Explore Singapore’s hawker centers

One of the joys of oversea traveling for us is an opportunity to explore and eat where locals eat. Street food is a way of life in many Asian countries. It was for me when I grew up in Thailand. We embrace it when we travel. Our most memorable experience in each country we visited often includes hanging out where locals live and eating street food.

I still vividly remember enjoying cockles (bivalve mollusks) in sweet chili sauce on a street of Ho Chi Mihn City. Or the time we had our dinner on the sidewalk of Siem Reap, Cambodia. Whenever we visited Thailand, we kept our eyes out for grilled skewered fermented sausages, grilled cuttlefish, or a yummy bowl of noodle with stewed beef and meat balls among many other things to try.

Some countries in Asia, like Hong Kong and Singapore, are more organized and regulated about how food can be sold. You seldom find vendors selling food on pushcarts or in temporary stalls on streets and sidewalks there. Yet street food could be found in places like hawker centers or cooked food centers. It’s a more organized and sanitary way to deal with selling street food. In Singapore, hawker centers are open-air building complex that house stalls that sell a wide variety of affordable local food. They are typically located in city centers, near public transportation hubs or high density housing complex. In contrast, food courts, which are air-conditioned  version of cooked food centers, are typically located in shopping malls.

David and I visited Singapore for one week in December 2011. Although Singapore’s hotels are notorious for being expensive for the size, finding ones near good hawker centers means you can feast on wonderful local food without breaking the bank. That’s what we did (and our room was tiny). There were so many options for local food within walking distance from our hotel in Chinatown.

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One of hawker centers near Chinatown. There are so many choices of food. Notice oscillating fans on the building pillars. The place was not air-conditioned.
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Fruit juices and milkshake stall. David discovered avocado milkshake here. It’s fair to say that avocado milkshake was our favorite drink.
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This stall sells Chilli Crab, a local favorite dish. We weren’t that impressed by it, but who doesn’t like crabs.
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When in Chinatown we couldn’t resist a roast duck.

In hawker centers, each stall that sells food is operated independently. They generally have a limited menu of what they sell posted along with the price on an overhead board. Some might have accompanying pictures of the food. I like seeing food stalls with limited menus. For me, the more limited the menu they have, the more likelihood the food will be good. It indicates that the vendors only do what they do best. Limited menus also mean fewer ingredients they have to carry in stock. Carrying what they use all the time means a fast turnover of those ingredients and things don’t have time to get stale.

After decided what you’d like to eat, you order and pay for your food at the stall. Everything is self-service. You bring your own food to a table. Some hawker centers have large tables, so it’s not uncommon that you will be sharing the table with other diners, especially during busy meal times.

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Satay, grilled meats on sticks with peanut sauce, is another popular snack.
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Nothing we ate in Singapore can beat this bowl of Laksa, a spicy noodle dish in thick and tasty coconut broth. We came back several more times. It might just be the best bowl of noodle I had, ever. I’m salivating while typing this.
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This one was technically not from hawker centers. We found this durian ice cream sandwich from a street vendor. Durian ice cream? Something you don’t see outside of South-east Asia.

During our one week in Singapore, we ate at a few hawker centers, some more than once. We found the quality of food to be good or excellent. Most food in hawker centers that we had were delicious. Some were better than others. When the food wasn’t expensive, it’s a great opportunity to be adventurous without feeling like being ripped off.

What is your experience with street food?

12 thoughts on “Explore Singapore’s hawker centers

  1. Looks like fun. I’ve sampled lots of ‘street food’ in VietNam, but your post reminded me of what was essentially a hawker center in non-other than uptown Philadelphia… only a block from my hotel… I ate there at least once a day over 4-5 days! International foods as well as the old standby Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich… Inside and outside dinning about nine months of the year.

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  2. Fantastic and thorough post on Asian eating and hawker centers, Keng. Interesting too, and photos were great, everything looks delectable. I’m going to Thailand in a few months for a month (bird tour group), and looking forward to the food. This got me salivating too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How fun! Where in Thailand will you be? We are going back to visit my parents in Bangkok at the end of October. We will be in and out of Thailand from November to February to visit Sydney, New Zealand, and Taipei. I definitely look forward to having a fix on street food in Bangkok and Taipei.

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      1. We’ll be in Bangkok briefly, then birding in the south at Khao Yai NP and Kaeng Krachan NP; then flying to the NW for two wks of birding at several different locations between Doi Inthanon NP and Doi Lang. Your travels sound like so much fun, Keng, I wish you and David the best.

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  3. The pictures are prompting me to try these food items, especially, Satay – grilled meat on sticks with the peanut sauce. I’m also a person who loves to explore the street food from different places. I’m surely going to try it all when I visit Singapore. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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