Singapore Street Foods: From the Roadsides to Hawker Centers
Hawker food is a cornerstone of Singaporean society. Once synonymous with street food, Singapore’s hawker culture has since earned multiple Michelin Bib Gourmand awards and even piqued the interest of world-famous chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Wolfgang Puck.
Aside from the odd ice cream cart or pop-up food stand, it is rare to see people cooking on the polished streets of modern-day Singapore.
However, before Singapore became an urban metropolis, it was a bustling port city. Hawkers of the past would saturate the streets, cooking and serving up food from makeshift stalls to local passers-by.
In this article, we dive into Singapore’s culinary history, a few classic Singaporean street foods, and some inside tips for navigating the realm of hawker centers.
Hawker Origins: The History of Street Food
Street food in Singapore originated as early as the 1800s, when the country received waves of immigrants from nearby Southeast Asian countries. As hawking was a good way to earn income with low capital, these early settlers brought the food of their homelands and adapted it to local tastes.
As recipes were passed down from generation to generation, the various cultural influences blended together to create a uniquely Singaporean cuisine, with a diverse range of food that still stay true to their original roots.
Hawking remained a popular profession even as Singapore changed hands over the years, from the British colonial government to the Japanese military during World War II, and when the country gained independence in 1965.
The different governments each imposed regulations to move the hawkers off the streets as they were viewed as an obstruction to traffic and city planning. Hawkers also posed health and hygiene issues as they frequently left waste on the roadside and did not have easy access to clean water.
From 1971 to 1986, the Singaporean government relocated thousands of street hawkers to hawker centers with the proper facilities, to support the hawker’s livelihoods while freeing up the streets for urbanization.
Famous Hawker Centers
Today, hawker stalls are no longer scattered on the streets but organized into neat rows at hawker centers, which serve as popular go-tos for a meal at any time of the day.
The hawker center is Singapore’s communal dining room, bringing a myriad of food and people under one roof. It typically has indoor and outdoor seating, where one can seek shelter from the sun and rain or enjoy a meal under the stars.
These days, there are also air-conditioned food courts, and several renowned hawkers have even opened their own establishments.
However, open-air hawker centers continue to be the mainstay of Singapore’s food scene. They are strategically located near residential and business areas to provide a convenient dining place for the communities and working population, and thus a steady flow of customers for hawkers.
Some hawker centers are situated alongside wet markets, which sell fresh meat and produce, as well as flowers, clothing, and local goods. There are now over 110 in the country, housing thousands of hawker stalls, yet some of the earliest hawker centers built in Singapore are still favored by locals to this day.
- Newton Food Centre (featured in the movie Crazy Rich Asians, and where Chef Gordon Ramsay went up against local hawkers in a 2013 cook-off)
- Chinatown Complex Food Centre (where Chef Wolfgang Puck recently tried his hand at local hawker cuisine)
- Lau Pa Sat (housed in a rebuilt Victorian building at 18 Raffles Quay, Singapore 048582)
- Old Airport Road Food Centre (51 Old Airport Rd, Singapore 390051)
- Tiong Bahru Market (52 Tiong Bahru Rd, Singapore 168716)
- Maxwell Food Centre (1 Kadayanallur St, Singapore 069184)
Popular Local Foods & Average Prices
For many Singaporeans, hawker food is a distinctive taste of home: simple, affordable, and nostalgic comfort food.
At hawker centers, you will be spoiled for choice with the abundance of food options available. As such, people often buy a variety of dishes to split amongst the group, allowing everyone to sample the different flavors. This is also seen in several Asian food cultures, where sharing food is viewed as a way to strengthen friendship and family ties.
Prices vary across different hawker centers as hawkers have to keep up with inflated competition and rental prices. While you can still get a filling meal for under $5 SGD ($3.50 USD), the food at certain places can easily go up to $10 SGD.
As a side note, bringing cash to hawker centers is recommended as it is usually the preferred mode of payment.
- Chicken, pork, and mutton satay ($0.50-1.00 per stick): Flame-grilled meat skewers served with peanut sauce.
- Char kway teow ($4-6): Wok-fried flat noodles with prawns, cockles, and beansprouts.
- Hainanese chicken rice ($3-5): Steamed chicken served with fragrant rice and chilli.
- Nasi lemak: Rice cooked with coconut milk and pandan leaves, served with ingredients such as fried chicken, otah (spicy fish paste), and ikan bilis (crispy fried anchovies).
- Roti prata ($1-2 per piece): Crispy flatbread. Popular as a breakfast, lunch, dinner, and supper food, dipped in curry or sugar.
- Hokkien mee ($4-6): Yellow noodles and vermicelli fried with eggs and prawn stock and served with prawns, sotong, and pork belly. Served with sambal chili and lime.
- Laksa ($4-6): Noodles served with prawn, fishcakes, and cockles in a spicy coconut broth.
Popular Local Drinks & Customs
Hawker centers offer a variety of homemade drinks, served in mugs and glasses or disposable cups. The average price for these drinks is between $1-3 for an iced drink and $0.60-0.80 for a hot drink.
- Teh tarik: “Pulled tea” with milk, poured repeatedly between two cups from arm’s length to froth and cool the beverage.
- Sugar cane: A refreshing drink pressed from stalks of sugar cane, with an option to add lemon.
- Milo dinosaur: Iced Milo (chocolate malt drink) heaped with sweet Milo powder.
- Bandung: A sweet, vibrant pink drink made with milk and rose syrup.
- Fresh coconut water: Served in the coconut, with a spoon to scrape the flesh off the husk.
- Homemade lemon tea, barley, or water chestnut
Of course, coffee and tea are essential. Traditional Singaporean kopi (coffee) and teh (tea) are made with condensed milk and sugar. To order coffee or tea according to your preferences, it is helpful to understand the local terms, such as:
- Peng: iced
- O: no milk
- C: with evaporated instead of condensed milk
- Kosong: no sugar
- Siew dai: less condensed milk
- Gao: stronger
Drink vendors also sell imported canned and bottled drinks. Hawker centers are popular places to order buckets of beer for the table, finishing off a hearty meal by bonding over a drink with friends.
Popular Local Desserts
Singapore boasts a wide range of desserts, from hot to cold, sweet to savory. Some of the more traditional desserts also have cooling and healthy properties—a delicious relief from the country’s humid weather. These can typically be bought for a price of $1.50-3 SGD.
- Ice kachang: shaved ice with flavored syrups and jellies
- Chendol: a sweet dessert with gula melaka, coconut milk, and pandan jellies
- Soya beancurd: soft, silken beancurd pudding in a sweet syrup
- Cheng tng: a cooling soup dessert with dried fruits and herbal ingredients, served hot or iced
Snacks such as goreng pisang (crispy fried banana fritters) and colorful, bite-sized nyonya kueh (cakes) are also popular dessert foods, and can be bought at $0.60-$1.50 SGD a piece.
A glimpse into hawker centres
As communal spaces, hawker centers have a set of unofficial rules and practices followed by Singaporean locals.
Finding a table at a hawker centre is on a first-come-first-serve basis, and not for the faint of heart. One must be extremely quick and alert to spot and claim empty seats. During peak hours, people often hover around those nearly finished with their meals, placing silent pressure on them to quickly vacate the table for the next round of hungry diners.
As dining at hawker centers is self-serve, groups of diners often take turns queueing for food at the stalls after finding a table. This ensures that there is at least one person keeping the table occupied, preventing the precious space from being snatched up by other eager patrons.
However, this presents a challenge, especially for lone diners. Hence, an alternative option is “choping” tables. “Chope” is a Singlish slang, referring to the practice of reserving a place by placing an item on the tables or chairs. While typically done with tissue packets, Singapore is considered so safe that some people even leave their personal belongings to stake their table territory.
Lastly, since there are no waitstaff at hawker centers, it is an encouraged practice to clear your own table by returning your tray to the designated stations. This quickly frees up the table for the next diners and eases the workload on the often-elderly cleaners.
Despite the influx of high-end restaurants and global food chains into the country, many of the most popular foods in Singapore today are still found in hawker centers.
The survival of Singaporean hawker culture in a modern era is not without its challenges, such as inflated rental prices and a dwindling generation of hawkers to carry on the legacies of their food pioneers.
However, hawker culture is a quintessential piece of Singaporean society. More than just the food, it represents the union of friends, family, and community. It has brought people together for many generations past, and will continue to do so for many to come.