JEvery evening at 6 p.m. on the dot in Boon Street in the Central Business District of Singapore, miraculous things do indeed happen: As if out of nowhere, workers drag bollards onto the street, a good 20 street cooks clear their grills on the sidewalk, close up the street with small tables and fold the coals on. Surrounded by futuristic skyscrapers, open air sizzling and roasting takes place here, especially satay chicken skewers from Malay cuisine, but also seafood and other Far Eastern delicacies.
All the stands have one thing in common: it has to be quick, because hundreds, if not thousands, of people come. And that’s just the outside program. The wrought-iron decorations of the historic Lau Pa Sat Food Court flash through the clouds of smoke.
There’s no less going on inside. Around a hundred small stalls offer almost all specialties from Asia: Fresh Tikka Masala from India, right across the street there is Fujian cuisine and next to it Halal Beef Noodles, while Singaporeans enjoy in droves at the screwed-on plastic tables and stools.
Street food in Singapore is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Unless Corona makes traveling impossible, tourists like to stay at a loss for a while: So much choice – where do you start? And what are Char Kway Teow, Rojak, Bak Kut Teh or Laksa? (This conceals fried rice noodles, a vegetable and fruit salad with peanuts, pork rib soup and a spicy noodle soup with crabs and mussels in coconut milk).
One thing is certain: with a little daring, a stroll through a hawker center, sometimes referred to as a food center, has what it takes to become a top culinary experience, despite the simple ambience. The culture of the hawkers, i.e. snacks, experienced an ultimate upgrade in December 2020: with the inclusion in the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. After all, street food culture is as typical for Singapore as kimchi is for Korea or the art of bread baking is for Germany.
What is special about Singaporean hawker food is that it combines the kitchens of the three largest ethnic groups: Every center must accommodate Chinese, Malay and Indian snacks, every ethnic group cooks their traditional dishes here for everyone, and everyone tastes it here, regardless of the taste what gods they believe, what language they speak, where they or their ancestors come from.
The hawkers, who hold the various ethnic groups of the multiethnic state together with a wok and wooden spoon, are also valued at the highest level: Generations of street food cooks would “nourish the belly and soul of the nation,” said Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on social media.
Culinary specialties from China, India and Malaysia
The diversity is primarily due to historical reasons: when Sir Stamford Raffles was looking for a British base on the Strait of Malacca in 1819, he decided on the island of Singapore at the southern tip of what is now Malaysia, which he bought from the Sultan of Johor. The island was still almost uninhabited, but that changed quickly.
As a free port, Singapore attracted traders of all nationalities – and workers, of course. The city grew at a breathtaking pace: in 1821 Singapore had 5,000 residents, including 3,000 Malay and more than 1,000 Chinese, just three years later 10,000 people were already living in the city. The British sent English-speaking Indians to take care of the administration; the simple workers mostly came from southern China, where poverty drove the people far away.
They all brought culinary preferences with them, from the Hainanese chicken rice of the Chinese coolies to the curries of the Indian employees to the Malay cuisine with satay skewers and coconut rice. It was mostly young men who found their way to Singapore.
Without a family, so that most of them simply ate at the mobile street kitchens of the hawkers (the word is related to the German “verhökern”) that could be found all over the city. In the middle of the 19th century there was one woman for every 15 men in Singapore. The gender ratio is balanced today, but the joy of eating out has remained.
Hawker Centers offer the best food at affordable prices
This is also due to the fact that most Singaporeans work hard and a lot – the desire to stand in the kitchen after a long day at work is quite low, especially since apartments are expensive and the kitchens are often small. On top of that, the quality and price are unbeatable: there are hawker centers almost everywhere in the city, there are exactly 114 according to the Department of Statistics, with 6075 licensed hawker stalls.
They all serve the best food of all ethnic cuisines at prices that can hardly be beaten at home: an average of around five Singapore dollars (just three euros) is what you pay for a meal.
The fact that the Hawker still make a profit has to do with speed. A hawker serves 300 to 400 guests a day, and if it is good, a few more. Chatting is therefore not to be expected, time is money. And the snack bars always have to be cleaned: the hygiene regulations are strict, and so is the monitoring.
This has been the case since the 1950s – at that time, by order of the authorities, the mobile cooks were banned from the streets and settled in permanent hawker centers in order to have a better view of them and to be able to guarantee the highest level of hygiene. Only the grill stands mentioned at the beginning are allowed to sizzle in the outside area of the food centers in the evening.
Hygiene of the snack bars due to Corona increased
The system works perfectly. The common food rule in the tropics, “peel it, cook it or forget it” (peel it, cook it or forget it) can be safely ignored in Singapore. All of the clichés about the clean city-state simply apply, at least when it comes to the hawker stalls.
All of them are regularly subjected to a state hygiene test and the result must be clearly visible on the stand: the vast majority, around 99 percent, are classified with A (very clean) or B (clean), a few have a C (clean enough).
A D cannot be seen because such a result will result in the temporary closure of the snack bar. You can also inquire about the exact history of cleanliness, i.e. violations, penalties, defects and closures in recent years for every hawker online, because the authorities are adamant when it comes to cleanliness.
To put a stop to the corona pandemic, the disinfection regulations were tightened, and during the first wave, the small kitchens had to close for weeks and switch to take-away. In 2021, the food authority wants to introduce a new system with the categories gold, silver and bronze, which takes better account of compliance with hygiene standards over several years.
The world’s first Michelin star for street food
Every guest should remember an unwritten rule: Before you queue at a stand, you look for a table, a pack of paper tissues is enough to reserve. Conversely, this also means: if there is a supposedly forgotten pack of tissues on a table, then it is already taken. The Singaporeans have even invented their own English word for it: “to chope” means to mark a place in the Hawker Center as occupied.
The “Michelin Guide” has also discovered Singapore’s hawker culture. Of the 58 restaurants that made it onto the 2019 Michelin Bib Gourmand list (a 2020 list was not created due to Corona), 33 were Hawker kitchens.
There is even a “real” Michelin star, the world’s first for street food: Chan Hon Meng, a native of Malaysia, received it in 2016 for his dish “Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle”. At three Singapore dollars (not even two euros), it is the cheapest star-rated meal in the city-state.
Chan learned his trade from a Hong Kong chef. After he was awarded the star, he also opened a restaurant on Smith Street, but the original stand in the Chinatown Complex Market still exists. You don’t have to look long for it, the long line of guests reliably shows the way.
In spite of all the enthusiasm for the hawker kitchen, one problem remains: Most chefs tend to be older, the average age is currently 59 years. And not too many young Singaporeans fancy 14-hour shifts at the stove, which are common practice, often until late at night.
With the “Hawker Succession Scheme”, which provides newcomers with experienced chefs as business mentors, the Singapore government now wants to support potential offspring and preserve the hawker culture. As a traveler, one can only hope that it will work out.
Five of the best hawker centers in Singapore:
Old Airport Road Food Centre: It is not only one of the largest hawker centers, but also one of the oldest. At some of the stands, the chefs have been sizzling the same dish since opening in 1973, often in the second or third generation. No wonder that many Singaporeans of all ethnicities swear by this location (Block 51 Old Airport Road, Dakota MRT Station).
Chinatown Complex Food Centre: With 260 hawkers, it is the largest fast-food center in Singapore and is particularly popular with gourmets who want to feast their way through all of China’s kitchens for a reasonable price – logical, because it is also in Chinatown (335 Smith Street, MRT station Chinatown).
Maxwell Road Hawker Centre: From “Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice” to “Marina South Delicious Food” to “Zhen Zhen Porridge”, there are a particularly large number of famous snacks where people sometimes wait half an hour at lunchtime without complaining (1 Kadayanallur Street, MRT -Station Tanjong Pagar).
Tekka Center: Located in the middle of Little India, the proportion of Indian hawkers among the 120 stands is particularly large. Culinary you travel through all Indian regions – and of course also through the other kitchens of Singapore (Blk 665, Buffalo Road, MRT: Little India).
Golden Mile Food Centre: Even if Chinese cuisine dominates, this hawker center with 112 stands offers a particularly large number of dishes from Malay halal cuisine such as Tauhu Goreng (fried tofu), Mee Hoon Soto Ayam (chicken noodle soup) or the spicy chicken rice called Nasi Ayam (505, Beach Road, MRT Station: Nicoll Highway).
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