Hawker centres: The fabric holding together the culinary culture of Singapore

If you ask around, most Singaporeans will tell you that their favourite hobby is eating. There are a variety of cuisines available in Singapore given its geographical location and multi-cultural population. Most of the classic dishes of the sunny island-state can be found in one of its national icons – the hawker centre.

Maxwell Food Centre. Photo courtesy: thebestsingapore.com
Maxwell Food Centre. Photo courtesy: thebestsingapore.com

Hawker centres are typically found in the heartlands, near public housing estates or transport hubs, such as bus interchanges and train stations. They are typically open-air complexes, housing many stalls that sell a variety of affordable food. In all hawker centres you will find the usual Chinese, Muslim, Indian, and Western food stalls.

When faced with so many options, it can be a little hard to decide. But the rule of thumb in Singapore is that a long queue is often a sign of delicious food. With such a hectic lifestyle in a buzzing city, food is probably one of the few things that people would sacrifice their time for.

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Hill Street Tai Hua Pork Noodle store, which received a Michelin star. Photo courtesy: mothership.sg

In 2016, two hawker centre stalls even became the first street food vendors to be awarded a Michelin star. They are Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle at 78 Smith Street, and Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle at Crawford Lane.

Besides taking care of the daily needs of the population, hawker centres are also a unique aspect of Singapore’s culture – it is a principal gathering place for family and friends, as well as an anchor for local communities and culture. You will see retired folks catching up with old friends over a cup of kopi (coffee), and a buzzing din that is a stark contrast from the cold skyscrapers and tall housing estates that populate most of Singapore’s landscape.

Let us introduce to you three of the most famous hawker centres in Singapore:

Tekka Centre

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Tekka Centre. Photo courtesy: travelblog.org

Tekka Centre is a landmark of the Little India neighbourhood, and it also holds the largest wet market in Singapore, consisting of 284 stalls. The food court stands out from the rest of the hawker centres in Singapore in the sense that it serves predominantly Indian food, including a great number of Halal dishes.

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Yakader's Nasi Briyani. Photo courtesy: tripadvisor.com

But the Indian food stalls are the real standouts. Yakader’s Nasi Briyani is the most famous out of the many biryani stalls at Tekka. The usual North Indian and Pakistani food can be found at Pak Kashmiri Delights, the most well-liked being their Keema. As for Chinese food, the Heng Gi Goose & Duck Rice is said to be near-legendary.

Maxwell Road Hawker Centre

Located in the Chinatown area, Maxwell Road Hawker Centre has a wide variety of Singapore-style Chinatown food. The type of Chinese food here has a more nostalgic taste to the Singaporeans, as it is distinctly different from the increasing number of food offerings from China that have slowly invaded Singapore over the past decade. The cuisines have strong roots in the Hokkien, Hainan and Cantonese dialect groups.

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The snaking queue of Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice. Photo courtesy: tinyurbankitchen.com

The longest queue award definitely goes to the Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice stall. The stall owner went up against world-famous Gordon Ramsay in the Singtel Hawker Heroes Challenge, and guess what – even Gordon Ramsay had to admit it was tough. Fame has found the stall ever since, and tourists around the world join the locals in the queue for a plate.

Other crowd delights include the Cantonese style Zhen Zhen Porridge (cooked with broken grains instead of whole rice) and Jin Hua Sliced Fish Bee Hoon (cooked with milk fish broth), as well as the pancakes at Weng Pan Cake.

Lau Pa Sat

Lau Pa Sat. Photo courtesy: yoursingapore.com
Lau Pa Sat. Photo courtesy: yoursingapore.com

This open-air food court at downtown Shenton Way offers 54 different food stalls and a seating capacity of 2,500. "Lau Pa Sat" means old market in the Hokkien dialect – it started out as a wet market in the 1960s. Located in the middle of the busy financial district, the food court caters to a mix of office workers and tourists. The food here is a mix of local hawker fare and regional Asian food.

Crowd pleasers here include the Pig’s Organ Soup and Kway Chap (a Teochew dish consisting of rice sheets in herbal broth, and a selection of braised sides), Satays (marinated meat on skewers) as well as Rong Ji Ban Mian and Fish Soup.