WORLDFOOD – Lost In Spice

22 Oct 2001

Up until the 1960’s, the streets of Singapore were helter-skelter with migrant workers, impromptu markets, and bicycles. They were dirty and throbbing with action. And when you were hungry there was a simple solution: mobile food hawkers. Sounds like a sprawling Asian metropolis, right? Saigon, Bangkok, Hong Kong. Yup, that was Singapore back then. But back then ended in 1965. Independence was declared from Malaysia and Lee Kuan Yew started to make the policies that would shape Singapore into the highly controlled state it is today. He declared food hawkers unhygienic sorts and moved them into government-owned buildings where they would each have their own stall and heed regulations and serve the eating public. Harsh? Yes. But a visionary move. Politics fertilized cuisine. By the 1970s the hawker center was born and it’s been wok-and-rolling ever since.

Our advice: don’t leave town without eating at one. Even better, don’t go a day without eating at one. They’re (mostly) cheap, accessible, and downright iconic. They come in all shapes and sizes and are ‘the’ defining food experience in Singapore. As more than 50% of females (plus most men) work outside the home, more people eat more meals at them than anywhere else. Some are signposted and look official as embassies. Others are hidden off alleys, stuffed inside parking garages, marooned near army camps. When gussied-up and endowed with AC, they are deemed food courts. Some local advice: these are privately owned and never as good as a real hawker center.

Hawker centers, you see, are Michelin-starred restaurant, fast food joint, Mamma’s kitchen, starving artist studio, and roadside stand all in one. Here you’ll find the most legendary cooks and more dishes than days of the year and it doesn’t matter if your calendar is Christian, Hindu or Muslim. Most stalls specialize in one or two things, with some variations – say, fish ball noodles or seafood fritters. Consider the Chinatown Complex. It rises, Phoenix-like, above the busy street markets and pastel-shaded shophouses of Smith Street. Stalls are clustered like rabbit warrens. Fans beat overhead. Cooks slave over Inferno-hot kualis (woks), while their counterparts stand guard in front of plastic windows papered with handwritten signs. Eight-year-olds in knickers, old Chinese men, and stern women slalom about delivering food. Within a 100-yard radius you can find Cantonese roast duck, fish balls, Singaporean bak kut teh (pork bone soup), Malay-style satay, Hainanese chicken rice, dim sum, Teochew minced meat and mushroom noodles, chap chye rice (choice of meat, veg, and curry with rice), chai tow kueh fried carrot cake), and many others. Want something sweet? Durian cakes, Malay chendol (shaved ice with coconut milk and sugar syrup), ais kachang shaved ice with milk, fruit, beans and syrup), ice cream, mangoes, mangosteens. Like we said, there aren’t enough days of the year.

But there are some unspoken rules to hawker center consumption. First,
secure a table. All the better if it has strategic location between three or more stalls of note. Note the number on the table, no doubt well-worn and nailed to the floor, and don’t be afraid to share space. Approach the stall you’d like to order from. Pay attention to see if there are different portion sizes; one can tell by different dollar amounts written one next to the other. When it is your turn, place your order, say the amount, give your table number and retreat. One pays when the food arrives at the table. If you don’t know how to say what you want, make like you’re using Netscape – point and click!

So how does one get the good stuff? That can be a little tricky. Locals will know who serves the best what, where, when, how to order, and the ongoing story behind it all. They’ll know that the beatific man at Hai Sing Ah Boling in Chinatown is in a Chinese Orchestra with his family, and that the savory rice balls he stuffs with peanuts, black sesame, white sesame, or beans are told apart by their shapes (football, rugby ball, pear) as they float in ginger-pandan soup. They’ll be able to tell you about how the char kway teow vendor at Stall 18 of Xion Road took cooking back up after losing his money gambling. Now he’s so busy he has a PR person complete with clipboard taking orders. That said, you may not be privy to the fact that the best fish balls can only be had for two hours a day out Jalan Berseh/Serangoon way on Desker Road. We suggest DIY food sleuthing: cop the visitor look, ask innocent questions, follow crowds and locals. Geylang, Chinatown, and Central are fine starting points. Chinatown Complex, Tajong Pagar Food Center, Jalan Berseh Food Center, and Golden Mile Food Complex are site-specific finds. Welcome to the madness of the hawker center. It should taste good.

Rob McKeown writes about food, travel, and culture for Food&Wine, Saveur,
East, the Boston Globe, Gayot’s/Gault-Millau, and many other publications
around the world.

In the photo: a hawkers’ center in Singapore

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