Step into a cacophony of yelling hawkers, loud conversations over ice kachang and spatulas scrapping against the bases of giant woks.
For those unused to the chaos, a hawker centre can come across as overwhelming. But for those of us who frequent these cheap eating areas on an almost daily basis, we find order in the chaos. As such there is comfort in all the motion. While Singapore might be young, our hawker culture has been deeply entrenched. It can be traced back to the 18th century where street food stalls would be set up by those who seek to earn their income with a small capital at roadsides.
With proper licensing and resettlement to proper centres and markets, stalls became more sanitised and were fitted with more amenities. Centres can house hundreds of people at any time of the day and are accessible. As hawker centres infiltrated the heartlands and became permanent establishments, certain distinctive foods became part of our intangible culture.
Why are our Hawker Centres so important?
Primarily, hawker centres are places where people bond over coffee, food and desserts, unique to our little red dot! Food options cater to people of varying food requirements. This makes a centre the ideal location for residents to flock over during lunch and dinner hours with their families and colleagues. Furthermore, hawkers centres are platforms through which food can display what Singapore prides itself on – a multicultural identity! A myriad of cultures ranging from Chinese, Indian and Malay to Japanese and Thai can be found coexisting. When we eat foods from other cultures and talk about them, it slowly evolves into intercultural understanding and appreciation.
Some of our favourite dishes!
1. Hainanese chicken rice
Singapore’s national dish can be found even in the most humble setting of a Hawker Centre. Priced between $2.50 – $4.50, this classic dish evolved as a fusion of Hainan and Singaporean influences. Paired with garlic-chilli sauce, oyster sauce vegetables and a hard-boiled egg, this fragrant and flavourful dish, is a favourite here.
2. Roti Prata
This sinful indulgence eaten sweet, dipped with curry and/or stuffed is a must-try here. Whether you like it fluffy or super crispy, a piping hot plate of roti prata will never disappoint. Coined as a dish for breakfast or supper, it is my belief that prata can be eaten at any time of the day. Just pair it with hot teh halia or milo to complete this comfort meal.
Don’t be frightened when you hear people yelling out orders for 50 or 60 pieces of satay to the uncle who fans an open fire in an already humid hawker centre. The skewered meat, paired with a peanut sauce, rice cakes and onions can make anyone’s mouth water. Famously found at Lau Pa Sat, Chomp Chomp (a favourite of mine!) and Newton Food Centre, this dish is a staple when you are planning a night out filled with sinful food.
4. Sambal Stingray
Grilled to perfection and slathered on with thick sambal is how spice lovers enjoy their sambal stingray. This dish is incredible- steeped in diverse ingredients hailing from different origins. It is usually paired with rice and the chinchalok (a sauce made up of fermented shrimps, onions and lime). The complicated dish with a humble presentation packs a flavourful punch and promises to blow your mind away.
5. Nasi Lemak
Found at virtually every hawker centre, nasi lemak attracts droves of people! The rice itself is cooked to perfection in coconut cream and pandan leaves. The scent wafting into your nose will alert you to the nearest stall as you keep your mouth from watering. The classic dish comprises of the rice, an egg, ikan bilis (fried anchovies), ikan kuning (yellowstripe scad), sambal and sliced cucumber. However, many other ingredients can be added – fried chicken, long beans, chicken/fish cutlet and the list goes on!
6. Ice Kachang
A cult favourite, a respite on a hot day, a craving satisfied for the sweet tooth – An Ice Kachang. Singapore’s favourite dessert is colourful, messy, packed with ingredients and can be found everywhere. It is made from shaved ice, coated in coloured syrups, evaporated milk and toppings (red bean, palm seed, sweet corn and jelly). This ball of ice promises to never taste the same each time you have it and that is the beauty in it.
Because food and the cultures surrounding food is so integral to Singapore, Hawker Culture was nominated for the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. This was a giant leap to take, recognising how incredibly unique Hawker Culture is to Singapore. Through preservation attempts there is hope that even with globalisation and the rise of cafe culture, Hawker Centres will still leave their mark here.