From high-end Michelin-starred restaurants to hip cafes to restaurant chains, there are plenty of food choices in Singapore. But if you want cheap and authentic local cuisines, head over to hawker centres instead. Basically, a hawker centre is a non-air-conditioned food market where you can find food stalls selling affordable local foods. Expect to pay from SGD 3 to 5 for a meal.
However, low-priced food doesn’t necessarily mean low quality food. Two hawker stalls in Singapore were awarded 1 Michelin Star in 2016: Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle and Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle. In addition, 17 hawker stalls made it to the Michelin Bib Gourmand list. Thus, a trip to Singapore isn’t complete without visiting hawker centres.
Even though English is widely spoken in Singapore, sometimes it can prove challenging to order food correctly at hawker stalls. I still remember an awkward encounter that I faced in my early years of living in Singapore. Right after I ordered my food, the seller asked me, “Eat?” I froze in confusion. Of course, I am going to eat the food myself, not drink it or give it to someone else, why would he ask me this weird question. The seller impatiently asked again, “Eat?” I nodded hesitantly. Later, after discussing with my friends, I finally understood that the seller was asking whether I wanted to eat there or take away my food.
To save you from embarrassment for not understanding local slang, or for being stared annoyedly by food sellers because they can’t understand you, here is the list of hawker food that you should eat in Singapore, and how to order them correctly.
Typically, chicken rice refers to a plate of fragrant rice served with poached chicken (also called white chicken), bean sprouts, cucumber and soup. If you prefer certain parts of the chicken, such as breast, thigh or drumstick (pricier), tell them up front when you order. You can also order a whole chicken or a half chicken.
Some chicken rice stalls also sell roasted chicken rice and soya sauce chicken rice. You can request to combine white, roasted and soya sauce chicken and pay extra for it if you don’t want to miss anything out. Lastly, dip the chicken in red chili sauce and minced garlic.
To order: choose the type (white, roast or soya sauce), choose the part if you’re a picky eater (breast, thigh, drumstick), choose extras if you’re hungry (egg, rice, vegetables).
Singapore’s version of carrot cake doesn’t involve a carrot at all. Instead, it is made of white radish and rice flour, which are shaped into cubes and fried with garlic, egg and preserved radish. The black version has additional dark soya sauce.
To order: choose the type (white or black), choose the portion size.
Mushroom Minced Meat Noodle
The local name for this dish is bak chor mee. The default noodle is mee pok, flat and wide egg noodles. In the dry version, the noodle is tossed with sauces (chili, oil, vinegar, mushroom sauce, and other ingredients), and served with minced pork, pork slices, meatballs, sometimes pork liver, braised mushroom, lettuce, bean sprouts, pork lard. The dry bak chor mee comes with a bowl of soup as a side. In the soup version, the sauces are replaced with soup.
Another variation of this dish is fish ball noodle, where the pork slices, meatballs and mushroom are replaced with fish balls and fish cakes.
To order: choose the type of noodle (mee pok, thin egg noodle mee kia, etc), choose either dry or soup version.
Ban mian is a noodle soup, made of flat noodle, fish/anchovies stock, minced pork, vegetables, fried anchovies and fried shallots. A raw egg is cracked and thrown in at the end of cooking.
To order: choose soup type (original, tom yum, spicy, etc), choose noodle type (ban mian, thin noodle you mian, hand-pulled noodle mee hoon kueh, vermicelli bee hoon, glass noodle tang hoon, etc).
Mixed rice is probably the cheapest meal one can get in a hawker centre. You get to choose your dishes from a variety of meat and vegetable dishes. The price is calculated based on the number and type of dishes that you choose.
To order: before the seller scoop the rice, tell him if you are going to “eat” or “take away” and request for “less rice” or “add rice” if necessary. Once he’d scooped the rice, choose your dishes and ask for curry or black gravy if you wish.
A typical Breakfast Set consists of 3 things: toast or bun (with butter, coconut jam kaya, or other spread), 2 soft-boiled eggs, and a drink. It is perfect for people who prefer light breakfast. Most stalls have a list of breakfast sets based on the type of toast/bun. You can opt to change the drink if coffee or tea is not your thing, but be prepared to pay additional charges.
To order: choose the set, choose the drink. Don’t forget to use the pepper and soya sauce to season the soft-boiled eggs.
As the name implies, fish (either sliced or fried) is served in piping hot broth together with vegetables and fried shallots. The sliced fish soup is deemed to be the healthier choice compared to other hawker foods.
To order: choose the fish style (sliced or fried), determine if you want milk in the soup, choose your carb (rice, bee hoon, etc) if you want.
Wanton noodle is present in many Asian countries. Singapore’s version is similar to Malaysia’s but different from Hong Kong’s. Usually, the springy egg noodle is tossed with sauces and topped with char siew (BBQ pork), vegetables, wanton dumplings, and served with soup in a separate bowl.
To order: choose the size, tell them if you’d like extra noodle or ingredients.
Yong Tau Foo
Yong Tau Foo is another healthier food beside fish soup. Traditionally, yong tau foo means tofu stuffed with minced meat. In Singapore, a bowl of yong tau foo soup is made of a few ingredients that are chosen by the customer, served with rice/noodle and clear soup. In dry version, the ingredients are served with sauce, and soup in a separate bowl. Certain stalls offer other types of soup, such as tom yum, laksa or curry.
To order: grab a bowl, fill it with your choice of dishes, pass it to the seller and tell them that you want a dry version or soup version (and type of soup), and tell them if you’d like a bowl of rice or noodle. Help yourself to the dipping sauces.
Fried Hokkien Mee
Singapore’s Hokkien Mee is a plate of goodness where egg noodles and rice noodles are fried with prawns, sometimes squid, egg, bean sprouts and lard in fragrant crustacean broth.
To order: just choose the size, there is not much customisation.
Char Kway Teow
Char means stir-fried, while kway teow means flat rice noodle. There are many variations in different parts of Asia. In Singapore, char kway teow is fried with prawns, egg, bean sprouts, vegetables, cockles, sometimes Chinese sausage and lard in the sweet black sauce.
To order: choose the size, tell them if you want chili and cockles.
Nasi lemak is simply a plate of rice cooked in coconut milk and served with sambal chili, fried anchovies, peanuts, fried egg and various fried stuffs.
To order: do it the same way you order mixed rice, and you can also choose from pre-determined sets instead of choosing individual dishes.
As hawker centres adopt free-seating and self-service system, you need to find your own seat and purchase the food yourself. If you’re a solo traveller, the only way to “reserve a seat” in a crowded food market is by putting your worthless belongings (e.g. a pack of tissue, an umbrella) on a table before buying your food. It’s universally acknowledged that seats with personal belongings are reserved seats.
Most hawker stalls only accept cash, so prepare some cash!
To travel like a local, eat where locals do. When you come to Singapore, pay a visit or two to the hawker centres. Who knows what you will find!
Eva is a travel aficionado from Indonesia who moved abroad when she was 17. She writes about her travel stories in her blog, Trevallog. Her dreams include trekking to Everest Base Camp, doing an overland trip from Southeast Asia to Europe and visiting Tibet.