One of my favourite activities when I am in Singapore for restaurant inspections is renting a bicycle and zipping from hawker centre to hawker centre and sampling the delicious creations from hundreds of stalls. With some hawker centres just a short ride away from the next, cycling is not only a breezy, convenient mode of travel, the exercise also aids digestion and gets me ready for another round of eating.
Hawker centres are an integral part of life in the city-state. These open-air food halls house dozens — sometimes even hundreds, in the largest complexes — of individual stalls hawking a wide variety of affordably priced food. Stepping into one is a like going on a treasure hunt — a street food tour beyond satisfaction, on which you can graze on the cuisines of the world from morning till late into the night without any repetition. More than just being a community dining hall, hawker centres are the crossroads for people from all walks of life: residents, the working class and tourists alike are drawn together over the promise of a delicious, affordable meal.
This much-loved institution was recently added to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, alongside the likes of beer culture in Belgium, kimchi-making in Korea and the gastronomic meal of the French. It is no wonder that the MICHELIN Guide has included hawker food in the Singapore guide since it debuted in 2016.
As with all food cultures, there are rituals and etiquette to be observed in hawker centres. An innocuous packet of tissue or a seemingly forgotten umbrella on a table or chair is an important signal that the spot has been reserved (or “chope-d”, as the locals say) by a diner that is probably off queueing for his food.
And speaking of queues, long lines are an indication of the popularity of a hawker stall. You can’t go wrong hopping into the back of queue — just make sure you don’t get in line on an empty stomach! Most stalls offer their specialties in various portion sizes. A small portion will allow you space to try more dishes from other stalls, especially if you bring along a dining companion or two.
For Singapore’s hawkers, the long hours spent churning out dish after dish is not just about making ends meet, but also to share their heritage of traditional foods and flavours. It is not uncommon to find silver-haired hawkers who have been perfecting the same time-honoured recipe their whole lives.
Take the ubiquitous breakfast dish of chwee kueh (“water cake” when literally translated from the Hokkien dialect) for example. The plain appearance of these steamed white rice cakes belies its laborious preparation. To ensure the quality of this traditional snack, it has to be cooked fresh daily. Preparation work starts as early as 5am for the hawkers who grind their own rice flour and mix it with water before steaming them in small moulds. The soft, bouncy cakes are then served with homemade sweet and savoury preserved radish and sambal chilli, for which each hawker has their own proprietary recipe.
Our favourites are Bib Gourmand recipient Bedok Chwee Kueh and Ghim Moh Chwee Kueh at Ghim Moh Road Market And Food Centre. The best part is, this simple dish that captures all the traditions and expertise of the hawker comes at a low price of just about SGD1 for four pieces.
At Singapore’s vibrant, lively hawker centres, it is not only about the food, but inheritance, persistence and love. I cannot wait to be back.