Uncovering the UNESCO listed hawker culture of Singapore
Hawker centres are an integral space in Singapore’s urban landscape. Although they are typically found in every neighbourhood today, the concept of housing hawkers within designated spaces was uncommon till Singapore’s independence in 1965. Hawkers then were itinerant and roamed around the streets with their push-carts/baskets to sell their goods of which includes snacks, desserts and even household items.
We have come a long way with our hawker culture and it is truly a pride to the nation. 2020 ended off with a bang with the announcement of Singapore’s hawker culture inscribing into UNESCO’s Represent List of Intangible Culture Heritage of Humanity last December.
Despite Singapore being under 800km in radius, we have a whopping 114 hawker centres all around the island with many more in plans. We could not have reached the number without looking back on the early days of Singapore’s hawker culture. Read on below and we’ll unveil all the hardships and thorough planning that has got us to where we are today.
*Caution: Endless food pictures below so be prepared to hear some growling sounds coming from your tummy!
How Hawker Centres came about
Before the planning of hawker centres began, the municipal health officer stated plans to offer proper shelters for basket hawkers, whose individual businesses were not big enough to permit them to set up stalls. That left the hawkers of uncooked food such as fish, poultry and vegetables to be evicted and transferred into markets and shops we see today.
The hawkers who got their shelters were charged a nominal rent of $10 per month, including stall areas, benches and electricity. For easier identification, stall owners then hung up signages, and some even included their street names/location of their previous stall especially if they have relocated to a newer location of operation (e.g. former Sunset Way Char Kway Teow).
By the turn of the 20th century where modern housing started coming along, street hawkers’ proliferation began imposing an inconvenience to residents. The implementation of five-foot way corridors made it too congested for both dwellers and hawkers to run. With more attention paid to keep Singapore Clean and Green, the National Environmental Agency of Singapore (NEA) voiced out that it was unhygienic to have hawkers’ food waste and effluent discharged into the streets and drains, which eventually resulted in infectious diseases.
Only after the restructuring of hawker shelters into proper infrastructure that we see today, was then the term changed from shelters to hawker centres. This made Singapore felt more commercialised and sound posher in a way, especially with the influx of tourists as Singapore progressed over the years.
The architecture of hawker centres
Undoubtedly, designing any building in Singapore requires the need for factoring in Singapore’s hot and humid conditions of the climate. Similarly, architects who built hawker centres took significant consideration to ensure patrons will not feel stuffy being in a non-air-conditioned space with heat emanating from the hawker stalls. To achieve that, hawker centres were then passively designed with high roof ceilings with the inclusion of porous walls for better circulation. If you feel a little kaypoh, sneak a peek into a hawker stall, and you would notice the large air ducts at the back of the store. This is to ensure the smoke from all the grilling and frying gets released into the exterior areas.
Repurposing hawker centres
With all the hawker problems previously raised diminished, the government then thought of how hawker centres could serve Singapore’s alternative purpose. The free-seating concept was deemed a perfect way for Singaporeans of all ethnicities to intermingle and allowed a broader exposure to the food of the respective ethnic groups. Today, it’s evident that you see even the Chinese eating Roti Prata whilst the Indians savour on a bowl of Mee Rebus — ’nuff said, we simply love each other’s food.
Given that hawker centres are well-distributed across the island, government agencies figured that there could be a possibility of disseminating information and messages in the space. Thus, public awareness campaigns then started with having posters pasted all around each hawker centre, and hawkers then spreading the word to patrons upon their visit. During the election period, hawker centres have also been a location on the itineraries of ministers and parliament members (MP) to rally their campaigns (we must say the pioneer generation love when the MPs come over as they can then grab a selfie whilst voicing out a complaint or two!).
Apart from putting up campaign decals on their storefront, hawkers also put up their food-related awards and reviews by influencers next to their cleanliness certificates. These tactics were, of course, a way to grasp the attention of potential customers. In recent years, Singapore hawkers also began achieving global acclaim such as the Michelin awards. Acclaimed stores then took the chance to flaunt and certainly saw an increase in sales over time.
Top 10 Hawker Centres we recommend patronising
Haig Road Food Centre
Apart from the Geylang Serai Market, Haig Road Food Centre is a hotspot for the Malay Community, especially on the weekends. Bazaars are also commonly held in the vicinity during the month approaching the festive season of Hari Raya.
Must-try here: The famous Putu Piring, a round steamed rice cake filled with melted palm sugar and eaten with grated coconut. The store (picture below) was also recently featured in the Netflix Documentary: Street Food Asia.
Traditional Haig Road Putu Piring
14 Haig Road, #01-07
11 am – 930 pm (Tues- Sun), Closed on Mondays
Old Airport Road Food Centre
As its name implies, the food centre was once the grounds of the former Kallang Airport’s eastern boundary, Singapore’s first civil airport. Built in 1972, it was conceived as an emporium-cum-hawker centre with shopping on the upper level and cooked food stalls on the ground floor.
Must-try here: To-Ricos-Gua Shi selling Kway Chap, flat rice noodles (Kway) in a soy-based gravy. In 2017, the store was awarded the Michelin Bib Gourmand.
51 Old Airport Road, #01-135/136 (has 2 units)
1030 am – 2 pm (Wed-Fri), 1030 am – 230 pm (Sat-Sun), Closed on Monday and Tuesday
People’s Park Food Centre
Built in 1923, its possibly one of the first hawker centres in Singapore. Due to its popularity specifically catered to the Chinese community, it ran 24/7 in the 1930s to keep up with the locals’ demands. Today, the food centre holds over 300 stalls, making it the largest of all 114 hawker centres on the island. That’s some crazy number of food options, so make sure you ‘chope’ a seat near your favourite stall, or you may need to walk quite a bit.
Must-try here: Toh Kee Roast Duck, the oldest vendor of roast meat in Singapore and in the food centre established in the 1920s. The charred and malt skin of the duck makes it a signature of the store.
32 New Market Road, #01-1016A
11 am – 7 pm (Tues-Sun), Closed on Mondays
Known for its fresh cuts of uncooked meat, Tekka Market remains to be a top spot amongst locals of all ethnicities during the weekends for grocery shopping. Located in Little India, it also makes it a perfect location to feast on Indian cuisine such as Biryani, Mutton Soup and not forgetting, a cup of Teh Tarik (pulled tea mixed with evaporated milk).
Must-try here: With the monsoon season seeing no end, indulge in a bowl of piping hot mutton soup. (picture below) It’s only normal to pair it with a cup of Teh Tarik but if you feel a little adventurous, try something a bit different from usual, like the Bandung (rose syrup with condensed milk) + Chin Chow (Grass Jelly) to cool down the body.
Newton Food Centre
Opened in 1971, Newton Food Centre deems to be one of the popular pitstop for tourists especially since it has been promoted by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) as a tourist attraction to taste Singaporean cuisines. Set in a garden setting with trees and shrubs surrounding the hawker stalls, it’s almost as though you are dining in barbecue seafood by the beach. Also, try to spot the hawker centre in the Netflix film, Crazy Rich Asians.
Must-try here: Seafood lovers, indulge in the array of fresh shell crab options. There are quite a fair bit of stores offering barbecued food, so don’t feel obligated to order food from the hawker who got you a table. Whatever it is, pair your feasting with a cup of fresh sugarcane topped with lemon for a refreshing finish after all that charred affair.
Lau Pa Sat
Formerly known as Telok Ayer Market, the Lau Pa Sat we are all familiar with today started up in the early 19th century as the first-ever hawker centre to be set up in Singapore. Even amidst the financial district skyscrapers, Lau Pa Sat remains a top favourite if you crave an authentic hawker affair. (That’s if you are okay heading home with a burnt smell lingering on your tops.) For the ultimate experience, find yourself a seat on the streets and dine al-fresco.
Must-try here: Nowhere else offers the best-charred skewers of Satay (picture below). Meat options include chicken, beef and mutton and served alongside Ketupat (rice cakes) and dipped in peanut gravy.
Alexandra Food Village
Located close to IKEA Alexandra and Singapore’s first modern shopping mall, Queensway Shopping Centre, Alexandra village was the first motor repair “village” where motorists would frequent workshops and services. Then came along a hawker centre catered to the mechanics and residents living in the area.
Must-try here: Not a hawker food, but it’s the only food centre to include a souffle pancake store by a local. Sweet. Rex is undoubtedly one of the few modern food stores that helped to regain the food village’s popularity to locals who probably have never heard of previously. To set the hawker mood, perhaps order yourself a cup of ice milo to go along with the fluffy pancakes.
Adam Road Food Centre
Located within proximity of Ngee Ann Polytechnic and Singapore Institute Management University (SIM) institutions, Adam Road Food Centre is undeniably a top hangout during lunchtime. Opened in 1974, it is one of the few hawker centres independent of a wet market. The centre’s nine-sided architecture makes it relatively easy for hawkers and patrons to locate stores and scurry for an empty seat.
Must-try here: Spotted a Crave Nasi Lemak store in the neighbourhoods or malls recently? It started from a humble stall (named Selera Rasa) in Adam Road Food Centre which continues to have snaking queue during peak hours. What better way to taste its authentic plate of coconut rice served with chicken/fish/Otah and topped with sambal than diving into one whilst you are here.
*Nasi Lemak is easily recognisable with its banana leaf-wrapped up with newspaper/brown paper.
Selera Nasi Lemak
2 Adam Raod, #01-02
7 am – 5 pm (Mon-Thu), 7 am – 3 pm (Sat-Sun), Closed on Fridays
Locate the Crave Nasi Lemak Stores here
Ayer Rajah Food Centre
A prominent food centre to locals living in the Western part of Singapore, the standalone hawker centre is predominantly renowned for its Indian food.
Must-try here: Ask any Westies, and they would recommend getting the Indian Rojak (picture below). Rojak is definite as a mixture, and you simply pick from the variety of ingredients off the shelf such as deep-fried pieces of prawn pancake, beancurd, potato and other flour-based items. After that, they are cut into chunks and dipped in tomato gravy.
A quick tip: Each ingredient is priced differently, ranging from $0.70 to $5 (for meat). Also, the meat ingredients (liver, squid) are charged depending on its size, so do only order what you can eat. Disclaimer: This plate of Rojak in the picture cost us $15.
Amoy Street Hawker Centre
We decided to wrap up the list with Amoy Street hawker centre which has acclaimed six Michelin awarded stalls in 2019, four of which awarded the Bib Gourmand Distinctions. Situated off Chinatown, the food centre offers an extensive selection from classic hawker food such as Char Kway Teow (stir-fried rice noodles) and Lor Mee (noodles in starchy braised gravy) down to startups selling muffins and Singaporean-style ramen.
Must-try here: Well, who says hawker food is all about its classics and greasy food? Big Bowls Project (Picture below) is an ultimate alternative for you gym-goers who still need a kopi-o on the side.
Well-loved Hawker/Street Food
Ask any local, and they would claim chicken rice as their comfort food any time of the day. Who knew just roasted chicken with rice could provide so much delight? Nonetheless, a chicken rice stall is often easily recognisable for its snaking queue. Today, a patron could pick between roasted, steamed as well as char siew chicken.
More often than not, locals will associate the dish with the famous Katong Laksa, not that the other laksa(s) around Singapore isn’t delicious, but perhaps it was well-loved by the Easties. Laksa is a delicacy served in gravy made of dried prawn bits, belacan (spicy fermented prawn paste), Santan (coconut milk) and served with thick vermicelli. *That one time Singapore approves the slurping of noodles.
Char Kway Teow
The sound of the spatula scraping against the work was and still is a clear indication of a hawker selling char kway teow. The term “char” refers to burned bits from the work that many claimed to be the secret ingredient. Char Kway Teow is typically a mixture of flat noodles with cockles, beansprouts, and a lot of soya sauce.
Price then: 2 cents with cockles, 3 cents with egg
Chin chow or grass jelly was commonly sold along the streets back then. The black jelly has cooling properties, making it a perfect topping to any drink in scorching Singapore weather. The drink is commonly sold in large buckets and scooped with a long metal/plastic spoon followed by sugar syrup and ice before being sold to a customer.
*If you feel a little adventurous, order an MJ (short for Michael Jackson) Chin chow, a mixture of soya bean and grass jelly.
Goreng Pisang (Banana Fritters)
Today, Goreng Pisang is commonly sold in night markets and hawker centres as a standalone takeaway-store. It’s merely an easy snack to make even at home. Simply have a few slices of bananas frittered in flour batter and after that deep-fried, making the outer skin crispy while the banana remains sweet inside. The pioneers regard this as a perfect afternoon snack while sipping on a cup of tea.