It’s difficult to overstate the importance of hawker centres to daily life here in Singapore.
One of my ex-colleagues once told me that throughout her childhood she had never seen her parents cook. They bought dǎbāo (打包, takeaway) all the time. “I turned out all right!” she declared.
Eating out every day sounds expensive, but honestly when it comes to hawker centres it makes sense. You can have good eats for very reasonable prices. The variety is great. There’s even a sense of community in the air. Back when we used to live in one of Singapore’s heartland neighbourhoods, we often saw groups of old uncles hanging out at the hawker centre tables chatting over their morning kopi and kaya toast – especially for hawkers located near HDBs. (HDBs refer to public housing managed by the Singaporean Housing and Development Board or HDB. It’s where almost 80% of Singaporeans live. I’ll blog about these gems in the future.)
What’s a “hawker centre” anyway? These are open-air food courts made up of many stalls selling affordable cooked food. Most are conveniently located near HDB estates and near wet markets.
The construction of hawker centres in the 1970s-80s was part of a government programme to legalise street hawkers and ensure food preparation was up to standard. Nowadays the National Environment Agency, as a government regulator, ensures hawker food is prepared in hygienic and safe conditions.
If you’ve seen the movie Crazy Rich Asians (2018), there’s a good montage at the start featuring Newton Food Centre where Henry Golding orders plate after plate of hawker food in English, Mandarin, and Malay: satay (meat skewers), roti prata (Indian-influenced flatbread), fried carrot cake (a misleading name — it’s made of radish cubes), hot bowls of spicy laksa (noodle soup in curry coconut milk) and fishball noodle soup, shaved ice desserts, and of course, cold mugs of beer (Tiger, I hope).
Pro-tip #1: while it’s cool how the movie introduced Singapore’s hawker culture to a global audience, trust the locals – there are better satays to be found elsewhere besides Newton.
Pro-tip #2: keep your eyes peeled for the nod to the chope-ing tissue at 0:22. When at a hawker centre (or any food court in Singapore for that matter), do not sit at tables where there are tissue packets. This means that spot has been chope-d, i.e. reserved. Doesn’t sound fair? It is what it is. #RespectTheTissue
The Hub and I love hawker food. Before coming to Singapore, we were already familiar with a few local dishes: the glutinous goodness of chicken rice and the sinfully rich char kway teow, for instance. When we lived in the UK, we paid frequent visits to London’s Chinatown to sample New Fook Lam Moon’s bak kut teh (the soup more herbal than peppery) or Rasa Sayang’s chicken rice. We later learned that Rasa Sayang’s version of char kway teow is more Penang than Singaporean, with the Singaporean version somewhat sweeter.
With so many choices, how do you know which stall serves the best food? The length of the queues of course!
Alternatively, you can check out food reviews online. When the Hub and I first arrived here, we relied heavily on a food blog called “ieat•ishoot•ipost” written by a family doctor named Dr. Leslie Tay, who’s also an avid foodie and photographer. His blog’s tagline is “never waste your calories on yucky food.” (He also uses his platform to teach his patients on what kinds of food to avoid if they have certain medical conditions, which I think is a smart way to merge your work and your passion project).
I like that his blog is organized into dishes: from Assam Fish all the way to Zi Char. It makes it easy to search for places when cravings take over. While there are one or two recommendations which didn’t please, I think this is simply a matter of taste, and overall Dr. Tay’s recommendations were an excellent starter guide for non-locals like us to navigate Singapore’s rich hawker culture.
You may already know how fond I am of bak chor mee (the thought of the chili and vinegar in al dente noodles already makes my mouth water). But our best discovery from Dr. Tay’s blog was the gloriously messy Hainanese Curry Rice.
“Umami bomb” is the best way to describe it — the best Hainanese Curry Rice is a flavourful explosion of curry sauce, fried porkchop, stewed cabbage, and braised pork, and it has found a permanent spot on our personal comfort-food list.
Hainanese Curry Rice is not Instagram-friendly, that’s for sure. It may never snap up a Michelin Bib Gourmand. If I recommend it to one of my ang moh friends he / she might demur.
But you seriously won’t know what you’re missing. Super shiok.
Think critically dear readers,