If, once upon a time in Asia, street food was looked down upon as too pedestrian, pun intended, that time has passed.

Today’s foodies and savvy travellers know that street food has become an established part of culinary tradition and even a place to catch the latest culinary trends.

Singapore and Hong Kong are cultural and financial and artistic centres of Asia. Both cities are also known for thrilling street food scenes, as proven by the growing numbers of culinary tours taking people around for street foods.

Singapore Street Eats

Singapore has brought increased order and cleanliness to street food stalls by corralling ‘hawkers’ into distinct hawker centres across the thriving metropolis. Single stalls for each vender make it easy to identify and remember where you ate. Since office workers and local residents crowd these centres, you’ll have some crowds at meal hours, notably lunchtime from 12:30-2pm.

Typically, each local dish – including favourites such as hokkien mee, bak kut teh, satay, laksa, chilli crab, and yong tau fu for vegetarians – is sold at one stand. Cheap prices (from S$2.50-5) belie extremely good quality at the majority of stands at most food courts. However, try these well-travelled, popular centres for dishes to remember.

Maxwell Road Hawker Centre

In a superb location near Chinatown, opposite the stunning Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum, Maxwell Road’s famous spot holds several more famous stalls. One spot, Tian Tian (also called Tien Tien) was hailed by the New York Times as a ‘chicken rice shrine’ – it is cited by many locals and travellers as the penultimate purveyor of Hainanese chicken with rice, perhaps Singapore’s national dish.

The dish’s delicately prepared chicken must be exactingly made to meet locals’ high standards. The blend of spices, including screw pine leaves, imparts a rich and savoury flavour to the chicken and the rice. Hainanese chicken is appreciated by all cultures here, where the blend of peoples includes Tamil, Indian, Malay, Thai, Chinese and pan-European to name but a few.

Two other of the key dishes Singapore proudly calls its own are char kuay teow, a mix of sauces, noodles, vegetables, spices, meats and seafood, and wanton mee, al dente angel hair noodles with succulent char siew, meat drippings and meats atop.

Chinatown Complex Food Centre

Not far from Maxwell Road’s famed rows is the largest of the city’s hawker centres, Chinatown Complex Food Centre, with more than 250 food stalls. Here, you can sample two other popular Singapore foods, black pepper crab and chilli crab. The bite and full flavour of these two dishes will make your day or evening, guaranteed.

You’ll likely want to finish things off with a local dessert. Cendol (also called chendol) is a sweet concoction containing nourishing coconut milk, rice flour jelly, shaved ice and palm sugar. Add a lot more health – and decidedly more smell – by putting durian fruit on top or follow many locals’ leads with vanilla ice cream.

Hong Kong: Street Fare Heaven

Hong Kong is an adventure from the moment one arrives, and giving oneself over to the wonders of street food dining is no exception. For a wide selection that is sure to please, head to Temple Street Night Market, abuzz daily from 4-10pm. Located on Temple Street in Yau Ma Tei, the market retains the authentic look and feel that has been lost in some of the more modern renditions of the ancient Asian shopping market. To get the energy at its best, come after 7pm and expect hoards of folks all vying for the same great foods.

Must-have dishes at Hong Kong street stalls, known as dai pai dongs, include curry fish balls, har gau, shrimp dumplings, dim sum, and beef brisket.

While Hong Kong has food courts like Singapore, the stalls are even more numerous in this food-loving city. In fact, stalls are handily available on virtually every street corner. However, focus on a couple unless you want to spend a lot of time in traffic, which can be a wild experience in itself.

Kow Loon

Kow Loon’s Mong Kok neighbourhood, likely the world’s densest, has a plethora of food stalls. For arguably the best curry fish balls, be sure to hit Jin Mei Wonton Noodle at 174 Fa Yuen Street. To get the aforementioned har gau and BBQ pork buns, I’d recommend Tim Ho Wan Dim Sum at 2-20 Kwong Wa Street.

The latter’s size allows for only a handful of people to sit, but diners will know instantly why it is the world’s smallest and cheapest Michelin-rated eatery. For prices equivalent to a few dollars or pounds, one can fill up mightily yet still have enough room to fit in a wondrous mango juice, coconut and sago drink, available at many dai pai dongs.

For that top-cut and peak-flavoured beef brisket, hit the Central area shop on Gough Street, Kau Kee Restaurant. You’ll be in good company, as there’s always a line for the beef that has drawn fans for some 40 years. Being a one-man joint has not hindered the production or the fame here.

Just across the street from Kau Kee you can find an oft-chosen dai pai dong serving breakfast and lunch, called Sing Heung Yuen, hiding under a non-descript tarpaulin. With a history that had Dr. Sun Yat Sen meeting co-conspirators for secret plotting to overthrow Imperial China, the restaurant is quite well-known. As long as they serve their famous chui chui, thick toast with honey and condensed milk, for breakfast, the place will stand in gustatory fame.

Don’t feel the need to strike up a competition between these cities to partake in the best street food around. Make it a point to spend time in each with a goal of trying as many hawker stands and centres as possible. That’s a lofty, if not very slimming, goal, yes?


Tips:

  • Asian food culture is different than what you might be used to in the West. However, different doesn’t mean worse so come with an open mind.
  • Many people worry about food safety and hygiene when travelling abroad. Generally, the fear is unwarranted. Make sure to eat in places where there are lots of people so you know the food is fresh.
  • No English menu? No worries, just point at what others are having. A smile and some sign language go a long way.

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Jim Grubman
Jim Grubman has lived more lives than the average cat, though he's hoping his two Flame-Point Himalayans beat him. He has written and edited many things, including cookbooks (he's a qualified chef), and he has even saved lives as a dialysis technician among a long list of medical and other jobs. For fun, he travels, writes about it, and sails as close to the Southern Seas as a sane man dare try.