In Singapore, as elsewhere, the pandemic wreaked havoc on the fabric of urban dining. But the resilience of locals has seen this country’s celebrated hawker scene enjoy renewed life.
Food is at the heart of Singaporean life and culture with something for every budget, from high-end luxury to the perennially popular hawker markets serving Chinese, Malay, Indian, Indonesian and other dishes originating from immigrant food culture, now evolved as distinctive local dishes. They are patronised by people from all walks of life – or at least, were, before Covid. But life is now returning to Singapore’s street food scene, with most markets reopening post-pandemic.
The Singapore Hawkers (food markets) scene
Showcasing what the Hawker markerts have on offer.
On the 16th of December 2020, Hawker Culture was enshrined by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, but Covid prevented a planned Hawkers’ Fest. Some stalls at well-known markets flourish, while other areas have not fared so well. Food Street in Chinatown has closed permanently (Chinatown Complex remains open however), though others – really public dining rooms (in government-built hawker centres from the 60s and 70s) – continue, with a new generation of hawkerpreneurs and next-gen hawkers keeping things interesting. Only one of two hawkers, Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle, has retained its Michelin star, but there is now an Incubation Stall Programme to provide aspiring hawkers opportunities to take up incubation stalls to start their hawker businesses.
Competition is fierce amongst locals as to which is the best hawker centre. Traditions remain, and you need a “chope” a packet of tissues (or hand sanitiser), to reserve your seat at a table before you queue for food, and to use as napkins. You may have to share a table at busy times, food is fixed price and cash only. Different stalls in the same market have different opening hours, but everywhere the stalls with the longest queues have the best food with many offering both halal and non-halal options and places to clear your tray when you’ve finished.
The food market scene in Singapore.
Life returning to Singapore's street food scene.
SPOILT FOR CHOICE
Lau Pa Sat (18 Raffles Quay), meaning “old market”, was formerly Telok Ayer Market, one of Singapore’s oldest with many incarnations. A hub within a 19th century landmark and national monument (itself rebuilt for this purpose), it’s a glorious piece of open-plan Victoriana with cast iron pillars and giant ceiling fans, right in the financial heart of Singapore. Here, authentic Singaporean classics are sold in a more attractive environment than many – with correspondingly higher prices – and can seat an incredible 2,500 people.
There is added appeal at night, as Boon Tat Street behind is closed off, tables are dragged out, and a dozen or so stalls sell massive plates of satay, vendors fanning the coals to encourage the flames. It’s very much a party atmosphere but, as always, choose from the busiest stalls like 7 and 8. Grab a cold beer and sit at an outdoor table for the full experience. If satays are your thing you might also like Satay by the Bay, a modern interpretation of an old evening tradition, located in the stunning Gardens by the Bay nature park. Although it opens at 11.30am with other offerings, the satay outlets don’t fire up for charred skewers of beef, chicken, lamb and prawns fresh from the smokey grill until around 5pm to 10pm.
Amoy Street Food Centre (7 Maxwell Road) reopened in January this year after three months’ renovation. Here there are a couple of second- and third-generation hawkers fusing the modern with the traditional. The highly awarded (including the Michelin Bib Gourmand for seven consecutive years) A Noodle Story at #01-39 is a one-of-a-kind stall serving the world’s only Singapore-style ramen, a makeover of wanton noodles, the hawker favourite of barbequed pork, egg noodles and soy sauce. Based on Japanese ramen, it’s layered with marinated pork belly, soft-boiled egg, two plump pork dumplings and a umami-rich sauce. Go early, as there are only 100 bowls daily from 11am-2pm weekdays until sold out.
At Coffee Break (#02-78), three third-generation siblings serve traditional coffee brewed in a sock and kaya toast (a traditional spread made from coconut and eggs), but all with a twist. Maybe sea salt-flavoured latte?
The stalls with the longest cues have the best foods.
Springy noodles with chilli accompanying homemade fish balls in broth.
CBD workers, rather than tourists, eat inexpensive lunch at Tanjong Pagar Plaza Market & Food Centre. Many queue at Teo Chew Fishball Noodles (#02-47) for springy noodles with chilli accompanying homemade fish balls in broth. At Lucky Wanton Noodle (#02-32), Mr Ng has been making sauced wantan mee with char siew or dumplings for over 40 years – well worth stopping by for.
Other popular food centres are well patronised, including Newton (500 Clemenceau Avenue North), perhaps for barbeque sambal stingray from halal-certified Guan Kee Grilled Seafood (#01-53). Maxwell (1 Kadayanallur Street) is a great place to try Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice (#01-10/11), also recommended by the Michelin Bib Gourmand; and Tekka Centre (60 Bukit Timah Road) in Little India, especially for Indian rojak (potato and prawn fritters).
Tiong Bahru Market (30 Seng Poh Road), in a heritage neighbourhood, makes a great family outing with its arty shops, cafes and mix of food eateries. Art Deco style apartments hark back to the past amidst newer apartments. This is where you can try the famous roasted pork buns at Tiong Bahru Pau and some Nonya (a blend of Malaya/Chinese) specialities at Tiong Bahru Galicier Pastry like Kueh Dadar (soft rolls of coconut filled crepe).
There are hawker centres all over the island, and it’s wonderful to see them spring back to life. Do a circuit first to assess the queues and see what the specialities are, and order away; or, go destination dining if there is a classic dish you wish to try. Either way, you’re in for some delicious fun.