From The Straits Times    |

It’s official: Hawker culture in Singapore is on the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, in an unanimously accepted decision by a 24-member international committee.

Not that it should come as a surprise. For most of us who eat a hawker dish every day or every other day, hawker food in Singapore is synonymous with affordable, value-for-money and one-of-a-kind. It’s also simply irreplaceable.

To celebrate the addition of hawker culture on the Unesco list, here’s a look at fun facts about 8 well-loved Singapore hawker foods: chicken rice, laksa, kaya toast, satay, roti prata, popiah, chilli crab and curry puffs.

Did you know how these dishes made it to Singapore, and how they’ve been received overseas?

1. Hainanese Chicken Rice

singapore hawker food chicken rice

Photo credit: SPHLib

The juicy steamed chicken, accompanied by wonderfully fragrant rice and garlic chilli, is one of our favourite national dishes.

It was brought to Singapore by Chinese immigrants from Hainan Island, and the original version was made with bony wengcheng chicken, rice thick with oil, chilli sauce, ground ginger and a mix of oyster sauce and garlic. In Hainan, the dish is made with stock from both pork and chicken bones, but Hainanese chefs in Singapore make their stock only from chicken.

CNN listed chicken rice as one of the 50 best foods in the world in 2011, and has been raved about by celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and the late Anthony Bourdain on their visits here. Ramsay famously took on Tian Tian Chicken Rice in his Hawker Heroes challenge in 2013, but lost to the renowned stall. 

2. Laksa

singapore hawker food laksa

Photo credit: SPHLib

The Peranakan dish of rice vermicelli noodles in a rich, creamy and spicy coconut gravy combines the very best of Malay and Chinese cuisine. But did you know its name comes from the Persian word laksha (meaning “noodles”)? Laksa is said to have originated from the Straits of Malacca, which Persian traders would often visit.

In the 1950s, earthworms were added to laksa (for saltiness), as well as maggots (to “eat away bacteria”). Today, the definitive Katong laksa is made with prawns, cockles, fish cake, taupok bean curd, beansprouts and hard-boiled egg. 

3. Kaya toast

singapore hawker food kaya toast

Photo credit: SPHLib

The perfect breakfast or tea time snack, the toasted sandwich of kaya jam and cold butter is often paired with two soft-boiled eggs. It was adapted by Hainanese immigrants who served as chefs in British households and made breakfasts with toast, butter and jams like marmalade. When these immigrants opened kopitiams, they replaced the fruit jam with kaya, and the rest is history.

The oldest Hainanese kopitiam in Singapore is Kheng Hoe Heng, set up in 1919, and which was renamed Killiney Kopitiam in 1993. Ya Kun Kaya Toast, another heritage brand, started in 1926 and was known back then as Ya Kun Coffeestall.

4. Satay

singapore hawker food satay

Photo credit: SPHLib

These succulent, spice-marinated meat skewers of chicken, beef and lamb are the ultimate suppertime food. They derive from the Arab dish of kebabs on metal skewers. In Singapore, our satay is barbecued on wooden skewers or sometimes on dried, thin stems of coconut made into sticks. The ground peanut sauce we know and love is made with spices like coriander and cumin seeds.

In ’60s and ’70s Singapore, satay was served by unlicensed hawkers at bus terminals, such as in Beach Road, at makeshift portable stalls. Hygiene standards were very different back then — customers would often dip their satay skewers in the communal pot of sauce! Until 1995, The Satay Club, a collection of night satay stalls at the Esplanade, was also a famous place to get your satay fix. 


5. Roti prata

singapore hawker food roti prata

Photo credit: SPHLib

An Indian Muslim dish, roti prata (meaning ‘“flat bread” in Hindi) is crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, and eaten with dhal or mutton curry. Brought here by Indian immigrants, it is said to have both Punjabi and Muslim origins, and is a popular breakfast or supper food.

In Malaysia, roti prata is known as roti canai, and it’s best enjoyed with your hands — so put that fork and spoon down! Today, popular variations of prata include cheese, mushrooms, ham and even hollandaise sauce in a “prata Eggs Benedict” dish. Like Hainanese chicken rice, it was also listed in CNN’s list of the world’s best foods. 

6. Popiah

singapore hawker food popiah

Photo credit: SPHLib

Meaning “thin pancake” in Teochew, this savoury delight consists of paper-thin popiah skin stuffed with a filling of cooked turnips, vegetables and meat. When deep-fried, popiah becomes a spring roll. Spring rolls were eaten in south-eastern China, such as Fujian province, in springtime when there were plenty of vegetables.

While popiah is usually a snack or side dish in hawker centres, popiah parties, where guests roll their own popiahs, are also common. In 2002, a Guinness World Record was set for the world’s longest popiah, measured at 108m, by Thomson Community Club. The impressive popiah was made by over 500 grassroots leaders and residents. 

7. Chilli crab

singapore hawker food chilli crab

Photo credit: SPHLib

This dish of mud crabs (stir-fried in a thick sauce that’s sweet, savoury and spicy all at once) is one dish Singaporeans are especially proud of. It was invented by accident by Cher Yam Tian in the mid 1950s, when she used bottled chilli sauce instead of tomato sauce when frying crabs at her pushcart stall. The dish was a hit, and she went on to open Palm Beach Restaurant in 1962.

Chilli crab has such a cult following here that it’s even spawned the Tiger Beer Singapore Chilli Crab Festival, held in London and New York. In the 25th season of reality travel TV contest The Amazing Race, contestants had to complete a challenge of cracking two pounds of chilli crabs at Red House seafood restaurant when they were in Singapore. 

8. Curry puffs

singapore hawker food curry puffPhoto credit: SPHLib

This deep-fried pastry, filled with curried potatoes, meat or sardines, dates back to the 1800s. It was influenced by the British Cornish pastry, the Portuguese empanada and the Indian samosa. The Malay version is known as epok-epok, karipup or currypup.

The curry puff’s crescent shape we know and love was fashioned by the Malays, who used the crescent as a nod to their Islamic faith. Though the potato and sardine fillings are the most traditional, these days you can also find them stuffed with durian, red bean, bird’s nest and custard.