Singapore’s Hawker Centers Offer Old-School Charm in a Futuristic City

Here are some of the most iconic centers — and what to order at each one.

<p>Loriene Perera / Reuters/Redux</p>

Loriene Perera / Reuters/Redux

Singapore is most often lauded for its cleanliness, safety, and wealth of modern amenities — from some of the world’s best fine dining restaurants and cocktail bars to luxury hotels and stunning architectural attractions. But as locals and well-versed visitors know, the city also boasts plenty of old-school charm, which can be found primarily in its traditional hawker food centers, which serve up world-class meals at affordable prices.

These indoor-outdoor complexes originated in the 19th century, when Singapore — then Singapura — served as a British trading port. Like the ones found in other former British colonies like Hong Kong and Malaysia, Singapore’s communal hawker centers were first established as alternatives to street dining, which was perceived as unsanitary. They largely boomed during the mid-20th century amidst widespread urbanization.

Today, despite the rise in indoor malls and food courts, Singapore still boasts dozens of thriving hawker centers, many of which house internationally-recognized, family-owned vendors serving primarily Chinese, Malay, and Indian comfort foods. In 2016, Hawker Chan Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle became the first hawker stall to earn a Michelin star for its soy sauce chicken rice and roast pork (it’s now got a standalone location). Hawker stalls also handily dominate Michelin’s budget-friendly Bib Gourmand list in Singapore. And in 2020, Singapore’s hawker culture was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

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With hundreds of options, start your hawker journey in Singapore’s walkable Chinatown neighborhood at the essential Hong Lim Market & Food Centre, open since 1978. There are about 100 stalls here, catering largely to folks working in nearby offices. Standouts include the third-generation Outram Park Fried Kway Teow Mee, which turns out savory stir-fried rice noodles with no written recipe, and the award-winning Tai Wah Pork Noodle, known for its Bak Chor Mee, or minced pork noodles served either in broth or dry-tossed in a tangy vinegar-chili sauce with lard oil, wontons, meatballs, and fried sole fish.

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Also in Chinatown is the Maxwell Food Centre, a one-time wet market in the 1950s that remains popular with residents, office workers, and tourists. Here, try the house dish from Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, made with rice cooked in chicken stock and a thick soya sauce. Beyond Chinese dishes, check out Old Nyonya for the chicken rendang, an Indonesian dry-curry chicken, as well as Laksa, a Malay rice noodle soup made with vermicelli and a coconut-infused spicy prawn broth.

Next, head up to the central Newton area, which is known for its namesake Newton Food Centre, opened in 1971 and featured in the Hollywood film Crazy Rich Asians. Here, over 100 food stalls serve everything from oyster omelets from Hup Kee Fried Oyster Omelette to braised duck from Kwee Heng. Notable in the lineup is the sambal-grilled stingray from Stingray Goh Chew Kee Seafood and the time-honored Bee Heng Popiah and Satay — which spotlights Malay satay skewers and regional Chinese Teochew popiah, or soft, egg-based spring rolls filled with stewed turnips.

Located a quick drive away in the Little India neighborhood, the Tekka Centre offers a wide range of Indian cuisines from Temasek rojak at Haji Johan Indian Muslim Food to Pakistani tandoori-fired meats — like the kebabs found at Delhi Lahore. One must-try dish is Biryani, an aromatic South Asian tossed rice dish layered with spices, cashew nuts, onions, and ghee. At Allauddin’s Briyani in the Tekka Centre, the namesake dish has been served since 1968 and comes topped with either chicken or mutton.

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Finally, if you find yourself near the Singapore Botanic Gardens, be sure to stop over at the nearby Adam Food Centre, which, like Tekka, offers a wide variety of halal-certified options. The most famous of these is Selera Rasa Nasi Lemak, serving several different varieties of Malaysian nasi lemak — a coconut milk rice dish served with a selection of fried toppings, peanuts, and sambal chili sauce. Open since 1973, Bahrakath Mutton Soup King serves bowls of tender mutton in a rich gravy-like spiced broth with a side of bread for dipping.

In recent years, Singapore has taken steps to improve the hawker experience for visitors and locals alike. For example, since 2021, it’s been illegal to leave your used plates and trays out — you must bus your own table. But other than those positive changes, hawker centers still offer an honest look at the diverse foundations that make Singapore so dynamic. And at such great value, you can’t visit Singapore without checking out at least one hawker center. 

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