Updated: Feb 4
Some of the most delicious food in Singapore is in their Hawker Centers. So what is a Hawker Center? Wikipedia says “Hawker centers were set up as a more sanitary option to street side outdoor alfresco hawker dining places. Instead of mobile food hawker carts, permanent stalls in open air buildings are provided for hawkers. Either common shared or stall dedicated table and chairs are provided for the customers. This concept totally eliminated street hawkers in Singapore.” Hawker centers are similar to food courts or food halls. They allow you to eat a variety of things by a variety of vendors. It is casual, relaxed and not expensive. Most of the vendors cook from recipes that have been passed down through their families for generations. Singapore’s Hawker Centers gave me an opportunity to eat some amazing things.
Our son has been singing the praises of curry for years. Honestly, I have watched him and our grandsons enjoy large bowls of it, but I never tried it. Shame on me. On my first visit to a Hawker Center I realized curry is full-flavored stew. Curry is simply a protein source cooked with vegetables, maybe fruit and spices in a savory sauce. Curry is generally identified by color, yellow curry is flavored predominantly by turmeric and tends to be the mildest, while red curry is flavored from red chili pepper, and green curry is flavored from green chili pepper. The green curry tends to be the spiciest. Families take great pride in their curry recipes. The combination of ingredients is greatly dependent on the family’s ancestral roots. I am especially a fan of the green curry. The richness of the meat or seafood, the spiciness of the green chilies, and the creaminess of coconut milk create a taste combination that dances in your mouth. Combined the knowledge that the recipe has been passed down through multiple generations, my heart as satisfied as well as my stomach.
Spicy food requires a soothing, cooling drink as an accompaniment. Sugar cane juice is an excellent choice. Extracted from fresh sugar cane and favored with fresh fruit, it is served over ice often in a plastic bag wrapped around a straw. My favorite flavor is lime but there are as many options are there are fruits available in the market that day.
A must see on any foodies trip to Singapore is the Tekka Wet Market, on the edge of little India. Wet markets are usually open air markets that sell, fish, meat and vegetables. They get their name because the floors are hosed down each evening as part of the cleaning process. Attached to the Tekka Wet Market, is a Hawker Center with diverse offerings. We arrived early in the day and treated ourselves to Thai Tea. Pungent black tea is combined with sugar and sweetened condensed milk, served over ice in a plastic cup or in a plastic bag with a straw. If you have even the slightest sweet tooth, Thai Tea is incredibly delicious and addictive. There is also a coffee version, but I prefer the tea. We combined the Thai Iced Tea with an interesting version of Egg Foo Young. Egg “pancakes” you dip into tasty Foo Young sauce. After these treats, we were then ready to explore the delights of the Tekka Wet Market and Little India.
Chicken Rice is a meal that says, I am in Singapore. The basic ingredients are boiled or roasted chicken and rice, but it is so much more than these basic ingredients. The first point of difference is roasted or boiled chicken. Traditional Hainanese chicken and rice is a recipe that has it roots in southern China. The chicken is always boiled. Contemporary Chefs have modified the recipe by substituting roasted chicken for boiled chicken. Whether roasted or boiled, the magic of the dish is in the sauce. A combination of red chili sauce, ginger paste and dark soy sauce is sometimes combined for you, but more often than not it comes in three separate cups allowing you to combine it based on your own personal tastes. My experience with Chicken Rice was roasted and the sauce premixed. The Maxwell Hawker center is home to Tain Tain Chicken Rice, widely viewed as the best chicken rice in Singapore. An episode of Parts Unknown, with Anthony Bourdain, added to the popularity of Tain Tain Chicken Rice. It still gets hundreds of views per month on YouTube. Unfortunately, the Maxwell Hawker Center was closed for spring cleaning on the days we were in that area.
Amid the modern skyscrapers, it is easy to forget Singapore’s past. In the seven centuries that brought a trading post with a small population to a prosperous nation and a major port city of 5.6 million, Singapore was home to people from countries both near and far. You can see their fingerprints in the food markets, Hawker Centers and restaurants. Singapore’s cuisine tells the history of all who passed through it. It is a delicious story to enjoy!