Best Singapore Hawker Centres and a Little Bite of Singapore Hawker Centre History
The best Singapore hawker centres are those that are home to stalls serving up the best renditions of Singaporean hawker food specialties, from Maxwell Food Centre’s famous chicken rice stall to Tiong Bahru Market’s beloved chwee kueh shop, and so many in between.
The best street food isn’t always served up on the street. Not in Singapore, one of Southeast Asia’s great eating destinations, where street food is found in the city’s hawker centres. The best Singapore hawker centres are hotly debated amongst Singaporean foodies so let’s get this straight: this is not a definitive list or even a comprehensive guide. These are simply our picks of the hawker centres where we love to eat when we’re in Singapore.
Singapore’s best hawker centres serve up the gamut of Singaporean street food specialties from the regional Chinese, Indian and Malay cuisines that distinguish Singapore’s culinary culture – from Hainanese to Cantonese, Tamil to Punjabi, and food from Java and Georgetown – all of which Singaporeans have made their own.
The best Singapore hawker centres also have some atmosphere: a soundtrack of sizzles and crashes of hard-working woks, smoke rising from stir-fries and char-grills, aromas wafting from simmering pots, and the hum of chatter as locals catch up with friends while they line up for their favourite dishes. Because hawker centres are not only about the food; they are rooted in community.
But be warned: visit any of the best Singapore hawker centres when they’re at their most atmospheric, i.e. when they’re busiest, and you’ll need to be prepared for long waits for tables and even longer waiting in lines at the most celebrated hawker stalls. If you’re on a schedule, best to eat during the ‘in-between’ times – between breakfast and lunch, in the late afternoon, and late in the evening.
These are our picks of the best Singapore hawker centres…
Best Singapore Hawker Centres – Our Picks of Singapore’s Famed Food Centres
Our picks of the best Singapore hawker centres – also called food centres – include a mix of hawker centres that are beloved by Singapore’s locals, as well as the hawker centres that are the favourites of food-loving tourists, and those can be one and the same. Even when hawker centres such as Lau Pa Sat and Maxwell Food Centre are on travellers’ itineraries, locals still remain their main customers, many eating at their favourite stalls every day.
Hawker centres are located in every neighbourhood all over Singapore, with food centres hidden within the heart of housing estates, tucked beneath towering apartment blocks, and secreted within suburban shopping centres. There will sometimes be a wet market or fresh food market within the same space, often in the basement, also worth a look.
Our picks of the best Singapore hawker centres have been made with our readers in mind, so most are easily accessible for travellers to the city and located in neighbourhoods they’re likely to visit for reasons other than to eat, as important as that is.
Local hawkers cook up Singaporean street food specialties that originated from across Southeast Asia, China and India that over the years Singaporeans have made their own. Hawker food is, after all, simply street food that was moved off the streets into more hygienic, organised and regulated conditions, but it very much began on the streets…
Singapore Hawker Food Centre History
Hawking food, drinks, snacks, and fresh produce was the main occupation of new unskilled, unemployed immigrants to Singapore from the 19th to mid-20th century when roaming hawkers were a common sight on Singapore streets. As their first customers were other working class immigrants, they offered the food of ‘home’, cooking dishes fast and selling them cheap.
In the 1930s, there were around 6,000 licensed hawkers and another 4,000 unlicensed Chinese, Malay and Indian vendors, according to historian Naidu Ratnala Thulaja’s research on Singapore hawker food history. The largest number of vendors were Chinese Hokkiens, found throughout the city, but mainly in Chinatown, selling coffee, cooked food and vegetables.
A quarter of the Chinese were Teochews who sold cooked food, as well as fresh fish, pork, fruit, and vegetables, while Cantonese hawkers sold food among other things around the People’s Park. Of the Malays, the largest population were Javanese, who grilled satay skewered meats, while Indian hawkers sold Indian rojak (fried fritters) and mee goreng (fried yellow noodles), among other things, as well as yoghurt and goats’ milk.
“North Indian Muslim hawkers were known for their tea, ginger water and buns that were transported in high tin cans,” writes Naidu Ratnala Thulaja. “The ice-water man, who sold syrup-coated ice balls, was especially popular with school children.”
After the Great Depression of the 1930s, the number of itinerant vendors increased as cooking and selling food offered an income that required little capital, and increased after World War II due to unemployment. With more hawkers came other issues, including public health threats. A water shortage and insufficient storage resulted in an increase in mosquitoes, cockroaches and rodents, fuelling diseases such as malaria, cholera and typhoid.
Other issues, such as general street chaos, obstruction of traffic and pedestrians, and tensions between hawkers and law enforcers, who demanded bribes, resulted in the governor establishing the Hawkers Inquiry Commission in 1950 to review the situation. The result was a report recommending hawkers be registered – which didn’t happen until the 1960s – and operate from designated locations, and that’s how Singapore’s hawker centres were born.
Hawkers continued to multiply and thrive as demand for cheap food increased after Singapore’s 1965 independence, and in 1971 the government began to build markets and hawker centres across the city-state. There are still Singapore hawker centres left from that period, along with hawker centres that had their roots in older wet markets, and modern new hawker centres that more like outdoor food courts.
Best Singapore Hawker Centres – Our Picks of Singapore’s Famed Food Centres
Lau Pa Sat Hawker Centre
Make Lau Pa Sat – ‘Old Market’ in Hokkien, as it’s the oldest Singapore market – the first hawker centre you visit. It’s undeniably touristy, but for good reason: its fascinating history, beautiful architecture, nightly satay stalls that set up outside, and its cendol. Established in 1823 as Telok Ayer Market on the waterfront, its timber structure fell into disrepair by 1830. A new building by George D. Coleman, who planned Singapore’s early colonial centre, was constructed – only to be demolished in 1879 due to land reclamation. The market was relocated to Collyer Quay, where the current building by James MacRitchie was completed in 1894. Lau Pa Sat was the first hawker centre we visited on our first trip to Singapore many years ago with my parents so I have a sentimental attachment to it, but it remains Singapore’s most handsome hawker centre with a splendid clock tower, slender Victorian columns, soaring arches, and intricate wrought-iron filigree work. It’s also one of the biggest of Singapore’s best hawker centres, seating some 2,500 people, with a staggering array of dishes – from curry laksa (slurp Seng Kee’s at shop #10) to fish ball soup (try The Fishball Story‘s at #47). Locals love the cendol, a dessert of shaved ice with colourful syrups, coconut milk, red beans, pandan, and jelly. It tastes better than it sounds and is cooling in the sultry heat. Visit after dark when Boon Tat Street becomes satay central, catering mostly to the after-work crowd. Open 24 hours.
Lau Pa Sat, 18 Raffles Quay, corner Boon Tat Street and Robinson Road, near Raffles Place MRT station, Singapore.
Maxwell Food Centre
Voted by Singaporeans time and time again as one of the best Singapore hawker centres, but also popular with food-loving tourists, the Maxwell Food Centre in Chinatown should be your second stop. Of Maxwell’s 100 or so food stalls, the best known is Tian Tian Chicken Rice, thanks to some attention by chef Gordon Ramsay (who competed against Singapore’s best hawkers to cook classic hawker dishes in 2013), Anthony Bourdain (who ate here and wanted to take Tian Tian to his Bourdain Market in New York), and the French guidebook Michelin’s inspectors, who gave it a Bib-Gourmand listing in the Singapore guide. We sampled the stall’s legendary Hainanese chicken rice some years ago – well before the global attention – and while it was very good (the chicken was incredibly soft and tender), I’m not going to be responsible for you joining a queue for an hours-long wait when there are plenty of other dishes that locals love that you could try, including the Maxwell Fuzhou Oyster Cake and Zhen Zhen Porridge. Local foodies recommend Maxwell for breakfast and lunch and the in-between meal hours, as most of the best stalls close by 4pm. Weekday lunches are busiest. Open 8am-10pm.
Maxwell Food Centre, 1 Kadayanallur Street, Chinatown, Singapore.
Chinatown Complex Food Centre
Two of the best Singapore hawker centres for us are the Chinatown Complex Food Centre and the People’s Park Food Centre, a short walk away, which is our favourite Singapore hawker centre for Sichuan food. But the Chinatown Complex Food Centre in the heart of Chinatown should be your next stop for a few reasons: it’s the largest Singapore hawker centre with over 230 food stalls; there’s a fantastic wet market or fresh food market in the basement that’s worth a look; it’s home to local craft beer shop, Smith Street Taps; and while it’s in the heart of Chinatown and is teeming with souvenir stalls, it still has more of a local feel than Lau Pa Sat and Maxwell. While you’ll still see other food-loving travellers and expats here, the patrons are overwhelmingly Singaporean. Best of all, you’ll find the gamut of quintessentially Singaporean hawker dishes here, including chicken rice, Hokkien mee, char kway teow, bak kut teh, carrot cake, frog porridge, dim sum, satay, chilli crab, black pepper crab, and so much more. If you only visited one of the best Singapore hawker centres then this should be it. Tip: if you really want to try the Michelin-listed Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle, to avoid the queues go in those in-between hours; try late afternoon.
Chinatown Complex Food Centre, 335 Smith St, Chinatown Complex, Singapore.
Tiong Bahru Market and Food Centre
Hip Tiong Bahru is Singapore’s oldest public housing estate, built in the 1920s. Home to handsome apartment blocks in the Streamline Moderne style, with curved balconies and spiral staircases, and charming Straits Settlements shophouses, it’s a must-visit for architecture lovers. Alongside the traditional kopitiams and old-school Hainanese restaurants, the area is now peppered with cool cafés, boutiques, and galleries. Best of all: it’s also the address of Tiong Bahru Market and Food Centre, home to some 85 food stalls, a colourful market, and one of the best Singapore hawker centres for breakfast, brunch and lunch. While we went specifically on local advice to try Jian Bo Shui Kueh (stall #02-05) for the legendary chwee kueh – steamed soft, dense rice flour cakes topped with sweet and savoury preserved radish or chye poh and a dollop of chilli sauce – the Tiong Bahru hawker centre is heaven for noodle lovers. Highlights recommended to us include wanton mee at Zhong Yu Yuan Wei Wanton Noodle (stall #02-30), Hokkien mee at Hong Heng Fried Sotong Prawn Mee (#02-01), and the dry prawn mee and pork ribs at Min Nan Pork Ribs Prawn Noodles (#02-31). The oyster omelette at Chee Cheong Fun (#02-61) is also popular. I’m told several stalls here have received Michelin’s Bib-Gourmand, but haven’t identified which yet (they’ll be the stalls with the longest lines I guess), but will update this post when I do. When you go, use this delightful guide to the Tiong Bahru Market – if you can’t decide where to eat and what to order use the ‘Food Generator’. Open 7am-11pm.
Tiong Bahru Market and Food Centre, 30 Seng Poh Road, Tiong Bahru, Singapore.
Located in vibrant Little India, the Tekka Centre is on historic Serangoon Road, one of the city’s oldest streets. It’s also one of the best Singapore hawker centres for cheap and cheerful Indian food and is ahome to a superb wet market with wonderful seafood, fresh fruit and vegetables, and fragrant spices. While the cuisines of South and North India are well represented here – the spicy biryani is legendary – you’ll also find the ubiquitous Singapore hawker food staples. Start at 545 Whampoa Prawn Noodles (stall #01-326), where Li Ruifang, a young finance graduate turned third-generation hawker, is making a rich hae mee, a prawn and pork noodle soup, to her grandfather’s recipe, which dates back to the 1920s. (I love this charming little video that tells her story by the team at Our Grandfather Story.) For aromatic mutton biryani, typically served on banana leaves and eaten with your fingers (right hand only!), head to Yakader Muslim Food (#01-259) or Allaudin (#01-229), also in the Singapore Michelin guide. Also try Temasek Indian Rojak (stall #01-254) for their famous fried fritters and Sri Tiffin (#01-224) for the masala thosai, a crispy fermented rice pancake with a curried mash potato filling that you need to rip apart and dip into the fiery tomato chutney. Before you leave, pop upstairs to browse dazzling saris and sparkling shoes, and inhale the heady incense. Open: 6.30am-9pm.
Tekka Centre, 665 Buffalo and Serangoon, Little India, Singapore.
Golden Mile Food Centre
We stumbled across Golden Mile Food Centre, one of the best Singapore hawker centres, on a stroll from our Kampong Glam hotel to the Golden Mile Complex, opposite. The local vibe appealed. There wasn’t an expat or tourist in sight, only old blokes sitting around reading newspapers, drinking tea, and gossiping at empty tables. Established in 1975 to resettle hawkers from the market-cum-eat street of Jalan Sultan, stalls here sell everything from braised duck to hokkien mee (try Hainan Hokkein Mee at #B1-34). Pork lovers should make a beeline for Charlie’s Peranakan (#B1-30), where Uncle Charlie, who learnt to cook Nyonya cuisine from his mother, serves Peranakan specialties such as bakwan kepiting (minced pork and crab meat ball soup), babi assam (tamarind pork belly), babi pongteh (braised pork belly in fermented soy bean sauce) and toh hay (rich red pork belly stew with fermented shrimp paste). Not a pork-eater? At 91 Fried Kway Teow Mee (#B1-34), the sign assures customers there’s no pork or lard in the smoky char kway teow, stir-fried with a special home-made sauce that takes ten hours to make, and topped with stir-fried choy sum leaves and ikan billis (crispy anchovies). Upstairs, the Army Market has camping gear, fatigues, water bottles, and tiffin boxes. After, cross the road to the ‘Little Thailand’ that is Golden Mile Complex, a Brutalist-style building with a shopping centre and Thai expat enclave. Thai shops, restaurants and stalls selling Thai movies and music have Thai signage, while bus companies sell tickets to southern Thailand via Malaysia. The big Thai supermarket upstairs sells Thai products with shelf upon shelf weighed down by chilli sauces including the authentic Thai Sriracha sauce from Thailand’s east coast, not the American-Vietnamese Rooster brand. Open: 7am-1am.
Golden Mile Food Centre, 505 Beach Road, Singapore.