One of my favourite hawker centres in Singapore is the Telok Ayer Market. This food court – also known as Lau Pa Sat – is in a heritage building that is worth a visit in its own right.
While a Singapore foodie might tell you there are a dozen other hawker centres that are better, for me I like this market for the combination of food, its location, and the building itself.
In downtown Singapore the transformation of the city into a global business hub is complete. Here you will find canyons of tall buildings, with financial institutions from around the world represented here.
Even though the city has made a point to preserve any historical architecture that remains, in the downtown area nothing has been spared except for this one corner which is home to the Telok Ayer Market.
The market is close to the Raffles Place metro station, which is on the EW line that goes to the airport. On my last trip to Singapore I had an afternoon flight so instead of transferring metro lines at Raffles Place, I got off and went for one more lunch.
The building was constructed in 1894 and still retains its original cast iron pillars. It’s a little slice of Victoriana stranded in modern Singapore.
Along with its location, another anomaly of the market is that it’s not air conditioned. Lee Kuan Yew – the esteemed first prime minister of Singapore – hailed the air-conditioner as one of mankind’s great inventions. In a city where everything is air conditioned, it’s unusual to find a place that doesn’t rely on air conditioning. Instead, this old building has on an open-plan floor with no walls, and giant ceiling fans. Somehow this is enough to keep you from not sweating, and it’s a welcome change from feeling like you need to put on a jacket.
What I like about the hawker centres is that there are few brand stores. Instead you will find independent stalls that are literal in their branding, such as “fish ball noodle soup”. Some hawker stalls will inevitably become well known and add the prefix “Famous [insert food here]”, but for the most part the stalls are named after exactly what they sell.
Case in point, here is Pig’s Organ Soup. No fancy names here, just a name telling it like it is.
If organs aren’t your thing, this Indian Vegetarian place is selling…Indian vegetarian.
Having spent so much time in Saigon I rarely eat Vietnamese outside of Vietnam now, but it is good to know the choice is there.
They even have Filipino food here. Don’t let anyone tell you that all Filipino food is bad.
As with the food stalls, the drink stalls have matter-of-fact names.
No fancy pub names here either. If you want beer you go to the stand called “BEER”. And you can have any beer you like, as long as its Tiger, Heineken, or Guinness. Singaporean prices still apply.
Once upon a time Singapore had actual street food, where vendors were serving food from carts, like you still see in Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam (to name but three countries). In Saigon you still see stalls selling freshly-pressed sugar cane juice on the street.
It is probable that the street food of Vietnam will eventually be moved off the street as the country modernises. This is what Singapore did, but instead of closing down the vendors businesses, they retained the street food link by placing vendors in designated hawker centres.
I will be sad to visit a Vietnam that doesn’t have street food, but on the other hand I would much rather visit a hawker centre than go to a mall that only has chain restaurants.
After wandering around and narrowing down my choices I opted for an Indian lunch. I forgot to take a photo, but it was delicious. I left satisfied that I squeezed in one more Singapore food experience before getting on my flight back to Australia.