Much loved by Singaporeans and visitors alike, Singapore’s Hawker Culture has now been inscribed to UNESCO’s list as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
To the uninitiated, Hawker Culture refers to the many food centres across the city where stall-holders cook and sell affordable meals. From morning through night, the air is full of heady aromas and the sounds of bubbling pots and sizzling pans as visitors queue up eagerly for their favourite dishes – fragrant curries, tasty satays, sticky barbecue glazed pork, fish ball noodles and more. All are freshly prepared from Chinese, Indian and Malay cuisine using recipes handed down and perfected through generations.
There is also an astonishing array of drinks, ranging from a traditional teh tarik breakfast tea steeped in spices, mixed with condensed milk and poured from a great height to cool and froth; to a ‘Michael Jackson’ – a black and white beverage of soya milk containing refreshing squares of grass jelly.
For first-time visitors overwhelmed by the choices, the length of the queues indicate the most popular stalls. Feel free to reserve your place at one of the community tables by using the traditional Singaporean act of ‘choping’ or placing a packet of tissues to mark your spot.
The UNESCO recognition of Singapore’s Hawker Culture is well deserved. The standard of food is so high that many hawker stalls feature on the Michelin Bib Gourmand and several have achieved Michelin stars, surely making them the cheapest Michelin-starred meals in the world. Dining in a hawker centre should definitely be added to your ‘must do’ list on your next visit to Singapore.
Singaporean specialities at the food centres
Chilli Crab: This is among Singapore’s most mouth-watering culinary creations. Chilli crab is widely available in most seafood restaurants, which typically use mud crabs that have sweet and juicy flesh. However, the sauce is the star of the dish, full of tangy sauce laced with crabmeat and mopped up with mantous, small fried bread buns. You’ll certainly make new friends when enjoying this hearty dish.
Fish head curry: This dish is unique to Singapore, the microcosm of the cultural melting pot. It mixes the spices of a typical South Indian curry with the whole fish head, a delicacy among the Chinese. Every ethnic group in Singapore has its own version of the dish, with slight variations to the curry. The only similarity is the head of a fleshy Red Snapper with a spicy gravy and a mix of vegetables such as okra (lady fingers) and aubergine.
Nasi Lemak: Translated as ‘rich rice’ in Malay, this dish is a perfect mix of flavours: aromatic rice infused with coconut milk and pandan leaves, eaten with deep-fried fish or chicken wings, otah (grilled fish paste), fried ikan bilis (local anchovies) and peanuts, eggs, cucumber slices, and sambal (spicy chilli paste). This ‘rich’ dish fuels enough energy for a full day of adventures in Singapore.
Satay: These grilled meat skewers served on bamboo skewers are a staple of Singaporean communal dining and can also be found in many variations across Southeast Asia. Chicken, beef and mutton are the most common meats employed in this dish. After being skewered and seasoned in a concoction of spices like tamarind and galangal, the meat is grilled over a charcoal fire and served with a sticky and tangy peanut sauce.
Katong laksa: This is a spicy coconut milk-based noodle soup inspired by the Peranakans who live in the Katong area of Singapore. The defining characteristic of Katong laksa is the noodles: thick vermicelli cut into shorter pieces that can be easily slurped up with a spoon (no chopsticks needed), the perfect comfort food for a rainy day. Many variations of laksa exist across the region, but Katong Laksa is unique to Singapore.
Roti Prata: Crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, roti prata hits the spot every time. A South-Indian flat bread made by frying stretched dough flavoured with ghee, it is usually served with fish, chicken or mutton curry. It is believed that the dish evolved from original pancake recipes from Punjab in India. No matter where it comes from, roti prata is a satisfying family meal for any hour of the day.
Chicken rice: One of the nation’s staple dishes, this delectable meal can be found at almost every dining spot, from humble hawker centres to high-end restaurants. All offer the same dish at a variety of prices: poached chicken served with fragrant rice, spicy chilli and ginger paste, what’s not to love?
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Singapore Tourism Board for more information.