A Journey Through Time at Singapore’s Famous Hawker Centers
Singapore may be most famous as a world financial hub, but it is quickly becoming even more well known as a foodie destination. Singaporeans are very serious and proud of their culinary heritage and this is obvious nowhere more so than at its famous Hawker Centers.
Hawker Centers got their start in the 1970s when government officials decided to clean up Singapore’s streets by forcing street food vendors off the street corners and into large covered buildings to hawk their goods. While each Hawker Center is unique and has its own personality, they share a common dedication to cheap, flavor packed food. Picture something between an indoor market and a mall food court and you’ll start to get the idea.
Food typically encompasses some subset of Chinese, Indian, Malay, and Western food, with a focus on one of these, typically based on the demographics of the area. For example, a center in Chinatown likely has more Chinese food and one in Little India would have more curries and halal. So let’s explore Singapore’s proud food tradition over time through my favorite Hawker Centers that I visited on my first trip to Singapore. They may range in modernity, but all share a dedication to good food at low (think $3-6) prices.
Built in 1973, the old Airport Road Hawker Center is one of the city state’s oldest and more traditional Hawker Centers. A bit more out of the way from the city center, it is very popular with the locals who live and work in the area, though many tourists make it here as well. Many of the stalls here have been here since the 70s when the owners got kicked off the streets. I guess it worked because the streets across the city are nearly clean enough to eat off if.
We met up with an ex co-worker who lives nearby to explain to us the magic of the center and pick out some good eats. We learned that Hawker Centers are very communal in Singapore culture. Due to the large crowds during lunch and dinner, table space is scarce, so sitting with strangers is quite common. To save your spot, you place a pack of tissues on the table, and people actually respect this. Buy a pack from one of the retired women who roam the center.
Singaporeans love flavor and variety in food, so diversify your options so get several small dishes to try from various stands in order to maximize finding a winner. Our friend ordered us a communal feast of satay skewers, Chinese salad, prawn noodles, fish ball soup, and some kind of oyster omelette scramble dish. These are all cooked by the various old men and women who we found out run their stands typically less for money, and more often out of a pride of their food and a desire to stay active and a part of the community after retirement.
This center, as one of the older ones is largely open air with a few meager fans around the corners, so is best enjoyed at night when the blazing sun, though not the high humidity, has gone to rest. The food tends mostly toward seafood and Southeast Asian cuisine, and not very spicy. This center is also government owned, meaning the prices are regulated, so very affordable. You can get a large meal here for under $6. Singapore’s alcohol taxes are very high though, so a beer will typically run more than an entire meal, even for a small bottle or can.
Seah Im food center is one that you may not find unless you get lost from leaving Sentosa island via Harborfront center, but it is one you should not miss. Hardly any tourists make it here though it is a great stop away from the high prices of Sentosa or to fuel up before hiking the Southern Ridges, the trail which begins right next door. It’s also one of the cheapest ones and watching the train of office workers that come out of the Harbourfront buildings is very entertaining.
Seah Im is a food center that really feels like what I imagine Singapore was like in the age of British Imperialism. You’d almost expect to see Rudyard Kipling at the next table. Just don’t steal his seat if you see his monogrammed tissue pack. The green setting feels almost jungle like and the heat from the stalls, mixed with the fruit smells from the juice stalls puts one in mind of a tropical forest. You have to try one of the juices here which are lovingly squeezed into a plastic bag which you then jab a straw into. They can be a bit sweet, but really help with the heat as well as spicy food.
For a treat here, try the fish ball soup, literally a soup with some compacted balls of fish meat in it. I had no idea what to do, so just followed the person in front of me, always a good recommendation at Hawker Centers. As a result, I ended up adding about a full pound of red pepper flakes thinking surely they couldn’t be too hot. I’m glad I got the large size bag of juice.
Moving from the glorious past to the present, Maxwell food center is probably one of the best known and most popular centers now and really represents the ideal of a Hawker Center. Located centrally in Chinatown, and popularized by Anthony Bourdain’s televised visit, it is typically found near the top of must visit centers.
Maxwell is home to two immense rows of stands that seem to go on forever. There are nearly 200 stalls here serving mostly Chinese and Southeast Asian faire. The stall that draws a huge line due to the high praise of Mr. Bourdain is the original Tian Tian Chicken Rice. The Hainese chicken rice is worth the wait, and according to my wife, “a perfect meal for recovering from food poisoning”. Sadly, while I found the chicken perfectly tender, the sauce and high rice to chicken ratio made it seem a bit bland compared to the spicy and flavor packed food found elsewhere in the center. I found some tasty halal chicken and delicious prata bread with dipping sauce. Apparently the halal plates are specially marked so that they don’t get contaminated with non halal food so make sure to find the right food bin.
Maxwell center is also a great place to try a delicious lor mee a syrupy fish based soup with thick noodles perfect for slurping. My favorite though came for dessert at the Ri Xing Xiang Ji Fried Sweet Potato Dumpling stand. Claiming to be one of the only remaining makers of this snack in Singapore, they have been making these treats since the 70s. I enjoyed the traditional sweet potato dumpling, but loved the coconut one. I still have cravings for it. They taste like a chewier version of a donut hole and less fried.
I consider Tiong Bahru somewhere between the present and future (maybe it will have been future perfect?) as it is one of Singapore’s up and coming districts. I don’t mean up and coming like what a realtor would put on a listing in a sketchy area, but actually growing very quickly and becoming very hip and trendy. Tiong Bahru is basically the Brooklyn of Singapore. There are far more trendy coffee shops and bars than you’d think the area can support, but hipsters love expensive espresso.
The hawker center in Tiong Bahru harkens a bit more toward the area’s past. The area was rebuilt in the early 2000s and the new public housing adopted the “Art Moderne” architecture of the hawker center. When you are designing apartment blocks after hawker centers, you know they are an important part of the local culture.
The center itself holds about 85 food stalls on the second floor and an actual market with touristy stores on the first. The stalls are mostly Chinese themed and seafood is the go to food. The pork and fried rice was better than anything you’d get from even a great delivery place. My favorite though was the truly unique shark nugget lor mee, a syrupy seafood soup with a consistency and sweetness almost like honey with tasty crispy fried shark nuggets circling by. You’re going to need a bigger boat to finish it all.
Singapore Food Trail at the Singapore Flyer
Moving on to the future, or at least ultra-modern, there is the Singapore Food Trail at the Singapore Flyer. The Flyer is the word’s largest Ferris Wheel, at least until New York builds its own rumored to be in 2016. At the base is a souvenir stand, a 7-11, and this super clean, a bit touristy Hawker Center. For what could rightfully be considered a tourist trap, prices are fairly affordable and the food is good.
All the stands are offshoots of stalls from Singapore’s other centers and labeled as such, like Airport Road, Chinatown, and Bedok. The theme is the glorious past of Singapore’s street food, before the vendors were forced inside and the decor and cart shaped stalls reflect this. Sure it’s a bit kitschy, but the food is varied, tasty, and not badly priced considering you are eating under the world’s largest Ferris Wheel. Work up an appetite before hand with the peaceful 30 minute ride to the top for great views of the skyline, harbor, Marina Bay Sands, and Gardens by the Bay.
Try the satay here. The meat is very tender, packed with seasoned flavor, and who doesn’t love meat on a stick?
Food Republic VivoCity
I love that Singapore’s malls don’t always have a food court, but sometimes have a Hawker Center instead. Food Republic at VivoCity is one of the cooler ones. Located right at the entry and exit for the Sentosa express train, this is another option when leaving the expensive island, though not as authentic or affordable as Seah Im. The theme here is also a throwback to the past, though more of the agricultural, rural past than the street food vendors. Decor centers around rural food preparation and transportation so you’ll find food carts, rickshaws, and bicycles inexplicably on the roof.
The food selection is fairly wide and covers more than traditional hawker faire. You’ll also find Pilipino and Malaysian food here in addition to Chinese, Indian, and Singapore. Sure it lacks some of the authenticity of other centers due to the clean clinical nature, but the selection cannot be beat and prices are good for a mall. Check out the nearby Food Republic beer garden in the old power plant at night as well.
SIngapore’s Hawker Centers are a fantastic manifestation of the city’s love for food and tradition. Born out of government regulation of the street food industry, they are a throwback to the past, but just as big of a part of every day life in the city today as ever. With great food at amazing prices, they will continue to be a key part of the city in years to come as well.