Singapore's humble hawker stalls received a boost recently with news that a new hawker centre, due for completion at the end of the year, was going to keep prices low and quality top of the agenda.
The new Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre has promised to cap the national dish of Hainanese chicken rice at just $S2.50 and popular Hokkien noodles at $S2.80. In a city where a pint of beer can reach upwards of S$20, grabbing a plate of food at hawker is some of the best value around.
But hawkers are about more than just cheap dining – they are a national pastime for a local population that is obsessed with food. Hawker centres began in the '60s when the government decided to bring the street food vendors indoors and exercise some quality control. Now they are all over the island dishing out the country's signature cuisine, a mash-up of Malay, Chinese and Indian traditions.
To get the best out of your experience in one of the country's hundred or so hawker centres you might need a few tips however.
Learn to "chope"
Do not sit down if you can see a small tissue packet on the table. This table has been "choped", or reserved. Other popular items to chope with include pens or even iPhones, but we don't suggest the latter even in the safe Lion City. As the Singaporean government maxim goes: low crime doesn't mean no crime. If a table is not full, ask before you sit down.
Find the queue
Singaporeans vote with their feet. If there is a big line in front of a particular stall then there is a reason for it, join in and just point at what the person in front of you ordered. You can also pick by the name of the stall, generally the main dish advertised is the specialty of the house – and your best bet.
Check the rating
As part of making street food safer, each hawker has a rating which it has to display prominently. The ratings are A, B and C. I happily ate for years at both As and Bs but Cs are only for the brave.
The better hawker centres are the older ones with no air-conditioning, if you're inside with a temperature-controlled environment you are probably paying too much and missing out on some classic specialties.
Go beyond chicken rice
Don't play it too safe. Chicken rice and noodles are everywhere, but try a pig organ soup, oyster omelet or a fish head curry to really get the feel of the local cuisine.
Bring the wet wipes
Hawker tables do get wiped down, but it's still worth giving your table a once over and if food is dropped on the table, that is where it stays.
Five must-visit hawker centres
Old Airport Road
This is one of the oldest and most respected hawker centres on the island and has many favourite stalls. The specialty of this centre is bean curd dishes so try to find the famous stall 51 Soya Beancurd.
19 Old Airport Road
This unassuming hawker stall was recently renovated and it received a big influx of respected residents from the closed-down Longhouse hawker market. Ah Hui Big Prawn Noodle is the go-to place here or try the deep-fried delights of Boon Pisang Goreng.
414 Balestier Road
Chinatown Complex Food Centre
Just near Chinatown Food Street – a touristy recreation of street food where vendors cook from faux carts – is this real deal hawker. It is the biggest hawker in the city and you can get lost wandering around, but you will never go hungry with over 250 stalls to choose from. Try the frog porridge or char kway teow.
335 Smith Street
Maxwell Road Hawker Centre
Known as the start or end point to a night out on the nearby Club Street, Maxwell also claims to have the best chicken rice at Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, but as you travel around you will discover that this claim of "best" is quite common. Try them all and decide for yourself.
1 Kadayanallur Street
Tiong Bahru Food Market
This curvaceous and spacious hawker centre on the second floor has plenty to choose from and a large outdoor space to eat. The centre is also a great place to sample Singapore's obsession with roast meat, head to Lee Hong Kee for the char siew (barbecue pork).
83 Seng Poh Road
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Brought to you in association with the Singapore Tourism Board.