An Ang-moh, or Gweilo, is a slightly derogatory term used by Singapoeans and other Asians to denote us white people. There’s no getting away from it though so I’m embracing my innocent Ang-moh status and sharing my thoughts on local hawker centres.
You can’t write about food in Singapore without covering the famous hawker centres that dominate the local eating scene on the island. Hawker centres in Singapore originally sprang up during the late 60’s and early 70’s when the government embarked on a program to remove food vendors from the streets due to the prevalence of bad sanitation and hygiene conditions. Hawker centres were established in central locations near MRT (train) stations and public housing areas. Traditionally a place for the less well off to eat out, hawker centres have become an integral part of the dining experience in Singapore and have a well deserved reputation for excellent food at very affordable prices.
Due to their concentration in specific locations food standards are easily monitored by government authorities. The result is that food quality is by and large very good, particularly in comparison to other South East Asian countries where you risk becoming ill if you’re not careful about what and where you eat. Some say this makes Singapore’s hawker centres ‘sterile’ but my experience has been that the centres always buzz with activity, with a steady stream of local diners as well as tourists and business people moving through. If you’re new to the experience of eating at a hawker centre there are a few key things you should know about before you visit. And since I’m an Ang-moh (ie a white foreigner living here) these are obviously my interpretations and perceptions that might also be helpful to you if you’re new or visiting.
The ‘ambience’ in a hawker centre is like a bustling market on a Saturday morning. There are generally throngs of people milling about, trying to decide on their food options, queuing up at the popular stalls and nattering away whilst they wait. Hawker centres are often in open air locations and never with air conditioning so you can be sure it’ll be warm wherever you go. Particularly the ones like Lau Pa Sat where vendors are cooking up satays over hot coals as you watch, I have no idea how they manage to stand over the heat for such lengthy periods of time. The other point to mention about ambience is that the seating is usually plastic chairs and tables, often merely stools, and people will brush past you from time to time as you squish together to enjoy your food. Hawker centres aren’t a place for the faint hearted. Ordering and eating is a brisk process, there’s not much time for sitting around and having a bit of a chill out. Order. Eat. Done.
At most hawker centres you’ll be able to get water, coconut water, sugar cane juice, other juices and a beer but that’s about it.
If you see a packet of tissues sitting on a table this means someone has reserved that space whilst they go and order their food so you shouldn’t sit there. You’ll often find little old aunties and uncles (women and men) offering to sell you these tissues for a small sum. It’s a good idea to buy a packet from them, not only to help them out with income, but you’ll no doubt find it handy to have tissues to clean your face and hands after your mouthwatering meal.
Singaporeans love to queue! I don’t know if they inherited this from the British or not but there are generally long lines at popular eateries. And in hawker centres people bizarrely remain calm and don’t push throughout the waiting process (unlike on the MRT when people push like sumo wrestlers!). It is fair to say that where there is a queue you can be reasonably sure there is good food.
Another point to mention about queueing is that in Singapore most people eat lunch between 12pm and 1.30pm, if you arrive at a hawker centre during this time you’ll need to compete for a seat and undoubtedly line up for your food.
Hawker centres offer amazingly good value. Many Singaporeans complain about the price of food because I guess it’s more expensive than it used to be. But when you watch the aunties and uncles cooking up fresh food in the sweltering heat just for you then you have to think they deserve to get paid a decent amount for providing that kind of service. Meal prices range from as low as $2 up to around $10 for something with seafood. Most meals are between $5 and $7.
Another key point about pricing is that at many hawker centres you choose your seat first and then choose your meal. In this case you will need to have cash ready for your meal when it arrives. It’s also worth noting that no matter where you sit you’ll be able to order food from any of the stalls in the centre and they’ll bring it to your table. It’s just that the dudes with the stall nearest to your seat will try and sell their food to you first.
I have to admit that one of the things that puts me off many hawker foods is the heavy oil content. Traditional meals like Char Kway Teow are high in salt and fat and I always feel a bit guilty after eating them. Some healthier options are out there though. At Amoy Street Food Centre there is an amazing fish soup at Han Kee on the second floor. If you visit you’ll see the queue and know where I mean. The soup is a clear broth with a huge piece of white fish (no bones), served with garlic and coriander and a little chilli on the side. This was one of my best hawker foods ever thanks to my friends Kinny and Charles.
Popiah is another relatively healthy option. Popiah are a little like Vietnamese rice paper rolls. They’re filled with a mix that could include grated turnips, carrot, lettuce, cucumber, prawns or chicken, bean shoots, shallots and some hoisin sauce, garlic and maybe chilli. All rolled up into a tasty morsel. Yum. Fortune Food at the Chinatown Complex Market make very good popiah.
Finding the best hawker centre
I’m not an expert on hawker centres but I’ve visited quite a few and picked up some tips in my time here:
- Tekka Centre in Little India is a great wet market (fruit, veg, meat and fish) and it’s also a hawker centre for Indian and Halal food
- Tiong Bahru market in Tiong Bahru is one of my favourites. The fish here is very good and you can also get Australian and New Zealand beef at very reasonable prices
- Newton Circus is good for seafood, particularly sambal stingray
- Lau Pa Sat is great for satays and general ambience. Boon Tat Street on one side of Lau Pa Sat is still open
- Maxwell Road Hawker Centre is a good all round hawker centre near Chinatown.
- Bukit Merah has the best carrot cake (carrot cake is one of the 10 Foods You Must Eat in Singapore)
- Taxi drivers all recommend Old Airport Road hawker centre (and taxi drivers know their food)
- Many locals (thanks Charles) recommend Chomp Chomp as the best hawker centre
For a comprehensive directory of the best foods to eat at hawker centres check out ieatishootipost – Dr Tay has fantastic hawker centre knowledge of Singapore.
These are my observations after having visited quite a few hawker centres during my time here. Hawker centres aren’t somewhere you go for a relaxing or leisurely meal, but they’re a great place for good value food with a wide range of choices to keep everyone happy.
Calling all locals: leave your comments below to tell me where you think I’ve got it wrong, we’d all love to know!