This article is part of a new guide to Singapore from FT Globetrotter
This is probably the most dangerous piece I will write as the Financial Times Singapore correspondent.
Reviewing hawker centres — the myriad open-air food courts dotted across an island steeped in one of Asia's richest culinary histories — might be asking for trouble. Food is central to Singaporean life. It triggers endless debates and fierce protectiveness — something I understand well as an Italian born and raised in Rome.
I asked some Singaporean friends to share their favourite hawker stalls in an effort to minimise the wrath that will probably come my way. Even they were terrified to give an opinion.
“I’ve been told I am not picky enough,” said one.
“OK this is hard, and I have to give you a few more than three options,” said another.
“Where should I start?” said a third.
Singapore’s food centres originated from its migrant population working as travelling hawkers selling food and drinks on the streets in the 19th century. Chinese, Malay and Indian vendors would congregate in different neighbourhoods across the island. Eventually, hygiene concerns led to the hawkers’ official licensing and the construction of food centres began in the 1960s. There are now more than 100 food courts across the city-state. Last year, Unesco added hawker culture to its list of intangible cultural heritage.
Eating at a hawker centre means slowing down and feeling part of a community away from the hustle and bustle of a financial hub like Singapore. The stalls — typically owned by families for generations — offer a handful of items priced at just a few Singapore dollars, with chefs perfecting recipes over decades. Singapore’s Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle and Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle became the world’s first street-food stalls to win Michelin stars.
In a city where restaurants tend to shut early (especially so for a Mediterranean like myself), hawker centres are also a safe bet for a late — and delicious — meal.
Chicken rice is one of Singapore’s most emblematic hawker foods. It hails from immigrants from the Chinese province of Hainan and has become an unofficial national dish. It includes succulent poached chicken with fragrant rice and a cucumber garnish.
There are infinite options for this dish in Singapore. But I picked the Maxwell Food Centre because it involves a hawker showdown emblematic of how serious the matter of food is in this country.
The key rivalry is between Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, one of the country’s most well-known joints, and Ah Tai Chicken Rice, which was set up by Tian Tian’s former chef who left dramatically after 20 years — only to set up business three stalls away.
Both chicken rices — which start at S$3.50 (about £1.90/$2.60) — are excellent. Opt for Tian Tian for more intense flavours and a tastier chilli sauce (but get ready for queues). Ah Tai’s offering is milder and comes with a small bowl of chicken soup. Build intensity to your liking by mixing and matching ginger, chilli or black (soy and oyster) sauces.
The stall’s founding family has only ever cooked one dish since opening in 1956: laksa, or rice-noodle curry and coconut soup, a Peranakan dish.
There is often a queue, but on a recent visit it took only 20 minutes to be served. Time flies anyway while watching the chef pouring hot broth in and out of a noodle bowl before the rest of the dish is quickly completed by a perfectly oiled assembly line.
Clients appreciate that the soup is still cooked using a charcoal fire. The result is a velvety, creamy broth that is fragrant without being too rich. A sprinkling of laksa leaf gives a touch of freshness to every bite.
The S$3 dish includes slices of fish cake — soft and not rubbery — and cockles, whose sea flavour explodes in your mouth.
“This is very traditional-style,” said one customer, who had made the trip from western Singapore. “The noodles are cut short and the gravy is not overpowering.”
“The taste — you cannot find it anywhere else,” added a second patron, a regular customer who first visited this stall 30 years ago.
Some Singaporeans scoff at Newton Food Centre for being featured in the film Crazy Rich Asians. A 29-year-old lawyer I met there told me her friends teased her because the hall is too “touristy”.
But Karen, a 46-year-old housewife who lives on the city’s east coast and has been a Heng customer for more than a decade, had travelled downtown just for this hawker: “It is one of the best carrot cakes around.” The stall was launched in the 1970s and is run by the founder’s son and his wife.
Carrot cake is served “white” — my personal favourite — or “black”, which involves frying the ingredients with soy sauce. A Michelin Bib Gourmand winner, Heng prices the smallest portion at S$4.
Ingredients for Heng’s carrot cake include white radish, eggs and shrimp fried in a large wok, with spring onions on top. There are no carrots in this popular dish, whose English name is a loose translation of what could be interpreted as either “carrot” or “radish” cake in Hokkien or Teochew, languages originating from southern China that are also spoken in Singapore.
Crispy on the outside and mouthwateringly soft on the inside, the flavourful carrot cake is worth the queue — which can be up to 30 minutes at rush hour.
Hawker fare is often associated with comfort food. The mee soto — noodles in a curry soup with meat, most popularly chicken — at Selamat Datang might be the archetype of that reference.
The egg noodles are enveloped in a tangy broth with a bit of a kick and chicken that melts like butter, contrasted by crunchy fried shallot flakes and fresh coriander.
The dish originates from Indonesia, where there are hundreds of mee soto variants, says Sumadi Sapari, the jovial third-generation owner of the stall. His recipe was handed down by his father after he modified the original version made by his Javanese grandfather — who founded the business in 1973 — to better suit Singaporean tastes.
Queues for the S$3.50 dish can be up to 30 minutes at rush hour. If you’d rather try replicating it at home, you can buy Sapari’s paste for the broth at S$5.50. The secret to a good mee soto? “The most important thing is fresh chicken. And with the spices [including lemongrass, ginger and fennel seeds], don’t be stingy,” he says.
Visiting Chomp Chomp gives you a chance to explore a different side of Singapore away from glitzy skylines: a residential neighbourhood, Serangoon Gardens, where there are no high-rises in sight and a great atmosphere in the evenings, with people eating, drinking and chatting al fresco.
The first step at this popular hawker centre is claiming a table by “choping”, meaning leaving anything from a tissue packet to a plastic bag at your seat. The second step is heading to Ah Hock Fried Hokkien Mee, which was founded in the 1960s and where the waiting times are the longest — up to an hour or more.
The al dente egg noodles — nicely contrasted by rice vermicelli — with squid and shrimp cooked to perfection are delectable. A drizzle of zesty lime is a perfect final touch.
After paying for the noodles, which start at S$3, head over to place orders at other hawker stalls.
On a recent visit, I picked Chomp Chomp Satay, which serves chicken skewers (other meat options are available) with a scrumptious pineapple and peanut sauce. Unlike many hawkers, the stall — which was founded in 1972 — marinates the meat with pineapple, giving it a distinctly sweet taste. Grab 10 skewers for S$7.
Chong Pang Huat is one of the many stalls specialising in BBQ chicken wings, at S$1.40 each. They have a rich, finger-licking glaze that pairs beautifully with a few drops of lime juice.
BBQ stingray with sambal — a hot relish — is another top dish at Chomp Chomp. Head to Hai Wei Yuan, a family business launched in 1988, for meaty, soft stingray with a kick that is served on a banana leaf. I like to pair the S$12 dish with kangkong — water spinach mixed with sambal, priced at S$6.
The menu at this stall has not changed since Mohgan Somasundram started working as a hawker at the age of 15. Forty years later he is still opening up his eatery, together with his wife, at 6.30am, offering a wide selection of roti prata, a flatbread, as well as murtabak, a pan-fried bread stuffed with mutton.
The wait on weekends is about an hour, so make sure to place your order as soon as you arrive and then take a seat. You can grab food or drink from neighbouring stalls while you wait for your order to appear on a screen, accompanied by a declaratory jingle and Somasundram’s wife calling out your number.
On a recent visit, I was mesmerised by the chef's handiwork — movements rehearsed daily for four decades: a flick of the wrist to open the dough or a single-handed crack of an egg.
I ordered the classic, egg and cheese pratas, which came with a bowl of delicious fish curry in which to dip the breads. I loved the flakiness of the classic prata paired with its soft, butter-like interior.
Clients who knew the stall — a young mother with three kids; a 35-year-old with his parents — told me they regularly visit once a week. “I find it very yummy,” said the woman.
As I was leaving the eatery, one of its patrons called out to a neighbouring table: “All good things come with time!” I think he was right.
Photography by Arabelle Zhuang
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