Chicken Rice, Chili Crab, and Hawker Centers

Eating in Singapore is practically a national obsession — everyone has their own opinions as to who’s serving “the best” and everyone you meet will be more than willing to give you their recommendations as far as their favorite dishes and where to find them, whether you ask them to or not.  And there is absolutely no settling for a mediocre dish here.  Singaporeans will, for example, gladly queue up at a particular food stall for upwards of an hour simply for a $3 plate of noodles, when they could easily walk to the next stall down — serving the same dish, nonetheless — and be served immediately.  If it is only good, then it isn’t great, and subsequently, it isn’t worth eating.  They are obsessed with all things food-related, are passionate about their culinary culture, and are more than happy to share it with anyone willing to take a bite — sounds like my kind of town!

When it comes to actually choosing a place to eat in Singapore, there are top quality, high-end, Michelin-starred restaurants catering to virtually every global cuisine imaginable, but in reality, it’s all about the Hawker Centers.  These open-air, over-blown food courts are holy temples to all things culinary — standing in stark contrast to the horrifyingly awful “food courts” that we try to pass off back in America.  There are literally dozens and dozens of these hawker centers spread out over the city, each with anywhere from 50 to 150+ different food stalls, many of which focus all of their energy on only 1 specific dish.

The original idea was to bring the street vendors, or hawkers, off of the streets and into a more cleanly environment, however, the beneficial side-effect for all of us was that we can now hop from stall to stall, trying a bit of this and a bit of that until our stomachs are on the verge of bursting.  And in addition to serving some of the best food you’ll find anywhere, these are also the cheapest digs in town, where there is hardly a dish to be found that will cost any more than $5.  A few examples of hawkers centers can be seen below:

The interior of the Maxwell Road Food Center

The multi-story Golden Mile Food Center

East Coast Lagoon Village — where you can stroll up right off the beach

My personal favorite: the legendary Old Airport Road Hawker Center. This place has now been added to the short list that is “My Favorite Places on the Planet”

And if you are ever unsure of what to order, the full-proof method of ensuring you’ll get something good is to simply find the stall with the longest queue and hop in line

Further, trying to sum up the cuisine of Singapore with a few representative meals is a nearly impossible task, as there seems to be an endless procession of dishes and delights — all are either taken from the cuisines of one of the many outside influences (i.e. – Indian, Malay, Chinese, etc.), are hybrid mixes of these cultures, or are simply unique Singaporean creations.  To give you an example, in just the 10 short days I’ve been here, I’ve amassed close to 100 food pictures (I’m obviously quite a big eater, but I’m sure you guys know that by now), and I’ve rarely tried the same dish twice.  In attempt to keep this post interesting, I’ll spare you the sprawling gallery of everything I’ve eaten, so here are just a few of my favorites (though admittedly, the list is still quite long):

If you had to choose one dish the is essential to the Singapore experience, it would have to be Chicken Rice, a seemingly simple (but very flavorful) mix of poached chicken and rice cooked in the chicken stock with various aromatics — this version is from Tian Tian Chicken Rice at the Maxwell Road Food Center (complete with a picture of Bourdain on the wall!)

Soup Tulang (also known as Bone Steak or Bone Soup) — mutton or beef bones stewed in a hellish red broth with tomatoes, ginger, chilies, and spices. Though there is a small amount of meat still clinging to outside of the bones, the heart of the dish is the delicious bone marrow on the inside (they even give you a straw for easier extraction).  Head up to the Golden Mile Food Center for this shirt-staining delight

Chili Crab — a whole crab stewed in a spicy egg-based sweet and sour sauce. It is a mess to eat, but once you try it, you be too busy scoffing it down to think about wiping the excess off your face. And be sure to order a side of bread to sop up all of the leftover sauce

Laksa – oh yeah! Noodles, seafood, and a few veggies in a spicy, soupy broth made from chilis and coconut milk. Head out to the Katong District for some of the best in town

Nasi Lemak, a breakfast dish consisting of a plate of rice cooked with coconut milk, small dried anchovies, fried egg, cucumber slices, and sambal (a spicy chili sauce). Seen here, it is also served with a chicken wing and a fish fillet (from the Morning Nasi Lemak stand in the Changi Village Food Center)

Black Pepper Crab — similar to the Chili Crab pictured above, but with a little more sinus-clearing power — here I splashed out some extra dough for Long Beach Seafood’s version.  The best part is you can go over to the tank of live crabs and pick out which particular one you want (I opted for a Sri Lankan Crab)

Char Kway Teow – a mix of flat rice noodles, eggs, prawns, and cockles, achieving a great balance between sour, sweet, and spicy

My normal breakfast of rice porridge — though it sounds bland, the ginger, fried shallots, scallions, chilis, chicken, and a whole egg make it a flavor-packed punch to start the day (seen here is Zhen Zhen’s Porridge in the Maxwell Road Food Center)

Satay being grilled – a common sight, just follow the trail of smoke to find it

…and the resulting plate of meaty goodness, served with a spicy peanut sauce, of course

Fried Carrot Cake – though not what you may be thinking. This version consists of tiny, gelatinous cubes of rice flour and radish fried to crispy perfection (there is both a sweet black version and a more savory white version)

Bean Curd is always a refreshing treat — I’d personally recommend the almond flavor

Spicy Chicken Feet – It isn’t the texture that’s the problem, so much as all of the small “feet bones” that you’ll have to contend with

Rojak – a salad of various fruits and vegetables served in a sticky peanut sauce. The version shown here (from Toa Payoh Rojak in the Old Airport Road Center) is the Chinese version, but there is also an Indian version that includes a variety of deep-fried fritters

Though not Singaporean, I’m also a sucker for Japanese cuisine — and this bento box was so pretty I couldn’t go without posting it

And no visit for any would-be culinarians would be complete without a stroll through some of the local markets to check out the raw ingredients for sale.  Afterall, hitting the markets is always one of the best ways to get a feel for any given culture.  Though there are a variety of wet and dry markets across the city, my personal favorite was the sprawling Tekka Center in Little India:

The Tekka Center Wet Market, as seen from above

Produce for sale

Mangosteens (Xango anyone?)

Given the scary appearance, I had to at least try the Rambutan fruit

Various prawns (shrimp) for sale

Don’t worry, these will be turned into Chili Crab soon!

Ginger and Dried Squid at the Victoria Street Wholesale Market

Any type of dried shrimp or anchovy you can think of

Sausages in Chinatown

Another fun fruit common to this part of the world is the notorious Durian fruit.  Besides the fact that most of the heavily spiked specimens would seem more fitting on a battlefield than a kitchen table, their fame is actually tied to their enticing aroma, which has been likened to that of rotting garbage.  You’ll definitely smell these things a good block before you see them.  Durian is, more than anything else, a love-it-or-hate-it food, but being that I’ve never had the pleasure myself, I was determined to give it a go:

Durian, otherwise known as “The King of Fruits”

Due to the overwhelming smell, Singapore has even gone so far as to adopt a “No Durian” policy on the metro system

Once hacked open, the flesh is approximately the texture of stringy paste. Surprisingly enough, however, I found that I actually enjoyed Durian (though I wouldn’t want it every day)

And for those hardcore fans out there, they even serve Durian-flavored Ice Cream (do you think Jeni’s will pick up this flavor any time soon?)

After plowing through more food than you ever thought possible, you’ll obviously need a few cool and refreshing beverages to wash it all down.  Whereas there are quite a few classy bars to enjoy your tipple of choice (see previous post, for example), my favorite spot to indulge was right in the hawker centers themselves, where they’ll serve you a large bottle of Tiger beer accompanied by a glass mug and a bucket of ice, all while you sit amongst a crowd of Singaporean pensioners drinking away their retirement and laughing with friends:

Though the indigenous beverage of choice is usually that of Tiger beer…

…that still doesn’t mean good beer can’t be found!

And if you don’t mind rubbing shoulders with a few tourists, you can always head to Raffles Hotel for a Singapore Sling, as it was invented here, after all.

The Long Bar, on the second floor of the hotel.  Adding to the colonial atmosphere is the mess of peanut shells strewn about the floor (though I must have come too early when I took this photo, as there were only a few scattered here and there, despite my best efforts to help the cause)

And much like the case of the Merlion, I succumbed to the peer pressure and pulled up a stool for the fruity cocktail

If, after all of the culinary explorations above, you’re still hungry, I’ll leave you with another parade of tempting dishes — this time, however, I’ll focus on street food.  Grab a snack if you’re hungry, and I’ll be checking back in soon from Malaysia!

A chicken and potato curry puff

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, “Yay for pork buns!”

Fried Banana, Yams, and Sweet Potatoes

Peanut Pancake and Kopi (Coffee)

And finally, some tapioca flour sweets for dessert

About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

10 Responses to “Chicken Rice, Chili Crab, and Hawker Centers”

  1. The diversity of food options is staggering. What a great place to really get into trying new foods! Thanks for sharing.

  2. oh my! What exotic looking foods! So the $64,000 question is-have you learned to cook any of these dishes????

    • Given that Singapore has such a strong foodie culture, there are quite a few options as far as cooking classes that one can take, but unfortunately I ran out of time before I was able to join any. Besides, even if I had, I still wouldn’t be able to match what these guys make, as each usually makes the same dish literally hundreds of times a day.

  3. This is my favorite post as far as food goes Andrew. I have cooked traditional chinese dishes for years but all of this is so new and different to me. Two questions: What are the sauces to the the right of the chicken rice? One appears to be BLUE! And what are you drinking that looks to have mint leaves in it in another pic?

    Oh, and send home some chili crab now :0)

    Lynn in Urbana

    • I’m glad you noticed those — the sauces really make the dish. The orange-red one is a spicy chili paste, while the darker one (that looks blue in the picture) is actually a dark soy sauce that has been reduced to the point of being a syrup.

      The drink in the Sup Tulang picture is actually lime juice (the mint leaf-looking things are little baby limes floating in there) — which turns out to be something like lemonade, just with limes instead of lemons. Another common drink is Sugar Cane Juice (you kind of see in the Nasi Lemak picture) which they squeeze right in front of you.

  4. Wow… certainly have been adventurous…..congratulations for trying all that out. Living here in Singapore and having all this variety at our beck and call, we tend to take this all very much for granted…..glad you had an amazing food discovery journey. Did you like the durians??

  5. Hahaha…i like the way you describe those foods. Never crossed in my mind before, that Rambutan fruit that I used to eat in my country (Indonesia) is described as have “scary appearance”. But it tastes good right? 😀


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