Singaporeans are food-lovers and eating out is one of their favorite pastimes. Food is a topic that unites the island’s diverse population, and that’s why it’s not surprising that the food standard is very high. Singapore is a melting pot of different cultures from around the world, with influences from Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and Indonesian cuisine.
Although this tiny island state has fine dining restaurants that ranked among one of the world’s best, at its core, Singapore is still a culture of vibrant street food at affordable prices. But don’t let the prices fool you, the food centers in Singapore are famous for their high quality and diversity. Recently Michelin even awarded a star to one of the street food stalls, recognizing the immense talent of the local street hawkers.
In the early 1970s, due to rapid urbanization and the need to regulate the vast numbers of street food peddlers, the government opened markets with dedicated hawker centers where you can find permanent food stalls with shared tables and seats. There are hundreds of hawker centers found throughout the city with an astounding variety and low prices. You can eat really well in Singapore and not completely break the bank.
While Singapore may be world-renowned for its famed chili crabs, there are a plethora of other delicious options to be had like Hainanese chicken rice, char kway teow, and prawn mee – just to name a few. There was so much good food, we literally ate 4-5 times a day and still hadn’t scratched the surface. Here are a few of our favorite places and things to eat while in Singapore:
On the top of my list of things to eat whenever I go to a tropical country is always fruit. There is usually a wide variety of fruit like mangonsteen, rambutans, mangoes and pomelo at a fraction of the prices in the US. In Singapore we hit the jackpot at the Bugis Market. It’s an indoor market with lots of tiny stalls selling cheap clothing, candies, toys and of course fruit – which you can find at the front of the building. The varieties of brightly colored fruit are displayed in an eye-catching mound, but they also sell ready-cut fruits if you want to eat right away. My favorite fruit from this trip is the mangosteen. I was in heaven. This place reminds me of Cho Ben Thanh in Sai Gon and La Boqueria in Barcelona.
Ice Cream Sandwich
If you walk around Singapore you’re bound to run into carts selling ice cream sandwiches. It’s a literal ice cream sandwich with rainbow colored bread wrapped around a block of ice cream that comes in various flavors. This brought back many fond childhood memories for me, so of course I had to convince Fausto to try, except he doesn’t need that much convincing when it comes to ice cream. He claimed that it tasted weird at first, but once he got used to the bread, he was quite convinced that this is how ice cream should be eaten. The whole thing only cost about $1, making it the perfect snack on a hot day.
Noodle soup has always been my weakness. Aside from being good comfort food, it’s also filling and satisfying. While in Singapore, I noticed that there are a lot of places selling prawn mee. It’s a noodle soup consisting of four components – noodles, prawns, pork ribs, and soup. You can choose between the vermicelli rice noodles or the thicker egg noodles that sit in a rich and savory soup that is flavorful with a hint of sweetness. It’s topped with perfectly cooked and halved prawns, melt-in-your-mouth pork ribs, crunchy water spinach, bean sprouts, and fried shallots to add another dimension to the texture.
Wah Kee Big Prawn Noodles was dubbed by many as Singapore’s best prawn mee spot, located in the Pioko Food Center. We were prepared for an hour-long line, but unfortunately, the stall was closed the two days we were there, for no reason. Instead, we got the homemade fish ball dry noodles that were amazingly good, so the trip was not a complete loss. Maybe you’ll have better luck than us, in which case, comment below and let us know how you like it.
Hainanese Chicken and Rice
Hainanese Chicken Rice is one of Singapore’s most well-known dishes. It originated from the Malay Peninsula during the British occupation, invented by Hainanese chefs. The dish is surprisingly simple, consisting of tender steamed chicken served over a bed of fragrant rice that was cooked in chicken bone stock, ginger, and garlic to absorb the flavors. It usually comes with some sliced cucumber, coriander and homemade chili sauce.
When asked, each Singaporean will have their own ideas about where you can find the best Hainanese chicken rice stall, but most people will agree that Tian Tian is deservedly one of the top spots. Located in Chinatown’s Maxwell Food Centre, this popular spot occupies two adjacent stalls and is perpetually busy with long lines stretching around the corner. Don’t worry, the line moves pretty fast.
Most hawker centers will have a few stalls dedicated to selling seafood, but if you’re looking for a seafood feast, head over the newly renovated Newton Food Center. This outdoor eating area is surrounded by stalls selling all kinds of seafood. We knew we were at the right place when we came on the weekend and it was packed with people and filled with wonderful aromas. We were like little kids on Christmas morning, making the rounds and ordering everything. Some of the most notable dishes are: the famous oyster omelette, steamed cockles, large succulent snails, sting ray in samba sauce, and of course the famous chili crab. If you thought that’s a lot of food for two people, you’re correct, but we had to try everything.
The barbecued stingray is wrapped in banana leaf smothered with sambal paste made with belachan, spices, shallots and Indian walnuts. The chili crab sits in a bed of tomato chili gravy. The hard-shelled crabs go through a 2 step cooking process – boiled first, then fried so that the meat doesn’t stick to the shell. The delicious sauce is perfect over rice or soaked up with some bread.
Since many of the places have similar dishes, there is a lot of competition resulting in more aggressive food touts trying to get your attention and business. We find that if you politely say no, they will move on to the next person. Before you order, make sure you ask for the price before agreeing to buy anything.
Other Notable Food Centers
Aside from the ones already mentioned, here are a few more that we tried and loved. Makansutra Glutton Bay really stood out because of their prime location and great view. The clean outdoor eating space, located right on the harborfront promenade, has a nice variety of stalls serving decent food at reasonable prices. Another standout and one of my favorites is the Chinatown Amoy Food Center. This two story building is chock full of foods ranging from Malay, Indian, Muslim, Mamak, and Chinese. A few of these stalls are even featured in the Michelin Food Guide. Its convenient location in the Central Business District means that this place is always packed during lunch hour. Watch out for local favorites like Han Kee Fish Soup Stall with an hour long queue.
Places We Didn’t Like
There are not that many places that we didn’t like on this trip, but the Singapore Food Trail was one of them. This place is like a caricature of the other food centers we visited. It’s true that they have all of the popular selections, but the food tasted like a more watered down and less authentic version of itself. Considering how Singapore prides itself on its amazing food, I don’t see how the people here tolerate the subpar offerings, which might explain the less than stellar turnout during the busy dinner hour. A few people come trickling in throughout the night, but mostly the stall owners were standing around looking bored. Even its convenient location, right under the Singapore Flyer, did not save it from the low turnout.