The Covid-19 pandemic has made its impact felt on many sectors of Singapore‘s economy, including its hawker businesses. When circuit breaker measures first kicked in last April, hawker centres were classified as essential operations and allowed to remain open, but saw a dramatic decrease in footfall and orders.
Even now, with case numbers under control, the crowd isn’t back to what it was pre-pandemic: significant numbers are still working from home and hence cooking their meals themselves; while safe-distancing measures at hawker centres have decreased overall seating capacity, resulting in many choosing to get their food to-go rather than jostle for a table.
Thankfully, the government has stepped in to help by offering a series of rental waivers over the course of 2020. And during the recent Singapore Budget 2021 announcement on 16 February, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat stated that all hawker centres managed by the National Environmental Agency (NEA) would have their rental fees waived for yet another month, with a minimum waiver of S$200 for each individual stall.
Furthermore, all households in Singapore will receive S$100 worth of Community Development Council (CDC) vouchers in order to support heartland businesses as part of the government’s S$900 million Household Support Package. Roughly 1.3 million households will receive the vouchers, which can be redeemed at participating heartland shops and hawker centres throughout the city-state.
All that’s left is for us to do our part by patronising these hawker gems. While you can’t go wrong with a fragrant serving of chicken rice or comforting plate of char kway teow from your local joint, there are times when you want to switch things up and treat yourself to something a bit more special. Instead of heading to a fancy restaurant, why not make your way to one of these hawker stalls doling out gourmet offerings at a fraction of the price? You’ll leave with a full, satiated belly and a relatively intact wallet.
What happens when you marry Japanese ramen and local wanton mee, and season it all with some gourmet flair? You get Amoy Street Food Centre darling A Noodle Story, which has been churning out hearty bowls of self-dubbed “Singapore-style ramen” since its inception in 2013. It’s made multiple Michelin Bib Gourmand lists, and has satiated the bellies of many office workers who flock here in droves during lunch hour. At a starting price of S$9 a bowl, it’s more expensive than your regular hawker fare, but the quality of ingredients more than makes up for the price. Each serving comes with springy noodles, properly stuffed dumplings, a char siew slab, a crispy potato-wrapped shrimp, a soy-braised egg and a smattering of scallions to finish.
Despite being situated at the sleepy Commonwealth Crescent Market, far away from the bustle of the CBD, burger joint Hammee’s still draws in the crowds. The waiting time can run up to an hour and a half during peak periods, but their gourmet-level offerings that rival the likes of Shake Shack and Black Tap are well worth the wait. You can opt for the signature juicy and succulent beef cheeseburger (crafted with a handmade patty of top-quality fresh beef) accompanied by well-seasoned fries and a mouth-puckering pickle; or go for the equally delicious fried chicken or fish burger. The store is on a temporary hiatus while they relocate to a bigger location, so do check their social media pages for the latest information.
For colourful teacakes that are almost too pretty to eat, make a beeline for The Headless Baker at Ghim Moh Road Market & Food Centre. The humble hawker bakery sells various artisanal sweet treats at affordable prices, so you can get your sugar fix without shelling out S$15 for a slice of cake at an upscale café. The line-up of tiny teacakes changes daily, with popular flavours including Lemon Pistachio, Earl Grey Lavender, Chocolate Bundt, Dalgona Coffee and Pandan Gula Melaka. You can also opt to pre-order one of their larger cakes and loaves. We’re particularly fond of the moist Old-Fashioned Banana Loaf; as well as the Sunshine Lemon Loaf, which comes drizzled with lemon icing and topped with edible rose petals and crushed pistachio.
The Bedok Marketplace, an upmarket hawker concept, is where you’ll find The Burning Oak. The latter serves delicious premium Japanese fare such as donburis and ramen, making it an ideal spot for a midweek gourmet treat that won’t break the bank. The signature dish here is the Foie Gras and Wagyu Beef Donburi, which comes with a thick slab of foie gras, beef slices, an onsen egg and Japanese pickles atop a bed of fluffy rice. There’s also the Truffle Wagyu Donburi (minced and sliced Wagyu beef that’s been perfumed with truffle) for fans of the fragrant fungi. Their latest dish, the Mapo Tofu and Pork Cheek Ramen, was a Lunar New Year special that’s been made a permanent fixture on their menu, and is a must-try for lovers of all things spicy.
It was a love of cai fan (economical rice) that motivated brothers Josiah and Jeremy Chee to start Rice Bowl Boys. Josiah is a trained mixologist who worked at top cocktail bars including Employees Only and Jigger & Pony, before deciding to launch his own business venture: a grain bowl stall at Chinatown Complex Food Centre. Rice Bowl Boys’ fancy take on the humble hawker staple is certainly good enough to rival the likes of Grain Traders and The Daily Cut, with crowd favourites including the Side Chick (rice pilaf, oven baked chicken, brown sugar shimeji mushrooms, pickled cherry tomatoes, edamame and a poached apple wasabi dressing) and the Strip Love (medium-rare striploin steak, almond orange broccoli, wild mushroom infused cous cous, a sous vide egg and sambal sauce). You can also check out their other outlet located along Prinsep Street.
6. Smokin’ Joe
It may be a bit of a trek to get yourself to Yishun Park Hawker Centre, but we promise that it’s worth the schlep to try Smokin’ Joe’s scrumptious charcoal-grilled offerings. The barbecue joint – helmed by chef Joseph Yeo who used to work in Prive – specialises in meats that have been grilled to perfection in a Josper grill oven – a piece of equipment you’d normally find at an atas barbecue or steak joint rather than in a hawker stall. The oven helps with locking in the natural juices of the meat, keeping it moist, and also adds an earthy charcoal flavour. We recommend going straight for the popular Wagyu Beef Burger, which goes for S$9. If you’re willing to shell out S$35 (still a fraction of the cost you’d pay for a similar dish at a high-end restaurant), you can order the Australian Wagyu Ribeye Marbling 4/5: 250g of beef accompanied by fries, salad and a house sauce.
Pao fan (poached rice), a staple at many luxurious Chinese restaurants, consists of both cooked and crispy puffed rice served with a tasty broth and choice of protein. For your next budget pao fan fix, consider heading to King of Pao Fan, whose ownership group includes ex-Raffles Hotel chef Lee Hock Pin. The no-frills joint is located along Queen Street in the Bugis area and offers a range of pao fan dishes starting at S$4.50 for clam pao fan. Our personal recommendation is the lobster pao fan (S$18), which features a succulent cooked-to-order half lobster sitting atop a bowl of rice combined with a thick, umami-laden broth. Other options include seafood pao fan and fish pao fan, and all dishes come topped with fried egg floss, spring onions, chili and crispy puffed rice.
8. Mad Roaster
Consider this Amoy Street Food Centre stall for your next caffeine fix. Helmed by lawyer Madeline Chan, Mad Roaster was founded as a social enterprise, as Chan wanted to find a way to help refugees in Thailand generate income. Each cup of coffee at Mad Roaster comes with a colourful logo coloured and decorated by a refugee that Chan has partnered with, and a portion of the stall’s sales also goes to the refugees. Besides specialty coffee that’s just as good as what you can get at a hipster café, you’ll also find pillowy chocolate babka and cinnamon brioche bread. Go for the signature Honey Butter Latte paired with a slice of chocolate babka, which is topped with a slathering of custard and generous sprinkle of salted chocolate crumble.
Recently opened at Maxwell Food Centre, Luckmeow serves a rotating menu of contemporary Indian food in the form of thalis (a large platter of small assorted dishes), with a focus on offering healthier versions of classic Indian delicacies. The operation is headed up by Pasha Siraj, a former linguist who changed tracks to pursue his passion for food. Everything here is prepared from scratch each day: from the roasted beetroot with yogurt; to the red cabbage and winged bean salad; to the smoky, sweet and savoury char-grilled chicken that is a firm favourite among diners. The Luckmeow Daily Special, which comes with five dishes including a base of butter pilaf (the exact options rotate daily), is sure to satisfy your belly and leave you eagerly anticipating your next visit.
10. Reiwa Soba
You can find fresh Japanese soba at a bargain price at Reiwa Soba along Kelantan Road. The hawker stall serves handmade soba dishes, with the gluten-free noodles made on-site using 100% buckwheat flour and with the help of a S$5,000 machine specially imported from Japan. Many outlets will normally use a combination of buckwheat and basic wheat flour to make their soba noodles, which lessens their rich and nutty flavour. The signature Reiwa Pork Soba, which goes for S$12, comes with a generous portion of soba, slices of hormone-free pork and a unique dipping sauce made from dashi, chili oil, leek and crispy puffed rice, giving the dish a fiery Singaporean twist. Another highlight is the Thai-inspired Mango Salada (S$4 for a mini portion), which is perfect as a refreshing accompaniment to your main.
Please check the establishments’ respective websites for opening hours before visiting, and remember to adhere to safe-distancing measures while out and about.