Food is an integral part of Singapore’s culture. Given the many ethnic groups living in Singapore and the multitude of cuisines, it’s no wonder food is practically a national pastime for many locals!
To experience the local food scene, your best bet is to head to the hawker centres and coffee shops in any of the suburbs or neighbourhoods (referred to in Singapore as “the Heartlands”). You can also find many 24-hour food places that cater to shift workers or anyone who is just sleepless and craving a snack.
Food is so closely associated with our lifestyle that people actually greet each other with food questions. The Chinese will say chiak pa buay? when they meet a friend, while the Malays will say suda makan? — both of which mean, “Have you eaten?”
At the local hawker centres, which are a collection of street food stalls under one roof run by the government, you will find people making beelines for their favourite foods. (Local tip: while queuing, hungry customers leave a packet of tissue on the table as a makeshift reservation sign, and locals will respect that the seat has been taken.) There are more than 100 hawker centres in Singapore, but here are the top five on my list.
Chinatown Complex Food Centre
The Chinatown hawker centre is located in the heart of the Chinese enclave. This is the largest of them all with some 226 food stalls, catering mainly — no surprise — Chinese cuisine. If you go, you cannot miss bedok chwee kueh, or water rice cakes, which are so delicious you’ll want to eat them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner! Another mouthwatering favourite is laksa (curry rice noodles with lots of coconut milk), which will definitely spice up your appetite for the day.
Maxwell Road Hawker Centre
Just a stone’s throw away is the famous Maxwell Hawker Centre, which is popular with locals and foreigners alike. The Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice stall is making waves around the world, with many celebrity chefs giving their endorsements and making public appearances there. Advertisements aside, my personal favourite is the roasted and barbecue pork rice, which is the best I have eaten so far. For just $3.50 SGD (about $2.80 USD), you get a generous serving of meat that is crispy on the outside, and succulent and juicy on the inside, all topped with a thick, aromatic gravy to complete the dish.
Old Airport Road
Every time I visit this place, I just have to order my favourite lamb chop. I love the thick garlic gravy that blends so well with the juicy lamb chop… truly heavenly! If you like noodles, then nam sing hokkien mee (fried prawn noodles) would be your ideal choice for the day. The dish includes rice noodles fried with yellow egg noodles, steeped and steamed in prawn soup, then fried with eggs, prawns, and sotong (squid). Don’t forget to top your plate with sambal chili and lime!
If you prefer something lighter, then rojak is your pick. This is a “die die must try” (meaning “definitely must try” in Singapore slang) dish comprised of a salad of prawn paste mixed with kang kong (water spinach), turnip, bean sprouts, tau pok (fried tofu), fried youtiao (dough stick), sprinkled with sliced ginger flower and lots of peanuts. Be prepared to wait at least 20 minutes for your serving, though, as this is a hot favourite.
Tiong Bahru Food Market
This hawker centre is located in one of the oldest residential areas in Singapore, where houses date back to the 1930s. My recommendations here include the char kway teow (fried flat rice noodles with sweet soya sauce), usually cooked with lap cheong (Chinese sausage), sliced fish cakes, cockles, bean sprouts, and some pork lard. Tiong Bahru Pau is a dim sum stall that has been around for more than 30 years, making daily steamed buns of various stuffings — char siew meat, chicken, red bean, lotus seed paste, prawn, and egg. Other dishes to try include duck and roast pork rice, fried hokkien mee (noodles), oyster omelettes, braised duck, and fish balls (dry or as soup). Alternately, there are several Western options such as beef steak and fish and chips.
Lau Pa Sat
The name Lau Pa Sat is derived from the Chinese word lau, which means “old,” and pa sat, which is the Malay word for “market” (old market). This food centre is perhaps the most famous amongst all the food centres in Singapore as it was built in the 1890s and is located right in the heart of the commercial district. It was previously a wet market selling fresh livestock and produce, but today it is a food centre serving the best of local cuisine. The Victorian-style building provides lunch for office workers, and when night falls it becomes a rendezvous for food lovers and tourists alike.
Some signature dishes here are the famous satay (barbecue meat on skewers dipped in rich peanut sauce served with lots of sliced cucumber, onion, and rice cake), chili crab, fried chicken wings, and seafood.
These are just some of my favourite hawker centres but the list is by no means exhaustive! There is always a new eating place to discover in Singapore, to suit your budget and your palate.