As far as Singapore's hawker centers go, the Bukit Timah Market & Food Centre runs on the small side: 84 stalls covering the second storey of a suburban market complex along the corner of Upper Bukit Timah Road and Jalan Jurong Kechil.
Like most of the older hawker centers (the place was built in 1975), a wet market occupies the lower floor, while the hawker magic happens upstairs.
Despite the small size, this Bukit Timah hawker center holds a number of much-talked-about hawker stalls; the best ones wear their media coverage on their glass windows like badges of honor. If you're walking in with nobody to guide you, you can choose the best place to eat either by a) looking for the longest line, or b) looking for the most convincing press clippings.
Generations of Hawkers in One Place
Makansutra and its founder, Singapore food enthusiast K.F. Seetoh, has much to say about the place and its history.
"A few dishes are very famous here - these hawker centers have damn bloody good hawkers," Seetoh explains, saying that many of these hawker operations have been in play for multiple generations. "Those stalls have been operating long before hawker centers were built - these people go back generations, sons will bring their sons."
A Noodle Dish Made (and Perfected) in Singapore
K.F. Seetoh has no doubt: most of Singapore's food repertoire may have been borrowed from all across the world, but he's confident that satay bee hoon is "totally invented in Singapore."
"You can't find this anywhere else in the world, maybe in our closer culinary neighbor, Malaysia," explains Seetoh. "They take rice vermicelli [noodles], and then they slather it with peanut sauce that has got Chinese-style stock cooked in it. Savory, not so sweet, and they put seafood and all that in there."
Sin Chew Satay Bee Hoon (Stall #162, tel: +65 98260782) passes both the long-lines test and the press clippings test: at any given day, the queue for their satay bee hoon looks like Apple fanboys lining up for the latest iPhone release, and glowing reviews from all over point to this stall for some of the finest satay bee hoon in Singapore.
This Satay Bee Hoon is Slurpy, Messy Fun
This is what you get with your order: rice vermicelli noodles bathed in a rich, brown, mildly spicy satay gravy. Yes, satay - it's not far removed from the peanut sauce that typically accompanies a serving of Asian meat skewers, formulated to go well with noodles.
The peanuts in the sauce are rather coarsely ground, and the whole dish is garnished with prawns, cockles, fish, kang kong (water spinach), and tau pok (bits of fried tofu).
Thanks to the generous proportions of sauce to noodle, Sin Chew's satay bee hoon is eminently slurpable and may make a mess if you're not careful. The risk of soiled clothing is well worth the meal.
No "Carrots" in this Delicious Carrot Cake
Despite the name, there are no carrots in Singaporean "carrot cake", or chai tow kway. In Hokkien, the white radish (daikon) used in chai tow kway shares most of its name with the ordinary carrot (which gets just a single extra syllable to distinguish it from the daikon kind).
The hardworking "uncle" who works He Zhong Carrot Cake (stall #02-185, tel: +65 64685398) is the son of the man who started it all, one of the first chai tow kway hawkers in the country. Seetoh remembers having the father's carrot cake in the 80s - as good as the present product is, the original was "three worlds apart," as Seetoh puts it.
"It's not in the ingredients, it's in the way you fry it," Seetoh explains. "How do you pass down technique? You can pass down the recipe, but you can never pass down technique! Like, when do you stop frying those pickled daikon and start mixing it? These things are very difficult to teach."
Making Singaporean Carrot Cake
The next generation hawker is still an expert: in a giant frying pan, he poured a large amount of cubed "carrot cake" and placed a mound of chye poh (pickled radish) with garlic - after sautéing and mixing the lot, the hawker pours a large amount of whipped egg onto the pan, drowning the combined carrot cake/chye poh. He then slices the large cake into serving sizes and ladles each onto a plate.
With the surfeit of scrambled egg in the carrot cake, the dish turns out a bit omelet-ty, crisped on the edges by the hawker. The large pieces of daikon provide an excellent canvas for the flavor highlights provided by the garlic, chye poh, and the dab of sambal (chili sauce) on the side.
Getting to Bukit Timah Market & Food Centre
Bukit Timah Market & Food Centre is located at 51 Upper Bukit Timah Road in Clementi town, a residential district about 10 miles northwest of Marina Bay. The nearest MRT Station is Clementi (East-West Line, EW23), about 1.8 miles from the Food Centre.
To find a convenient public transportation route from your location in Singapore, visit gothere.sg and enter points A to B in plain English (i.e. "Orchard Road to 51 Upper Bukit Timah Road") - the website will suggest the quickest combined bus-MRT route to the hawker center. Bukit Timah Food Centre on Google Maps.
For other food options in chow-mad Singapore, check out this list of top ten hawker centers in Singapore. For more on using Singapore's efficient transport system, read our article about Riding Singapore's MRT and Buses with the EZ-Link Card.