If there’s one thing you must do in Singapore, it’s eat at a hawker centre.
Because in this country, makan, or eating, is the national pastime.
Everyone eats here, in these humble open-air areas packed with rows of food stalls selling everything from fried fish balls to stir-fried curried noodles. The rich, the food snobs, the first-timers, the hipsters, grandmas, American tourists, lunching ladies — literally, everyone eats here.
The food here is usually inexpensive and prepared to order. And every stall tends to sell something different from the others, making your visit to one of these centres, most often located in dense urban centers or near transportation hubs, a bit overwhelming.
What should we eat? Where should we go? What the heck is this?
Those were the questions running through my mind during our visit to Geylang Serai, one of the biggest and busiest wet markets in Singapore. Since 1964, this market has been a focal point for the local Malay community — and we were here to eat.
The first floor is a maze of vendors selling dried fruits, Malay textiles, traditional clothing, fresh vegetables, live seafood and tons of spices.
But upstairs is where the foodies flock. Here, food stalls serve up some of the best Muslin/Indian food in Singapore. You can find plates with fried chicken and basmati rice; desserts like chendol with coconut cream and ice shavings; or mee rebus (“boiled noodles” in Malay) stewed with dried shrimp, mutton scraps and flower crabs.
While there are variations within Malay cuisine that’s prevalent all over Singapore — it’s only a six-hour drive from Singapore to Kuala Lampur, Malaysia’s capital city — there are a few characteristics that remain true across the board: a generous use of spices, belcan (shrimp paste) to make sambal, coconut milk, chili peppers, and rice (nasi). Oh, and Malays rarely use utensil, opting to eat with their hands instead. (Right hands, to be exact. The left is used for, well, other things.)
After breakfast — where we literally sampled about 10 different dishes — we wandered around the first floor of the hawker centre to see what other treasures we might find.
We spent the rest of the day walking around the enormous Marina Bay Sands, checking out the world’s longest elevated swimming pool on its top floor and the 1-million-square-foot Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, which boasts more than 300 stores and restaurants and a canal snaking through it. We even made a pit stop at Din Tai Fung for its famous xiao long bao (soup dumplings).
For dinner, Melissa had invited @SingaporeanEats — she doesn’t use her real name, though we do actually know it! — to eat with us. A native of Singapore — and a bonafide foodie — she had a list of places and dishes we needed to try. But in the interest of time and convenience, she took us to what she called a rather tourist-y hawker center named Makansutra Gluttons Bay on Raffles Avenue.
It’s a lively spot, right on the bay with great views of the skyline of the island’s financial district.
But we weren’t here for the views!
Our Singaporean friend said while this might be a newer, trendier spot that attracts visitors, the vendors are completely authentic and serve delicious food, even by her (high) standards.
It’s one of the highlights of any trip abroad to meet up with someone who’s from the area, someone who loves food as much as we do, someone who’s generous and willing to share her insights with us. These people really know what’s going on, what’s good, what’s hot, and what we should avoid at all costs. We were incredibly fortunate to spend this evening with this super fun, super smart Singaporean.
We started the day at a hawker centre and ended it at another one. That’s not a bad plan!
The hawker centres in Singapore are owned by three government bodies, namely the National Environment Agency (NEA) under the parent Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR), Housing and Development Board (HDB) and JTC Corporation. In 2010, NEA launched www.myhawkers.sg, an interactive web portal that offers useful information on hawker centres and food stalls.