As I mentioned in my last post, Singapore isn’t exactly a budget travel destination. The prices aren’t quite London standards, but they certainly don’t tally with what you expect from the majority of South-east Asia.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t eat well on the cheap. Instead of heading to a restaurant, seek out the city’s hawker centres – huge food courts selling Singapore’s version of street food (actual on-street food carts don’t really exist here – these hawker centres are Singapore’s way of regulating them and, I imagine, helping to keep their deserved squeaky clean reputation). Not only are they well-priced – you’re looking at less than £10 for a meal for two with drinks – but they’re also an unmissable experience in themselves. Buzzing and busy, they’re where the locals meet and you could find yourself sharing a table with a huge range of interesting people. In fact, it was thanks to the Chinese family sat next to us in one food court that I discovered lime juice (so. good.). Even if you end up with a table to yourself, these are perfect places for people watching.
In fact, all factors combined, I’d probably go as far say that the hawker centre experiences were some of my highlights of our time in Singapore.
Top tip for hawker centres? As everyone will tell you, the longer the line at the stand, the better the food. So don’t be tempted by convenience (you’re on holiday, what’s the rush?!) and instead make time to queue up – it’ll probably be worth it!
We tried out five different food courts – here are my thoughts. (NB. I’m a rubbish blogger and forgot to write down the name of the stalls we tried, so I’ve concentrated more on the atmosphere and experience than food itself. TripAdvisor contains some great reviews with stall recommendations, however, as do blogs – or you could just do as we did and gamble!)
Maxwell Road Hawker Centre, Chinatown
Although not as busy as some of the more central centres, Maxwell Road is still quite well-known on the tourist circuit. Due to a jet-lag induced late morning nap on our arrival in Singapore, we visited relatively late for lunch so had no problems with queues or finding a table, but I’ve read reviews that suggest there can be. Not the most atmospheric of the food courts we visited, but this was probably because it wasn’t as busy. But the food is excellent – we both had (very generous portions of) seafood rice, which I’d highly recommend if I could remember the name of the stand… At this point we hadn’t discovered the joys of the fresh drinks on offer, so were boring and went for canned drinks so I can’t offer advice on them.
Tiong Bahru Market
Making the most of our unlimited SMRT journey tickets, I convinced John that we should make a trip to the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood so I could visit Books Actually (deserving of a post in itself). And OK, I also quite wanted to see the shop that only sells glass-less glasses (the area is like the Singapore Shoreditch). As we were in the area, we decided to stop in a Tiong Bahru Hawker Centre for dinner, which I’d read good things about; many local bloggers claim to make special journeys here from far-off (or as far-off as you can get in Singapore) districts. This certainly appeared to be the case on our visit; even mid-week, we noticed a lot of people arriving and leaving by taxi. It certainly felt more ‘local’ and less touristy than the other centres we visited, though the same could be said for the Tiong Bahru area in general.
Tiong Bahru hawker centre is also, in its way, an historical destination. Although, as mentioned above, Singapore doesn’t really have ‘street food’ any more, it used to be a big problem for the city. Tiong Bahru market – originally Seng Poh – was the first of these regulated centres, opening in 1950. With just one floor, the centre was quite different to the one you visit today. Renovated between 2004 and 2006, it is now a multi-story experience that can seat up to 1,400 diners at any one time. To put it into perspective, the UK’s biggest restaurant (Bristol’s Za Za Bazaar) seats up to 1,000.
Despite its size, Tiong Bahru hawker centre wasn’t as intimidating an experience as you might expect. Possibly because this was the quietest of the centres we visited – a lot of stalls were closed in the evening so if there’s a particular stand you want to try then I’d recommend a lunchtime visit. However the food we tried – chilli tofu for me and a rice dish for John – was probably some of the most flavour-full we had in Singapore.
Tekka Centre Food Court, Little India
Brightly-coloured buildings on hot, dusty roads: Little India feels like a world away from the rest of Singapore and is a must-visit. While you’re here, be sure to visit the local food court, which is close to the SMRT station exit. Although not quite fair to judge (it was the only centre we visited for lunch rush-hour, which appears to be the busiest time for the centres), this was also definitely the liveliest of those we ate at. Finding a table wasn’t easy, but we did manage to do so! But many others appeared to get around the problem by eating at the stands they had just bought from.
It was also possibly the least well-kept of the centres we visited, feeling slightly dustier and older. If it had been the first we visited I can imagine having felt quite intimidated by the whole experience. But it’s worth sticking out – the food was tasty, cheap and offered a different selection to the others we visited; unsuprisingly, there were more curries on offer than elsewhere.
It’s perhaps worth noting that the traditional Indian way of eating many of these meals is with your hands. However there’s plenty of stalls that provide cutlery (we were boring and ate at one of these, and the food was still perfectly good). If you do decide to go for the hands-on experience then there are taps at the exit – so get stuck in!
Makansutra Glutton’s Bay
Located in near the touristy harbour, Glutton’s Bay understandably isn’t the most authentic of hawker centre experiences. It’s just that bit too clean and shiny and ordered. That isn’t to say it’s not worth a visit though – of the centres we visited at night, it was probably the livliest, the location is ideal, and we enjoyed eating in the (properly) open air.
We didn’t try a main meal here so you’ll have to trust TripAdvisor for that, but we just had to try the Durian fruit desserts. It definitely tastes better than it smells! We also shared a huge coconut water – well, it has to be done.
This food centre is huge. As with Tiong Bahru, the ground floor is dedicated to wet market stalls. Head upstairs and you’re confronted with a labyrinth of stands offering starters, mains, desserts and drinks. This is where I was introduced to lime juice by a family sat next to us – and it was probably the best lime juice of the whole trip (believe me, I tried quite a few of them…). The deep-fried prawn balls with chilli sauce were also pretty tasty.
As with Tiong Bahru, a lot of the stands were closed in the evening. However it was still full of families, friends and lone locals enjoying the food. Despite it being busy, the atmosphere was just that bit more relaxed that at the Tekka Centre without being too quiet (which Tiong Bahru was on the verge of being). That, combined with nabbing a table by the edge which allowed for people watching on the streets below, probably made this my favourite of the centres we visited.
Maxwell Road Hawker Center (exterior): Etour Singapore; Maxwell Road Hawker Centre (interior): Your Singapore; Tiong Bahru (exterior): Go Asia @ About.com; Tekka Centre (interior): Gogobot; Tekka Centre (exterior): Singapore.com. All images should link through to original page. All other images are my own, please credit if using.