Singapore Hawker centres, in all their non-air-conditioned hustle and bustle glory, are ubiquitous with where the locals go to eat, some for up to three times in a day. Not only do they uphold a sense of authenticity with their modest appearances and tried and tested recipes that are almost always made to order, but they’re also extremely affordable. A SGD10 note can usually get you two to three small dishes and a drink, and you can sample a variety of cuisines in a single meal, including Malay, Chinese, Indian, Thai and Vietnamese.
During my weekend stay in Singapore last November, the wettest month of the year (read: unbearable humidity), I got to visit the Hawker Centre at Tiong Bahru for breakfast, one of the oldest Singapore hawker centres and home to 83 meticulously-numbered food stalls. Once a Chinese burial ground in the 1930s, the inner-city suburb is now a sleepy yet charming neighbourhood with art deco buildings and trendy boutiques. Despite the uncontrollable sweating even at 9 in the morning, the mood was vibrant and our appetites were ready as we got introduced to a few weird and wonderful dishes that fuel the local community.
238 Coffee, Stall, #02-81
We started with a strong black kopi, a local blend of aromatic coffee and tea that’s brewed in a white cotton filter sock. There’s a widely-known system of suffixes to use when you order should you want to tailor the beverage to your taste, such as calling out “O” if you don’t want milk or “C” if you want evaporated milk to curb the bitterness.
An interesting point of etiquette that I observed was the way locals reserve their seats using packets of tissue. Once you’ve marked your territory, it’s an unforgivable crime for a fellow diner to claim it as theirs. Such a simple way to initiate an orderly dining experience (something that will most definitely not work in most parts of Asia), which speaks volumes towards the exceptional organization and duty of compliance that’s seen as national virtues in Singaporean culture.
Jian Bo Chwee Kueh, Stall #02-05
These humble ‘water rice cakes’ were my absolute favourite. Tiong Bahru is known for having more meat-based hawker stalls, so it was good to have some greens for good measure, even if they were the preserved, doused in oil kind. The steamed rice cake is the base, and the bold flavours come through depending on how spicy you want it to be. It’s never too early to burn your tongue off with hot chilli for Singaporeans.
At first glance, it’s confusing how these tiny kitchens cluttered with piles of cooking equipment and ingredients can churn out trays of food at the rate they do to serve a line of hungry diners (note: always look for the stalls with the longest lines). If you’re unsure of what to order, ask the person next to you in line for their recommendation – locals are incredibly helpful, especially when it comes to food, and they’ll happily tell you what to order, which condiments to add and the proper way to eat the dish.
DEEP-FRIED SHARK MEAT
Lor Mee 178, Stall #02-23
I was hesitant to try this dish given the contentious shark fin debate and the unethical fishing practices that support this argument. However, I was eventually persuaded to try a piece. The shark meat surprisingly tastes like regular fish and is served on a bed of noodles soaked in thick, starchy gravy.
Min Nan Pork Ribs Prawn Noodle, Stall #02-31
Growing up, this was one of my family’s go-to dish to order and share when we ate out. It may appear like your regular bowl of noodles but the complexity lies in the broth, which needs to be light and delicate while leaving an aromatic aftertaste with the fresh prawns. We ordered ours with pork ribs, which were very tender and juicy, bringing me back to my childhood. Even though Singapore has transformed itself in just half a century from a scruffy port to a squeaky-clean economic powerhouse in Asia, there are still traces of tradition that have remain unchanged, even if it’s served in a plastic bowl in the local hawker centre.
Food to Singaporeans is more than just sustenance – it’s a national obsession and a way of life. Even though some argue that Singapore hawker centres go against the progressive goals of the country, they’ve remained a clear symbol representing the country’s eating culture. As I’ve come to learn more about the history of these hawker centres, it’s become clear that the support for them from the locals doesn’t just lie in the food itself. It’s the sense of community that’s prevalent among the entrepreneurial stall owners and the locals who make it a weekly, or even daily, ritual to meet with their family and friends to share a meal together. So next time you’re in Singapore if you want to eat like a local you’ve got to try a traditional Singapore hawker centre.
Writer: Stephanie Lau
Photographer: Stephanie Lau