Simply put, the city-state of Singapore is home to a great many sources of wonder: stunningly beautiful public parks, an eclectic range of historically rich neighborhoods, world-class luxury resorts, some of the best tropical beaches in the Pacific Ocean and thrilling festivals to rival any Mardi Gras or Chinese New Year. But, the hidden gem within this hidden oasis in Asia that deserves the most praise? The cuisine.
Few places in the world have acted as a melting pot like Singapore has—much of Asia can be found threaded into the country’s timeline. This melting pot has translated directly into a modern-day paradise of flavors. Tasting what Singapore has to offer can’t be boiled down to one single restaurant—you have to sample the iconic hawker centers. As a far cry from cuisine in the western world, we’ll break down everything you need to know about these bastions of the delectable.
To appreciate how critical hawker centers are to the culture of Singapore, it helps to have an idea of their history. Like many other countries in Asia, street food has been a prominent way of life for centuries. In Singapore, the rapid upgrade from fishing villages to a thriving port city brought with it an explosion of dining options, but no necessary infrastructure to support it. Hawkers were the soul of the city’s food industry, feeding much of the population, but also the main cause for a number of civic headaches—like sanitation, traffic congestion and a dwindling fresh water supply. British colonial leadership tackled the issue with an inquiry commission, which proved completely useless.
Then, between 1968 and 1986, the newly independent Singapore government tried an equally new approach: investing in the industry. In addition to establishing laws and regulating bodies, they constructed over 113 centralized pavilions—perfectly designed to provide all the necessary amenities for modern dining without sacrificing the authenticity. And thus, a staple of Singaporean culture was solidified as a point of national pride.
Hawker centers are all throughout the island, typically where there’s heavy foot traffic. Resembling a mix of a food court and a street market, these buildings house seemingly endless rows of food stalls. Expect Singapore’s many cultural influences to be well-represented: Thai, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Malay and Indian for starters.
Deciding where to eat is as simple as following the crowd: keep an eye out for the longest line. Chances are high that it’s the local crowd-favorite for a reason.
But, before you get in line and order, stake out a place to sit. Seating is numerous, and is on a first-come, first-serve basis. All you have to do to reserve a seat is place down on object to mark your claim—a tissue packet or an umbrella does the trick perfectly. Make a mental note of your table number, and then head over to the stall (or stalls) you’d like to try.
It’s important to note: if a vendor approaches you to tout their stall, don’t eat there. Not only is this illegal, but it also clearly indicates that their food isn’t up to par. Good stalls don’t need this kind of aggressive marketing.
Once you’ve ordered, the next step depends on the stall. Most stalls will deliver the food to your table number unless specified otherwise. If the stall is noted as “self-service,” then you will need to wait at the stall for your food to be prepared. Of course, all of this simply sets up the million-dollar question: what should you eat?
With the options being endless, it’s understandable if you feel a little overwhelmed in deciding where to eat. While you can’t go wrong following your gut and the crowd, we’ve included a handful of dishes you might want to consider, if only to get your imagination (and appetite) going in the right direction.
Kaya Toast & Soft-Boiled Egg – A quintessential breakfast, kaya is a sweet jam made from the mixture of sugar and coconut cream pandan leaves for flavor. It is then generously spread on warm buttered toast and accompanied with a creamy, savory soft-boiled egg to please every part of your palette with the start of the day.
Hainanese Chicken Rice – One of Singapore’s national dishes, Hainanese chicken rice originated with Chinese immigrants from the Hainan province. But today, it’s beloved as a Singapore favorite. Intricate in flavor, it’s simple in its critical ingredients: chicken and rice. The chicken is poached at sub-boiling temperatures, with the resulting stock being mixed with garlic, pandan leaves and ginger to cook the rice. The accompanying sauces are where variety flourishes: anything from fresh-minced red chili and garlic to fresh cucumber and light soy sauce might grace the plate, and your taste buds.
Chili Crab – Another one of Singapore’s famous national dishes is chili crab. Mud crabs are cooked in the signature sweet, salty and slightly spicy chili sauce—luckily, the final dish is more sweet than spicy. There are plenty of variations to the dish, with some being a small addition of a spice or ingredient, and others being large like substituting chili with black pepper. However it’s prepared, there’s only one way to truly savor the decadent crab meat, and that’s by eating it with your hands!
Carrot Cake – Known colloquially as Chai Tow Kway, carrot cake here is not the same as it is in the western world. The name comes from the fact that it’s made with daikon radishes, which in Chinese can refer to both carrots and radishes. A loose translation of the radish pastry equates to “carrot” “cake.” The dish itself is steamed rice flour, water, and radish cooked into a rice cake, then stir-fried with eggs and occasionally pork lard. Added up, it makes for a delicious snack, and without a doubt the most savory carrot cake you’ll ever try.
Ice Kacang – This is the perfect dessert to wash down any meal at a Hawker Centre. While it was historically made out of shaved ice and red beans, thanks to the wide range of ingredients and toppings to choose from today, it’s difficult to nail down an all-encompassing recipe. It’ll always be shaved ice, which is covered in a variety of sweet syrups and condensed milk. At the bottom of the bowl, you can expect to find an equally diverse selection of jellies and red beans. Summed up, this dessert perfectly encapsulates what both cuisine and life are like in Singapore: eclectic and incredible.
Ready to savor the delectable delights of a Singapore hawker center? Give one of our travel agents a call. Not only can go above and beyond in recommending unique discoveries you wouldn’t think to look for, but also they can provide exclusive perks and amenities to all the leading names in travel. Hawker-center-hopping may be a delicious adventure, but it’s simply the appetizer if you’re onboard a Crystal cruise through Asia.