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It’s true.

“If you have not visited or eaten at a hawker centre, you cannot claim to know Singapore. There is no place more quintessentially local than a hawker centre.”

So even if you rattle off places like Little India, Raffles Hotel, Merlion, Sentosa, Mount Faber and Orchard Road, you have little street cred if you’ve not embraced Singapore how locals expect you to.

So what’s the big fuss? These are open-air food stalls clustered in one area serving mouth-watering food for the locals. Here you will find a variety of cuisines, ranging from Chinese to Malay to Indian to Italian, Thai, Indonesian, Korean, Japanese. The list is endless but at a hawker centre you get to order Hainanese chicken rice, laksa, mee siam, fried carrot cake, beef noodles, Indian rojak, nasi goreng, roti prata, scissors rice, oyster omelette, congee (or “dzok”), satay, fish ball noodles, beef brisket noodles, tahu goreng, gado gado, murtabak, the list really goes on and on.

Photo of Indian Rojak by Sam Han

ALL FOR ONE AND ONE FOR ALL

Hawker centres are more than just a place to eat. They are the ultimate social leveller. It matters not if you’re the uber rich or counting your pennies, if you want nasi lemak from a famous stall, you get in line (or queue) just like everyone else. This explains Singaporeans’ love affair with our hawker centres and hawkers. No reservations needed, most dishes run for about $3 to $4 Singapore dollars, there’s no need to dress up (you wouldn’t want to in the sweltering heat anyways).

Know what we mean now when we say, if you haven’t been to a hawker centre, you haven’t been to Singapore?

We know our travellers well and they always want a list because time here is short and the number of hawker centres are long, so here’s our:

TOP 4 HAWKER CENTRES

1. MAXWELL ROAD FOOD CENTRE

Mother of all the hawker centres. Maxwell is special. The food is incredible, the location central, the range is fairly decent and somehow the prices seem slightly cheaper than other hawker centres. Even if the prices were jacked up by 20% premium, we doubt the incessant long lines will dissipate by much. Here’s a #1 tip for Maxwell: Avoid going during 11:30am – 2:00pm from Mondays to Fridays. Maxwell is a favourite hawker not only for tourist but locals. And there are many offices nearby. So avoiding those times will mean shorter wait times and available tables.

Already on many guidebooks, blogs, travel magazines, it is easy to spot many tourists with printed A4 sheets looking for recommended stalls. Which are the top stalls? Tian Tian Chicken Rice, Zhen Zhen Porridge. These two have the longest snake lines that never seem to shorten. But seriously, at Maxwell Road Food Centre, it’s already the best of the best. So if you’re not keen on waiting 40 minutes for a plate of chicken rice or a bowl of “zjok”, I strongly suggest you try other stalls. You can’t go wrong.

Some gems you should try are Hum Jin Pang (中国街咸煎饼) #01-28 where you have to fry-it-yourself (more like just turn it over with large wooden chopsticks). Nearby too, there is a stall with a sign that just reads Pancake. There are many to try but go for the good ol’ favourite peanut-filled min zhang kueh.

Do try: Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice (Stall 10), China Street Fritters (Stall 64), Zhen Zhen Porridge (Stall 54), 75 Peanuts Soup (Stall 57), Zhong Guo Jie Hainanese Curry Rice (Stall 68), Maxwell Fuzhou Oyster Cake (Stall 5).

2. OLD AIRPORT ROAD FOOD CENTRE

This place is an institution in its own right not just because it is one of the oldest but also largest hawker centres in Singapore, but more because it has so many famous dishes to try. Also, how can you argue with taxi drivers who simply know where the best local food are.

Do try: Lao Fu Zi Fried Kway Teow #01-12, Xin Mei Xiang Lor Mee #01-116, Lao Ban Soya Beancurd #01-127, Blanco Court Kway Chap #01-135, Nam Sing Hokkien Mee #01-32, Chuan Kee Satay #01-85.

3. JURONG WEST FOOD CENTRE

In a islandwide SMS poll, Jurong West came up tops which is no small achievement considering the competition. If there’s one thing Singaporeans don’t mess with, it’s their passion and knowledge about hawker food know and it made us sit up and take notice. So this prompted a visit by our team to “verify” or “qualify” the national vote.

Do try: Char Kway Teow (#01-22), Kueh Tutu (#01-11), Chinatown Claypot Rice (#01-11), Fish Porridge (#01-40).

4. CHANGI VILLAGE FOOD CENTRE

may not be on everyone’s top 5 hawker centres but it certainly is on ours. Here’s three very good reasons why. Reason #1. Weng Kee Ipoh Hor Fun is hands down Tribe’s favourite hawker dish. No ifs, no buts. Numero uno. Succulent juicy chicken cutlet with a insane crispy batter that we highly suspect has some mind-altering special spice that programs your brain to head there like a zombie. Reason #2. Resolve for yourselves the battle of the nasi lemak heavy weights between Mizzy’s Corner (#01-26) and International Nasi Lemak (#01-03). Needless to say, there are fierce loyalists on both camps. Frankly, we’ve tried both and each time for the life of us, we can never recall which one ekes out a slight edge over the other. Do what we do. Hover to the front of the stall and see which stall’s fried chicken looks better to you. Have both or have just one. The difference for us is not significant. You’ve made it all the way to Changi, so gotta try the nasi lemak. Reason #3. The laid-back coastal vibe of Changi Village is another reason why you should visit. Enjoy the sunset on the boulevard or make a day of this with a visit to Changi Chapel and War Museum or a short bum boat ride to rustic Pulau Ubin.

Do try: Weng Kee Ipoh Hor Fun (#01-04), Mizzy’s Corner (#01-26), International Nasi Lemak (#01-03), Million Stars Goreng Pisang (#01-49), Mei Lin Yin Pin (#01-40).

BEST OF THE REST:

East Coast Lagoon Food Centre being along East Coast Beach has the best al fresco experience. Try the satay bee hoon and satay.
Newton Circus Food Centre is great for grilled sambal stingray and fresh sugarcane juice late night, so a popular after party wind down joint.
Lau Pa Sat is best visited in the evenings for its satays. A whole street is closed off and satay vendors vie for your orders. They’re all good so we don’t know which to recommend.
Tiong Bahru Food Market and Hawker Centre is famous for its Chwee Kueh, Lor Mee and roasted meat and fish head curry.
Zion Riverside Food Centre is small by comparison to other hawker centres. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for a few good stalls and its proximity to town.
We go back to ABC Brickworks Market and Food Centre again and again for its claypot rice, Fatty Cheong Roasted Meat, dessert stall that serves Mango Ice and Power Chendol.
Chomp Chomp like Zion is very small but famous for its oyster omelette, Hokkien mee, carrot cake and apparently the best BBQ stingray in Singapore. Don’t forget to wash this down with the biggest most refreshing cup of sugarcane juice on the island.