A first timer’s guide to Singapore’s hawker centres

Apr 17, 2022

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It’s 90 degrees outside with 75% humidity on this February day. There’s no air conditioning, and a group of retired, 80-year-old men in flip flops sit around a table in Chinatown’s People Park to munch on some decadent chicken rice and fish head soup while sharing stories in Hainanese.

On the other side of town in Little India, Bollywood beats and the endless, mouthwatering smells of spices like fenugreek accompany the crispy masala dosas coming off the griddles.

This was my welcome to Singapore’s hawker centres.

With ties to the city-state’s colonial past, working-class roots, multicultural heritage and ever-changing sociodemographics, Singapore’s hawker centres are more than just open-air markets filled with smoking hot woks and sizzling tandoors. They are sprawling food courts that serve as a social epicentre for Singaporeans.

In fact, hawker culture is so entwined with daily life in Singapore that it was added to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in December 2020.

So, what do you need to know about these cultural institutions before you experience them for yourself? Here’s an overview of Singapore’s famous food stalls, including where you’ll find them and which dishes you should try.

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Singapore Food Hawkers
A Singapore hawker food court. (Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

In This Post

The history of Singapore’s street food

Hawker centres first appeared in Singapore in 1819 when it became a British colony.

Recognizing the area’s strategic significance for trade, which only grew once the Suez Canal opened in 1869, Britain began utilizing Singapore as a key stop for loading natural resources like rubber and tin onto ships bound for Europe.

Map of Singapore
(Screenshot from google.com/maps)

Needing strong (but cheap) labourers who could move heavy supplies on and off of ships, Britain adopted an open-door immigration policy. This resulted in an influx of Chinese immigrants eager to escape poor living conditions in southern China sparked by a series of famines. To pay for their journeys to Singapore, many became indentured servants.

These Chinese immigrants became the backbone of the future city-state’s labour pool, along with the convicts brought to Singapore from India (another British colony) and a sizable group of Malays and Indonesians who came to Singapore seeking a better way of life.

A plaque recognizing the hardships of Singapore's "Chinese coolies
A plaque recognizing the hardships of Singapore’s “Chinese coolies.” (Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)
Statue commemorates backbreaking work of early migrants
A statue commemorating the backbreaking work of Singapore’s early migrants. (Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

As Singapore’s migrant community grew, so, too, did its need for sustenance. Craving the dishes enjoyed in their home countries, many labourers set up hawker food carts serving affordable versions of their favourite fare.

Early iterations of hawker food stalls lacked hygiene protocols and were therefore avoided by wealthy residents. However, once British rule in Singapore ended in 1963 and the former colony gained independence from Malaysia in 1965, the new city-state’s government sought to overhaul its street cart scene by creating the clean, meticulously monitored hawker centres prevalent today.

customers dine in hawker center built in 1960s by government
A hawker centre built by the government in the 1960s is still in use today. (Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

As a result, hawker centres now welcome a range of patrons, from working-class citizens to vacationing foodies. While the exact items featured on hawker centre menus vary by location, you can expect to find all kinds of noodle dishes, refreshing drinks, soups, fried chow and more — all for a few pounds each.

(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

 

Chinatown

(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

I started my foodie extravaganza southwest of downtown Singapore’s Chinatown area. Although the People’s Park Complex (one of the neighbourhood’s main buildings) was closed briefly from March to June 2020 due to the pandemic, it was open and welcoming to shoppers, diners and more during my visit.

(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

To enter the building’s hawker centre, the members of my Singapore Foodsters food tour were required to tap in using the TraceTogether app, which is used throughout Singapore for COVID-19 contact tracing. A guard at the entrance to the food court ensured everyone tapped in and received a green light.

(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

Although most of the people at this hawker centre were senior citizens, I felt strangely at peace and comfortable inside. Unlike other hawker centres I visited, I could simply soak up the setting and go where I pleased without being approached by vendors pushing their food.

(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

Before Jerry, the tour guide ordered a few items for us to try, I had a chance to interact with Mr Lim, an 85-year-old man who grew up in Singapore when it was occupied by Japan during World War II. Despite the language barrier, I enjoyed putting a smile on his face when I attempted to tell him he was very handsome in Mandarin Chinese.

(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

Since it was so hot outside, Jerry ordered our group cups of pineapple juice — freshly squeezed right before our eyes — before proceeding with our food tasting. At 2 Singapore dollars (about £1.12) per glass, the juice was incredibly affordable given how fresh it was.

(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

Can’t-miss dishes

After finishing my pineapple juice, it was time to try some of the Chinatown market’s dishes.

The first item Jerry brought to the table was a combination platter featuring roast duck, barbecue pork and roast pork belly, which cost $18 Singapore dollars (or about £10). Although I found the pork to be a bit too fatty, the duck was exceptional. It reminded me of Peking duck, but better. I also enjoyed the hoisin dipping sauce, which had a smooth and slightly sweet aftertaste.

(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

Next up was my favourite dish from Chinatown: fried carrot cake. Contrary to what its name implies, the black-and-white cake (known locally as chai tow kway) isn’t actually made with carrots. Instead, the tasty treat, which cost SG$4 (about $3), is made with radishes. That may not sound particularly appealing, but the dish is served in a savoury sauce that’s packed with flavour. Trust me — you won’t want to miss this item.

Another dish worth trying is the oyster omelette (luak), which will set you back SG$8 (approximately £4.50). Admittedly, oysters are not my favourite ingredient (though I love cooked shellfish), so I wasn’t a huge fan of this item. It’s a local staple worth trying — just know that it’s an acquired taste.

(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

Fried noodles called char kway teow were also on the menu. Costing just SG$5 (about £3), the dish tasted like a mix of pad Thai and drunken noodles. If you’re craving a bite of something familiar while you’re in Singapore without straying from Asian cuisine, this is the dish to try.

(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

Lastly, Jerry ordered a plate of Hainanese chicken rice for SG$4.50 (roughly £2.50). After the first bite, it was easy to understand why this item is Singapore’s unofficial national dish. The delicate chicken reminded me of a ceviche preparation with a citrus-based sauce, and the rice was incredibly flavourful thanks to it being steamed in chicken stock. It was beyond scrumptious.

(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

Little India

After exploring Chinatown, Jerry took us three stops on Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit subway to Little India. Right away, I noticed several stalls selling flowers for puja, a Hindu, Buddhist and Jain tradition of ceremonial worship.

(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

As we walked around the neighbourhood, I couldn’t help but feel as if I’d been transported to the streets of Chennai, India. Workers were quick on their feet as they headed home after a long day’s work, and fumes from passing vehicles filled the air.

Signs to the hawker centre were nowhere to be found, but with Jerry’s guidance, we soon found ourselves surrounded by subziwallas (vegetable sellers) and vendors selling all kinds of dishes.

(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

Unlike the market in Chinatown, no one stood by the entrance checking visitors’ TraceTogether app accounts. Bollywood music could be heard everywhere we turned, creating a much more lively dining experience than in Chinatown. It’s no surprise, then, that this food court catered to a considerably younger clientele, serving predominantly first-generation immigrants.

Vendors were also much more active in trying to sell their food, approaching tourists (like us) to attempt to draw us to their stalls.

Once we settled on a spot to sit, Jerry brought us a round of iced mango lassis, a refreshing Indian drink made with fresh chunks of mango. Costing only SG$1.50 (a little less than £1) the sweet beverage was the perfect way to cool off in the hot venue while eyeing the various dishes being sold inside.

(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

Can’t-miss dishes

We started our meal in Little India with dosa masala, a staple of south Indian cuisine that cost just SG$2 (roughly £1.12). Best described as a savoury Indian-style crepe, the slightly sour but incredibly tasty concoction features crisp, thin edges and a soft centre topped with a tomato-based sauce. I’ve always loved dosas, and after eating this one, I found myself craving dosas for the rest of the trip.

(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

Once we finished the dosa masala, Jerry brought out our next set of dishes: chicken tikka (boneless, skinless chicken breast coated in spices and cooked in a traditional oven called a tandoor), saag paneer (a spinach dish made with cubed cheese), aloo matar (a potato and pea curry), garlic naan (an Indian flatbread coated with garlic) and chana masala (chickpeas in a flavorful sauce that included ginger, turmeric and cumin).

(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

While the prices were reasonable — each item cost no more than SG$3 (or about £1.69) — the flavours for some of the dishes were a bit more muted than I expected. Still, I loved trying everything, especially in such an upbeat setting.

It was great to see such a wide array of southern Indian dishes available, as many of these items are hard to find at Indian restaurants in the U.S., which often focus on northern Indian staples. To say my mom and I thoroughly enjoyed our time in Little India would be a huge understatement.

(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

Arab Street

Our last stop on our food tour took us to Arab Street, which is located about a mile east of Little India. Despite lacking proper hawker centres, this culinary hot spot is well worth a visit, as it’s home to all kinds of locally loved establishments, including Zam Zam, where we ended up.

Serving Singaporeans for more than 100 years, Zam Zam offered a menu full of Indian Muslim specialities (i.e., dishes from nearby countries like Malaysia and Indonesia).

(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

Its location right across the street from the Sultan Mosque only added to the ambience.

Sultan Mosque Singapore
(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

Following a brief exchange with some of the restaurant employees, who were excited to learn I speak Indonesian, Jerry proceeded to place our order.

Can’t-miss dishes

Our meal at Zam Zam began with nasi goreng, Indonesia’s version of fried rice featuring egg, onion, sweet soy sauce, garlic, green onions, chiles and shrimp paste for SG$5 (about £2.81). While the Zam Zam take on this relatively simple dish wasn’t the best version I’ve ever had, its reasonable price of SG$5 (approximately £2.81) made it worth trying.

The meal became much more impressive after that.

Next up was mie goreng ayam. Costing SG$6 (about £3.37), this fried noodles with chicken dish was incredibly spicy. Despite the fiery kick, each bite was heavenly, as the curry flavour was present without overwhelming the other ingredients. The dish was so mouthwateringly tasty that it was easily my favourite from the trip.

(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

Before leaving, we also ordered a plate of mutton murtabak for SG$8 (or roughly £4.50). Perhaps the most well-known Southeast Asian Muslim dish, the goat meat-filled flatbread didn’t disappoint. It reminded me of a thin, chewy Italian calzone. I loved the zesty sauce served on the side, which added a slight punch to what would have otherwise been a relatively bland dish.

(Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

Other hawker centres to consider

With more than 100 hawker centres in Singapore, you could easily spend your entire vacation hopping from market to market while barely scratching the surface of what’s available.

While Chinatown and Little India house two of Singapore’s most popular hawker centres, other neighbourhoods also feature food courts worth checking out.

Head to Bedok by Singapore Changi Airport (SIN) to sample traditional Malay dishes. The Bedok South Market and Food Centre, in particular, is a must-visit spot for foodies, as it serves everything from comforting bowls of fish soup to yummy breakfast favourites like chwee kueh (steamed water rice cakes).

There are also hawker centres in more upscale neighbourhoods like shopping-centric Orchard Road, which appeared in “Crazy Rich Asians.” Keep in mind, though, that the markets in bustling tourist spots are going to feel a bit more Western than those found in other parts of Singapore. Should you find yourself visiting the jaw-dropping Gardens by the Bay, be sure to stop by Satay by the Bay, a hawker centre situated next to the Cloud Forest.

No culinary trip to Singapore would be complete without exploring Tiong Bahru Market. Located just west of the central Outram neighbourhood, this bustling hawker centre is known for its Singapore chilli crab.

Bottom line

Thanks to their notable characters and lots of mouthwatering dishes, Singapore’s hawker centres are unlike any food stalls you’ll find elsewhere.

From their humble beginnings as cheap places to savour authentic tastes of home to lively spots where you can satiate your appetite while socializing with fellow patrons, these UNESCO-listed food courts offer a front-row seat to everything I love about Singapore, including its rich culture and friendly residents.

Singapore’s Chinatown sits in the shadows of towering skyscrapers housing various banks. (Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

The camaraderie you’ll experience while sharing a table with strangers is unmatched, and the budget-friendly prices can’t be beaten.

Then, of course, there’s the food, which is some of the tastiest you’ll find in Singapore.

It’s no wonder why hawker centres draw droves of hungry locals and tourists every day.

Featured photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy.

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