In a city whose landscape often feels like it changes in a heartbeat, some things have stayed blissfully the same. The best ethnic foods are still firmly rooted in the heartlands, where hawker centres (open-air food courts) remain an integral part of Singaporean life.
For the first-time visitor, the sprawl and disarray of any hawker centre can be downright bewildering. How to choose from so many stalls? When in doubt, the best approach is to follow the queues. Good things, as the old trope goes, come to those to wait and nowhere is this truer than in a Singaporean hawker centre.
Most stalls operate on a self-service basis, which means that once you’ve gotten your food, you can find yourself searching for a table while holding your heaving tray. Should you spy an empty seat at an occupied table, don’t be shy to ask you if you can sit there. It’s perfectly normal to share a table with strangers in a hawker centre.
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To reserve or “chope” a table the Singaporean way, simply place a pack of tissues on an empty table, and go about your ordering business. Placing an umbrella on an empty seat works too, but tissue packets are far less cumbersome and you can’t wipe your brow with an umbrella while tucking into that steaming bowl of pork bone soup now, can you?
When you’re done, be sure to return your tray after your meal and clear your table of disposable cutlery and tissue paper. Now mandated by law, getting caught for failing to do so will incur you a fine of $S300 or more.
While hawkers centres can be found in every neighbourhood across the island, Singaporeans have a soft spot for these favourites.
CHINATOWN COMPLEX MARKET AND FOOD CENTRE
335 Smith Street
Besides purveying traditional Chinese hawker cuisine, this sprawling complex is a hub for Chinatown’s wizened citizens who spend much of their days here, shopping at the wet market, taking meals at its adjoining hawker centre, and whiling away the hours over Chinese checkers in the open spaces around it. Some popular hawkers who have plied their trade here since the 1950s include Tian Tian Porridge (#02-185) and Xiu Ji Ikan Bilis Yong Tau Fu (vegetables stuffed with tofu and fish paste, #02-185). Another delicious treat to try: the rib-sticking black bean hor fun (stewed flat noodles) with unctuous slivers of fish belly at Mr Fish (#02-073).
EAST COAST LAGOON FOOD VILLAGE
1220E East Coast Parkway
Come in the early evening to score a prized table on the sand facing the sea. That done, sip on a cup of iced sugarcane juice while you ponder the mind-blogging array of delicious things to order. Perennial favourites include Hwa Kee BBQ Pork Noodles (stall 45), duck braised in a thick soy sauce at Cheok Kee Duck Rice (stall 29), and Haron Satay (barbecued meat on skewers served with a peanut sauce; stall 55).
MAXWELL ROAD FOOD CENTRE
1 Kadayanallur Street
With more than 100 stalls serving just about every cultural variety of hawker food, a meal at this enormous food centre could be an epic feast or bewildering adventure. Its most popular stalls include Tian Tian Chicken Rice (#01-10/11) and its rival Ah Tai Hainanese Chicken Rice (who used to work for Tian Tian; #01-07). Also hit up Hum Jin Pang (#01-28), which serves plain or red bean-stuffed dough fritters that you can choose to fry yourself, and Old Nyonya (#01-04) for homespun Peranakan dishes like rendang chicken and laksa.
OLD AIRPORT ROAD FOOD CENTRE
51 Old Airport Road
This one’s a little off the beaten track, but totally worth the schlep. Get ready to stand in line because snaking queues will greet you at beloved stalls like Toa Payoh Rojak (#01-16), dished out by an elderly couple who prepares each plate to order; Lucky Char Kuey Tiao (fried flat rice noodles hit with soy and pork lard; #01-30), and Nam Sing Hokkien Mee (fried yellow wheat noodles with prawns and pork; #01-32). Round off your meal with chilled soybean curd pudding from Lao Ban Soya Beancurd (#01-127).
665 Buffalo Road
Mornings at this cacophonous complex are best greeted with masala thosai from Sri Tiffin Stall (#01-224) and a hot mug of teh halia (pulled ginger tea). This may be Little India, but it’s also Singapore, so aside from some of the best vadai (Sky Lab Cooked Food, #01–228) and biryani (Yakader Muslim Food, #01–259) on the island, you’ll find excellent Chinese duck rice (Heng Gi Goose & Duck Rice, #01-335) and Hainanese-style Western food (Street Food at Tekka Centre, #01-302; try the chicken cutlet doused in black pepper sauce).
TIONG BAHRU MARKET
30 Seng Poh Road
People make their culinary pilgrimage at the second floor of this 1950s circular building, where more than 80 hawker stalls vie for your stomach space. Delectably unique options include the shark’s meat lor mee (wheat noodles in a starchy, vinegar-spiked broth) at Lor Mee 178 (#02–58), beef brisket rice noodles bathed in a thick, flavour-packed sauce at Joo Chiat Beef King (#02–35), and a colourful array of Nonya kueh-kueh at HarriAnn’s Delights (#02–25).
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