Destination Singapore: How to eat like a local - and why you'd be crazy not to

Singapore food guide: why you should eat like a local at the country's hawker centres.
Hawker centres are a celebration of delicious, affordable food. Photo credit: Getty Images / Mindy Tan / Newshub.

"I'm sure you have your own Michelin-star restaurants in your country, you can eat at those there. In Singapore, it's all about the hawker centres, where the food is cheap, clean and delicious, and we are very proud of it."

So said a friendly taxi driver in Singapore while I was there recently. And he was so right.

Singapore's hawker centres are bustling, amazing-smelling, thoroughly exciting places that feel like they're physically buzzing with the country's culture. The food is indeed cheap and delicious, and also very diverse.

If you've never been to one, think of a mix between a food court like those we have in New Zealand, and the street food markets common in many Asian countries.

Singaporeans are indeed proud of their multicultural nation and its world-renowned cuisine. They're also a people obsessed with food, to the point that for some it's almost all they can talk about, I'm told. It was even said that it's not uncommon for Singaporeans to be dining together and spend most of the meal time discussing not only the food in front of them, but where they would be eating next.

There is a vast selection of fine-dining restaurants with world-renowned chefs in the relatively small area that is Singapore, which is a single direct flight away from New Zealand. Although it would be crazy to only eat at those places and ignore the likes of the hawker centres, unless you're only in the country for one meal, you don't have to choose one or the other. And if you are in town for one meal only, you could do both in one by dining at Hawker Chan - home of the cheapest Michelin-starred meal on the planet.

Celeste Ryall, House of Travel's customer engagement director, told Newshub that for New Zealand's foodie travellers, Singapore is an "absolute highlight".

"Hawker centres are always popular. The Zion Riverside centre is a firm customer favourite as are the more central Lau Pat Sat and Chinatown complex," said Ryall.

The latter two I can personally vouch for having tried multiple dishes at both - the best of which I'll list below.

Where to eat in Singapore: Lau Pa Sat.
Lau Pa Sat. Photo credit: Newshub.

I did also dine at some more upmarket restaurants and can certainly attest to the quality on offer there as well. The best of my finer-dining experiences in Singapore was at Fiamma, an Italian place at the five-star hotel where Donald Trump infamously cozied up to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

Fiamma's homemade pasta was divine and, like a lot of places in Singapore, the craft cocktails were also fantastic. But as scrumptious as that meal was, the hawker centres were much more exciting and provided a much stronger taste of Singaporean culture.

They appear to be egalitarian places that cater to people from all walks of life, packed with folks seemingly eternally excited by how delicious and cheap the food on offer is - from groups of elderly people to corporate types to families to blokes having a few beers.

Cheap beer at Chinatown Complex Food Centre in Singapore.
Lads enjoying a beer at Chinatown Complex Food Centre. Photo credit: Singapore Tourism Board

When UNESCO inscribed Singapore's hawker centres as intangible cultural heritage in 2020, it said they "serve as 'community dining rooms' where people from diverse backgrounds gather and share the experience of dining over breakfast, lunch and dinner. Activities such as chess-playing, busking and art-jamming also take place". 

There's also something very grounded about the hawker centres that makes them a wonderful contrast to the futuristic feel a lot of Singapore has, from Changi Airport to Gardens by the Bay and a lot of the cityscape.

A relatively new rule at the centres is self-clearing your dishes when you're done. There are plenty of stations set up for this so you don't have to walk far, each separated into halal and non-halal areas so Muslims can comfortably enjoy the deliciousness as well.

Chinatown Complex Food Centre, Singapore.
Chinatown Complex Food Centre. Photo credit: Mindy Tan

And people happily abide by those rules, which speaks to the community feel of the places - despite the threat of a fine if you break them.

The food is also cheap enough at hawker centres that you get a couple of meals in one visit, as well as a sweet treat and a dessert. I did, anyway, as there's just so much to try and it's all so damn good.

Below are the best places I dined like a local in Singapore - which it would be crazy not to do if you're there - along with the best dishes I had at each. Each price below is in Singapore dollars and at the time of publishing, SG$1 = NZ$1.19.

What to eat in Singapore: Chendol from Old Amoy at the Chinatown hawker centre.
Chendol is a sweet treat must. Photo credit: Getty Images

Chinatown Complex Food Centre

The largest hawker centre in Singapore, this features over 260 stalls, which is more than enough to get blissfully lost in. There's a wide range of local dishes as well as a massive variety of meals from the wider Asian continent.

  • Carrot cake - $5 per large serving
    This means something quite different to the carrot cake you have in Aotearoa. The 'carrot' is not what we think of as carrot at all, but rather a white radish or daikon. And it's not a cake. Hmm. Unusual name aside, this is a tasty and unique sweet and savoury dish that comes in two forms: black style (fried with sweet dark soya sauce) or white style (more egg-based). I got both and honestly can't say which is better, so recommend you sample both on your first time too.
  • Sugar cane juice - $2
    Plenty of stalls sell this, juiced fresh right in front of you and served with a little fresh lemon if you like. So fresh, so delicious, so refreshing in the muggy, Southeast Asia summer.
Black carrot cake, white carrot cake and fresh sugarcane juice at Singapore's Chinatown Complex Food Centre.
Black carrot cake, white carrot cake and fresh sugarcane juice at the Chinatown Complex Food Centre. Photo credit: Newshub.
  • Chendol - $2.5
    The version of this classic Southeast Asian dessert served at the Old Amoy Chendol stall is hard to beat. It's a small mountain of shaved ice with coconut flavouring, beautiful green jelly and smokey, sweet gula melaka (palm sugar). For me it got better and better as it melted and all the ingredients mixed together, with the last few very liquidy mouthfuls an uber sweet delight.
  • Xiaolongbao - $7
    This soupy dumpling dish is widely available around the world, including New Zealand, but is generally much more expensive than you'll get at this hawker centre and rarely of the same wonderful quality. This is not a main dish, but if you're eating as a group, it'd be foolish not to have this in the mix. Biting into one at the right temperature and having the warm, tasty liquid inside explode around your mouth is absolute joy. Highly recommend getting it from Zhong Guo La Mian where 10 will cost you $7.
Lau Pa Sat food centre.
Lau Pa Sat. Photo credit: Marklin Ang

Lau Pa Sat

A bit more touristy than the Chinatown complex, this centre has larger stalls and much fewer of them, but still offers a vast array of mouth-watering options. It's situated in a historic Victorian building and a short walk away from Merlion Park and that super central waterfront area.

  • Hokkien mee - $7.50
    I got the signature dish from Golden Shoe Hokkien Mee and gosh darn, it was one of the tastiest noodle dishes I've ever tried in my life. You can opt to have pork lard in (tastier, less healthy) or out (healthier - maybe less tasty? I didn't try it without). 
  • Shrimp with Fried Rice - $7.90
    I got one of these from Mr Rice and look, if you think fried rice is too basic a dish to get in Singapore - well, you're wrong. The balance of flavours in this serving really grabbed my attention on the first mouthful with its overall deliciousness, then it didn't get too samey even through to the last swallow. Just divine.
  • Satay - from 60c per skewer
    At night, the street by Lau Pa Sat is closed off to cars, more tables and chairs are put out and more barbecues are fired up. On some of those, all sorts of amazing skewers are done, including incredible satay that gets the balance just right between sweet, savoury and spicy. These vary in price but we got a huge pile for less than $20.
Lau Pa Sat's nightly outdoor area.
Lau Pa Sat's nightly outdoor area. Photo credit: Singapore Tourism Board

Jurassic Nest

This is a must when visiting Singapore. It's a Michelin-starred food hall (!) with an amusing Jurassic Park theme, conveniently located right in Gardens by the Bay - which is absolutely worth exploring for a day and eating there is super convenient.

The foodhall is indoors but with the air-con mercifully cranked right up it felt a little windy, which - along with the sound of the little waterfall the main T-rex sits upon - gives it quite an outdoorsy atmosphere.

You can dine with dinosaurs at Jurassic Nest in Singapore.
You can dine with dinosaurs at Jurassic Nest. Photo credit: Newshub.

There's another reason to eat Jurassic Nest: Hawker Chan.

Although the original Hawker Chan is at the Chinatown centre mentioned above, that one - and some other outlets - always have long queues. The one at Jurassic Nest had no queue and was a great way to try out the world famous (for very good reason) barbeque pork and soya sauce chicken, which one really must do while in Singapore.

Hawker Chan deliciousness at Jurassic Nest.
Hawker Chan deliciousness at Jurassic Nest. Photo credit: Newshub.

The signature dish is soya sauce chicken with rice and it'll set you back just $3.50, while roast pork with noodles is $4.50. If you're dining as a group, a whole chicken will be $18 while 1kg of roast pork would be $36. 

When I was there, at 1pm on the dot the waterfall stopped running, music started up, mist started emerging from around the dinosaur models and they leapt to life for an animatronics routine.

A delightful lunch with a show, in the middle of a day exploring one of the most amazing garden complexes on the planet? Mint.

Kaya toast

This is another must-have dish in Singapore and there are quite a few places to try it, but the Killiney Kopitiam chain I can attest to as being a fantastic option.

They make their own kaya butter - a coconut jam with eggs, pandan and sugar - which is maybe the best toast spread known to mankind. It's served with generous slabs of butter between big, thick slices of bread they toast over charcoal.

Be sure to get it with a soft-boiled egg which you can add a little soy sauce and pepper to, then dip in the kaya toast for the ultimate mix.

Kaya toast with coffee and eggs at Killiney Kopitiam.
Kaya toast with coffee and eggs at Killiney Kopitiam. Photo credit: Newshub.

The kopitiam (coffee shop) culture of Singapore has an interesting history rooted in its British colonial era, often celebrated on the walls of the establishments.

Like the hawker centres, these places are also cheap - a set of kaya toast, eggs and a coffee or tea will set you back around $6.

If you wanted to do a bigger breakfast and keep it local, you could do a first course of nasi lemak before moving on to a second course of kaya toast.

Oh, and keep in mind that the filter coffee on offer is, well, good enough - but quite different from the high standard of espresso you can get pretty much anywhere in New Zealand.

Toast on the grill at Killiney Kopitiam.
Toast on the grill at Killiney Kopitiam. Photo credit: Newshub.

My one regret though is only leaving with one jar of Killiney Kaya. It's all fresh ingredients so it has a best before date of just two months after production, but I polished mine off within a week of returning to Aotearoa.

On my next trip to Singapore I'll definitely be bringing more back - as well as a whole bunch of new recommendations of more of the best local dishes at the amazing hawker centres I'm longing to return to.

Newshub was hosted in Singapore by the Singapore Tourism Board.