Before we took our first steps in south-east Asia, we felt sure of one thing: these last few months of our world journey would surely have a much lesser impact on our finances. Everywhere, that is, apart from Singapore.
The entry point for our four-month traverse of the great Eastern continent, Singapore has an expensive reputation. Prior to our visit, frequently we were told we would find some relief there from the exorbitantness of Australia, but still to expect prices comparable to western Europe.
These warnings played a role in our decision to reduce our planned stay in Singapore from six to four nights. That would be enough, we thought, to experience the city’s highlights without depleting our bank accounts too badly. In the end, while we did see a lot in our restricted time, we wished we’d stuck with the original plan.
What we found is that Singapore doesn’t have to be expensive, so long as you are prepared to dine exclusively on street food. If such a prospect alarms you for some reason, be assured that this is where you will find some of the best and most authentic grub the city has to offer. Where else in the world can you eat Michelin-star food for a couple of dollars?
Street food in Singapore is organised into large courts of individual ‘hawker’ stalls. The ‘hawker’ name derives from the days when food vendors would sell their fare on the streets and shout to gain attention. Over time, the vendors congregated into dedicated complexes where they no longer needed to shout to attract punters, but the name stuck.
You will find these hawker complexes all over the city offering the full spectrum of Eastern cuisine at prices you might expect to find in other Asian destinations with cheaper reputations. We filled our short stay with these gems, and here’s what we found…
Tekka Centre, Little India
We began our Singapore experience by taking the free walking tour of Little India, which, after guiding us through the area’s beautiful streets and temples, conveniently finished in the renowned Tekka Centre at precisely lunchtime.
The Tekka Centre is a large complex packed with shops, food markets and hawker stalls almost exclusively selling Indian cuisine, distinguishing it from other hawker centres in the city. At the culmination of the walking tour (operated by Monster Day Tours) we were given a free sample of dosa pancakes with curry sauces, and with our appetites suitably whetted, we decided to stay on for lunch.
With so many vendors selling such an enormous variety of food it can be difficult to choose one, but we found that a surefire winning strategy was simply to go for the stall with the longest queue. In this case, it was Ar-Rahman Royal Prata. In case you hadn’t guessed, its speciality dish is roti prata, a fried flatbread originating from Southern India.
For a total bill of just 11 Singapore dollars (at the time of writing the exchange rate is about 1.85 to the pound sterling), we had two roti pratas each, with chicken and fish curries for ripping and dipping.
As has become something of a ritual at Indian food outlets on our travels, we were asked if we wanted our curry spicy, and were met with a look of mild surprise when we said that we did. After eating a fair few bland curries throughout South America and Oceania, this was the stuff of heaven. Welcome to Asia!
Lau Pa Sat, Downtown Core
That evening, after hiding out at Gardens by the Bay during a torrential downpour, we made our way over to one of the city’s most famous hawker centres, located in the heart of the business district: Lau Pa Sat.
Set in an orderly, octagonal market building, Lau Pa Sat comprises over 100 neatly organised hawker stalls on the inside, while at night the outside sparks to life with sizzling satay barbecue and speciality seafood stalls.
We arrived a little while before the street coals were lit, and so we ventured inside and perused the entire circuit twice before finally settling on Kang Lu Healthy Carbs. It was slightly pricier than some, but, craving vitamins, we were drawn in by the pictures of giant vegetable portions served with main dishes.
Lisa went for salmon and rice, I for chicken and noodles, and the vegetable portions didn’t disappoint. Our total bill came to 12.60 Singapore dollars. While this wasn’t the most remarkable hawker food we tasted (read on below for that), it filled a hole more than sufficiently.
On our final night in Singapore, we returned to Lau Pa Sat at dusk, feeling that we couldn’t leave without trying chilli crab and barbecued satay sticks. This was not a budget venture, but probably the cheapest way to eat chilli crab in the city – we paid 49 Singapore dollars for a medium-sized crab to share, served with hot bread rolls, and supplemented with 10 satay sticks for another 7 dollars.
This is a highly satisfying and worthwhile indulgence if you’re willing to get your hands messy – prising open crab claws dripping with hot sauce can be a tricky business.
Chinatown Complex Food Centre
You may have read in my previous blog post on dining in Melbourne about a hawker food restaurant that had just opened there, after finding fame in Singapore, its city of origin. Hawker Chan started out as a humble vendor in Singapore’s largest hawker complex, but drew international attention when it became the first hawker stall in the world to be awarded a Michelin star.
While cruising around the Chinatown Complex Food Centre and trying to figure out which of its 260+ stalls we would choose, we chanced upon an abnormally large queue. After weaving through to the head of it, our curiosity turned to delight when we discovered that it was none other than the original Hawker Chan stall!
The food was just as simple and just as perfect as we had sampled in Melbourne, but this time even cheaper. For our chicken with hor fun noodles and a large plate of seasonal veg to share, we paid just 9 Singapore dollars. Feeling greedy, we also bought a side of 10 steamed dumplings for 5 dollars from China La Mian Xiao Long Bao. Quite simply the best dumplings I’ve ever tasted.
As we left the complex, we spied across the road the Hawker Chan restaurant that had been opened on the back of the hawker stall’s success. It was really great to see that despite the hype, the chef was standing by the formula. With such worldly recognition and demand skyrocketing, he could raise his prices by four or five times, but instead he has remained true to the stall’s philosophy and continues to sell his prize dish for 3.50 Singapore dollars. Fair play.
Maxwell Food Centre, Chinatown
With our modest travel budget, we expected Hawker Chan to be our last Michelin-rated food experience for a long, long time. Amazingly, we were proved wrong the very next day just a couple of blocks away.
We ventured back into Chinatown to check out the Maxwell Food Centre, another of Singapore’s highly rated hawker complexes. Sticking with our foolproof stall selection strategy, we soon found the longest queue, and it was another whopper, stretching well into the streets outside. We had stumbled upon Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice – a hawker stall featured in the last two Singapore Michelin Guides!
As with Hawker Chan, the signature dish was very straightforward – boiled chicken served with oily rice, cooked with garlic and ginger in the chicken juices. This was our most expensive hawker meal at 17.60 Singapore dollars – still less than ten pounds for both of us. While some pieces were a little bony, the chicken was succulent and flavoursome, and the rice cooked to perfection.
In addition to food vendors, all the hawker centres we visited had a selection of drink stalls selling some unfamiliar concoctions for Western taste buds. We got into a habit of ordering whatever we could find that we hadn’t tried at home. In Maxwell Food Centre, while Lisa queued for the chicken and rice, I bought a lychee drink and a dark sour cherry drink. Lisa chose lychee – definitely the wise choice, it turned out!
So, after anticipating our budget would be painfully stretched during our few days in Singapore, we instead found that we could spend comfortably less than 20 pounds sterling a day between two of us and eat like absolute champions. It seems that when people say a place is ‘expensive’, they’re usually referring to alcohol. When it comes to food, there’s always a way if you look hard enough.