Singapore, Where the Food Courts Don't Suck

Diners at the Maxwell Road Food Court in Singapore during a lunch-hour rush. (Photo: joyfull/Shutterstock).

Squeaky clean Singapore is known for its small size, its economic prowess and its strict drug trafficking penalties. This city-state of 5 million on the tip of the Malay Peninsula is a popular tourist destination because it's safe, easy to get around and, most of all, anglophone.

Many good-humored self-depreciating Singaporeans will tell you that their country is not the most fun-filled in the world. It's fine if you like modern shopping malls (they are everywhere) and hate littering (you can get a stiff fine for something as small as missing the garbage can when you spit out your gum).

There is, however, one thing that residents here are almost universally proud of and passionate about: their food.

The prime example of this is the food court. In most of the world, "food court" is nothing short of an expletive for those who love quality eats. The usual kind of grease-filled fast food that you find in these places is warmed over steam trays or under heat lamps. It might keep hunger at bay, but after an hour or so, it usually leaves you asking "why did I eat that?"

Maxwell Road hawker center
Diners at the Maxwell Road hawker center. Aapo Haapanen [CC by 2.0]/flickr

Singapore's food courts are different. Usually called Hawker Centers, these venues look exactly like standard food courts. Different vendors have a little bit of counter space around the outside of the room, and customers sit at tables in the middle.

But the similarities with your average American mall food court end there. Most Singaporean vendors are not part of a chain or franchise. They are independent businesspeople who are selling their own "brand." Almost every cook has a specialty. Not a special type of cuisine, but a special dish or two. They make the same thing day after day and have often reached a level of perfection in their specialty that Michelin-starred chefs would envy.

Singaporeans take their food seriously, so even in these humble venues, vendors can only compete if their ingredients are fresh, the food is flawless and their operation is clean. The food is usually made to order using meat or produce bought that day.

Foodies delight at being able to visit hawker centers and work their way around the ring of food stalls, adding to their waistline as they go.

Chinese cuisine food stalls in the Smith Street hawker center
Chinese cuisine food stalls in the Smith Street hawker center. Ronnie Chau/Shutterstock

In the 1960s, newly independent Singapore featured a number of pushcart vendors who would sell their food on the side of the road, usually in front of busy shophouses. Hawker centers were part of an effort to move these cooks — "hawkers" in local vernacular — off the street. However, the early food courts suffered from a lack of sanitation and frequent incidences of food poisoning.

So, as happens very often in the city-state, the government stepped in to clean up. To this day, health inspections are frequent and vendors are given a cleanliness grade that they are supposed to display for their customers to see.

Like much of the rest of Singapore, hawker centers are generally lacking in atmosphere. For most people, the food makes up for the sterile surroundings. There is even one particular place, known as the Singapore Food Trail, where vendors are trying to bring back the romance of eating from a pushcart on the street. This 1960s-themed food court even has a few wooden carts that serve food. The nearby Food Republic Beer Garden has a similar approach, with antique-style bird cages strung up for extra atmosphere.

The Lau Pat Sat hawker center in Singapore during a lull in business
The Lau Pat Sat hawker center in Singapore during a lull in business. Chang'r [CC by 2.0]/flickr

The other thing that Singapore's eating scene has going for it is its ethnic diversity. Some major hawker centers, like Maxwell Road, are dominated by Chinese cuisine, but you can also find Indian and Malay-inspired food there. The Tekka Centre, meanwhile, specializes in Indian fare (mostly specialties from South India). (Actually, even calling it "Chinese cuisine" isn't correct. Different dialect groups have their own cooking styles, each of which tastes completely different from the others. Hainanese, Hokkien and Hakka cuisines have ingredients and flavors all their own.)

Yes, you could describe Singapore as boring and sterile. Most locals wouldn't argue with you, though they might point out the all-night dance clubs and the legal prostitution districts to prove that not everything is authoritarian.

But if you share a negative opinion about the food, you'll undoubtedly hear some passionate arguments and perhaps be whisked off to a food court and stuffed with specialties until you admit you were wrong to speak ill of Singapore's cuisine.