A first timer's guide to Singapore's hawker centers – The Points Guy

It's 90 degrees outside with 75% humidity on this February day. There's no air conditioning, and a group of retired, 80-year-old men in flip flops sit around a table in Chinatown's People Park to munch on some decadent chicken rice and fish head soup while sharing stories in Hainanese.
On the other side of town in Little India, Bollywood beats and the endless, mouthwatering smells of spices like fenugreek accompany the crispy masala dosas coming off the griddles.
This was my welcome to Singapore's hawker centers.
With ties to the city-state's colonial past, working-class roots, multicultural heritage and ever-changing sociodemographics, Singapore's hawker centers are more than just open-air markets filled with smoking hot woks and sizzling tandoors. They are sprawling food courts that serve as a social epicenter for Singaporeans.
In fact, hawker culture is so entwined with daily life in Singapore that it was added to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in December 2020.
So, what do you need to know about these cultural institutions before you experience them for yourself? Here's an overview of Singapore's famous food stalls, including where you'll find them and which dishes you should try.
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Hawker centers first appeared in Singapore in 1819 when it became a British colony.
Recognizing the area's strategic significance for trade, which only grew once the Suez Canal opened in 1869, Britain began utilizing Singapore as a key stop for loading natural resources like rubber and tin onto ships bound for Europe.
Needing strong (but cheap) laborers who could move heavy supplies on and off of ships, Britain adopted an open-door immigration policy. This resulted in an influx of Chinese immigrants eager to escape poor living conditions in southern China sparked by a series of famines. To pay for their journeys to Singapore, many became indentured servants.
These Chinese immigrants became the backbone of the future city-state's labor pool, along with the convicts brought to Singapore from India (another British colony) and a sizable group of Malays and Indonesians who came to Singapore seeking a better way of life.
As Singapore's migrant community grew, so, too, did its need for sustenance. Craving the dishes enjoyed in their home countries, many laborers set up hawker food carts serving affordable versions of their favorite fare.
Early iterations of hawker food stalls lacked hygiene protocols and were therefore avoided by wealthy residents. However, once British rule in Singapore ended in 1963 and the former colony gained independence from Malaysia in 1965, the new city-state's government sought to overhaul its street cart scene by creating the clean, meticulously monitored hawker centers prevalent today.
As a result, hawker centers now welcome a range of patrons, from working-class citizens to vacationing foodies. While the exact items featured on hawker center menus vary by location, you can expect to find all kinds of noodle dishes, refreshing drinks, soups, fried chow and more — all for a few bucks each.
I started my foodie extravaganza southwest of downtown in Singapore's Chinatown area. Although the People's Park Complex (one of the neighborhood's main buildings) was closed briefly from March to June 2020 due to the pandemic, it was open and welcoming shoppers, diners and more during my visit.
To enter the building's hawker center, the members of my Singapore Foodsters food tour were required to tap in using the TraceTogether app, which is used throughout Singapore for COVID-19 contact tracing. A guard at the entrance to the food court ensured everyone tapped in and received a green light.
Although most of the people at this hawker center were senior citizens, I felt strangely at peace and comfortable inside. Unlike other hawker centers I visited, I could simply soak up the setting and go where I pleased without being approached by vendors pushing their food.
Before Jerry, the tour guide, ordered a few items for us to try, I had a chance to interact with Mr. Lim, an 85-year-old man who grew up in Singapore when it was occupied by Japan during World War II. Despite a language barrier, I enjoyed putting a smile on his face when I attempted to tell him he was very handsome in Mandarin Chinese.
Since it was so hot outside, Jerry ordered our group cups of pineapple juice — freshly squeezed right before our eyes — before proceeding with our food tasting. At 2 Singapore dollars (less than $1.50) per glass, the juice was incredibly affordable given how fresh it was.
After finishing my pineapple juice, it was time to try some of the Chinatown market's dishes.
The first item Jerry brought to the table was a combination platter featuring roast duck, barbecue pork and roast pork belly, which cost $18 Singapore dollars (or about $13). Although I found the pork to be a bit too fatty, the duck was exceptional. It reminded me of Peking duck, but better. I also enjoyed the hoisin dipping sauce, which had a smooth and slightly sweet aftertaste.
Next up was my favorite dish from Chinatown: fried carrot cake. Contrary to what its name implies, the black-and-white cake (known locally as chai tow kway) isn't actually made with carrots. Instead, the tasty treat, which cost SG$4 (about $3), is made with radishes. That may not sound particularly appealing, but the dish is served in a savory sauce that's packed with flavor. Trust me — you won't want to miss this item.
Another dish worth trying is the oyster omelet (luak), which will set you back SG$8 (approximately $6). Admittedly, oysters are not my favorite ingredient (though I love cooked shellfish), so I wasn't a huge fan of this item. It's a local staple worth trying — just know that it's an acquired taste.
Fried noodles called char kway teow were also on the menu. Costing just SG$5 (about $3.70), the dish tasted like a mix of pad Thai and drunken noodles. If you're craving a bite of something familiar while you're in Singapore without straying from Asian cuisine, this is the dish to try.
Lastly, Jerry ordered a plate of Hainanese chicken rice for SG$4.50 (roughly $3.50). After the first bite, it was easy to understand why this item is Singapore's unofficial national dish. The delicate chicken reminded me of a ceviche preparation with a citrus-based sauce, and the rice was incredibly flavorful thanks to it being steamed in chicken stock. It was beyond scrumptious.
After exploring Chinatown, Jerry took us three stops on Singapore's Mass Rapid Transit subway to Little India. Right away, I noticed several stalls selling flowers for puja, a Hindu, Buddhist and Jain tradition of ceremonial worship.
As we walked around the neighborhood, I couldn't help but feel as if I'd been transported to the streets of Chennai, India. Workers were quick on their feet as they headed home after a long day's work, and fumes from passing vehicles filled the air.
Signs to the hawker center were nowhere to be found, but with Jerry's guidance, we soon found ourselves surrounded by subziwallas (vegetable sellers) and vendors selling all kinds of dishes.
Unlike the market in Chinatown, no one stood by the entrance checking visitors' TraceTogether app accounts. Bollywood music could be heard everywhere we turned, creating a much more lively dining experience than in Chinatown. It's no surprise, then, that this food court catered to a considerably younger clientele, serving predominantly first-generation immigrants.
Vendors were also much more active in trying to sell their food, approaching tourists (like us) to attempt to draw us to their stalls.
Once we settled on a spot to sit, Jerry brought us a round of iced mango lassis, a refreshing Indian drink made with fresh chunks of mango. Costing only SG$1.50 (about $1) the sweet beverage was the perfect way to cool off in the hot venue while eyeing the various dishes being sold inside.
We started our meal in Little India with dosa masala, a staple of south Indian cuisine that cost just SG$2 (roughly $1.50). Best described as a savory Indian-style crepe, the slightly sour but incredibly tasty concoction features crisp, thin edges and a soft center topped with a tomato-based sauce. I've always loved dosas, and after eating this one, I found myself craving dosas for the rest of the trip.
Once we finished the dosa masala, Jerry brought out our next set of dishes: chicken tikka (boneless, skinless chicken breast coated in spices and cooked in a traditional oven called a tandoor), saag paneer (a spinach dish made with cubed cheese), aloo matar (a potato and pea curry), garlic naan (an Indian flatbread coated with garlic) and chana masala (chickpeas in a flavorful sauce that included ginger, turmeric and cumin).
While the prices were reasonable — each item cost no more than SG$3 (or about $2.20) — the flavors for some of the dishes were a bit more muted than I expected. Still, I loved trying everything, especially in such an upbeat setting.
It was great to see such a wide array of southern Indian dishes available, as many of these items are hard to find at Indian restaurants in the U.S., which often focus on northern Indian staples. To say my mom and I thoroughly enjoyed our time in Little India would be a huge understatement.
Our last stop on our food tour took us to Arab Street, which is located about a mile east of Little India. Despite lacking proper hawker centers, this culinary hot spot is well worth a visit, as it's home to all kinds of locally loved establishments, including Zam Zam, where we ended up.
Serving Singaporeans for more than 100 years, Zam Zam offered a menu full of Indian Muslim specialties (i.e., dishes from nearby countries like Malaysia and Indonesia).
Its location right across the street from the Sultan Mosque only added to the ambiance.
Following a brief exchange with some of the restaurant employees, who were excited to learn I speak Indonesian, Jerry proceeded to place our order.
Our meal at Zam Zam began with nasi goreng, Indonesia's version of fried rice featuring egg, onion, sweet soy sauce, garlic, green onions, chiles and shrimp paste for SG$5 (about $3.50). While the Zam Zam take on this relatively simple dish wasn't the best version I've ever had, its reasonable price of SG$5 (approximately $3.50) made it worth trying.
The meal became much more impressive after that.
Next up was mie goreng ayam. Costing SG$6 (about $4.50), this fried noodles with chicken dish was incredibly spicy. Despite the fiery kick, each bite was heavenly, as the curry flavor was present without overwhelming the other ingredients. The dish was so mouthwateringly tasty that it was easily my favorite from the trip.
Before leaving, we also ordered a plate of mutton murtabak for SG$8 (or roughly $5.75). Perhaps the most well-known Southeast Asian Muslim dish, the goat meat-filled flatbread didn't disappoint. It reminded me of a thin, chewy Italian calzone. I loved the zesty sauce served on the side, which added a slight punch to what would have otherwise been a relatively bland dish.
With more than 100 hawker centers in Singapore, you could easily spend your entire vacation hopping from market to market while barely scratching the surface of what's available.
While Chinatown and Little India house two of Singapore's most popular hawker centers, other neighborhoods also feature food courts worth checking out.
Head to Bedok by Singapore Changi Airport (SIN) to sample traditional Malay dishes. The Bedok South Market and Food Centre, in particular, is a must-visit spot for foodies, as it serves everything from comforting bowls of fish soup to yummy breakfast favorites like chwee kueh (steamed water rice cakes).
There are also hawker centers in more upscale neighborhoods like shopping-centric Orchard Road, which appeared in "Crazy Rich Asians." Keep in mind, though, that the markets in bustling tourist spots are going to feel a bit more Western than those found in other parts of Singapore. Should you find yourself visiting the jaw-dropping Gardens by the Bay, be sure to stop by Satay by the Bay, a hawker center situated next to the Cloud Forest.
No culinary trip to Singapore would be complete without exploring Tiong Bahru Market. Located just west of the central Outram neighborhood, this bustling hawker center is known for its Singapore chili crab.
Thanks to their notable characters and lots of mouthwatering dishes, Singapore's hawker centers are unlike any food stalls you'll find elsewhere.
From their humble beginnings as cheap places to savor authentic tastes of home to lively spots where you can satiate your appetite while socializing with fellow patrons, these UNESCO-listed food courts offer a front-row seat to everything I love about Singapore, including its rich culture and friendly residents.
The camaraderie you'll experience while sharing a table with strangers is unmatched, and the budget-friendly prices can't be beat.
Then, of course, there's the food, which is some of the tastiest you'll find in Singapore.
It's no wonder why hawker centers draw droves of hungry locals and tourists every day.
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