Singaporeans take their food very seriously. If you don't believe me, walk down to a Singapore hawker center (there's one almost everywhere), and taste for yourself. You'll see tourists mingling with working stiffs, stuffing their faces with Chinese, Indian, Malay, "Western", and some exotic Southeast Asia food choices.
Don't be fooled by the variety and excellent flavors, the dishes served in Singapore hawker centers are as cheap as they are delicious. You can get a hearty, authentically Asian meal for less than $3. For the no-BS Singaporean hawker center experience, do not dare miss these places when you're in town: we've picked ten hawker centers worth trying when in Singapore.
This public hawker center in the Katong neighborhood has been ladling out local favorites since 1973. Housed in a two-story building with a large carpark ("all good hawker centers have got huge carparks," Singapore food critic and Makansutra founder K.F. Seetoh reassures us), the hawker complement consists of about 168 stalls serving legendarily delicious char kway teow, satay, rojak, and satay bee hoon, among others.
Most of the hawkers housed here used to do business elsewhere, until the government got hawkers off the streets in the 1970s. The move into hawker centers did them no harm, though, and some of them carried their stellar reputations into their Old Airport Road digs. As a government (public) hawker center, Old Airport Road's fare offers great value for money: a heavy meal of the island's most delicious heritage foods will only set you back about SGD 5-7 (about $4 to $5.50).
Address51 Upper Bukit Timah Rd, Singapore 588215
With only 84 stalls on the second floor, Bukit Timah Market & Food Centre should count as one of the island's smaller hawker centers. Its location in Clementi puts it far from Singapore's main tourist action, too - the nearest MRT station is a good fifteen-minute walk away.
The famous stalls in Bukit Timah make it worth a detour, though: you can tell which ones are the best by the long lines and the press clippings stuck on their glass windows. To make the long trip worth it, visit nearby malls Bukit Timah Plaza and Bukit Timah Shopping Centre afterward.
The public housing around Tiong Bahru Food Market & Hawker Centre has managed to escape the wrecker's ball, helped no doubt by the apartment blocks' sleek, Art Moderne architecture. The Singapore government smartly decided to adapt the design of Tiong Bahru Market to the surrounding estate when it was rebuilt in 2004.
The Market is now a three-story structure with a wet market on the first floor and a parking lot on the third - the second-floor hawker center houses about 83 hawker stalls and seats 1,400 diners at any given time. After dining at the Market, take a walking tour of Tiong Bahru that goes deep into the sleepy, laid-back neighborhood and its hipster-friendly shops.
Singapore Food Trail, Singapore Flyer
This period-themed al fresco "food street" on the Singapore Flyer's ground level recalls the "good old days" before the government forced itinerant street vendors into permanent hawker centers - the design sensibility takes pains to recreate the street food dining experience, down to the cart-shaped hawker stalls (17 in all) and the hallway that emulates a busy lane (with street signs and a floor painted to look like a road).
The hawker stalls doing business in the Singapore Food Trail all hail from other, more famous public hawker centers - their names reveal their hawker center of origin, with street food masters from Bedok, Old Airport Road and Chinatown selling the island's finest satay, char kway teow, and satay celup.
The hawker list in Makansutra Gluttons Bay has been carefully curated to represent both old hawker names and up-and-comers: all the better for diners visiting the upscale Marina Bay District and hoping for something closer to the authentic hawker experience they find in less upscale corners of Singapore.
The stunning view aside (the Marina Bay Sands is visible across the Bay; fireworks occasionally light up the night sky), you come for the food: the 12 hawker stalls in Makansutra's open-air foodcourt serve what K.F. Seetoh calls "an old style, open-air street food stall [experience] that we used to have in the 60s and 70s." The court seats about 500 guests, who enjoy Gluttons Bay's satay, grilled squid, and wondrously delicious banana kaya dessert.
This premium hawker center in Singapore's business district has over 5,500 square meters of interior space, enough to seat over 2,000 diners feasting on the fare sold by the Market's 200-plus food stalls. Formerly housing a wet market, the intricate cast-iron structure dates back to 1894, having been built by the British using components imported from Scotland. The market was converted into a hawker center in 1973.
After dark, Boon Tat Street beside Lau Pa Sat transforms into an al fresco satay street, with about dozen outdoor stalls grilling satay, chicken wing, and barbecued seafood for a rapt crowd seated on plastic chairs set out on the street.
This hawker center stands in Chinatown, two rows of over a hundred stalls serving dishes that have achieved legendary status. Tian Tian Chicken Rice got its start here and still serves their famously tender Hainanese chicken rice daily.
Other famous favorites include Zhen Zhen Porridge, Marina South Delicious Food's char kway teow, and (your guide's favorite) Zhong Xing Fu Zhou Fish Ball and their thick, slurpy, scrumptious lor mee noodles.
Newton Food Centre
The Newton Food Centre draws its popularity from its proximity to Orchard Road: tourists can easily move on from their Orchard shopping adventures to munch on Newton's popiah, carrot cake, and barbecue seafood.
Newton's 83 stalls serve a wide range of foods, but the local scene is dominated by the satay and the seafood selections (the chili crab is, as the local parlance goes, "die die must try").
Unfortunately, the questionable behavior of some hawkers has given Newton a black eye among travelers in the know: newbies will be accosted by aggressive touts promoting their particular hawker stall, and some hawkers have been known to overcharge.
East Coast Lagoon Food Centre
Address1220 ECP, Singapore 468960
This is the food center closest to the guide's heart, as I once lived in a condo a few minutes' walk away. Set on Singapore's southeast coast, the East Coast Lagoon Food Centre houses 63 stalls serving hot food in a resort-like setting within view of the sea.
Residents come here after exercising in the park to feast on a few Singapore food favorites like chicken wings, satay bee hoon, wonton noodle soup, and braised duck rice. Many of the tables sit in the open air, allowing patrons to get their fill of the fresh seaside air as they tuck in. The East Coast Lagoon Food Centre is somewhat out of the way, being closer to the airport than to the city center - but for the best al fresco hawker food experience, it's worth the trip.
Zion Riverside Food Centre
Address70 Zion Rd, Singapore 247792
Even with a measly 32 hawker stalls, Zion Riverside Food Centre's outsize reputation makes up for its own small size: the hawker center's braised duck, prawn noodles, and char kway teow earn rave reviews from even the most jaded hawker eaters. Thanks to its proximity to Orchard Road, you'll find plenty of office workers congregating here for lunch.