Singapore’s street food scene—along with its tourism trade—is booming. Here’s where to wander if you find yourself pounding the pavement in search of the best satay, chilli crab, or chicken rice.
Though once considered sensationally dull, Singapore has evolved from a mere long-haul layover (according to Skyscanner, 150,000 people pass through Singapore’s Changi Airport every single day) into one of the most interesting and unusual cities of the ‘New World’—with electric trees, swimming pools that float on top of buildings, and a street food scene to rival that of Istanbul or Bangkok.
But unlike those cities, Singapore’s street food is no longer sold on the street. Starting in the late 1960s, the government began moving hawkers (the local term for street food vendors) into clean, purpose-built centers where locals and visitors alike can stuff themselves silly on endless and inexpensive varieties of Pan-Asian cuisine.
Today, Singapore has some 218 hawker centers. Such is their renown they’ve become the focus of innumerable TV shows and arguments over who makes the best chicken rice or chilli crab; local newspapers The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobaoare also award annual accolades for Singapore’s top hawker masters. Here’s where those who opt to spend time in Singapore should go for their hawker fix.
Back in the 1930s, Tiong Bahru was a Chinese burial ground. Today, it’s a trendy inner-city heritage area crammed with Art Deco apartment blocks, trendy bakeries, and boutiques. And at its heart is one of Singapore’s oldest hawker centers, which happens to serve up one of the tastiest Singaporean-style breakfasts.
Start with a strong black kopi (brewed and filtered in what looks like a white cotton sock), a cup of English breakfast tea or kopi cham, a blend of the two. Adventurous gastronomes can even test their morning mettle with pigs’ organ soup, though the specialty here is chwee kueh, a simple dish of steamed rice cakes topped with a tangy casserole-style sauce made with radish, turnips, dried shrimp, chilli, garlic, and shallots. “Chwee keuh is originally a Chinese dish, but in Singapore, it’s subtly different,” says Book Geok Beng, a Tiong Bahru hawker since 1983. “It’s true fusion—a dish made from many cultures.”
Address: 30 Seng Poh Rd, Singapore
Best for: Breakfast
Signature dish: Steamed rice cakes
Hawker master: Jian Bo
With more than 100 stalls, Maxwell Road Food Center in the heart of Chinatown dishes up one of the largest varieties of food in Singapore: fish XO soup, a noodle broth made with brandy; chilli crab, the city’s national dish; durian, a large scaly fruit with pungent creamy flesh (locals say it “tastes like heaven but smells like hell”); and Hainanese chicken rice—silky smooth pieces of poached chicken served on rice infused with chicken stock.
Over the past five years, a chicken war of attrition has played out between two prominent Maxwell Road hawker masters: Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken, whose chicken-stock infused rice was described by American TV chef Anthony Bourdain as “so fragrant and delicious that it can be eaten on its own”, and arch-rival Ah-Tia, run by a veteran Tian Tian chef who opened his own stall next door following a fallout with his boss’s daughter. It’s said that only true Hainanese chicken rice aficionados can tell them apart.
Address: 1 Kadayanallur St, Singapore
Best for: Lunch
Signature dish: Hainanese chicken rice
Hawker master(s): Tian Tian and Ah-Tia
Fifteen kilometers east of the city is Singapore’s only mainland beach, East Coast Park. This is where locals go on public holidays and weekends to get away from the big smoke, splash around in warm tropical waters, and stroll down the promenade. The East Coast Lagoon Food Village hawker center is similarly laidback, with a focus on seafood prepared in Chinese and Malay styles.
At a stall called Defu, an elderly gent who speaks no English barbecues small banana leaf-wrapped parcels filled with seasoned salmon, cuttlefish, stingray or prawns. A few stalls further down, Kampong Rojak sells rojak (the ‘k’ is silent), a dish that originated in Singapore. Rojak is a sweet and sour salad that combines chunks of pineapple and cucumber with a deep-fried rice-flour doughnut covered with a dressing made of shrimp paste and satay sauce. Wash it down with a glass of freshly crushed sugar-cane juice on crushed ice.
Address: 1220 East Coast Parkway, Singapore
Best for: Lunch
Signature dish: Rojak salad
Hawker master: Kampong Rojak
The name means ‘old market’—and that it is. A gigantic octagonal-shaped building with slender Victorian columns, fretted eaves and intricate cast iron buttresses, Lau Pa Sat was built in the 19th century and has operated as a hawker center since 1973.
Set in the heart of Singapore’s financial district, it’s ‘the’ place for satay sticks; choose from chicken, lamb, pork, beef tripe, or beef intestine, all barbecued over hot coals and served with peanut coconut sauce, diced onion and rice cakes. The best satay stalls are found on Boon Tat Street, a four-lane road on the south side of Lau Pa Sat that turns into a pedestrian thoroughfare known as the Asli Satay Club between 7pm and midnight. And unlike most hawker centers in Singapore, hawkers at Lau Pa Sat offer table service.
Address: 18 Raffles Quay, Singapore
Best for: Dinner
Signature dish: Chicken satay
Hawker master: Asli Satay Club stalls no. 7, 8 and 10.
Set in the heart of Singapore’s Little India, the Tekka Center mimics the sights, sounds and odors of a genuine South Asian bazaar. There’s a fruit and vegetable market on weekends, a fashion emporium for saris, and a ramshackle hawker center on the ground floor—where Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi construction workers flock to in the evenings for a taste of home.
The must-try dish here is mutton biriyani, a Singaporean staple of basmati rice cooked with lamb and a riot of herbs and spices: Curry powder, chilli powder, black turmeric, green cardamom, peppercorn, cinnamon sticks, cloves, bay leaves, ginger, garlic, raw papaya paste, salt, lemon juice, cumin seeds and garam masala. “Biriyani takes much longer to cook than chicken rice,” says Mohd Saleh Augustar, a Singaporean food guide of Indian heritage. “You have to time it perfectly so the mutton falls off the bone while it’s being eaten, but not too long otherwise it disintegrates into the rice.”
Address: Bukit Timah Rd, Singapore
Best for: Dinner
Signature dish: Mutton biriyani
Hawker master: Allauddin’s biriyani
1. Sharing a table with strangers is the norm and a great way to meet locals.
2. Queues are a fail-safe indication of flavor. The longer the queue, the better the food.
3. Use a tissue pack or umbrella to reserve a chair while you hunt down a meal. This is known as ‘chope’—it’s always a good idea to ‘chope’ your table.
4. Some stalls are self-service so you wait for your dish and take it to your table yourself. Others will bring your dish to you—another reason why you should ‘chope’ your table so you can tell them where you’ll be.
5. Make sure you have cash. And enough of it. Worst thing is missing out on a delicious dish because you’ve been relying on your card up to now and only have a few dollars!
6. You may want to bring tissues and/or wet wipes. Hawker centers are clean and safe, but as service is minimal, it can be useful to be prepared.
7. If in doubt, ask. There will usually be someone around who can explain what’s in a certain dish is. And usually, if it smells good, it is good!