Singapore's vibrant culinary scene lies in its rich heritage


Some hawker stalls have been around for decades.

During my recent trip to Singapore for a series of meetings, I couldn’t resist the allure of indulging in the city’s renowned street food – a ritual I eagerly partake in during each visit. As the wheels of my plane touched down, my thoughts were already drifting to the bustling hawker centres, those culinary bastions that epitomise the rich, vibrant flavours of the Lion City.

Imagine plunging into the vibrant heart of Singapore’s culinary scene, where the air thrums with the beat of woks clanging and the hiss of steam rising from searing hot pans. This isn’t just food; it’s performance art.

Pork noodles is very popular among locals in Singapore. — Photos: ABBI KANTHASAMYPork noodles is very popular among locals in Singapore. — Photos: ABBI KANTHASAMY

Welcome to the hawker centres of Singapore, sprawling food sanctuaries where the city’s soul simmers in pots and sizzles on grills. Each stall, curated through decades of family tradition, becomes a stage where gastronomic magicians wield their spoons and cleavers, crafting dishes that are much more than mere sustenance – they’re a deep dive into the rich tapestry of this island nation.

Our story begins in the sweltering streets of 19th-century Singapore, a bustling port at the crossroads of the world. It was here that the first hawker vendors, immigrants with nothing but recipes from home, set up their makeshift stalls. They conjured up bowls of comfort for the dock workers and rickshaw pullers, each dish a thread in the city’s burgeoning food tapestry. These culinary pioneers laid the groundwork for what would become a hallowed institution of Singaporean life.

As the years rolled on, concerns over hygiene and the chaotic sprawl of carts brought a governmental decree that swept the hawkers off the streets and into the organised chaos of hawker centres. These centres became culinary communes, preserving the raucous, vibrant spirit of street food dining under more sanitary, regulated roofs.

Pork noodles is very popular among locals in Singapore. — Photos: ABBI KANTHASAMYPork noodles is very popular among locals in Singapore. — Photos: ABBI KANTHASAMY

Where worlds collide

Singapore today stands as a gleaming testament to high living, a playground where billionaires park their wealth in towering skyscrapers. Yet, beneath this glossy exterior pulses the true heart of the city: Its hawker centres. Here, amid the sizzle and steam, is where real Singapore lives and breathes. Forget the S$300 (RM1,046) dinner; for just S$3 (RM10.46), you’re handed a plate heaped with heritage – a steal that even the thriftiest backpacker can’t scoff at.

Embark on a culinary pilgrimage across iconic locales like Newton Food Centre, a spot that morphs from a subdued food court by day into a bustling nocturnal feast under the stars. Here, chilli crab reigns supreme – a dish so iconic, it’s practically a rite of passage for anyone claiming to have tasted Singapore. The ritual is messy but sacred: Crack, scoop, slurp, and sigh.

Not far away, in the shadow of high rises, sits Lau Pa Sat. By day, it’s a historical curiosity, by dusk, it transforms into a satay wonderland. Here, under the gothic arches of an iron-latticed Victorian beauty, skewers of marinated meat sizzle over charcoal, perfuming the air with spices that beckon the hungry and the curious alike.

Venture to Old Airport Road Food Centre, near Singapore’s bustling Sports Hub, a modern marvel hosting concerts and sporting events. This proximity to high-energy entertainment complements the centre’s own vibrant offering. Nearby, explore the Katong-Joo Chiat neighbourhood, a historical bastion of the Peranakan community, whose rich cultural tapestry and quaint charm are evident in its architecture and local eateries.

And then there’s Golden Mile Food Centre, steps away from the eclectic streets of Bugis and Kampong Gelam (sometimes known as “Kampong Glam”). This area is a favourite for some Malaysians, offering a treasure trove of halal food options, vibrant street art, and cafes.

Close by stands the majestic Sultan Mosque, a cornerstone of Singapore’s historical landscape, enriching the cultural experience for every visitor to the area.

Halal food are aplenty at hawker centres too.Halal food are aplenty at hawker centres too.

Heart of the hawker world

In these hallowed halls of hawker centres, food is more than sustenance – it’s a narrative of Singapore’s identity, told one plate at a time. Stroll through any centre, and you’ll traverse continents within steps.

From the fiery woks where char kway teow is tossed – a tangle of noodles, seafood, and fiery sambal – to the gentle simmer of laksa pots, where coconut milk and chilli merge into a spicy symphony cradling noodles and seafood, the experience is nothing short of transcendent.

These days, you don’t just get the ‘normal’ hawker fare like noodles and rice at the centre as some stalls also sell pastries and cakes.These days, you don’t just get the ‘normal’ hawker fare like noodles and rice at the centre as some stalls also sell pastries and cakes.

Today’s hawker centres are vibrant theatres of life where every strata of society collides over shared tables. Young tech moguls dine alongside weathered tradesmen, both relishing the same spicy, steaming bowl of laksa. It’s here, in these bustling food arenas, that the past and present of Singapore converge, creating a culinary democracy where every vote is cast with chopsticks and spoons.

In this tiny island nation, where modernity brushes shoulders with tradition, the hawker centre stands as a vibrant testament to Singapore’s spirit.

This is not just a place to eat, it’s a place to participate in the living history of a nation, to taste the legacy of its streets, and to celebrate the common, delicious language of food.

So, to the wanderers, the epicureans, and the curious – come. Come and pull up a chair under the fluorescent glow of a hawker centre lamp. Here, at the crossroads of South-East Asia, you’ll taste the true essence of Singapore, one unforgettable bite at a time, without breaking your bank. And to me, this is really what Singaporean cuisine is all about.

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

Abbi Kanthasamy blends his expertise as an entrepreneur with his passion for photography and travel. For more of his work, visit www.abbiphotography.com.

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