An Introduction to Singapore Hawker Centers – How They Work, and Which One is Best for You?

Singapore is one of the world’s best food cities, both at the high and low end of the spectrum Hawker centers are one of the primary reasons that Singapore — far from just being ‘a stopover’ — is one of my favorite cities in the world.

What are Hawker Centers?

Hawker centers are basically food courts which host a variety of providers, each of which usually specializes in one or just a few dishes.

    Singapore Hawker Center Guide

Because there are many providers, many of whom make the same or similar things, competition is intense. The best, then, become very good.

The dishes are usually cheap. Singapore is known for the hawker center, and the government owns the facilities — originally they were a move towards centralizing the food stalls and ensuring hygiene. More recently they’re supported to preserve the Singapore food heritage and way of life for the hawker stalls themselves — land values are quite high where many of the hawker centers are located and likely would yield to other commercial uses if allowed to do so.

Which One Should You Visit?

The Newton Hawker Center is probably the most ‘touristy’ because of its Orchard Road location. As a result of location and clientele it tends to be expensive. It’s also the most accessible and most average.

And yet it almost doesn’t matter which hawker centers you go to, the food is still going to be good. Just watch where the locals eat, go to the stalls with the longest lines, and when it’s your turn ask what to order and take whatever they tell you (even if that means you are buying more from them than you need).

    Singapore Hawker Center Guide

My favorite hawker center is the East Coast Lagoon Food Village. That’s not because it has the single best example of particular dishes. Remember, you’re going to do well at all of them. I like it best because of the experience. Most of the hawker centers are semi-covered industrial parks. This one is open air, on the beach. Going there gets you great food cheap. But unlike the other food centers, going here also makes for a lovely evening.

    Singapore Hawker Center Guide

    Singapore Hawker Center Guide

    Singapore Hawker Center Guide

While I think East Coast Lagoon Village makes for the best all-around experience (most stalls are open only in the evening, and it really is a lovely evening), it can be worth checking the others out for their quite different experience. And there are dishes you’ll find elsewhere that won’t be at East Coast, which is best known for seafood.

    Singapore Hawker Center Guide

How They Work

Seating is first come, first serve. I’d find an open seat before going to get your food otherwise you might find a yourself holding food with nowhere to sit.

Hawker stalls don’t give you napkins. You can bring your own, or else there are generally older folks who walk around selling packs of tissues. It’s customary to accept their offer if you do not have any. You’ll need them in any case.

Place something at your seat to save it. The traditional Singaporean method is to leave your tissues at your place, this is respected, although of course you can have a companion stay there while you go and order, too!

You don’t need there to be an entire table open — if there are open seats at an occupied table, the culture is to ask politely to sit there and it’s almost unthinkable that you’ll be denied.

If you haven’t researched in advance which stalls are best, just pick the one with the longest line — they’re all cheap, so the ones the locals are willing to wait for are essentially the ones that are the most expensive, people aren’t just spending money they are also spending time. Those are likely to be worth the wait. And in general ignore any stall where they’re trying to entice you to order something, where they’re calling out for your attention. The good ones don’t need to.

Usually once you get in line to order (cash only), most stalls will deliver your food to your table.

Since each stall specializes in a dish you usually don’t want more than one thing from each.

Here, for instance, is Fu Ming Cooked Food at the Red Hill Road center.

They are known for their fried carrot cake (Chai tow kway – which does not actually have carrots in it, it’s fried radish cake).

You’re going to buy a single dish at a stall and not a drink. There are stalls which specialize in those.

When you’re done you leave your dishes. You aren’t expected to bus your own table.


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About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. […] I think I should do a full trip report. Back in May I went to Singapore and Bali, and flew Singapore first class. I didn’t do a traditional, chronological report. Instead I separately reported on a few lounges (Singapore’s Private Room, Premier Lounge in Bali, Singapore’s lounge in Hong Kong, and their lounge in San Francisco), on the Grand Hyatt Singapore and on the world’s most over-the-top hotel breakfast, an overall take on Singapore first class after four straight flights, and an Introduction to Singapore Hawker Centers. […]

Comments

  1. Great post, I agree that hawker markets are one of the great travelling experiences and Singapore does so well because thay have done the work to ensure hygiene standards which can be a downside in other countries.

    And Singapoeans do love their food, you wont find bad food if you follow the locals!

  2. Incredibly fortunate timing for me, headed to Singapore next week and had meant to look up everything related to this, but now I don’t have to! Thanks for the great post Gary.

  3. And as a Singaporean, I’d say that East Coast isn’t the cheapest. To find real good stuff, there’s Block 85, Bedok North St 4. Pretty accessible from the airport too.

  4. Fun post but I’m a little horrified at the amount of styrofoam and plastic being used to serve the food, especially since Singapore has problems with trash… Island…

  5. Gary,

    Pleasantly surprised you mentioned Red Hill. We always stay here when we visit as my sister in law is in that complex. It really is one of the better centers that is attached to a HBD. I personally like Newton because it is so touristy. Btw, I have eaten at Fu Ming. A better experience is a chicken rice stall that cooks their rice over charcoal at Red Hill. Really nice flavor. Another good center is at Tiong Bahru. Great roast meats.

  6. Gary – many thanks for the post. Can you point out what dish is featured in each of your photographs? They look great!

  7. You are spot on with the Newton Hawker, and that most hawker centers are pretty good. You really do know your stuff, Gary. I’m very impressed.

  8. You don’t need there to be an entire table open — if there are open seats at an occupied table, the culture is to ask politely to sit there and it’s almost unthinkable that you’ll be denied.

    If you haven’t researched in advance which stalls are best, just pick the one with the longest line — they’re all cheap, so the ones the locals are willing to wait for are essentially the ones that are the most expensive, people aren’t just spending money they are also spending time. Those are likely to be worth the wait.

  9. Growing up as a summer visitor to Singapore in the 1980’s, my family always used to take me to Newton Circus and East Coast Parkway for chili crab.

    Fabulous experiences. I always make a point of re-visiting the stalls whenever I come for a visit.

    The TFS Bistrot (The French Stall) is also a revolutionary take on this idea. Foie Gras at a Hawker stall for $20 SGD!! http://tfsbistrot.com/en-french-stall-singapore-little-india-macpherson-tfs-bistrot-restaurant-cafe-cuisine/1.html

  10. Be ware of seafood stalls at hawker centers. Mostly are ridiculously overpriced and are a rip off (especially at the one next to sheraton)

  11. Like Tom, I will also be in Singapore for the first time next week — this is a spot-on post!

    Thanks!

  12. Great post! We went to Maxwell in December and LOVED it! It was renovated a couple of years ago, so although it’s far from being luxurious, it looks nice and clean. There weren’t that many other tourists there.

  13. for anybody’s who visiting Singapore soon, just note that East Coast Lagoon Food Village is going to be shut for renovations for 3 months starting Monday (Aug 20). so don’t turn up there expecting a seafood / satay bonanza…

  14. Just back from SIN yesterday. The hawkers centers were most of my meals during my 4 day visit. At Maxwell I just joined a queue, watched what other ordered, did the same (chicken rice). Enjoyed everything I tried, not that I 100% know what I had at each.

  15. Practical questions, Gary:

    I’m staying at the Grand Hyatt Singapore and arriving at 1a and staying for exactly 24 hours.

    1) What food centers are worth visiting near the Hyatt or is it easy to get to them;

    2) Since I have a 1a flight out of Singapore, is there a place worth stopping on the way to the airport?

    3) How safe is it for an American traveling alone?

    4) Besides food, what else would you do in Singapore during the 24 hours?

    Thanks for the timely post…

  16. @Michael – as I say I think East Coast Lagoon Village is a great place in the evenings. None of the ‘best’ hawker centers are especially convenient to the Grand Hyatt, Newton isn’t far, you can cab of course. And I find it generally very safe. Also recommend a trip to the zoo, especially Night Safari.

  17. @Michael – Singapore is one of the safest places in the world, so welcome! Try the runny eggs and kaya toast. 😉

  18. @Gary,

    Thanks so much. Will definitely try to hit your recommendations…Would you stay at the Grand Hyatt? I have a chance to stay at the Ritz-Carlton Millinea or the Singapore Marriott (I have enough points for either) instead of the Grand Hyatt, but I worry about them kicking me out at noon (I have no status) as opposed to Grand Hyatt 4p late checkout.

  19. I dont understand why the government is in the business of subsidizing these centers and not turning them over to maximum use? What a violation of market principles, whats next government health centers?

  20. Poor animals after horrific lives. If you saw how the animals were treated and how bad the food really is for you, you would never touch animal food again in your life!

  21. Killeny Kopi is still there for kaya.Novena Chicken rice is moving and the duck rice place on S buona vista closed down.Beach rd mee goreng& tiong bahru stalls still good. Watch out for much higher than expected costs these days its been a few years since the dollar was at 1.7 so at 1.2 and high inflation Singapore has become very expensive,crowded and full of foreigners.Most people report the best time they had in Singapore was the departure lounge at changi

  22. I went to Newton while stayed at GH Singapore. Though, I preferred Lau Pa Sat Hawker. Fish head curry, yum.

  23. As someone else mentioned Maxwell is worth a visit (especially if you plan to hit China Town as it is a close walk. There is a stall there that is recognized as having the best chicken rice (national dish).

    A great thing to do if you are inclined is to buy a drink and something small such as satay and pick a table with locals on it and ask what they recommend. Singaporeans love to talk about food and will enthusiastically embrace you taking an interest and you are likely to discover some gems you’d otherwise never experience.

  24. Earlier this year I bumped into al old school friend who was on my flight to Singapore. We ended up at lau pa sat and it was an awesome meal! So glad I didn’t hang out at changi for my whole connection

  25. @Studd,

    Actually, the health care in Singapore operates similarly to the hawker centers. The government allocates the land and sometimes builds the facilities, and provides operating regulation and ensures a ample supply of workers. But all the operators are independent contractors, who charge the market rate, but are in competition with each other. In most neighbourhoods in Singapore, you can find local health clinics that charge ~$20 for a doctor examination and prescription- often less than the deductible in the US.

    The results- cheap tasty food and the lowest health care costs (as a % of GDP) in the developed world.

  26. East Coast Lagoon food village will be undergoing renovations till Nov18, 2013. Good recommendation though, its one of the nicest.

  27. Hey guys,

    Dont forget the Mee Siam at Toastbox. The set meal for $5 SGD comes with Koppi or Tei. The kaya toast is also great of course. Reading this is making hungry.

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