Have you ever experienced that awkward silence when you are asked about Singapore’s culture, and you fumble, hem and haw as you try to find some costume, dance or tradition that is unique to Singapore? I have. Well, at least until I start talking about food. Now that’s where stopping me would be a problem.
It is amazing how much our nation loves food. Our day-to-day conversation inevitably revolves around food. And the best part is for a fraction of the price, you get something no less satisfying than a meal in a high-end restaurant. So here is a guide to introduce 10 of the best Singapore Hawker Food.
Char Kway Teow
Char Kway Teow was a dish created by coolie workers who needed a cheap way to prepare an energy-rich meal. Today, calories have become a bane, but we love our char kway teow all the same. How can anyone resist a plate of silky rice noodles fried with cockles, chinese sausage and – wait for this – heaps of crispy pork lard. I’d risk having a heart attack for Hill Street Char Kway Teow (Blk 16 Bedok South Road). Though the master is no longer helming the wok, he has imparted his skills to the son, who has taken over. Otherwise, try our Prime Minister’s favourite stall, Zion Road Char Kway Teow (Zion Road Food Center).
No it does not come with cream cheese and walnuts, but I’d pick our local version of Carrot Cake any day. Black or white, a good carrot cake is one that is crispy and eggy on the outside, and as you place a chunk in your mouth, dissolves without the need to even masticate. Fu Ming Carrot Cake at Redhill Food Centre is the epitome of carrot cakes. For a more unique version, I’d recommend U Fried Carrot Cake (Block 89 Pipit Road Market). The chunks of steamed radish cake are chopped larger than the usual, and it is sweeter than usual since they are more liberal with their sauce. Still, it is fried just nice such that you get that smokey aroma of burnt caramel in your mouth.
Hainanese Chicken Rice
If there’s one dish that’s synonymous with Singaporean cuisine, it has to be Chicken Rice. The name itself sounds so unappealing; how good can chicken on rice taste? Pretty awesome, actually. The glistening grains of rice perfumed by fresh chicken stock and a whiff of ginger is so good you can even eat it on its own. I could go on for hours about the best chicken rice in Singapore, but for the sake of trying the most famous one in Singapore, head to Tian Tian at Maxwell market which has earned boasting rights to getting Anthony Bourdain’s stamp of approval. Otherwise, Sin Kee (Mei Ling market) is good for those who prefer grains with a little more moisture.
So Tze Char is not exactly a dish per se, but it represents our culture of communal dining. Dishes are placed in the middle of a round table for sharing and each person will be equipped with a bowl of rice and a pair of chopsticks. For me, Tze Char (which means ‘cook and fry’) is all about bold flavours, good wok hei and gravy. It is difficult to recommend a particular Tze Char stall since there are usually hits and misses, but I know I’d never go wrong with Kok Sen Seafood (Keong Saik Road). I have recommended to many people for their big prawn hor fun amongst other fantastic dishes, and not once has it disappointed. For more creative offerings (think pumpkin prawns and coffee crabs), check out Siang Hee (Serangoon Gardens Way). Joo Hing (Joo Chiat Road) is where you can get your Tze Char fix amidst classier ambience but with equally good food. Their rendition of the steamed fish head is one of the best in town.
For more recommendations, read our guide to the best Tze Char restaurants in the west of Singapore.
While chilli crab is not a hawker food, no food guide is complete without a feature of this national dish. The vibrant red hue of the dish instantly captures the attention of any reader. The silky gravy, laced with shreds of egg, is sweet and mildly spicy (at least by the standards of locals; I have heard foreigners breaking out into a sweat from it).
The history of this dish dates back to the 1950s when the owners of Roland Restaurant (Marine Parade Central) decided to do a little experimentation with crabs, tomato sauce and chilli sauce. Today, big players in seafood cuisine include Long Beach, No Signboard and Jumbo Seafood. Each restaurant’s rendition is slightly different, and it’s a tough call as to which is the best.
Bak Chor Mee
When I need something hearty after a hard day at school, I’d head straight for Bak Chor Mee. Perhaps it is the lightly blanched lean pork slices and pinkish liver, or maybe it is the sharp vinegar-laced sauce, or just the fact that everything comes together so well to make this the perfect comfort food. No one will dispute that Tai Hwa (Block 466 Crawford Lane) serves the best Bak Chor Mee in Singapore; you will find queues even at odd hours of the day despite the obscure location. Lian Kee (Alexandra Village Food Centre) is unique for its slightly sweet sauce, while the two stalls at Block 85 Fengshan Centre battle it out for the best soup version of Bak Chor Mee.
Rojak is a fruit and vegetable salad dish consisting of you tiao (fried dough fritters), bean curds, bean sprouts, pineapples, and turnips. Everyone knows about Hoover Rojak (Whampoa Market) and Toa Payoh Rojak (oddly located within Old Airport Rd). But I will let you in on a little secret. The nameless rojak stall at the basement food court of Katong Shopping Centre is extremely value-for-money at just $2 for a regular size portion.
It is not as delicate as the Japanese version, nor is it as fine as Taiwanese snowflake ice, but our Ice Kacang is nonetheless, very satisfying on a hot day. A towering portion of crushed ice slapped on with sugar syrup in a myriad of colours. The standard version comes with atap seeds, grass jelly, agar bits and red bean, though we can be thankful for product differentiation by our hawkers these days.
Those who miss Annie’s, which started serving the first peanut ice kacang at Tanjong Pagar market, is now at Ghim Moh Market since the former closed for renovation. Jin Jin’s version comes with thick gula Melaka syrup, and is hands down my favourite dessert stall in Singapore. I can easily conquer another of their Gangster ice (which comes with mangoes and durian puree) after finishing a bowl of their ice kacang. It is the stall with the longest queue at ABC market at Bukit Merah.
Yong Tau Foo
The healthiest of the lot, Yong Tau Foo is probably something you will want to have after days of indulging in lard-laden hawker dishes. Hui Ji (Tiong Bahru market) serves a version that is a cross between fishball noodles and Yong Tau Foo. Yong Xing Xiang (People’s Park Complex) has one of the best Yong Tau Foo in Singapore with a soup base that is clear yet intensely flavourful. Do not miss the crispy deep-fried pork balls from Xi Xiang Feng (Ang Mo Kio central market). It is so addictive that I’d advise putting at least three of these little morsels in your bowl, lest you regret afterwards. Ok, maybe I lied… It is not exactly all that healthy after all!
Wanton mee is probably the most underrated hawker dish ever… or maybe it is just something I personally have a soft spot for. There is so much more to it than just noodles and dumplings. I like my noodles thick and al dente a la Ji Ji Wanton Mee (Hong Lim Food Centre); I am salivating just thinking about it. Though if I had the luxury of time, I’d queue half an hour every morning to have Chun Ji (164 Stirling Rd). It is sticky, gooey, mildly sweet gravy coats each strand of noodles, which in turn are cooked with deft skills that only comes with decades of practice. For ardent fans of Hong Mao Wanton Mee previously at Tembling Road, the man is back in action and has set up stall at the basement of Dunman Rd Food Centre; do pay Ah Huat Wanton Mee – they have the most flavourful wantons ever.
Words by Sarah Lim, photographs by ladyironchef