When it comes to listing Asia’s top food destinations, most travelers are quick to name Thailand. It’s a hard choice to argue with, but when Tony & I were plotting our trip, there were two other destinations we honed in on with the intention of simply stuffing ourselves silly: Hong Kong & Singapore.
For both countries, our eating manifesto was pretty much the same: find and eat all the things. We were a little bit more familiar with Cantonese cuisine before setting out, so in Hong Kong we (rightly) placed a particular emphasis on dim sum and dumplings to great success. With Singapore, however, we were far more in the dark about the regional cuisine and so simply approached the dining scene with open minds and grumbling tummies we were eager to fill.
In most parts of Asia, street food is so prevalent that we’ve generally found the strategy of picking a direction and walking until we stumble across a cart or stand that looks or smells good has served us well. But this strategy will fail you miserably in Singapore: like so many of life’s delights, street food has been banned in Singapore since the 1970s!
Before you start rioting, remember that Singaporeans love their food, they love a good deal, and they also happen to be a particularly wily lot—for every rule, it seems someone has found a way to bend it. There’s no way this nation that loves to nosh would let a pesky law stand between them and cheap eating.
Enter the Hawker Centers, which are a thing of beauty. Unable to flog their food on the street, Singapore’s curbside cooks have moved their stalls indoors to what are essentially food courts. Row upon row of vendors are set up inside serving up plates of this multicultural country’s favorite foods: from mutton-stuffed murtabaks to fragrant plates of Hainanese chicken rice to colorful desserts and drinks that will make your lips pucker in delight, this is where the city’s best eating at the best price is to be had. I know, in most parts of the world, the words “good eating” and “food court” generally don’t go hand in hand, but trust me—the Singapore hawker center is king of the culinary scene.
Over 100 hawker centers grace the city and no visit to Singapore would be complete without dining in at least one. Always over-achievers, we sampled several different centers during our two weeks in the country in an attempt to find the best dishes and figure out which hawker center is the best of the bunch.
China Town Hawker Center
Our investigation began our very first night in the country when a wander through China Town brought us to the entrance of a multi-storied building; making our way through the tables on the ground floor heaped with tourist knick knacks and cheap plastic shoes, we found the entire second floor filled with food stalls. The air was hot and filled with the sound of sizzling woks, and there were easily over a hundred stands offering up fresh food fast. Wanting to get the lay of the land before committing ourselves to any one stand, we wandered the aisles only to find our heads soon spinning from all the choices.
In the end, we decided to just go for a sampling platter of Chinese roast meats that boasted crispy pork belly, sweet barbecued char siu pork, and chicken poached in a soy sauce broth. Everything was excellent, but the surprise star of the plate was definitely the chicken (when was the last time chicken held its own against pork?!), which was impossibly juicy and moist. We washed this moreish meal down with a glass of freshly pressed sugar cane juice, which was not overly sweet and had subtle floral notes to it, and a glass of a lemon barley concoction, which unfortunately was rather insipid and had no real pronounced flavors. Still, as an introduction to hawker center cuisine, this was pretty fantastic.
HDB Hawker Centers
As I discussed in an earlier post, the bulk of Singapore’s population lives in government-sponsored housing. These so-called HDBs are spread throughout the country and often act as self-contained communities, complete with shops and—you guessed it—small-scale hawker centers. Although the choices here aren’t nearly as abundant as at the larger centers, there’s still plenty of variety with the added bonus that the prices here tend to be even cheaper. Plus, with the convenience of your dinner being just an elevator ride away, it’s hard to deny the allure of these smaller enterprises.
On one occasion we ate at a stall that served up Malay staples and tucked into a minced mutton murtabak drizzled with a spicy curry gravy and a heaping plate of nasi goreng (fried rice). The flavors really packed a punch, the atmosphere was lively, and best of all, our meal cost us less than $5US!
On another occasion, we popped into a HDB food court where one of the stalls had a decidedly Japanese flair. I opted for a plate of wok-fried noodles with barbecued pork, but Tony tried the egg and pork cutlet katsudon bowl—though perhaps not as elegant as what one might find in Japan proper, both dishes were very tasty and at about S$8 for the two, a fraction of what we paid for meals in Japan!
By far our favorite HDB stall was one that dished up Chinese-style dishes. With dishes such as sweet & sour pork, crispy nuggets of tofu drizzled with spicy sauce that made our lips tingle, sautéed okra, chicken in black bean sauce, garlicky eggplant (our favorite!), and so much more constantly on offer, we were in food heaven! A plate with 1 meat & 2 veg options plus a drink cost about S$4, meaning that not only was this food delicious, but it was also incredibly affordable. We passed this place every time we walked to & from the MRT, so it’s no surprise that it wound up as our go-to lunchtime spot.
Old Airport Road
One of our favorite thing about connecting with locals when we travel is that, without fail, they always direct us to the best food. With our friend Peiyan at the helm, we made our way to a part of the city that is loved by locals but gets fewer tourists these days.
Known for having some of the best authentic Singaporean food in the city, Peiyan made it her mission to make sure we tried an assortment of dishes that she felt best represented her country. To that end, we tried:
Kueh Pie Tee—A popular Peranakan (straits-born Chinese) appetizer, these crispy shells are stuffed with julienned veggies, crispy sprouts, and shrimp that have been tossed in a sweet sauce and are served with a dollop of chili paste on top. These bite-size morsels were fabulous and it would be oh-so-easy to finish off an entire serving on your own without even noticing! Definitely a great way to kick off our meal.
Chai Tow Kway (Carrot Cake)—Despite the western dessert of the same name, this dish is actually a savory, slightly gelatinous cake that ironically has no carrot in it whatsoever. Instead, it’s made from daikon radish, and is either fried or steamed and served with squirts of both salty & sweet soy sauce (yes, there is sweet soy sauce!). To be honest, on its own, carrot cake doesn’t really taste like much, just kind of eggy!
Rojak—An odd sweet and savory salad that is made up of chopped fruits (pineapples, apple) some veggies (cucumber, jicama), fried knobs of tofu, and tossed with peanuts in a slightly sweet sauce which includes our most loathed ingredient: belecan, a paste made from fermented shrimp. This was NOT a favorite for us as we found the shrimpy flavor of the sauce a bit overpowering and not a natural match to the fruit.
Otak Otak—Fish is mashed into a paste along with various spices and herbs (including a healthy dash of lemongrass), wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled. Though that’s the least appetizing way of describing the dish, it’s a lively combination of flavors and not overly fishy, which was definitely a bonus.
Satay—You can’t go wrong with grilled meat on sticks! The delicious peanut dipping sauce that accompanied them was just a bonus!
Chee Cheong Fun—Some Hong Kong crossover here, we always order these stuffed fresh rice rolls whenever we go out for dim sum. The slippery rice wrappers are a challenge even for chopstick veterans, but their deliciousness more than makes up for the difficulty. Common fillings include slivers of beef and juicy prawns, but these ones were filled with minced pork.
Fried Noodles with Prawns—This is Asia so no meal is complete without a plate of noodles or a bowl of rice. These were fine, but there’s another noodle dish we tried later on that we think far outshines these.
Teochew-style dumpings—These steamed Chinese dumplings come in a variety of flavors and fillings; our box of assorted dumplings included peng kueh dumplings that were stuffed with glutinous rice, peanuts, mushrooms and dried shrimp, and a soon kueh variety filled with turnip, carrot and dried shrimp. Both dumplings were quite chewy had a slightly funky fermented flavor… perhaps not the most appetizing description, but they were actually quite tasty!
Jackfruit fritters—Some countries love frying bananas up for dessert, and while you can find them in Singapore, fried wedges of jackfruit are what really get the locals’ hearts fluttering. Though jackfruit has some musky notes to it, frying seems to the great neutralizer and we enjoyed these fritters quite a lot!
Durian puff—Something as controversial as durian requires a post all of its own. You can read an in-depth account of Durian Gate 2012 here!
Another benefit to dining out with friends? Not only do they direct you to all the unusual goodies you would never find on your own, but the more people digging in, the more you can sample! That said, we just narrowly avoided needing a wheelbarrow to roll ourselves out of this hawker center when we were finished feasting…
Maxwell Hawker Center
Our final hawker center is a biggie. The lord of the Singapore food scene, Maxwell Hakwer Center lies on the outskirts of Chinatown and is essentially the one hawker center to rule them all. Rising to international prominence when fractious foodie Anthony Bourdain stopped by and gave it his highest accolades without any reservations (see what I did there?), this is one place where you can absolutely believe the hype. If time or tummy space is an issue and you can only make room for one hawker center visit, this is surely the one it should be.
We were incredibly lucky as Chris’s apartment was located just a 15-minute walk from Maxwell, so you had better believe this was our most frequent dining spot during our time in Singapore. Here are some of the dishes we sampled:
Popiah—Imagine a fresh summer roll, but rather than having your filling bundled up in a chewy rice wrapper using a soft crêpe instead. Drizzle sweet and spicy sauces on it, and you’ve got popiah! Taste-wise, this dish is very similar to the Pie Tee we tried at Old Airport Road. We loved it because it’s packed with so many different flavors and textures (crunchy sprouts, soft wrapper & fluffy scrambled egg, toasty peanuts), and is one of those things that is really satisfying but also tastes healthy, too!
Murtabak—Think of a quesadilla without the cheese and with Indian spices thrown into the mix instead and you’re on the murtabak track! This muslim specialty can feature fillings such as chicken, sardines, or egg, but we always thought mutton was the most flavorful. You can find murtabaks throughout the entire city, but the ones at Maxwell were our favorite. The dough was always perfectly crispy and the accompanying curry sauce was so rich and steeped with spices, I may have finished a bowl of it with a spoon when we ran out of murtabak!
Char Kway Teow—Now this is the noodle dish that above all others you’ve gotta try! It may not look pretty, nor is it excessively healthy, but damn is it good. Flat rice noodles are stirfried in a wok at high heat with a veggies and practically any combination of meat you can think of: one vendor we went to made a special CKT that featured cockles (like itty bitty clams), which gave the dish briny hit of the ocean. I also loved how the flavor of the wok heated over an open flame transferred to the dish itself, imparting an intoxicating smokiness to the noodles.
Laksa—This was the Singapore dish I was most excited to try, having heard so much about it but never having seen it on offer in North America. It is essentially a soup featuring wide rice noodles, airy fried nuggets of tofu, shrimp, and fish cake, all swimming in a luscious coconut-curry based broth, a lot like having a bowl of Thai red curry, though less fiery and bit sweeter. Don’t get me wrong, laksa still delivers a punch of spice to your mouth, but even a relative spice wuss like myself found it enjoyable rather than painful.
Moo Pad Krapow & Pad Thai—Speaking of Thai flavors, if you feel the need to diversify your dining scene, there are several stalls at Maxwell that do a booming business cooking up Thai comfort food. We had an amazing plate of spicy pork with holy basil (topped with a fried egg!) and a lovely dish of seafood pad thai overflowing with prawns, squid and fish cake, and not weighted down by a gloopy, cloying sweet sauce as is so frequently found back home.
Traditional Chinese Dishes —There are also several stands at Maxwell that serve up some of the more austere Chinese dishes, but at bargain-basement prices. We loaded up on this crispy pork belly drizzled with soy sauce, claypot braised eggplant, and wok-fired greens for about $4. The food was simple but delicious, and at that price, unbeatable! We rounded out our meal with a set of steamed pork & veggie dumplings from a neighboring stand that we happily dunked in a self-brewed vinegar dipping sauce liberally laced with chilis.
Various ice desserts—If you need to end your meal with a taste of something sweet, there are many vendors who offer concoctions that will sate whatever cravings your sweet tooth might experience. We tried fruit desserts covered with mango, pomelo, durian and sago, which were sinfully delicious and a great way to beat Singapore’s heat, but the sweet star was definitely the local dessert known as ice kachang: shaved ice (like that used in a slushy) is adorned with a wild assortment of toppings like chewy balls of mochi, corn(!), red beans(!!), and then drizzled with several different syrups. It’s a big old mess and just goes to show that Asians have a very different idea of what things should be sweet. But you know what? It actually works. The proof is in the pudding (so to speak!).
Various fruity drinks—To wash down all this delicious food, there are plenty of stalls that are devoted simply to drinks, from elaborate smoothies resembling desserts to simple barley tea. We tended to take a moderate course and indulge in fruity drinks like fresh pressed sugar cane juice, or refreshing lychee and sour sop juices, which featured chunks of fruit bobbing about the bottom.
There’s one more special dish that we tried during our frequent visits to Maxwell, but it’s so iconic, I’m going to wait to share it with you in our next post…
Although there has been some debate about whether Hawker Centers really manage to capture the essence of street food, whether something is perhaps lost when you bring food in off the street and place it in sterile buildings, we found much to love about Singapore’s eating emporia. For those coming from the west who are keen to try local dishes but are worried about hygiene and cleanliness, nothing could be friendlier than these centers. The food retains its authentic flavor while offering enhanced peace of mind—health inspections take place on a regular basis and each stall is graded and awarded a health-rating certificate that must be prominently displayed. Better yet, in a country not exactly known for being budget-friendly, you can surround yourself with locals and tuck into some of the yummiest food on this side of the planet for less than a Big Mac meal.
So, for a true taste of Singapore, take a trip to one its many hawker centers. I’m willing to bet your first visit, won’t be your last.