Singapore is famous for its food culture, and although there are certainly high-end top-dollar restaurants with 10-course menus that would charm the foodiest ex-pat executive, the heart of that food culture lives in the local hawker centres.
Street food is a common cultural institution throughout the world, but has a special place in Southeast Asia in particular as the dominant working-class cuisine and in Singapore’s case primary meal option. The hawker centres themselves are the result of a typically Singaporean government effort in the 1970’s to improve food safety and keep an ever-increasing army of food hawkers from blocking traffic. The government built and maintains the cavernous markets themselves, and administers licensing and health codes. Despite this standardization, the hawker centre is still a vibrant part of the local culture and a wonderfully chaotic den of unexpected delights to western palates and challenges to preconceptions about “eating out”.
The centres are organized as long lines of narrow, no-frills stalls, each operated by a different vendor, each with their own specialties and styles. Although the cuisines tend to be dominated by the ethnicity of the surrounding neighborhood, it’s still a grab-bag of curries, dumplings, soups, hot pots, noodles, satay, fruit juices, and everything else that’s taken root in this culinary crossroads.