The spicy broth steamed up my glasses as I pulled the long, golden noodles from the bowl of prawn mee in front of me. If that chili-infused dish didn’t satisfy my hunger, the bowl of savory fish ball soup next to it would, or even the shu mai dumplings next to that.
These were a few of the delicacies before me at a casual dinner on the first evening of my weeklong tour of Singapore. I thought my local guide, who was obliged to follow a set itinerary, had led me to an eatery with a decent introduction to Singapore’s legendary hawker food — until I got an informal text message:
“U bored of Food Republic? U wanna get out yet?”
My friend Carol, a born and bred Singaporean, revealed to me that my guide had brought me to a “touristy,” “overpriced” imitation of a “real” hawker food center, Food Republic in VivoCity, Singapore’s largest mall to date. Not that the food wasn’t delicious, but if I was to have the true hawker experience, I would have to leave air-conditioning behind and hit the streets, where it all began. Lucky for me, I had Carol, and her husband, Zac, to lead the way.
Singapore’s cuisine is as diverse as its culture. It’s an extension of Malay cuisine but influenced by the Chinese — not to mention the Indians, Arabs, British, and other settlers who have contributed to making Singapore one of the world’s most important trading ports.
Hawker food centers — urban food courts — arose in the 1960s through the ’80s, when the government consolidated street food vendors and relocated them to facilities with more sanitary conditions. These epicurean epicenters have since become an integral part of modern Singaporean life — and one of the must-do items for visitors, even if their experience is limited to one of the replications near tourist attractions, like the Singapore Flyer.
Many people new to Singaporean cuisine start with what some regard as the “national dish”: Hainanese chicken rice, in which poached chicken is served with cucumber, coriander, and a chili-soy-sesame sauce alongside ginger- and garlic-infused rice. But to really understand Singapore, you must push past this “entry level” dish.
“Basically, Singapore is all about food,” Zac told me as he drove Carol and me to Chomp Chomp Food Centre, away from Singapore’s postmodern skyline in the suburbs of Serangoon Gardens. I had heard good things about Chomp Chomp from many of the Singaporeans I’d encountered — including Zac, a local restaurateur with a discerning palate.
When we arrived, Zac zipped around to various food stalls and brought back an impressive assortment of dishes: chili squid, luak (oyster omelet), fried bee hoon (rice vermicelli) with prawns, and chai tao kway, a savory dish of radishes cut into cubes and sautéed with eggs, chilies, and spices. I managed to find room in my stomach to sample it all and even squeezed in some room for what Chomp Chomp is famous for: barbecued sting ray.
Most dishes in the vast array of Singaporean cuisine can be found in any proper food center, but particular food stalls have elevated their specialty dish to destination status.
Avid foodies flock to Chomp Chomp Food Centre for its sting ray, but head to Old Airport Road Food Centre for lor mee (thick, flat noodles mixed with a special spicy and savory gravy), or East Coast Seafood Centre for another one of Singapore’s signature dishes, Sri Lankan crab smothered in a sweet and savory sauce of egg, tomato, chilies, and other spices.
I endured long queues to sample some of these hyped-up hawker stalls during my stay, but a week was hardly enough time to develop any real discernment. Not that it mattered; I was impressed with all of the dishes I tried — from easy-to-swallow char kway teow at Lau Pa Sat Festival Market to high-end fare like Assam fish-head curry at Changi Village Food Centre and pig-organs soup (it’s exactly what it sounds like) from Tiong Bahru Market.
Despite easy access to a variety of good, inexpensive food (many Singaporeans rarely need to cook at home because of this), it’s not just about getting your fill at hawker food centers. These places are also rendezvous hubs for neighbors, friends, and family members to gather together and take a break from city life.
“Most of the young people in Singapore still live at home,” Zac explained to me. “So they come here to hang out with their friends.”
So it was with his brother Keith, who regularly spends his nights at the open-air prata stands across the way from Chomp Chomp Food Centre. Later that night, Zac, Carol, and I joined him for a post-post-meal snack and drinks to wash down the paper prata (thin fried pancakes). Despite my bulging belly, it was a fascinating glimpse at Singaporean nightlife.
I witnessed similar social scenarios in the different neighborhoods I visited each night. In Geylang, young Singaporeans gathered at a table outside a durian stand to socialize, people-watch, and simply sit and eat the tropical fruit — despite its strong odor. At Lau Pa Sat, locals and ex-pats conversed over dinner, while a Filipino cover band played on a nearby stage. I could only imagine that this was the nighttime hawker scene as it was decades ago — minus the Journey lyrics and ubiquitous glow of mobile devices, of course.
By the end of my week in Singapore, I had tasted the full spectrum of Singaporean hawker cuisine — but judging from the couple of pounds I gained, I’d say I had more than a taste. If you ever find yourself in the Southeast Asian city-state, make sure you save some room in your stomach; you won’t understand Singaporean life without it.