Singapore’s hawker markets: how to navigate them and what to eat

Singapore’s hawker markets: how to navigate them and what to eat
These cheap, freshly-sizzled market dishes are not to be missed in the Asian stopover favourite, says Faris Mustafa. Here’s where to start

On any given list of the world’s greatest street food cities, Singapore tends to hover around the top. But its position as a centre of “street food” remains a subject of contention. No one is questioning the quality of the food itself – you only need to take a look at the number of high profile Singaporean food evangelists (legendary New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin, the late, great Anthony Bourdain) out there to see how loved this cuisine is.

No, the debate around Singapore’s claim to the street food crown merely centres on the ‘street’ part. Since the 1970s, a nationwide drive to guarantee food standards led to the government outlawing old-school street vendors in favour of regulated centres where hawkers could ply their trade in more salubrious conditions. So when people talk about “street food” here, we’re really talking about the low-cost, high-quality, amazingly varied dishes served up in a multitude of covered hawker centres.

The median age of hawkers – the city’s master chefs, many of whom have spent decades perfecting one specific dish using a generations-old recipe – is currently around 65. They work long hours on low wages, in suffocatingly hot working conditions, so fewer and fewer young people are interested in joining the family business and getting behind the counter. So, regrettably, this flavour-packed, informal dining experience has an uncertain future. If you want to experience proper, old-school Singaporean cuisine, now is the time to do it.

Hawker centres have a huge range of dishes to try – designed to reflect the diversity of the many culinary cultures which make up the city. At nearly all you’ll find a fragrant mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Peranakan cuisines on offer.

The whole experience is accessible and easy – but the sheer choice can make it overwhelming. Here are some of the most locally-loved hawker stalls, and the unsung heroes behind them:

A chicken vendor at Singapore’s Maxwell Food Centre

Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle

Chef Chan Hon Meng was one of two Singaporeans to be made the world’s first Michelin-starred hawkers. Chan turned into an overnight celebrity when his humble soy sauce chicken stall received a star in 2016. Following this success, he’s gone on to open two nearby restaurant premises, but the original Smith Street stall remains the best. Be warned, the queues here have always been long, but since 2016 they’ve become notorious.

Address: 335 #02-126 Smith St, Complex Market & Food Centre

Hajjah Mona Nasi Padang

Nasi padang – where customers order rice with multiple sides and toppings – originated in Sumatra, Indonesia. While it’s not widely available in Singapore, Hajjah Mona Nasi Padang makes up for it. Situated in the Malay-centric Geylang Serai neighbourhood, the stall has a highly-earned cult status among locals. Fronted by passionate hawker Razak Ismail, the stall is named after his late mother who founded the business.

Address: 1 Geylang Serai, Pasar Geylang Serai #02-166

Balestier Road Hoover Rojak

A word meaning ‘mixture’ in colloquial Malay, rojak consists of assorted fruits and vegetables with fried tofu, crushed peanuts and a gooey sweet and sour sauce. Ingredients can vary but the Balestier Road Hoover Rojak recipe – which also contains jellyfish and century egg – hits all the right notes. Founded by the late Lim Ngak Chew, who started out serving the dish from a push cart in the 1960s, the stall is now manned by his youngest son Stanley.

Address: Whampoa Dr, #01-06 Makan Place, Block 90

Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodles

Bak Chor Mee, a uniquely Singaporean creation, translates as ‘mince meat noodles’ in Teochew-Chinese. It’s a noodle dish that’s tossed in vinegar and cooked with minced meat, pork liver, mushrooms, meatballs and morsels of decadent deep-fried lard. Owner Tang Chay Seng also became a Michelin-starred hawker in 2016 so, as with fellow alumni Chef Chan Hon Meng, you should expect a considerable queue for his wares.

Address: 466 Crawford Ln, #01-12

Dumplings warming at Telok Ayer Market hawker center in Singapore

Hock Kee Fried Oyster

A classic hawker dish, oyster omelette is a simple as it sounds in composition, and yet somehow often hard to get just right. Garnished with coriander and served with homemade chilli sauce, you’d be hard beaten to find a better than at Hock Kee Fried Oyster. Helmed by experienced hawker Simon Poh and his wife, this counter’s signature omelette is fresh, crispy, and creamy in all the right places.

Address: 49A Serangoon Garden Way, #01-19

Rahmath Cheese Prata

Chef Ali has been flipping doughy, fresh pratas at his, tucked-away hawker stall in the residential neighbourhood of Toa Payoh since 2006. Rahmath, which is named after Ali’s grandfather, serves up 13 kinds of prata with a piquant curry sauce. It should be said, part of the fun here is observing them being masterfully, mesmerisingly prepared in front of you.

Address: Blk 74 Toa Payoh Lorong 4 #01-08

Jin Jin Hot/Cold Dessert

Ice kacang, a super sweet, psychedelically-coloured shaved ice dessert comes topped with red beans, sweetcorn, condensed milk, peanut powder, jelly and gula melaka. It’s a Singapore staple, but hawkers Calvin Ho and Ewan Tang are taking it to another level here. Their own gangsta ice concoction – which throws in creamy durian purée and sweet mango cubes – is a certified must-try.

Address: 6 Jalan Bukit Merah, #01-21 ABC Brickworks Market Food Centre

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