Redhill Hawker Center
I'm standing in the middle of the Redhill hawker, a few minutes walk from the MRT station, already dripping with sweat. The fans of the open air food court don't do enough to cool me off, thanks to my pampered 24/7 air-conditioned life. I walk down the aisles, taking in the nearly 60 hawker stalls. Chicken rice, mee siam, curry chicken, BBQ stingray, dim sum, colorful iced desserts. Too many choices. Too hot to eat. Then I see it, like an oasis in the desert: the juice stand. One large sugar cane juice for me, one large mango-carrot juice for Patricia. Grand total: $3.70. Refreshed by the fresh juices - sugar cane juice rolled out of the long stalks, ripe mangoes blended with carrots - we continued the search for the perfect lunch.
Without visiting, it's impossible to understand the myriad of food options in Singapore. The country is and has been a melting pot since its inception, much like the US, but the size concentrates it. The primary cuisines are Chinese, Malay, Indonesian, and Muslim (typically Indian-esque food), broken down even further by specialty. Stalls tend to be limited to one or two of these - they may only serve bee hoon or satay - and their names reflect that. There's usually a Western-inspired stall, as well, which offers a random mix of spaghetti, chicken nuggets, and burgers. If you're a tourist or expat eating at that stall, you're weak and worthless.
Inside the ever growing number of malls, you'll find the cleaner, more expensive (a term I use loosely) food courts. Anything looks expensive compared to the hawker centers: you can get a 1/4 chicken in a huge bowl of curry with rice and veggies for $4. Same goes for a plate of BBQ duck. Besides the food being cheaper (and arguably better), the hawker centers provide the sort of cultural experiences that the food courts don't: shirtless old men demolishing huge plates of food, bathrooms with a $0.10 entrance fee.
Redhill was the first hawker center I ever visited. I remember walking through the adjacent building and being overwhelmed with the smells of fresh durian and seafood - you always remember your first wet market experience. It's like getting punched in the nose.
That first meal was my introduction to BBQ stingray, coated in thick, spicy sambal, and roti prata, a plate of thin Indian breads served with curry for dipping.
Most hawker centers have at least a few 'famous' stalls, places that you'll have to queue for at peak hours. Some, like Tian Tian Chicken Rice at Maxwell Food Centre, are absurd, with 30-45 minute waiting times for a few slices of chicken. We made the brilliant decision to go later in the day so we could avoid the lines and not have to fight for a table. Important note about food courts/hawker centers: you need to bring something, usually a packet of tissues, to save, or "chope", your seat. You go in, find an empty spot, then toss your choping mechanism down. I realized early on that almost everyone uses the same packets of tissues, which makes it all very confusing. I remedied this by using my business cards for choping, to the amusement of my Singaporean friends.
We stopped at one of the more famous chicken rice stalls. This is the Singaporean dish. You get steamed or roasted chicken - I always get roasted - and a plate of rice cooked in an especially oily chicken broth, plus a small bowl of chicken soup. All that food you see on the tray below was $3.50. That's $2.50 in USD.
I didn't grow up eating chicken rice, so I can't judge them as well as, nor as passionately as, the locals. I thought this was good. The chicken was about as tender as you can make it, the chicken rice tasted like fatty chicken goodness, and when it was all topped with a mix of ginger, chili sauce, and dark sticky soy, it was really, really delicious.
Our appetites are usually large enough to handle another dish or three, but an unplanned large breakfast threw things off. Instead, we headed over to the [symple_highlight color="blue"]Loh Jia Pancake[/symple_highlight] stall for dessert and got an $0.80 paper thin waffle-tasting pancake wrapped around sweet desiccated coconut.
It is, in my humble opinion, imperative that any visitor to Singapore visit a hawker center. Even if you're content on staying in the Orchard Road area, shopping till you drop, the Newton hawker center is just one stop away. Don't be intimidated by the terse vendors or the unfamiliar menus. The food is so cheap that even if you get something you don't like, you can go back up and get something else.
Plus, paying $10 for a meal for two will be a nice break for your wallet after paying $25+ per cocktail and $40-50 per entree at those fancyschmancy places you've been going to.