One thing becomes immediately obvious when you visit Singapore – the locals are simply obsessed with food. They are mad for it. You can find them any time of the day or night queuing, slurping and animatedly debating who makes the best, the most authentic rendition of the classic Singaporean dishes.
Singapore is a melting pot of many culinary influences – Malay, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian and Peranakan with subtler nuances from further afield from its rich history as a maritime hub. It is quite simply a Mecca for the enthusiastic foodie.
While there is no shortage of dining establishments to suit every taste scattered throughout the city, it is at the hawker centres where the real action happens. They are the lifeblood of the Singaporean food scene and it is at these centres where the locals eat. In the 1950s and 1960s, unemployment was high and many people took to hawking food on the streets to make ends meet. By the late 1960s there were an estimated 24,000 street hawkers in Singapore.
Starting in 1971 the government embarked on an ambitious plan to relocate them by constructing purpose-built markets or hawker centres fitted out with all the necessary facilities. By the mid 1980s there were 140 of these hawker centres scattered across Singapore and the last remaining street hawker was relocated in 1985.
The newly refurbished Marriott Hotel is perfectly situated for accommodation. It lies directly opposite the massive ION shopping mall and the Orchard MRT, on Singapore’s super efficient underground rail system. The Marriott’s studio rooms are fantastic. Luxuriously appointed, with a separate work area that is cordoned off from the rest of the room. The pool is a godsend after a humid days eating and shopping and the attached Pool Grill is just perfect for a cocktail or a casual meal. The staff is brilliant, when I arrived the doorman said, “welcome back sir, fantastic to see you again”… the fact that I’d never stayed at the hotel before didn’t matter… I felt like a million bucks.
Breakfast in Singapore means kaya toast and kopi. Buttery toast, slathered with kaya, a jam made out of coconut, sugar and pandan is ceremoniously dipped in a side dish of beautiful runny soft boiled eggs. While there are plenty of places to savour kaya toast (including the ubiquitous chains) the originals remain the best. Try Killiney Kopitam (67 Killiney Road, S239525) or Ya Kun Kaya Toast (18 China Street, S049560).
One breakfast dish I quickly became addicted to after my kaya toast is Mee Reebus… Chinese noodles with delicious sweet gravy made from potatoes and topped with a hardboiled egg. Try the one from Killiney Curry Puffs (93 Killiney Road, S239536).
Around Chinatown you will find two major hawker centres – the Chinatown Food Centre in Smith Street and the Maxwell Food Centre in Maxwell Road. Now the trick with hawker centres is this: go with some friends so you can all tear off in a Le mans-style start to various stalls so you get to try a few different dishes and scan to find the stalls with the biggest queues. People generally queue at food stalls for good reason.
Chicken rice arguably competes with Chilli Crab as the national dish and at the Maxwell Food Centre you will find one of Singapore’s best and most famous vendors, Tian Tain Hainanese Chicken Rice (Stall 10). Be prepared to queue for this one… the chicken is packed full of flavour and the rice is coated in a savoury chicken broth. At Maxwell it is also well worth seeking out dishes from Zhen Zhen Porridge (Stall 54), Jing Hua Sliced Fish Bee Hoon (Stall 77), Maxwell Fuzhuo Oyster Cake (Stall 22) and Big Scissors Curry Rice (Stall 43).
At the Chinatown Food Centre check out the amazing Lian He Ben Ji Claypot Rice (Stall #02-198), Tian Tian Pork Porridge (Stall #02-185), Ma Li Ya Virgin Chicken (Stall #02-176), Nui Che Shui Glutinous Rice (Stall #02-40) and Terry Katong Laksa (Stall #02-94). You’ll probably need to visit The Good Beer Company (#02-58) also.
One of the most memorable dishes from a recent visit came from Wah Kee Prawn Noodles (Stall #01-15) at the Pek Kio Hawker Centre, 41A Cambridge Road. The Jumbo Prawn Noodles here are otherworldly. Plump, sweet prawns sit atop a pile of noodles covered in a succulent, complex prawn broth that had me raving for days.
Gluttons Bay Makansutra is worth a visit for it great views over the bay, alfresco setting and great Chilli Crab, Sambal Stingray and artery clogging Char Kway Teow. For other great renditions of try Outram Char Kway Teow at the Hong Lim Food Centre (Stall #02-17) and No 18 Zion Road Kway Teow at the Zion Road Riverside Food Centre (#01-17).
While I have only just scratched the surface of the Singapore hawker culture it is worth the effort travelling a bit further afield to sample some more venues. Names to look for are Chomp Chomp Hawker Centre, Old Airport Road Food Centre, Tiong Bahru Market, Serangoon Gardens Market and the Tekka Market Food Centre. And don’t forget to pack the Mylanta.