We didn’t set out to do it, but we’ve been on an inadvertent tour of Singapore’s hawker centres. A hawker centre is a grouping of many food stalls in an area with tables and benches or chairs. It looks like a US high school cafeteria, but with anywhere from dozens to hundreds of cuisine options. The food is cooked to order quickly, by two to three people – which is the most that would likely fit inside one of the stalls. They cut up ingredients and wash dishes in between the meal rush hours, and the prices are significantly more affordable than anywhere else in town. In addition to being budget-friendly, they offer a chance to try all of the many local dishes all in one place. And they’re quintessentially Singaporean, which is a nice bonus.
Though they’re pretty simple to navigate if you’ve eaten at a cafeteria before, here is an explanation of everything from saving a table with a tissue packet to what the ‘Self-Service’ signs mean. I would recommend visiting at least two hawker centres, to get a feel for them – and more, if you want to save money. Here are the ones we visited – and recommend:
- ★ West Coast Market Square: This is the first hawker centre we ever visited, and it seemed like the biggest. In addition to several dozen food stalls, this centre also has stands that sell groceries, drug stores, and stores that sell anything from motors to hair cuts. There is a big, expensive mall across the street, which makes this centre look even better in comparison – and which provides a shuttle back east that you can take advantage of. This is a neighborhood place you won’t find on any tourist list, but that’s part of what makes it interesting. Other parts include the sheer variety of food options and the very reasonable prices. Verdict: If you like off-the-beaten-path places, this is the hawker centre to experience, in my opinion.
- Wholesale Centre Food Centre (it just says ‘Kopitiam’): This small food court was conveniently-located near where we were staying near Haw Par Villa. There are only a handful of stands here: a few Chinese, one Indian/Halal, and a big beverages and desserts station. Verdict: Definitely don’t go out of your way to eat here, but if you’re staying close by, it works.
- Pasir Panjang Food Centre: This is right above the subway (MRT) station of the same name, which is convenient. However, we didn’t find much we liked here – though that could have been because it was still the tail end of Chinese New Year when we went. If you go, keep in mind that there are two sections separated by a wall, so don’t miss the second one. Verdict: I wouldn’t go out of your way.
- Seah Im Food Centre: This is a smaller centre, consisting of just a few dozen stalls right next to the Harbourfront MRT (subway) stop. The selection skews to Malay/Halal food, but there are plenty of other options, as always. It’s a good location, because the two big malls across the street and the cafes on nearby Sentosa are all expensive and mostly chains. Verdict: I wouldn’t go out of your way to come here, but I would pick this over anything else in the area.
- Malaysian Food Street: This is the only hawker-like centre on Sentosa, so it is one of the cheapest places to eat on the island – though that isn’t saying much. Some stalls are expensive and some are not, so you can spend what you wish. Despite its name, the centre has diverse food options. Verdict: I would pick this if you need to eat on Sentosa, and pretty much only then.
- Holland Village Food Centre: This is another neighborhood centre that I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit, but is the cheapest dining in the area. The air circulation and shade are particularly good here, though I personally didn’t find any stalls I absolutely had to try. Verdict: If you’re here, eat here.
- Adam Road Hawker Centre: This is a bustling centre near the Botanical Garden. It skews to Malay/Halal food as well. Several of the stands inside are named ‘Adams’ something (e.g. ‘Adams Halal Food, Adams Crab Shack), so B asked who this guy was, and why he owned so many things. Verdict: If you want to see an ‘average’ hawker centre, this isn’t a terrible one to choose, though I would still only go if visiting the Garden nearby.
- Newton Hawker Centre: Though articles about it suggest to start or end a day of Orchard Road shopping here, I think you’d have to get lost to end up here. The Singapore Tourism Board plugs this center, making it much more touristy, and more expensive. The centre seems to specialize in seafood, at prices like 100g of crab for $4; that is $40 per kilo, which is not so much less than the price at a very upscale joint we visited. Verdict: I would skip it.
- ★ Lau Pa Sat Hawker Centre (aka Telok Ayer Market): I was all set to dislike this place because we had seen it advertised on the local tourist channel and because the stands were all made of sanitized, identical stone. However, not only does this place have a good array of options, its prices aren’t insane, and tourists are actually a small percentage of its clientele. Come at lunch on a weekday, and you will struggle to find a table not already occupied by nicely-dressed office workers grabbing a bite before retreating back into their skyscraper caves. (The rest of the time, you pretty much have the place to yourself, customer-wise.) Just seeing this one-story white wooden building in the middle of mountains of steel is interesting. I also discovered one of my favorite dishes here: Thunder Tea Rice. We actually ate here three different times! Verdict: I recommend coming here!
- Maxwell Hawker Centre: Maybe I didn’t give this place a fair try, because it was Chinese New Year when we went, so only a Thai and a Halal stand were even open. However, it pops up on so many tourist guides that I’m disinclined to like it. Verdict: You should decide for yourself though!
- ★ Chinatown Complex: Smith Street (sometimes called ‘Chinatown Food Street’) is a regular street, along which you can find small cafes and a few food stands. The Chinatown Complex, though, is a mall on one side of that street, and the hawker stands are on its top floors. They are my favorite in all of Singapore. This could be because here is where I discovered popiah, my favorite food in the country. Or perhaps it’s the ridiculous number of stands here and the preponderance of locals. It’s also inexpensive and easy-to-reach on the subway (MRT) or bus. Verdict: I recommend coming here!
- New Bugis Food Village or Albert Centre Food Village: Even after some research, I can’t tell which of these two centres I wandered into while wandering around the outdoor market set up for Chinese New Year. Either way, it was cheap, filled with locals, and had quite a selection. They even had popiah! (Not that I’m obsessed.) Verdict: You can’t go wrong trying out either of these.
- Broadway Food Court: This little cafeteria is in the basement of the Sim Lim Square electronics super warehouse. It’s about the same size as the food centre at the Wholesale Centre, but the variety of options is better, and it’s a bit cleaner (more electronics-like?). Verdict: Not one to go out of your way for.
- Changi Village Food Center: Here, we met up with friends staying near the airport to catch a flight. The selection was surprisingly large, with restaurants along both sides of the street in addition to the stores and stands set further into the block. Prices seemed higher than at other centres, but this is one of a very few of them in this part of town, so this could be why. Verdict: I wouldn’t go out of your way to come here, but if you’re near the airport and don’t mind taking a decently long bus ride…
Note: There are other great centres that we didn’t make it to, so don’t be constrained by this list!