, boutique shops of Tiong Bahru (sometimes said to resemble a Wes Anderson movie).
Jian Bo Shui Kueh – soft steamed rice cake, featured in the Michelin guide
Min Nan Prawn Noodle – prawn noodles with fishballs and prawns
178 Lor Mee – shark meat fritters in thick gravy
Located on the ground floor of the Singapore Flyer, this foodhall is designed to look like a classic Singapore food street, bringing back happy memories of the days when street food could still be found on the actual streets. For visitors, it’s a great glimpse into the past, and a great way to preserve a classic Singaporean cultural tradition. Many of the stalls here are duplicates from some of the most iconic stalls across the city, bringing them all under one roof.
Old Airport Road Stay Beehoon – fresh vermicelli noodles in a satay sauce
Katong Keah Kee Fried Oysters – fresh oysters, deep fried in an omelette
Lagoon Kampong Rojak – fried youtiao in a sweet peanut sauce