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Navigating Singapore’s hawker markets

written by Alyson Hill August 21, 2017
Trays of food at the markets

My Grab car (Singapore’s own Uber) was showing up on my phone as being only 50 metres away, just beyond the shopping centre across the road. I was in no hurry and watched the red dot wiggle its way out and around the buildings until it came zooming up in front of me. “Sorry I’m late,” said the driver, “I just had to wait for my lunch.” She pointed to a steaming bag full of containers in the backseat. “It smells amazing,” I said, my mouth watering. “So good,” she nodded. “Have you had lunch?” her eyes widening when I shook my head. “You want me to take you? That’s my favourite Hawker back there,” I smiled. Left in the hands of the citizens, you will never miss a meal in Singapore.

To market, to market

Hawker markets are iconic to Singapore for good reason. The food is good – and cheap – and showcases Singapore’s diversity of culture. For the cautious among us, it might help to know that the Singapore Government’s stringent rules for food hygiene standards means all food stalls are graded like a school report by Food Hygiene Officers who give them an A, B C, or D, which must be displayed; that’s so Singapore!

Meat skewers on the grill at the Singapore hawker markets

Image credit: Sara Png

With that in mind, the next thing to do is find a hawker market and jump right in. It can be hard to know what food you want – the options are many – and I can assure you, you will be spoilt for choice. First up: do a circuit and see what’s on offer. Persevere with ordering in the confusion, follow your nose, read the signs and point if you have to. Worst case scenario? You end up with something completely unexpected, but discover your new favourite dish (or perhaps ascertain what not to order next time, whilst dining out on the inevitable story for the rest of your life) – that’s how my partner discovered his love for barbecue stingray, after eating at the fabulous Satay by the Bay.

Hawker markets are ideal for travellers: for trying local cuisine, people watching, feeding a big appetite (or a small one), dining on the cheap, eating with a crowd of people or by yourself.

Hawker markets – a how to

If the tables are numbered, find yourself a spot, quote your number when you’re ordering at your chosen stall, return to your table and voila! A feast magically appears. Other stalls will be ‘self-serve’, which means waiting for your dish to come out before finding somewhere to eat, communal-style, with the local office workers, taxi drivers, tourists and students on their lunch break. As a woman travelling solo, I have often found other women travellers companionably join me with that familiar smile of universal recognition before we start to slurp our Laksa and Bak Chor Mee.

Around 80% of Singaporeans live in high-rise buildings throughout the city. It’s far easier, cheaper and more social to eat at the local food centre – where extended family and friends can meet after work and school – than it is to bring a big grocery shop up 27 floors and cook in the small space day after day, heating up the apartment even more. It’s easy to see why hawker markets serve delicious food for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Bread, curry and fresh juice at the hawker markets in Singapore

Image credit: Fran Howl

There are stalls that will juice a selection of fruit, which can be refreshing in the heat at any time of day, roti, curry, noodle or rice dishes, and soups served dry, with a bowl of components and a jug of broth to pour over it. Meals can be simple for sensitive tummies, or banquets of dishes cooked from old family recipes for less than the price of a hotel cocktail.

A little or a lot

My travelling partner and I caught up at the Grab driver’s favourite hawker centre for dinner – he was starving, but I only felt like a wafer-thin nibble. We did the rounds, meeting back at a table; I was regrettably virtuous with a single Popiah (a fresh spring roll) for $1.50, while he had Prawn Rice (large enough for two) for $4, and a long neck Tiger Beer for us to share for $4.

One of my favourite travelling moments ever was coming across a small corner centre with a few stalls and tables in the shade when I needed it most. Neighbourhood men sat reading papers, and I joined them, ordering an Ice Kopi and a potato curry puff, reading my book while I cooled down and revived. For the princely sum of $2.30, I enjoyed a delicious flaky pastry and a perfectly non-sweet ice coffee, and for absolutely nothing the young man who served me pointed the electric fan at my red, sweaty face, unasked.

Next time you’re in Singapore, find a hawker market and take the plunge; it’s a dining experience that must not, on any account, be missed.

Hungry for a hawker feast? Spend a day eating your way around the markets on an Intrepid trip to Singapore

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1 comment

Maree Mills August 24, 2017 - 11:34 am

I wanted to eat the moment you said about the smells coming from the back seat- I had to eat !!
Well documented, travelling to the hawker district in Singapore will certainly be on everyone’s bucket list after your experience

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