Updated: Apr 4, 2020
I am forty-eight hours into a week in Singapore and already affected. Having consumed a slew of delicious meals at the much-hyped hawker centers and even more memorable encounters with fellow patrons. These fellow seekers of affordable delectability were mere strangers before ascending the escalators to the food stall levels, plopping down my tissue packet and pulling up a seat. Of note, Singaporeans are serious about their escalator etiquette so stand to the left to avoid breaking the first cardinal rule. These same rule-abiding locals are also a happy and deservedly proud set, and eager to share what makes their city and the renowned food culture behind it so exceptional.
First though, the hawker centers. These open-air food halls are the resulting foresight of the Singapore government back in the 1970s. Their creation delivered convivial gathering places that brought with them sanitation standards previously unregulated in the Singapore street food scene. Each stall exhibits expertise in one or two specific dishes - most mapping directly to the blend of cultures that make up the city as a whole.
Singapore removes the gloves and can rival any other global locations’ claims to being a “melting pot.” The nearly 6 million residents are an eclectic mix of ethnic Chinese, Malays and Indians and standing in any queue results in an enticing audible mix of spoken dialect. My journey began at the Tiong Bahru Center, a dangerously short two blocks from the quaint Airbnb I rented during my stay. Of those I could cram into my itinerary, this center was the most well organized and airy - but still humming with energy.
My first encounter remains the most singular and memorable, and I suppose that is because my senses were still in that heightened state any traveler knows well. The one that is all-consuming after they plunge themselves into an entirely new place.
Once settled at my table during the busy lunch hour, a nice couple and their young son asked if they could join me. While the husband went to order, his wife, Mai, struck up a conversation inquiring where I was from and what I thought of the chwee kueh glistening on the paper wrapping in front of me.
She likely already knew the answer based on how quickly I was awkwardly working my chopsticks on the delicate and slippery bowl-shaped steamed rice cakes. The flavors were unique to my Western tastes and the slight sweetness of the preserved radish topping paired insanely well with the accompanying mild heat of the chili sauce.
About halfway through my dish, her husband Roy returned with their bounty.
We chatted about my travels and where I was from. “I’m from the U.S. - originally from the Southeast.” “Oh, you mean like Miami?” Now, any self-respecting southern boy would bristle internally at the suggestion that any location in Florida warrants affiliation anywhere near where I grew up (particularly Miami) but instead my reaction was that of true respect. I would challenge any U.S. traveler to place with accuracy the directional location of even the most major of global destinations within their country of origin - my guess is 99% would be unsuccessful.
“Yes, like Miami but just slightly north of there” I replied to Roy.
Before I know it, Roy is sliding all three of their dishes one-by-one to my side of the formica table. Quick to gauge my comfort with spice and cordial enough to share right off his plate to ensure the flavors were not cross-contaminated with what had been on mine prior. It was a highlight of culinary hawker stall hits - delicious Nasi Lemak with inexplicably creamy coconut rice and roasted peanuts, a banana leaf wrapped grilled fish cake called otah that was essentially a savory seafood patê.
Finally, he scooped over a healthy portion of stir-fried egg noodles with prawn and squid called hokkien mee. This dish was already on my radar to try based on my strategy to have as many Michelin star hawker meals as possible in town, and I was glad for the preview. The $4 dish (roughly $2.95 USD!) came with three prawns and Roy insisted I have one in my sample. When pressed he simply replied, “I get to eat this whenever I want.”
I hung around post-meal and we continued to have an engaged exchange. The topics ranged from shared culinary adventures to their strong opinions on the craze and depictions of their city in Crazy Rich Asians. We all reached agreement that, if nothing else, it could be the most effective movie ever secretly crafted by a tourism bureau! Worth pointing out, I saw more Lamborghinis and Bugattis during my ten day stay than at any combined point until now in my lifetime.
I received a masters course over the week, not just from Roy and Mai, but from other locals who joined me at the communal tables during meals on what makes these institutions so special. It’s universal really: food, family and exploration. Singapore’s hawker centers serve as a petri dish of different histories and stories. It is an experiment that, from the experience of this nomad, has turned out gloriously distinctive and worthwhile.
For all the attention Singapore receives as a city of excess and wealth, the hawker centers offer a compelling dichotomy. An oasis where culinary chaos holds sway in an otherwise highly controlled city scrubbed clean. Outside of the hawker centers and outskirt neighborhoods, I found myself sometimes disenchanted with the sanitary rule. Perhaps I require some slight grunge and weathering to serve as visual queues a place has been through the ringer and survived on the other side intact.
Sadly, I wonder if these institutions of equality generated through shared passions for food will resemble anything like they do now upon return trips to Singapore years down the road. I entrusted these hard-working masters with crafting artfully simplistic noodle and rice dishes and nearly every stall revealed an owner pushing well past ages that would have them playing bingo and shuffleboard (not the bar version) back in the States.
Based on my research, new culinary entrepreneurs seem focused on familiar setups to what you might see in the hip neighborhoods of any major U.S. city - trendy coffee shops, accent walls designed for photo opportunities and small plates. You walk away with the distinct impression Sinapore is trying its damndest to be a “city of the future” at the risk of losing touch with an incredible past.
My time in Singapore lasted just over a week, so not nearly enough to toss my tissue packet down (not a euphemism, this is how you reserve a table) and even create a ripple in the 100+ centers that exist around the city. Hopefully, the city cultivates enough of a younger generations and inspired understudies of these laboring aunties and uncles keeping the flavors and history they represent alive. Regardless, I plan to return hungry and find out.