Hawker Is Sweeter the Second Time Around

I didn’t get to enjoy Singaporean cuisine when I first visited the island-city. This time around, I came back with a vengeance—and an empty stomach ready to be filled.

Singapore has always been known as a mecca for gastronomic wonders. As home to three different cultures—Chinese, Malay, and Indian—the Lion City is a melting pot of varied flavors. It comes as no surprise, then, that hawker stalls on this island have earned Michelin stars over the past decades.

It’s this reputation that had me extremely excited when I first visited in 2012. It was Christmas day when my husband and I landed at Changi Airport, thrilled to experience everything we could. My body had other plans though: I spent the third and fourth day of our trip staring at the stained glass window of our small hotel room, nursing a flu relapse. To cut the long story short,  I had failed to gorge on scrumptious Singaporean hawker dishes because I had no appetite whatsoever.

So, when an opportunity to revisit Singapore landed on my lap, I had only one agenda in mind: hawker food. This time around, I made sure to make up for the marvelous flavors my tastebuds had missed out on.

A little bit of everything

Tiong Bahru isn’t just a trendy neighborhood replete with charming shops sandwiched in between cozy cafés. It’s a historic district that used to house a burial ground. Crops were also cultivated here in the 19th century, while a fortification tunnel was housed on Pearl Hill. Come the 1930s, Tiong Bahru gradually transformed into what it is today.

These Streamline Moderne low-rise apartments have always been part of Tiong Bahru’s charm., like a time capsule that gives locals and tourists a glimpse of pre-war architecture.

We got off at Tiong Bahru Station and leisurely made our way to Tiong Bahru Market Hawker Centre. But getting straight from Point A to Point B in this kind of neighborhood wasn’t as straightforward as it seemed. We got waylaid by quaint shops like Cat Socrates, where I perused every shelf and display table with the eyes of a hawk. I made a mental note to come back; not doing so would have been a crime.

This larger-than-life mural of a beautiful peacock watches over Tiong Bahru Hawker diners.

It was a balmy, late morning, and I was worried that we might lose out on a good table at the market hawker center (I had only myself to blame, of course; or should I point a finger at those irresistible knickknacks in Cat Socrates?). Settling on a vacant, huge roundtable that could seat six people, my husband and I immediately got to work.

(From left to right) Jian Bo’s chwee kweh, fishball noodles, and laksa—just a few of Tiong Bahru Market Hawker Centre’s many gastronomic delights.

It would be foolish to charge at random stalls without knowing which one is an expert on a specific dish. Hence, I armed myself with a list of must-visit stalls. Unfortunately, two of the three shops, both of which specialized in noodles, were closed. I was left with Jian Bo at stall 02-05, hailed for its chwee kweh (steamed rice cakes topped with savory preserved radish). Appetizer, check! Next, I settled for a bowl of fishball noodles at the nearest stall to our table. The clean broth was just the right pairing for the beehon noodles and assorted fish balls. Also on my list was a plate of steaming, hot carrot cake, an all-time favorite of my husband who was ready to devour his bowl of laksa by the time I was done making the rounds. We concluded our satisfying meal with two glasses of sweet, hot kopi.

We promptly proceeded to clear our table as soon as we were done. I stood up, thinking only about one thing: I should’ve worn a loose shirt.

Where satay is king

Dressed in a more forgiving top that could perfectly conceal a fully satiated belly, we headed to Lau Pa Sat just as the sun was setting. We didn’t mean to be early—all the stalls lining Satay Street were still closed—but it turned out to be a wise decision.

We had enough time to explore the iconic structure before we ran out of tables. Lau Pa Sat, which translates to “old market” in the Hokkien dialect, is a restored heritage site that served as Singapore’s wet market about 150 years ago. It was eventually converted into an enormous hawker center, with stalls of various Asian fares. Its interiors, made of cast-iron that harkens back to the Victorian era, make for a perfect backdrop while devouring a plate of chili crab.

You can’t help but look up in admiration at this Victorian-era architecture.

Our table was immediately filled with plates of fried char kway tyeow (wide, flat rice noodles tossed in soy sauce, bean sprouts, fish cake, and egg) and (as usual) carrot cake. Refreshing glasses of barley helped us down these dishes while we patiently waited for our satay.

As soon as 7 p.m. arrived, there was already a long line of customers eagerly waiting to have their satay orders taken. Stalls 7 and 8 had already started taking orders 30 minutes prior, so we were fortunate to be one of the first in line.

We “made do” with these plates of fried char kway teow (left) and carrot cake (right) as we waited for our satay.

Lampposts and lights from the surrounding buildings soon illuminated the streets. Tourists and locals alike poured in, competing for empty tables that were, by then, fast becoming scarce. Soon, the buzzer we had been checking every now and then lit up, signaling that our order was ready.

The heat never dies down in the satay stalls of Lau Pa Sat as soon as the clock chimes 7 p.m.

I watched my husband balance a tray brimming with three kinds of satay, which we carefully arranged on our table: shrimp, chicken, and mutton. Pucks of compact rice sliced into triangles, plus three small bowls of peanut sauce, accompanied our skewers. I decided to limit my rice intake so I could focus on savoring every bite of satay in front of me. Time stood still; all I could hear were my own groans of appreciation. An hour and another (plastic) glass of barley later, I found myself neatly lining up the bamboo skewers on my plate, thankful that this time around, my shirt was able to give me more breathing space.

An unplanned bowl of happiness

It was in Maxwell Food Hall where I knew something was wrong with me that fateful day in 2012. I had been so stoked to devour a plate of kway teow. It turned out to be extremely bland, so much so that I barely got to a third mouthful. Little did I know I was already on the verge of a bad relapse that sent me to bed for two days in a foreign country. So, when I set foot again in this hawker haven, I didn’t hesitate to form a beeline in front of this bak chor mee stall.

There were already a few people queueing in front of Hock Lai Seng, and I had a hunch the line would grow longer. I took my chance. Less than half an hour later, I was cradling a divine bowl of Teochew fishball bak chor mee. The chewy mee pok noodles were flavored with delicately ground pork and savory sauce with a hint of sweetness. Fresh lettuce balanced out the soft texture of the entire bowl. But the star of the show was the fishballs. Hock lai Seng takes pride in these home-made fishballs, and for good reason. They were pillowy soft like marshmallows, but with a little bit of resistance as I bit into each white ball.

If you were to order just one dish at Maxwell Food Center, make it this bak chor mee from Hock Lai Seng.

I would have ordered another serving, but alas, we had to leave so we could catch the train to our next destination that afternoon. Until now, though, almost two months later, I still dream of that marvelous bak chor mee.

Tasty trauma

I never thought I would develop an insatiable craving for nasi lemak. After all, my tolerance for spicy dishes is mild (moderate, at best). Besides, it’s not like I can’t find it in Metro Manila. But Nasi Lemak Ayam Taliwang changed all that.

This branch sits in an unassuming corner in the Singapore Management University (SMU) campus, facing the busy street of Brash Basah. Its Yushin outlet boasts being included in the 2021 and 2022 Michelin Guide. The moment we saw this spot in SMU, we knew we could not pass up the opportunity to sit down at one of its foldable wooden tables and stuff ourselves silly with its famed Malay dish.

Lining up at past 6 p.m. was a breeze as there weren’t many students competing for a table. Ordering was pretty straightforward: Choose from among a number of nasi lemak varieties on the touchscreen ordering display, tap your credit card, and wait for your number to be called. All orders came in a carton box with plastic utensils. But here was where my husband and I made a big mistake: We didn’t know we could request to have the spoonfuls of chili bits in a separate serving; it came generously smothered on top of the fried chicken.

Don’t let this unassuming stall fool you; it serves a mean dish of nasi lemak that made it to the Michelin Guide.

After three or four mouthfuls of the coconut-cooked rice with chicken meat, I was already gulping my calamansi juice nonstop (it came with our order). After three more, I was demanding for a second glass. It was so spicy—but so delectable, nevertheless—that we couldn’t feel our tongues.

Will I subject myself to this same delicious torture given another chance? Yes, but I might consider having those deadly chili flakes served separately.

Six days after, I arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) carrying not just our luggage but also a few more pounds. It was all worth it.