Hawker centres show the South-East Asian heart that beats beneath Singapore’s polished exterior. These communal and often open-air complexes are known for their wonderful range of cheap and tasty food, and they are surprisingly clean: every stall has a clearly visible hygiene rating. Singapore has dozens of these centres – but which are the best? By Chris Wright.
Lau Pa Sat
It is to Singapore’s credit that the 19th-century Lau Pa Sat (also called Telok Ayer) market has not been demolished and replaced with an office tower like those that surround it. Its high roofs and decorative latticework held up by cast-iron columns recall its colonial Victorian origin – the iron was cast in Glasgow – and the contrast with the modernity around it is part of the appeal. Though you can sit inside, many favour the street to the south-western side that’s closed off to traffic in the evening and where one can choose between a dozen scorching satay stalls (local favourite: stall 8) as Tiger barmaids bring icy beer.
18 Raffles Quay, enter from Boon Tat Street and Cross Street
Old Airport Road Food Centre
Cheap, diverse and unpretentious, this is where the locals bring foreigners to show them the real Singapore. There are about 170 stalls here but stand-outs include Nam Sing, famed for its hokkien fried mee, a flavoursome prawn dish; and Xin Mei Xiang’s lor mee, a noodle bowl with a range of toppings in a heavy gravy.
51 Old Airport Road
SEE ALSO: Read Before You Leave – Singapore
Maxwell Food Centre
Arguably the most revered stall in Singapore is here: Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, whose recipe for the simple dish enraptures locals (as well as Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay, both of whom have raved about it). Set in the heart of Chinatown, the centre boasts plenty of other hits too, with Zhen Zhen Porridge a local favourite. Porridge here is not your Uncle Toby’s breakfast variety, but a rice-based dish mixed with meats and vegetables.
1 Kadayanallur Street
East Coast Lagoon Food Village
Location, location, location. Right next to the sea on the East Coast Park, with a cable-ski lagoon on one side and a free skate park on the other, this is an excellent family place, open and airy with vaulted wooden roofs. The favourite dish here is Lagoon Carrot Cake: a fried savoury meal that doesn’t actually involve any carrot, or indeed a cake. Instead it is a white dish based on rice flour and white radish. Try it.
1220 East Coast Parkway
Chomp Chomp Food Centre
The night owl of Singapore hawker centres, Chomp Chomp is dormant until 6pm and then usually open until about 1am. Avoid the smoky interior and go for outside seating under umbrellas. It’s a good place for satay and BBQ dishes, such as stingray from the Boon Tat Street or Hai Wei Yuan stalls (Boon Tat Street, incidentally, is named for the road on the side of the Lau Pa Sat hawker centre).
20 Kensington Park Road
If you’re in Little India you can’t really miss this bright orange two-storey building. As you’d expect, it is richer in Indian and other South Asian stalls than most other centres. Try the nasi biryani from the Yakader stall, one of many places that serves the dish.
665 Buffalo Road and Serangoon Road, Little India
This Chinatown hawker centre was already immensely popular even before Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice became the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred location (S$2.50 per plate). These days you might queue for an hour or more for that stall, but the chicken is tender and juicy when you get to the front. Another Singapore street food stall, Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle on Crawford Lane, also has a Michelin star.
335 Smith Street
Tiong Bahru is an increasingly funky area better known to expats for PS.Cafe but it also boasts this hawker centre atop a busy and colourful wet market. Locals love Jian Bo, a stall selling chwee kueh, which is a steamed rice cake with a dark fried topping of preserved radish or turnip, in chilli sauce.
83 Seng Poh Road
Newton Food Centre
We mention this for its proximity to Orchard Road and the fact that it is set up for foreigners – but that does mean you’ll pay more (be careful ordering fish that is priced by weight) and be approached by touts. On the plus side, it is a good place to try new things and it has some of the best stall seafood in the country. Try an oyster omelette at Hup Kee.
Clemenceau Ave North, Newton
Timbre+ might bristle at being called a hawker centre but it is basically a high-end food market, with restaurants serving out of converted stacked shipping containers and food trucks in front of an engaging local covers band. Dishes cost more than you’d pay at most hawker centres (though you do get a dollar back for returning your tray!) but S$8 for famed chef Damian D’Silva’s lim peh slider, a beef and pastry concoction, won’t break the bank. There are hundreds of bottled beers available too.
73A Ayer Rajah Crescent