Guide to Navigating Hawker Centres
What to eat at hawker centres
Nomad team, Nomad Team
Mar 13 · 6 min read
Hawker centres are the center of Singapore’s local food culture, and if you are visiting Singapore, you should most definitely check out the hawker centres to get a true local experience! Hawker centres are food centres with a large variety of affordably priced food. Be warned though, the hawker centres are mostly open-aired and without air conditioning — which means it can get really warm and humid in Singapore’s climate.
Read on to find out more about how to get the most out of your hawker centre experience in Singapore.
®️ Get a table: Chope!
Hawker centres practice a free-seating concept, you would sometimes have to look around and wait for tables, especially during peak dining hours. As the last thing you would want is to be carrying your bowl of piping hot soup and walking around looking for a seat to have your meal, it is recommended that you get a table before going to get your food. While looking for tables, it’s likely that you will see empty seats with no one around, but with small objects like tissue packets, umbrellas, or name cards left on the table and seats. Unfortunately, these tables are actually occupied. The small objects are indication that the seat has been reserved — or in the local term, ‘choped’. The choping culture is something that is uniquely Singapore, and locals respect that if an item has been left on a seat, that seat it taken.
When you do find a table, don’t hesitate to also leave some small items on the seat before going around to look for food. While it’s relatively safe in Singapore, and it’s unlikely for your items to go missing, we would still recommend that you leave only small items, and carry your valuables with you. Do note also that if you’re in groups, you’d want to leave an item on each of the seat that’s needed. If there are no empty tables around and you don’t want to wait, don’t hesitate to also ask other diners (who are at the table) if they mind sharing the table — they would usually be open to that as long as there are sufficient seats at the table.
🍽️ Get food: What to eat?
Now that you have gotten a table, the next question would be what to eat. Hawker centres have a huge variety of local food, and it’s almost certain that you would be able to find something that you want to eat. The number of choices might be overwhelming though, if it’s your first time at the hawker centre. There would always be a few stalls in each hawker centre that is more popular, and it’ll be rather evident with the queue that is formed at the stall. If you can’t decide what to eat, we have put together a list of food that you would most certainly be able to find at every hawker centre.
- Fried Carrot Cake / Chye Tow KuehSource: Visit Singapore
The Chye Tow Kueh (carrot cake) is nothing like the carrot cake dessert, and not quite like the dim sum-style carrot cake. Chye Tow Kueh refers to radish cake, and the dish is usually stir-fried with egg. There are two types of Chye tow kueh - the black, and the white. Fried with dark soy sauce, the black carrot cake has a tinge of sweetness as compared to the white ones. Not all stalls sell both the black and white, so you might want to check them out.
Where to go to for good carrot cake:
📍Lau Goh Teochew Chye Thow Kuan at Zion Riverside Food Centre
- Fried Kway Teow / Char Kway TeowSource: Guan Kee Fried Kway Teow
Char Kway Teow is essentially flat rice noodles, stir-fried with dark soy sauce, egg, fishcakes, bean sprouts, and cockles. Some stalls would also throw in Chinese sausages and lard. The key to a good Char Kway Teow is the amount of Wok Hei, the flavour that is ‘imported’ to the food while stir-frying. While Char Kway Teow is a hot favourite, you might also want to note that it definitely isn’t the healthiest option.
Where to go to for good char kway teow:
📍Guan Kee Fried Kway Teow at Ghim Moh Market
📍Outram Park Fried Kway Teow Mee at Hong Lim Market
- Hokkien MeeSource: Singapore Food Story
Hokkien Mee - or prawn noodles - is a Singaporean classic of yellow noodles mixed with white bee hoon, stir-fried in prawn and pork broth. It is usually served with eggs, prawns, and beansprouts. Add some lime and chili to your Hokkien Mee before eating it to bring out the flavour of the dish — the chili especially, is almost as important as the noodle itself.
Where to go for good Hokkien Mee:
📍Nam Sing Hokkien Fried Mee at Old Airport Road
- Chicken RiceSource: Michelin Guide
Chicken rice is probably one of Singapore’s most famous food. The most important parts about chicken rice is not actually the chicken itself, but rather, the rice. The rice in chicken rice is cooked with chicken stock, and by itself is already very flavourful. Chicken rice is often served with black sauce and chili, which elevates to the overall experience. As for the chicken, you would usually be able to choose between roasted chicken — which tends to be a bit drier — or boiled chicken.
Where to go for good Chicken Rice:
📍Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice at Maxwell Food Centre
📍Tiong Bahru Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice at Tiong Bahru Market
- Fish SoupSource: Misstamchiak
Fish soup a dish that is nothing too extraordinary, but also something that is really hard to go wrong. This is also probably the healthiest option on the list. Like the name says, this dish is essentially just fish with soup. You will be able to separately order a bowl of white rice to go with your soup, or to have it with noodles (usually thick Bee Hoon). Some places cook it with bitter gourd, but if that’s not your thing, do let the hawker know when placing your order to exclude the bitter gourd. Where to go for good fish soup:
📍Han Kee Fish Soup at Amoy Street Food Centre
- Cai Png / Cai Fan
When all else fails, there’s always the option of Cai Png (or Cai Fan). Cai Png literally means rice and dishes. Like its name suggest, the Cai Png stall is one where you pick and choose from a variety of dishes that have been prepared and put on display. If you want to have a taste of the ‘everyday food’ of Singaporeans, Cai Png is probably your best bet. To order, simply point to the dish of your choice. There is no limit to the number of dishes you want - but you’ll be charged based on what you have ordered. It is usually based on the number of meat and vegetable dishes that have been ordered, and fish, seafood, and whole pieces of chicken would usually have a different pricing by itself.
Note that while most stalls at hawker centres are self-service (i.e. you collect your own food after purchasing), there are some which would have the food delivered to your table when it’s ready. So, keep in mind your table number when you’re going around looking for food!
☕ Thirsty? Get a drink!
If you are looking for a drink to go with your food, you can always count on the drink stalls in the Hawker centres for a variety of canned drinks, local coffee, or fruit juice. If you’d like to try something that’s more local, you could try some of the following drinks:
- Sugar Cane Juice
You will be able to get these at either the stalls selling fruit juice or canned drinks. The sugar cane is put through the sugar cane juicer to get a cup of freshly squeezed juice. The drink is best ordered with lemon.
- Michael Jackson
Yes, you didn’t see it wrong — there’s a drink named Michael Jackson. This drink is essentially soybean milk with grass jelly, and you would usually get this from a stall selling Soybean milk rather than the typical drink stall. If you find it weird ordering Michael Jackson, you could also tell the stall owner you wanted a Black White and they would get your order.
- Milo Dinosaur
The Milo dinosaur is essentially a cup of iced Milo (a malted chocolate drink), topped with a lot more Milo powder. If you are not a sweet tooth, this drink might not be for you. However, if you are a huge fan of Milo, you are bound to love this. If the Milo dinosaur is not enough for you, there’s also the option of a Milo Godzilla!
- When you re done with your food, remember to clear your trays and plates, and keep the table clean for the next diner! There are tray return points at each hawker centre, and you can just bring your used trays and plates to these return points. P.S. you could be fined if you fail to return your trays.
- Have cash with you! Card payments are almost never accepted at hawker centres, and the only forms of cashless payment that’s sometimes accepted would usually require you to have a local bank account. At the hawker centre, cash is king.