Everything you need to know about Singapore’s relationship with food is explained when I tell you the above photo was our breakfast.
To Singaporeans – eating is a way of life. Singapore’s strategic trade location and hot pot of ethnicities has had generations of each bringing their history of culinary cuisine; from the crisp roti prata, to the garlic chicken infused rice, from savory fish sambal, to slurp worthy noodles in fragrant broth. With prominent Malay, Chinese, Indian and European influences, this tiny island has been exposed to every spice, ingredient and flavour, all morphing into a cuisine in its own right.
Lets start with the Hawker Centers. To maintain strict hygiene standards the government banned street hawking decades ago; now street stalls are housed in clean, licensed and regularly inspected Hawker Centers, usually found under apartment blocks, or near fresh markets or MRT stations. During our stay in Singapore you would most likely find us in one of these, where the incredible variety of the nation’s specialties are found side by side for just a few dollars. To dismiss Hawker Centers as ordinary food courts is a grave error, hawker cuisine is the historical undercurrent of Singaporean food culture.
To the 5.4 million that make up Singapore’s population; hawker food perfection is in the simplicity, where humble ingredients are the stars of the show, no fancy decor or celebrity chef is needed. We could have forever happily eaten the majority of our meals from these tiny two metre wide kitchens, with dishes ranging from $3 to $10.
Try asking any Singaporean what his favourite hawker dish is, and you’ll be stuck there for some time in a fiercely passionate lecture on which seller is better, down to the dab of chilli paste to stir into the broth, the smokiness of a well seasoned wok, or the spice mix in the curries. This thorough assessment in the small details is quite fair, as no stall does one dish quite the same way as another. When we sampled wonton mee the variations were astonishing, from particular noodles, to size and filling of the wontons, the broth and flavour of sauce. Our all out favorite though was from Cho Kee Noodles, Old Airport Road Hawker Center.
On most visits we would seek out these drink stalls selling – among other things – soy milk, grass jelly and sugar cane ready to be crushed in a handpress for fresh juice.
A breakfast staple; roast pork and char siew rice.
Teh tarik (pulled tea), black tea mixed with condensed milk and poured at a great height to create a frothy top.
We were lucky enough to land a housesit near Old Airport Road Hawker Center which has the reputation of one of the oldest and best hawker centers in Singapore. An incredibly detailed article from JayMoyLovesFood can be found here which lays out the center stall by stall, dish by dish.
Our favorites were Cho Kee (shop 4) and Hua Kee (shop 2) Wanton Noodles, Aunty Oats Pancake (shop 110) and Lao Ban Soya Bean (107). Lao Ban’s Soya Bean is so famous there used to be two-hour lineups until they expanded into other outlets.
An concerning dilemma is facing the future of the Singaporean Hawker Center as the original generation of hawkers are now at retiring age. As a major economic hub with employment opportunities in the banking, shipping and economic worlds, much of Singapore’s youth are uninterested in the hard physical work and long hours of running a food stand. Young hawkers are rarity. There’s a cultural shift happening too, new food trends continually popping up, new restaurants, cafes and pubs, and their lure of air-conditioning, modern design, and table service. Singapore’s Hawker Centres (and Japan’s, Korea’s and other countries around the world for that matter) and their reputation for delicious, affordable street food could be at risk of disappearing.
What can we say, we ate out a lot! For one dinner, our family took us to a famous steamboat, Golden Mile Thien Kee Steamboat Restaurant, where plates of raw beef, pork and seafood were slipped into shimmering boats of stock. We also had plates of Hainanese chicken rice, pork ribs and roast pork. Steamboat is really fun as it’s so interactive, using slotted spoons to dip your chosen ingredients in, making sure they don’t float away to be snatched up by a cheeky neighbour!
While Singapore has many choices for affordable dishes, the price of alcohol is going to burn a hole straight through your wallet. The going rate is approximately $14 for a beer and $20 for a cocktail, and the price just keeps climbing. Nevertheless we did go on a little bar hop, to some of the chicest, sophisticated bars we had ever seen. Morton’s Steakhouse bar section in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel has happy hour cocktails at $15 with free-flowing mini steak sandwiches.
We also stopped in at the fabulously opulent art deco Parkview Square Divine Bar, known locally as the Gotham City bar. The bar has a 12m high wine rack, which has a slightly gimmicky ‘wine fairy’, a server dressed in a silver getup and wings, who connects herself via a pulley to retrieve the selected bottle. Go for the insane Great Gatsby decor and live jazz band instead.
One of the best vantage points for the Singapore skyline and Marina Bay Sands laser show was Orgo Bar and Restaurant.
To keep with the cycling theme, my cousin Trina took us to Wheelers Yard, a hipster coffee cafe and bicycle shop.
The decor was so much fun, with full bicycles lined up on the tables, bicycle frames, parts and helmets among the hanging lights and vintage chairs.
The food, and coffee, was pretty good too, I can highly recommend the caramel banana waffles!
We ate until we were stuffed yet there were a thousand things we still had yet to try. After any length of stay in Singapore, almost anything begins to look edible.
Big thanks to our family, especially Auntie Susan, Uncle Choy, Trina, Justin, Auntie Choo Choo and Uncle Kwang Cheng for feeding us, showing us round, letting us extend our stay and so much more. Thank you!