Singapore is known to be a foodie destination and one of its most well-known gastronomic experiences is a meal at a “hawker center.” See anytime Anthony Bourdain is in Singapore. And if you don’t follow everything Anthony Bourdain does, (1) you should, and (2) a “hawker center” is basically a food court (like a mall food court) where Singaporeans eat very high quality food for less than a small fortune.
I researched hawker centers before Dan and I visited Singapore, and I was a bit concerned about being able to navigate the hawker centers myself. As a result, Dan and I took a guided tour of a few hawker centers in Chinatown on our first night in Singapore. This ended up being a great introduction hawker center culture, but I think we could have done it on our own, and we will certainly do it on our own next time.
Before getting into the tour and all of the tasty food we tried, you should know that Singapore is a multicultural city-state made of of 3 main populations – Malays, Indian Thalis, and the largest cultural group, the Chinese. Given that, Singapore is home to a sizeable Chinatown and that, coupled with our tour guide’s schedule, led us to take our hawker center in Chinatown. We met up with our tour guide on a street corner in the Central Business District on a Sunday evening to start our tour. It was our first night in Singapore and while jet lagged, we were ready to eat!
While our tour was of Chinatown, our first stop was at an Indian fast food(ish) restaurant called Gaytri Indian in the Central Business District (recall thalis are an important cultural group in Singapore). I was quite excited about our first stop because I LOVE Indian food in the US! I was also a bit surprised because, again, it was a tour of Chinatown and I did not know about the thalis population… In any case, Dan and I sat down and our guide ordered our food.
About 7 minutes later, a very large Masala Dosa was delivered to Dan and me to share with 4 (!!!) dipping sauces! The Masala Dosa is a South Indian dish that is basically a thin, crispy crepe like dish stuffed with a bit of potato. In my opinion, the sauces were really the highlight of the dish! The sauces consisted of two daal sauces, an awesome tomato sauce, and a yogurt based sauce. All of the sauces were 100%. We left our first stop a little too full…
After our delightful Indian starter, we walked about 10 minutes to our first Hawker Center! Along the way, we walked through some traditional Singaporean buildings, i.e. not tall modern buildings, and learned some history about the city. This was interesting and a great introduction to Singapore.
We eventually arrived at our first Hawker Stand, which while still bustling, was less crowded than normal since it was a Sunday.
We grabbed seats and, again, our guide ordered our food. First up, the famous Singapore dish, Tian Tian Chicken Rice. Chicken Rice is truly a famous Singapore dish (possibly the most famous?) and it consists of poached chicken and white rice. Now, I had definitely heard about this dish before visiting Singapore and truly, I had no desire to try it. I don’t love plain chicken and nothing about it interested me. However, I did really enjoy it. The trick is to mix the chicken, rice, and the sauces all together. Once I did that, the Chicken Rice was worth writing home about!
While we were eating the Tian Tian Chicken Rice, our guide purchased our next snacks – Poh Piah and Rojak. Rojak is a spicy fruit and vegetable salad with fried dough, a bit of a sweet sauce and peanuts. I enjoyed the rokaj – it reminded me of a dessert dish. Definitely heavy on the sweet. Its on the left below.
In contrast to the rojak, Poh Piah is a savory dish of Fujian origin that consists of a very thin pancake stuffed with vegetables, lettuce, boiled egg, and a spicy bean paste! This particular Poh Piah was crispy, but not too crispy, and the stuffing went together really well. It also had a slight kick to it. I think it was my favorite dish on the entire tour.
We then walked through Chinatown en route to our next hawker center. We were in Singapore a few days before Chinese New Year 2018 and, this was an awesome time to be visiting! If you have never been in Asia near Chinese new year, all of the businesses deck themselves out in decoration for Chinese new year – decorations, longer hours, special products, a lot like Christmas in the US and Europe. It was quite interesting to be here during this time. We loved all of the decoration and festivities! 2018 was the Year of the Dog – my favorite animal – so I was pretty excited for everything “Year of the Dog.”
We also visited a Buddhist temple in Chinatown, which is also home to the Buddha Tooth Relic. We did not visit the relic, but we did tour the interior of the temple. The temple was completely decked out for Chinese New Year, including dog stuffed animals!! It took everything I had not to buy one…
We eventually wanted into our next hawker center, this one right in Chinatown. Once again, we sat down and our guide got in line to buy our snacks. And legit, there were long lines. Our first tasting at this hawker center was chwee kuah. Cheww kuah is starchy white base topped with salted turnip and garlic. It was ok, not my favorite dish but I would try it again – too starchy for my taste.
At this hawker center, the dishes kept coming. Next up, bak chang, a northern Chinese dish of spiced rice with dark soy sauce, pork, and chestnuts! This was sort of like a dumpling, but more filling. The pork was quite good, but the dish was very heavy. I would probably order this again as a stand alone dish.
The bak chang was followed by a chee cheong fun. This dish is a Chinese rice noodle dish typically served as a snack. Ours were stuffed pork, but they can be stuffed with other things. These were very tasty, kind of tasting like pork pasta.
All of that starch was followed by yet another noodle dish, this one with egg and shrimp and a spicy sauce for taste! I loved this dish! It was lighter than the others and had a bit of spice!
We finished our time at this hawker center with a famous Singaporean dessert – shaved ice in coconut milk with red beans. Any one visiting the Malaysian peninsula will notice that people in this part of the world really love using red beans in dessert dishes…I tried it, and its actually pretty tasty! I enjoyed this dish and the red beans cut the sweet coconut milk.
After allllll of that food, we too a stroll through Chinatown, which was extremely crowded at this point! Everyone was out and about shopping in advance of the New Year holiday!
We ended our tour at a third hawker center for what was my first or second favorite dish (tied with the poh piah) – pork dumplings! I love dumplings at home so I was super excited to try these! Our guide ordered Dan and me a huge plate of lightly fried dumplings. The dumplings were served with a small sauce of dark vinegar sauce, and the dumplings were totally delicious. However, we had eaten so much food that we couldn’t finish the plate. Luckily, our guide had them wrapped to go for us! Dan at them the following morning for breakfast (at 4 AM when we woke up thanks to jetlag…).
Our tour ended after the dumplings, and we took a cab back to our hotel. Now, if you want to visit the hawker centers on your own, you can absolutely do it! First, find the address of the hawker center(s) that you want to visit. There are a lot and you can easily find them on Google maps. Once you figure out where you want to go, go and visit any stand with a line! Since its Singapore where everyone speaks English, the seller will speak English.
In going on your own, I recommend brining cash, napkins, and antibacterial. On the napkin note, if you do not bring any, people sell small packs of tissue in the centers and its common to buy napkins from these people, as most stalls do not give out napkins. You can sit anywhere in the hawker center, meaning that the tables are not tied to any particular stall, but people do put down napkins or bags to hold a spot at a table. If there is something at a seat, you should not take the seat. You should also feel free to mark your seat with a tissue packet.
Finally, for practical purposes, there are bathrooms in the hawker centers and they were surprisingly clean. That being said, antibacterial will come in handy. Also, many of the hawker centers are not air conditioned and many stalls close on Sunday. Keep that in mind! Happy dining!!
STEAL OUR TRIP
Singabites Food Tours: The food tour that Dan and I took through several Hawker Stands. Singabites runs several tours, each going through a different neighborhood. We did the Chinatown tour. Book online in advance to ensure a spot, although our tour was just me, Dan and our tour guide. $120 Singaporean/person, includes all food samples and a bottle of water.
Our tour guide was Susan, who was born and raised in Singapore and is of Chinese decent. She was great for this tour, as she knew a lot about food, Singapore, and the Chinese New Year! Highly recommended.
ON A BUDGET
If you are on a budget, visit the hawker centers on your own. This is definitely doable. Don’t be shy!