Hawker Centers: Discover Singapore's Surprisingly Cheap Eats

Interior of Maxwell Food Centre, a hawker center in Chinatown, Singapore.
Interior of Maxwell Food Centre, a hawker center in Chinatown, Singapore.

Mike Aquino

The superficial impression of Singapore as an uptight country goes away entirely when you engage a Singaporean on the subject of food. Singapore citizens have an abiding passion for good eating, and this is borne out by the abundance of hawker centers around the island.

Hawkers trace their roots to itinerant street food vendors, who were herded into government-built hawker centers in the 1970s and 1980s. The move seems to have done them good - today, the hawker food experience is an integral part of the average Singaporean's daily life. "Eighty to eighty-five percent of Singaporeans eat hawker food regularly," explains K.F. Seetoh, Singaporean food authority and founder of Asian food concern Makansutra. "Eating at home is a very close second, third is eating out on the weekends on an expensive meal three times a month."

The Singapore Hawker Center Experience

The government runs about 113 hawker centers around Singapore, and that number doubles (at least) when you include hawker-style food courts and privately-owned hawker centers like Lau Pa Sat Festival Market. In practice, the line between public and private is somewhat blurred: private centers like the Singapore Food Trail and Makansutra Gluttons Bay hire hawkers from public centers to whip up their food, banking on the following they've built up in their hawker centers of origin.

The average public hawker center is actually part of a larger market/dining complex; places like Tiong Bahru Food Centre and Bukit Timah Hawker Centre are second-story food centers built on top of a wet market, where meats and vegetables are sold. A smaller group of public hawker centers operate on their own without a market component.

These public hawker centers - and the private hawker centers that emulate them - share the following characteristics in common:

  • There is no air-conditioning. If you're unaccustomed to Singapore's humidity, this can be a problem, especially during high noon.
  • Food stalls representing cuisines from Singapore's major ethnic groups. You can take your pick from stalls selling Indian, Malay, Chinese, and "Western" food. The bigger and better hawker centers, of course, offer more cuisines, including Thai, Indonesian, and Filipino foods.
  • Separate drinks stall. Soft drinks, beer, and cigarettes are generally sold by one or more separate stalls.
  • There are no reserved tables. It's every person for him/herself; expect difficulty finding seating if you're coming in during the lunch or dinner rush.

How to Order at a Hawker Center

Hawker center dining is pretty straightforward - approach a stall of your liking, ask for (or point to) your preferred dish, pay at the stall, and bring your order to a free table. A few complications are easily addressed:

  • You can either have a companion hold the table of your choice, or do what Singaporeans call "chope", or what we call "dibs"; locals often place a packet of disposable tissues on a chair or table to "chope" it.
  • Some stalls are manned by attendants or cooks who don't speak English, but pointing and hand gestures go a long way. Prices are usually clearly displayed to minimize confusion.
  • Any drinks will have to be purchased from the dedicated drink stall.
  • After your meal, just leave your plates and utensils on the table; attendants (usually retired elderly Singaporeans) clean up the tables. The government is experimenting with self-service clean-up at select hawker centers, though.

What to Order at a Hawker Center

Smaller hawker centers have about 20 stalls, while the largest ones have more than a hundred; it's hard not to experience "analysis paralysis" when assessing what to order once you set foot in a hawker center.

Start with Singapore's "national dish", a Chinese dish that the nation has adopted as its own. Almost all hawker centers sell Hainanese chicken rice; the most satisfying examples come from Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice (with multiple stalls all across Singapore) and Tian Tian Chicken Rice at Maxwell Food Centre.

Another imported dish, satay (meat skewers), now grills all over the island - a gift from Singapore's Malay community. For excellent examples of satay done right, try Old Airport Road Food Centre's take on satay or the classic "Alhambra" satay from Makansutra Gluttons Bay.

The greasy but delicious flat noodle dish is known as char kway teow can be found at every hawker center in the island - try the Changi Road char kway teow served at the Singapore Food Trail or Bedok's Hill Street Fried Kway Teow.

Desserts in Singapore's hawker centers can border on the exotic - try the banana kaya at the Makansutra Gluttons Bay (read about Malaysian kaya spread) or the durian tempura at Old Airport Road, and see (or taste) for yourself.