Getting over my jet lag has taken longer than I anticipated. But after a week of waking up at 3:30 am and then falling asleep on the couch at 8 pm, I’m feeling refreshed and ready to share the details of my food adventures in Singapore. And believe me, there’s a lot to share.
One of the most exciting food experiences on this small, hot island is eating at a hawker stand. In the “olden” days, Singapore was full of push cart vendors, selling their tasty wares all over town. But in recent years the government has mandated that the hard-working purveyors should be grouped together into more modern food complexes, with cleanliness and hygiene controlled by strict regulations. Some people lament that the atmosphere of the original rickety stands has been lost to government controls, but as a fan of good hygiene, I say, let’s eat!
Hawker centers are everywhere in Singapore: Grouped under steel awnings at busy intersections; inside the ubiquitous malls as modern-day food courts; or outside of residential apartment complexes. In general, the food is fresh, well-prepared, and a much better deal than you would receive in a restaurant. And wherever you go you’ll find crowds of hungry Singaporeans passionately enjoying their food. Chinese, Malay, Indian, it doesn’t matter. Singapore is a country of diverse cultures, but everyone seems to have one common obsession: food.
With advice from the Makansutra, Singapore’s revered guide on street food, and the message boards at Chowhound, Jim (who flew out for the second week of my trip) and I were well-equipped for some intense research. Don’t worry, we also branched out and made our own discoveries. Here are our favorite hawker center experiences:
Newton Circus Food Center: Sometimes criticized as the most tourist-friendly of the hawker centers (what’s wrong with that?), this clean, bustling complex is nonetheless known for its seafood stalls. During our nighttime visit, Jim and I shared a large plate of Char Kway Teow from Thye Hong Fried Prawn Mee & Char Kway Teow, stall #58. A popular local dish of wide, chewy noodles sweetly fried with eggs, sprouts, prawns, and squid, they were worth the hype they received in the Makansutra. We quickly learned that fast (street) food in Singapore has an air of civility that you won’t find at your local McDonald’s. Even though you wait in line and order food directly from each vendor, the wait staff will bring it to your table when it’s ready. The main event of our evening came from stand #70: tiger prawns. These massive grilled shrimp, covered with fresh, cooked garlic and served with lime, were just what we needed to complete our meal. However, seafood in Singapore is priced by the weight. We thought we had received a bargain, only to realize we owed much more. No matter; they were worth every Singapore dollar. Located at the northern end of Scotts Road
Lau Pa Sat: Located in the middle of the financial district, Lau Pa Sat houses vast hallways of diverse and aromatic food stalls. But if you’re looking for satay, those tasty bits of marinated, grilled meat on a stick, come after 7 pm. That’s when the surrounding street is closed off for satay vendors and their steaming carts. The only stressful part is choosing from the enthusiastic and vocal vendors. Jim and I and his co-worker Susanna went with the mutton, chicken, and prawn satay varieties, all grilled to tender perfection right in front of us. They were served with raw onions, sliced cucumbers, and a thick, peanuty sauce. But we didn’t stop there. We moved on to grilled stingray, another local favorite. Fresh, clean, and spicy, this seafood dish cured all of our fish phobias, and had us reaching for more. By the way, don’t forget your Tiger Beer. 18 Raffles Quay, near the intersection of Raffles Quay and Cross Street
Maxwell Food Center: The two dimly-lit, narrow alleys of Maxwell’s small stands offer everything from noodle dishes and wonton soups to fresh fruit juices. But Jim and I had one goal for our lunch excursion: to try “chicken rice,” Singapore’s so-called “national” dish. Chicken rice is simply tender poached chicken served over rice cooked in chicken broth. Nothing more, nothing less. We joined the long line at Tian Tian Haiwanese Chicken Rice, stall #10, which has been visited by none other than Anthony Bourdain. The rice was firm and fully-flavored, the chicken moist and clean. The comfort level of the dish can be shaken up with the addition of chili sauce, adding a tangy accent to this subtle meal. With some room left in our stomachs, we settled on a serving of Chai Tow Kueh, fried carrot cake. In this dish, white radish is fried into a spicy, gooey mass of pure comfort, with fresh scallions adding a welcome crunch. We went with the “black” style, which means the radish was fried with sweet black sauce. Junction of South Bridge Road and Maxwell Road, at the edge of Chinatown