Asked where he’d point travelers looking for a great street food experience, Anthony Bourdain had one (or three) things to say: “Singapore, Singapore, Singapore.”
Of all the world’s top street food cities (Hong Kong, Vietnam, Mexico City and more made his must-visit list), Singapore’s street food is “the most diverse and most central to the culture.”
“The wealthy people and the impoverished line up at the same vendor,” Bourdain said, “and there’s the mix of Chinese, Indian and Malay cuisines.”
When it comes to street food in Singapore, don’t picture the smoky alleys of Hong Kong or Jaipur where vendors sizzle entrees over open flames under canvas canopies.
In Singapore, the street food scene is organized much like everything in this island country. In a country where nearly ever stream and rain gutter has been micromanaged for water preservation (the country is extremely limited on its natural resources), even the street food hawkers of yesteryear have been structured. That doesn’t mean the quality of food has diminished; it’s just been moved.
With sanitary measures in mind, the city organized street food vendors at what are now known as hawker centers, typically steel and concrete pavilion and courtyard style structures that house sometimes hundreds of small cooking shops just six wide and 10-12 feet deep. Today it’s illegal to peddle on the streets without a license (the fine is roughly $300SD) and the government strictly enforces sanitatation standards at the hawker centers. The loud shouts and the tock-tock-tock beating of bamboo sticks that marked street “hawking” are gone, but while they style has changed with the move to put hawkers in these little boxes, the tastes remain as good as always.
Singaporean chef KF Seetoh from Sinagporean food culture organization Makansutra, said that without some encouragement, the culture of street food in Singapore might not be recognizable. The operators of the hawker stands are aging, said Seetoh, and the tradition of children taking over from their parents has become less common; the kids are finding better jobs that don’t involve cooking over hot stoves in cramped kitchens for sometimes 10 hours a day.
To help preserve that culture, Seetoh and his organization created the World Street Food Congress. Held last April in Singapore, the event drew street food vendors from Singapore, Malaysia and neighboring Southeast Asian nations, but also attracted a few demonstrations from Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas, including Churros Locos and East Side King (respectively). A temporary street food center set up in a city park followed a day of open forums about street food and how young culinary entrepreneurs can launch themselves on the streets. With luck, Seetoh might actually spur the kind of stylish interest in street food that’s been seen in the food truck lots of Los Angeles and Portland.
Bourdain, however, is not so worried about the role of street food in Singapore’s culture.
“There’s always a danger [that street food could fade away in Sinagpore], but it’s pretty central to the culture,” Bourdain said. “No matter if you’re rich or you’re poor, you eat at those hawker markets. They line up at the same vendors.”
He should know. At one hawker center, his own super-chef semblance is depicted as part of a poster hanging in one of the vendor’s stalls, proclaiming their chicken rice supremacy.
So for now, the street food movement in Singapore continues to cook. To get started exploring it, follow our guide for where to get street food at Singapore hawker centers.