Eating your way around Singapore's hawker centres

 

 

Food lovers can approach their dining plans in Singapore at almost any level. Those with a palate for luxury will find no shortage of high-end restaurants, offering wagyu steaks, rare lobsters and even truffle caviar, all washed down with lashings of vintage wines from the world's most exclusive vineyards. There's also a glut of mid-range restaurants which are priced similarly to typical European restaurants and which cover pretty much every known variety of cuisine.

But it's at the bottom end where Singapore's food scene gets really interesting, and it's here where many visitors experience some of their sweetest Singapore memories. 'Hawker centre' is the loose term applied to the informal collections of food stalls which have sprung up all over the island, although over time many of these have become anything but informal; some of these centres have no doubt been created solely to satisfy the appetite of tourists in search of 'real' Singapore street food. But however dubious their authenticity, the stalls at sites such as Gluttons Bay remain popular for a reason. In a city where snagging a barely-decent hotel room for under £100 can be a challenge, it's a treat to be able to indulge in a plate (or a polystyrene carton) of tasty nosh for a fiver or less. Throw in a freshly squeezed lime juice and you're fed and watered with barely a dent in your daily budget.

Maxwell Food Centre feels a lot more like the real deal. It's just across the road from Chinatown and lunchtime sees a mix of tourists and locals indulging in delights such as oyster cakes and Hainanese chicken rice. Stalls display press clippings to show not only some of their celebrity customers, but also to highlight their longevity and family culinary heritage of their business.

But perhaps the most interesting hawker centres of all are beyond the bright lights of the city centre. On a trip to the north of the island and a short bus ride from the Singapore Botanical Gardens, following a tip-off about a place to get excellent biryani, we found ourselves on Sixth Avenue. It's a very well-to-do part of Singapore with large mansions and guarded apartment blocks; hardly your typical place for a hawker centre, and we walked past the place we were looking for twice. Eventually it clicked that the very plain shack, going under the banner 'Indian Muslim Food', must be the place we'd come to find.

 

 

We snagged an empty table and ordered our biryani, starving by then after a half-hour search among the long driveways of Sixth Avenue. With no ceremony the golden rice, pieces of fried chicken and a thick brown sauce were dished out on a plastic plate: within a minute of arriving we were eating. The biryani was excellent, and at £3 a plate we decided to go crazy and treat ourselves to a lime juice each. Around us local people in smart jackets sat on plastic garden chairs, enjoying a quick lunch break before no doubt returning to the jobs which paid for those expensive houses.

If you enjoy trying different food and aren't too fussy about service, table cleanliness, or listening to Norah Jones on an endless loop, you can eat at different stands, and even at different hawker centres, for every meal of your trip. And while the centres in the downtown area might be the most accessible, it's worth venturing out of town to find some of the more unfussy places, many of which are the favoured haunts of Singapore's very lively network of online food critics.         

 

 

 

KL Coliseum

KL Coliseum

 

 

Time almost seems to stand still at The Coliseum. This KL icon is close to celebrating its 100th birthday and has changed little since the good old days when planters used to occupy the rented rooms and colonial engineers used to meet here for sundowners. The bar is said to be the highest bar in South East Asia: it was ergonomically designed at a time long before the term was even thought of and is placed ‘exactly at the height of the average Englishman’s elbow.’

 


The old bar has seen some wild nights and the loyal crowd of staunch regulars regularly threaten to rebel (or, worse, desert) whenever the owner threatens to refurbish or even just paint the tobacco-stained walls. You never know who you might bump into in the Coliseum’s bar. Last time I was here I ended up on a G&T binge with a leading military advisor from East Timor and a man who claimed to be an exiled Bengali noble who was battling to regain his ancestral fifedom.

 

Returning this time the regulars still look vaguely familiar and even old Captain Ho, the famous Chinese waiter has recently celebrated his eighty-eighth birthday but still insists on hobbling out of the kitchen to tie the napkin around your neck and serve up your sizzling (or “sizzering”) hotplate steaks. The traditional British Pot Pies are also a sought after delicacy but the staff here refuses to be rushed...the menu stipulates that these delicacies must be ordered with three days advance notice.

 


The only noticeable difference these days is that the bar-staff seem to be a bit stingier on the gin slings. Can it be that even the venerable Coli is having to face up to an economic downturn?

 


Every time I stay at the Coli I think that it’s impossible that it can still be here when I next get back. I’ve been saying that for years though and chances are I guess the infamous ‘Coli’ might outlast me after all!