Mega food, mini prices
Eating in this city state is cheap and delicious thanks to hawker food markets in every neighbourhood, writes Ian Neubauer.
N THE 1950s when unemployment in Singapore was rife, people took to the streets with food carts to make a living. Known as hawking, the profession required little capital and turned talented homeschooled cooks into neighbourhood celebrities.
Hawking also brought the country’s diverse ethnicity to the fore, expressed through the endless variations of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine.
By the mid-1960s, more than 24,000 hawkers were working the streets of Singapore. But the explosion of food carts also created wide-scale sanitation problems because of the way hawkers disposed of food waste and dishwater – directly into roadside drains.
In 1968, the government stepped in, taking hawkers off the streets and relocating them in purpose-built food courts with increasingly fastidious hygiene standards. Cooked food stalls in Singapore are now subject to random checks by health officials who rate vendors’ cleanliness with a mark from A through to D. And hawkers must display their grades prominently above their stalls.
Today, Singapore is home to 218 hawker centres that have become the focus of innumerable TV shows and arguments over who makes the best chicken rice or chilli crab. Here are five of the best centres, with up-to-date data on cleanliness, when to go, signature dishes and who makes them best. Back in the 1930s, Tiong Bahru was a Chinese burial ground. Today it’s a charming inner-city heritage area crammed with art deco apartment blocks and trendy bakeries and boutiques.
At its heart is one of Singapore’s oldest hawker centres where tourists can experience a real Singaporeanstyle breakfast. Start with a strong black kopi brewed in a white cotton filter sock, a cup of English breakfast tea or kopi cham, a quixotic local blend of coffee and tea!
Truly adventurous gastronomes can test their mettle with pigs’ organ soup, though the specialty here is chwee kueh, a simple dish of steamed rice cakes topped with a tangy casserole-style sauce made of radish, turnips, dried shrimp, chilli, garlic and shallots. “Chwee keuh is originally a Chinese dish, but in Singapore it’s subtly different,” says Book Geok Beng, a Tiong Bahru hawker since 1983. “It’s true fusion – a dish made from many cultures.”
Best stall: Cleanliness rating: Price:
A With more than 100 stalls, Maxwell Rd Hawker Centre in the heart of Chinatown dishes up one of the biggest varieties of food in Singapore: fish XO soup, a noodle broth made with brandy; chilli crab, the island state’s national dish; durian, a large scaly fruit with pungent creamy flesh that locals say “tastes like heaven but smells like hell”; and Hainanese chicken rice, silky smooth pieces of poached chicken served on rice infused with chicken stock.
For the past three years, a chicken war of attrition has played out between two prominent Maxwell Rd hawker masters: Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken, whose chicken-stock infused rice was described by American TV chef Anthony Bourdain as “so fragrant and delicious that it can be eaten on its own”; and arch-rival Ah-Tia, run by a veteran Tian Tian chef who flew the coop and opened his own stall next door after a fallout with his former paymaster’s daughter.