It's no great secret that Singapore is a food obsessive's paradise. But while Singapore may be world-renowned for its famed chili crabs, these crustaceans rarely make the plate of a regular Singaporean lunch or dinner due to their hefty price tag. You're far more likely to encounter chicken rice, char kway teow, bak chor mee, and a plethora of vibrantly delicious yet affordable hawker fare.
Known for its melting pot of Chinese, Malay, and Indian cultures, the "little red dot" has seen cheap street food flourish since the 1800s, when Singapore started thriving as an entrepôt. At that time, the promise of a low-capital business enticed many to start selling street food rather than to seek other forms of employment.
Due to rapid urbanization and the need to regulate the vast numbers of street food peddlers, the government started erecting markets with dedicated hawker centres, or open-air food complexes, in the early 1970s. Offering a variety of permanent food stalls with shared tables and seats, hawker centres are dotted throughout the city and are particularly abundant in government-built housing estates. But while hawker centres are dime a dozen in the city, hawker food is also available at open-air coffee shops, canteens, and air-conditioned food courts.
Of late, however, the city has been abuzz with talk about how Singapore can keep its hawker heritage alive as an aging generation retires and stall-rental costs continue to spiral upwards, sometimes making it almost financially unviable for young hawkers to break into the business. Thankfully, even amidst these challenges, Singapore's hawker trade is anything but torpid. Here's what (and where) to eat cheap in Singapore:
Hainanese chicken rice is widely considered to be Singapore's national dish. First blanched in boiling water and then dunked in an ice bath before being sliced, a well-prepared chicken has tender meat tinted with a thin layer of congealed fat. Its rice, cooked in chicken fat, chicken stock, pandan leaf as well as ginger and garlic, is aromatic and fluffy.
Where to get it:
Wee Nam Kee,101 Thomson Road #01-08, United Square. Vital Intel: A perennial favorite among food-lovers staying in central Singapore, the chicken at this decades-old stalwart is sufficiently succulent, the rice fragrant yet not too oily, the ginger dip addictive, and the chili sauce well balanced. Order the kai lan vegetables with shallots on the side to go with your chicken rice. Wee Nam Kee has several branches in and outside Singapore; the Thomson Road outlet is its flagship. Open daily, 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Uncle Chicken Rice, 348 Simpang Bedok #02-24, Bedok Marketplace. Vital Intel: A little off the beaten track but totally worth the schlep for the moist and succulent poached chicken paired with light and fluffy chicken rice. Don't forget the chili sauce and punchy ginger dip. Open daily except Mondays, 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
One of Singapore’s most well-loved street foods, this dish is so named for the kway teow (flat rice noodles) that are char (stir-fried) in a wok over high heat with dark soya sauce, blood cockles, bean sprouts, and Chinese sausage slices. The most tasty plates in the city are often crowned with crispy cubes of deep-fried lard.
Where to get it:
Outram Park Fried Kway Teow Mee, 531A Upper Cross Street #02-17, Hong Lim Food Centre. Vital Intel: Widely considered to be among the best char kway teow in Singapore, this stall is relatively empty in the morning, but come any later and expect a crowd. Open Mondays to Saturdays, 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Hill Street Fried Kway Teow, Blk 16 Bedok South Road #01-41. Vital Intel: This char kway teow differs from the rest because the hawker uses Chinese chives, considered a delicacy. Open daily except Mondays, 12 to 4 p.m, 6 to 10 p.m.
Popular among the Chinese community, bak chor mee (or minced pork noodles) are blanched thin egg noodles tossed in oil, black vinegar, a feisty chili paste, and served with minced pork, pork balls, pork dumplings, pork slices, bits of crispy pork lard, and, in some cases, umami-packed pieces of dried sole fish that has been fried to a crispy, golden hue.
Where to get it:
Tai Wah Pork Noodle, 531A Upper Cross St #02-16, Hong Lim Market & Food Centre; website. Vital Intel: Order it dry and come as early as 8 a.m. to avoid the queue. Open daily including public holidays, 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Tai Hwa Pork Noodles: (466 Crawford Lane #01-12,Tai Hwa Eating House; website). Vital Intel: Open daily except the first and third Mondays of the month, 9:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Whether it’s for breakfast or afternoon tea, the combo of thinly sliced toasted bread slathered with kaya (a thick jam made with coconut, sugar, and egg) and a square of butter to go with a cup of coffee and black sauce-drizzled half-boiled eggs is a quintessentially Singapore experience. Some stalls sell the kaya spread on its own, in case you want to bring a jar back home as souvenir.
Where to get it:
Tong Ah Eating House, 35 Keong Saik Road. Vital Intel: This stall does not serve the best kaya toast in the city, but the experience of eating this uniquely Singaporean breakfast along a five-foot way outside a shop house in Chinatown is unbeatable. Don’t forget to wash it down with half boiled eggs and a cup of kopi (local slang for coffee). Open daily, 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Chin Mee Chin Confectionery,204 East Coast Road. Vital Intel: Visit this old-school coffee shop for house-roasted coffee beans, homemade buns, and their very own kaya jam. Open daily except Mondays 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Unlike the prawns-only wanton (dumpling) popular in Hong Kong, Singapore’s wanton is prepared with a mix of minced pork with prawns. And unlike Hong Kong’s wanton mee, which are served with al dente thin noodles in a bowl of steaming hot broth, the lion city’s wanton mee are springy egg noodles more popularly served dry with char siew (barbecued pork) and leafy greens.
Where to get it: Eng’s Wanton Noodle House, 287 Tanjong Katong Road. Vital Intel: This bowl of wanton mee is served with as much deep-fried lard as you want and as much tear-jerking chili sauce as you care for. Watch how much chili sauce you squirt from the bottle! Open daily, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Hawker stalls selling roasted meats like char siew (barbecued pork) and siew yoke (roasted pork belly) are easy to find in Singapore but rarely does a hawker get both porky delicacies right. The char siew should be tender to the bite and bear a distinct layer of caramelization as well as a balanced amount of fat, while the siew yoke should arrive with a crispy — almost crunchy — rind of crackling. Order on its own or topped over a plate of fan (rice).
Where to get it:
Foong Kee Coffee Shop, 6 Keong Saik Road. Vital Intel: Its location in the Central Business District means that it attracts a heavy lunch crowd; come at 11 a.m. and beat the queue. Open daily except Sundays and public holidays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Lau Phua Chay Authentic Roasted Delicacies,Blk 120 Bukit Merah Lane 1 #01-20, Alexandra Village Food Centre. Vital Intel: Open daily except Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Typically cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf with rice, nasi lemak is a Malay fragrant rice dish typically taken at breakfast (or lunch) in Singapore. Its accoutrements may range from a simple assortment of fresh cucumber, omelette, deep-fried anchovies with peanuts, and sambal chili (a thick and spicy paste made from chili blended with ingredients like garlic, ginger, and shallots). More luxurious options include by deep-fried chicken and turmeric-dusted fried kuning fish.
Where to get it: Selera Rasa Nasi Lemak, 2 Adam Road #01-02, Adam Road Food Centre; website. Vital Intel: This nasi lemak stands out from the rest because of the fluffy, long grain basmati rice used. Expect long queues. Open daily except Fridays, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
A Singapore breakfast staple, roti prata, also nicknamed the "Asian croissant," is a South Indian, flour-based flat bread fried on the griddle with ghee (clarified butter). Crisp, flaky, and buttery, it is usually served with a side of fish or mutton curry and, for children, sugar. Order your roti prata plain or with egg.
Where to get it:
Mr. & Mrs. Mohgan’s Super Crispy Roti Prata, 7 Crane Road, Poh Ho Eatery. Vital Intel: The prata here is one of the crispiest you will find in Singapore, although the curry tends to punch below its weight. You may request to be served all three types of curry at one go (fish, mutton, dhal). Open daily except fortnightly on Mondays, 6:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Sin Ming Roti Prata, Jin Fa Kopitiam, Blk 24 Sin Ming Road #01-51. Vital Intel: Try the aptly named "coin" roti prata. Open daily 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Meaning stir-fry in Hokkien, tze char restaurants are a common sight in Singapore. Housed mostly in coffee shops, shop houses, or in hawker centres, these eateries serve communal-style, mostly wok-fried Chinese dishes like sweet and sour pork, hot plate bean curd, and sambal kang kong (water morning glory) to go with plain rice. It's a great bang for buck if you can resist ordering expensive seafood like chili crabs and steamed fish.
Where to get it:
Keng Eng Kee Seafood, Blk 124 Bukit Merah Lane 1 #01-136; website. Vital Intel: While most of the seats at this popular tze char restaurant are outdoors, you may be lucky enough to snag a seat in the tiny air-conditioned dining room if you reserve early. Order the coffee ribs, claypot pork liver, and kang kong cuttlefish. Open daily 12 to 2:30 p.m., 5 to 10 p.m.
Hong Sheng Restaurant, Hai Fong Restaurant, Blk 203 #01-1121,Toa Payoh North. Vital Intel: The average waiting time if you arrive after 6 p.m. is about an hour; don’t miss the excellent seafood hor fun (wok-fried flat noodles with gravy). Open daily except Mondays, 5 to 10:30 p.m.
One of the city’s most popular Peranakan (or Straits Chinese) street food, this Chinese-Malay inspired dish arrives with oodles of thick bee hoon (rice vermicelli) in a spicy, coconut milk-enriched broth teeming with barely-cooked cockles, tau pok (bean curd puff), fish cakes, and bean sprouts.
Where to get it: Sungei Road Laksa, Blk 27 Jalan Berseh #01-100; website. Vital Intel: Now 60 years in the trade, this is one of few laksa stalls that still use charcoal fire to keep the cauldron of laksa broth warm. Open daily except Wednesdays, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Evelyn Chen is a former Time Out food critic and former editor of Zagat Guide; her food and travel features have published in New York Times, the South China Morning Post, Destin Asian, Telegraph Travel, and Conde Nast Traveller. Editor: Hillary Dixler