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Singapore: 5 best hawker centres to visit

By Manasee Joshi 8 September 2020

Header image courtesy of Xing Yun Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice (via Facebook)

Singaporeans are obsessed with food. Ask any Singaporean about where to find the best chilli crab dish, they can propound ceaselessly and would not mind queueing up for hours to get the best bak chor mee (肉脞面; minced pork noodles). A lot of this love and fixation with food comes from the fact that Singapore, in itself, is an artificially constructed land and a continuous influx of descendants of immigrants from various countries has kept the place on its toes, compelling it to renew and rebuild to meet the changing tastes.

However, one of the things that has remained relatively unchanged and connects Singaporeans to their past and cultural identity is food. And what better way to experience many facets of Singaporean cuisine, which boasts a fine amalgamation of Malay, Chinese, Indian, and European, than to tour the city’s oldest and most-visited hawker centres—a paradise for local food connoisseurs and an excellent place for community bonding. These centres with food court-like settings are ubiquitous all over Singapore, so it might be hard to decide which ones to try. Here are five hawker centres worth trying in Singapore if you wish to eat like a local.

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Chinatown Complex Food Centre

This massive food court takes pride in being Singapore’s most expansive and popular hawker centre that houses the world’s first-ever Michelin-starred hawker stall. It is almost always overflowing with curious tourists looking to get a taste of everything, office employees who prefer to hang out in a bunch during their breaks or after hours, or locals who frequent this place for their all-day meals.

Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle, the one Michelin-starred food stall, is undoubtedly the most-visited place here. A humble pot of soya sauce chicken rice or roasted pork rice will be available at unbelievable prices, starting from S$2. A plate of freshly prepared oven-roasted whole chicken is sold at just S$14. When you come to think of it, the food prices here are super affordable, given that Singapore is one of the most expensive places in the world. And while you’re here, do not forget to try their signature dish—pork char siu (叉燒), a sticky and succulent barbecued pork flavoured with traditional Chinese five spices, hoisin, and soya sauce.

Lian He Ben Ji Clay Pot is particularly known for its excruciatingly long waiting time and never-ending queues. Throughout the day, you will find diners lining up in front of this stall to devour their age-old recipe involving claypot-style cooking. Despite the time pressure and constant surge in demand, the owners do not scrimp on the quality of the ingredients. Every dish served here includes hearty chunks of meat cooked for hours in a claypot, fluffy rice, and sauces that are finger-licking good. The duck liver sausages, salted fish dumplings, and Chinese sausage fried rice are worth every minute you waited for to get served.

Another excellent value-for-money food stall that has kept the centuries-old art of making delicately crafted steamed buns—xiaolongbao (小笼包; Chinese soup dumplings)—alive and thriving is the no-frills family-run spot of Zhong Guo La Mian Xiao Long Bao. The owner, Li Feng Cai, and his wife left the small eastern Chinese province of Anhui for good several years ago, but they brought the exquisite art of making hand-pulled noodles along with them. Do try their broad hand-pulled noodles seasoned with loads of Sichuan pepper, garlic, and chilli oil—the sour & spicy noodles (S$4). The always-in-demand xiaolongbao (S$4) has an ultra-satisfying broth inside that is simmered on a low flame overnight.

Old Airport Road Food Centre

Every hawker centre in Singapore has an inspiring story to share, and the Old Airport Road Food Centre is no exception. At the time when Singapore’s first civil-purpose airport—Kallang Airport—was bustling with commercial activity, the food scene at the Old Airport Road was abuzz with promising food joints.

However, shortly after the Kallang Airport’s closure in 1955, the area lost its glory (and its customers). Thus, when the Old Airport Road Food Centre opened its doors nearly two decades later, people started coming back again for a taste of nostalgia. Today, it is the lifeblood of the area with customers from all around the world paying a visit, especially for its trademark dish—soya beancurd.

Who doesn’t love a bowl of this velvety goodness topped with sweet bubble tea pearls or rice balls? Eat it steaming hot or chilled, with an extra adding of sugar syrup, or keep it plain with unsweetened soy milk—everyone will have an opinion on how they like to relish it. Soya beancurd might look deceptively simple, but not everyone can get it right. And the Old Airport Road Food Centre houses some of the best-in-town soya beancurd stalls.

Start with the crowd favourite—Lao Ban Soya Beancurd, an ideal place to enjoy this bowl of silky goodness. They make sure that the colour, flavour, and texture are perfect for catering to every palate without compromising on quality. The stall is also known for its traditional style of making the beancurd by using gypsum as coagulant rather than getting a store-bought commercial lactone. The result is an uber-comforting bowl of silky smooth beancurd.

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Another frequently visited beancurd stall is 51 Soya Beancurd that has won many accolades for serving the best melt-in-your-mouth soya beancurd delights. Some fans even claim that their beancurd is kind of unrealistically smooth, much smoother and creamier than the finest ones in Taiwan. In both these stalls, these tasty bowls of satisfaction are priced anywhere between S$2 to S$4.

But beancurd isn’t the only crowd-pleaser here. For a more savoury and spicy experience, head over to Dong Ji Fried Kway Teow. Be prepared to wait at least 20 minutes during lunchtime, or as long as an hour during dinner hours, as each serving of char kway teow (炒粿條; Maritime Southeast Asian stir-fried flat noodles)—a popular dish that is loaded with juicy chunks of shrimp and Chinese sausages, and topped with beansprouts and chives for a bit of greenery, is given a lot of attention and care. The owner has been serving this chart-topper for over 40 years and takes immense pride in mastering the skills required to get that golden, charred edge on the noodles and stir-fried vegetables.

Tiong Bahru Market Hawker Centre

There is no denying that exploring hawker centres is the best way to get a genuine Singaporean experience. But it is also true that most of them don’t really have a virtuous reputation when it comes to hygiene. Thankfully, Tiong Bahru Market Hawker Centre gives the same comfort, affordability, and the genuine Singaporean experience with relatively better health and hygiene practices. It is probably one of the cleanest and most spacious food courts in Singapore, equipped with advanced exhaust systems for better ventilation, appropriately utilised open-air spaces, and improved standards of cleanliness.

Steamed chicken rice or roasted chicken rice, glazed with dark soy sauce and topped with chilli garlic oil, are easily two of the most consumed dishes in Singapore. If you, too, are a fan of a humble and satisfying plate of this Hainanese-style chicken rice, then directly make your way to Tiong Bahru Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice. This food stall is most visited for these two specialities, in particular, priced between S$3 and S$5.

Lor mee (卤面; Hokkien noodle dish with gravy)—a speciality from Zhangzhou region in China—is well-liked for its starchy broth and predominant flavours of a perfectly boiled egg and Asian spices. The lor, or the gravy, is simmered for hours with a sizeable portion of cornstarch that makes it glossy, sticky, and gooey. And if you are a lor mee connoisseur, 178 Lor Mee food stall must be on your radar. You could easily slurp down a whole bowl of this well-balanced dish without feeling full. At a modest price of S$3, the owner sells this dish with a generous portion of braised pork belly or fried fish.

And while we are on the subject of delectable Chinese-inspired dishes, we dare not miss out on wontons (云吞; Chinese dumplings with fillings) that are hard on execution but easy on the stomach. Zhong Yu Yuan Wei Wanton Noodles specialises in making wonton noodles—top-rated comfort food that typically has a base of egg noodles served in piping-hot broth, garnished with leafy vegetables and juicy wontons. Priced between S$3 and S$5, chances are that you will be sipping this extremely flavourful noodle soup until the very last drop, making this food stall worthy of a mention here.

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By Faye Bradley 5 September 2020
By Manasee Joshi 3 September 2020

Tekka Centre

Partly wet market, partly shopping centre, and part food court, Tekka Centre is a place where people from all walks of life, ethnicities, and communities come together to enjoy a multicultural shopping and food experience. Hailed as a landmark in the famous shopping district of Singapore’s Little India, Tekka Centre is home to not just mouth-watering Indian-inspired dishes but also a vast array of cuisines from other parts of Asia. So, the next time you are in the vicinity looking for some scrumptious yet pocket-friendly meals, do make a stopover at Tekka Centre.

Li Ruifang, a young and feisty food stall owner at Tekka Centre, sells Hong Kong’s most beloved street food—Whampoa prawn noodles, now loved by a majority of Singaporeans and people from around the world. But before taking the helm at the immensely popular 545 Whampoa Prawn Noodles stall, she led a different life. A finance graduate and a mother of two children, Li worked in a multinational corporation for a few years only to realise that her life needed a purpose. 545 Whampoa Prawn Noodles gave her that. Today, she takes immense pride in what she does—which is selling Instagram-worthy prawn noodles, roots of which go far back into the 1950s when her grandfather started selling it along the streets of Whampoa.

She swears by her freshly-caught prawns for the sweetness they give, a well-balanced broth using the same mix of condiments from her grandfather’s tried-and-true recipe, and firm-to-the-bite noodles tossed with slivers of lean pork. After tasting these perfectly seasoned noodles, priced at S$4, you will be truly grateful to her for continuing the hawker heritage.

Craving for some yummy Thai street food in Singapore? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Amidst the bustling rows of multi-cuisine food stations lies Imaroy Thai Food. This place is highly recommended to get your fill of savoury and affordable Thai cuisine. Dig into the S$3-priced bowl of refreshing Thai papaya & mango salad, and we are sure its tastebud-awakening flavours will blow you away! Also try the olive fried rice (S$4), a simple yet extremely satisfying dish made of pantry staples like olive fruit, mustard, and soy sauce.

A visit to Little India is kind of incomplete without gorging on some top street food picks from India. Head to Sri Tiffin Stall for their masala dosa (South Indian stuffed rice pancake), traditionally served with some boiled potatoes, a variety of chutneys, and a spicy curry made with lentils. Their masala dosa meal (S$2.50) is served with a slightly spicy and tangy tomato chutney that gets our vote.

Makansutra Gluttons Bay

Hawker centres in Singapore do not always have to be a disorganised mess of overcrowded stalls and uncomfortably hot seating areas filled with the constant chatter of crowds and rattle of teacups on the trays. Makansutra Gluttons Bay, perched on the edge of Marina Bay and occupying a strategic spot right opposite Singapore’s landmark building, Marina Bay Sands, is an anomaly to this common perception.

Imagine yourself in the wee hours of the night here, gorging on a delicious chilli crab, sipping on a pint of Tiger beer, and soaking in the gorgeous views of some of Singapore’s iconic skyscrapers. Could it get any better? Makansutra Gluttons Bay isn’t anything like the usual run-of-the-mill food courts that get much flak for their claustrophobic atmosphere. Here, the food is as scrumptious as it can get and panoramic views of the downtown skyline are absolutely hard to beat.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

By Manasee Joshi 2 September 2020
By Faye Bradley 28 August 2020

Here, Rong Guang BBQ Seafood is eponymous with their sambal BBQ stingray and chilli crab. Its barbecued stingray with sambal paste (Indonesian chilli sauce), served on a fresh banana leaf, has garnered much hype and praise from the locals and tourists alike. Similarly, its chilli crab—Singapore’s national dish that consists of a mud crab cooked in a sweet, spicy, and savoury gravy, will be the best thing you eat in Singapore, hands down! Although the popularity of this dish has brought about several innovative adaptations, the Rong Guang BBQ Seafood stall likes to serve these wild-caught meaty crabs with generous portions of garlic, fermented soybeans, and lemongrass.

Fancy some open flame-grilled ribs? Make your way to Meatsmith Western BBQ, where Michelin-starred chef Dave Pynt is all geared up to cook up a storm—quite literally! Originally from Australia, Pynt comes from a heavyweight culinary background, staging and working under some of the legendary chefs. His signature style is cooking meats on a wood-fired brick grill, and the result is a sublimely prepared variety of barbecue meats. His char sui grilled ribs, with a juicy marinade partnered with pickled onions and cucumber, is a treat for the eyes as well as taste buds.

Now, there is one last thing to do before you boastfully cross off Chinese, Indian, Thai, and Indonesian cuisines off your Singapore’s must-try list. Make space in your tummy for some unforgettable flavours from Malaysia. A well-made satay (Southeast Asian grilled meat skewers), usually served with a dip of your choice, will undoubtedly bring back the good old memories of yesteryears for many Singaporeans, especially as the name of Alhambra Cinema is synonymous with satay. Today, the cinema no longer exists, but the tradition continues at a few stalls around Singapore, one of them being Syifa’ Satay.

The owner of this stall trained under the mastermind behind the original Alhambra Padang Satay and takes his legacy forward by serving a huge variety of meats, hand-cut and skewered for that perfect smoky flavour, and dunked in loads of peanut sauce. Only once you revel in this Malaysian delight can you really call your Singaporean hawker food adventure complete.

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Manasee Joshi

Contributor

Manasee is a Hong Kong-based freelance writer by profession and lover of fascinating cultures, lip-smacking cuisines, and a vibrant social life. Having worked as a travel guide all across APAC, Manasee has dug deep into historical fun facts, architectural styles, and the best places to eat and drink in the places she visited. As a travel writer, Manasee aspires to inspire readers to follow in her footsteps. After a long day of work, you can find her binge-watching Netflix shows with a glass of crisp wine.

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