“What’s your favourite hawker centre?” It’s a question I get asked frequently, but with so many hawker centres in Singapore – 107 and counting – it’s hard to say which is the best. If I had to recommend just one, however, it would be Maxwell Road Food Centre, at 1 Kadayanallur Street. On the edge of Chinatown, Maxwell is perhaps the most famous of Singapore’s iconic eating centres – and if you’ve ever seen a television show about local food on the Little Red Dot, then you’ve probably seen footage of it.
Scroll through the gallery above for all the photos from Maxwell Food Centre
Located between the imposing URA Centre and the magnificent Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in the Tanjong Pagar area of Chinatown, Maxwell Road Food Centre looks like any other low-slung, corrugated-roofed hawker centre. Walking around it is a sensory adventure. The din of happy eaters combines with the clanging of hot woks over roaring flames, the chopping sound of razor-sharp cleavers on hundred-year-old cutting blocks and the sizzle of good food cooking. It’s a dizzying kaleidoscope of smoke, steam, smells and sounds.
Singapore’s National Dish
Of its numerous stalls, certain ones draw bigger crowds. Top of the list is Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice (#01-10), internationally known thanks to praise from celebrity chefs like Anthony Bourdain and critics from the New York Times.
There’s inevitably a long queue, but don’t walk away; just jump in and watch the action behind the counter. One guy cuts chicken; another preps the plates with a mound of their trademark rice and a few strips of cucumber; a third takes the orders and collects the money; while behind them is at least one other guy, cooking rice, boiling the chickens, or plunging them into the ice bath to firm up the thin layer of fat into luscious, subcutaneous goodness.
Your plate of chicken rice is an old-school version: juicy, slightly pink flesh with a delicate flavour, slick skin and succulent, beige-coloured rice. Eat it with the gentle sting of chilli-garlic-ginger sauce and a drizzle of thick soy syrup, and you’ll understand why this dish – above all others – is what Singaporeans overseas dream of when they’re homesick.
Breakfast of Champions
Wander over to the middle line of stalls and you’ll see a long queue stretching from an unremarkable-looking little stall with little or no English signage. Zhen Zhen Porridge (#01-54) is so popular that you need to plan the rest of your ordering around it; it rarely takes less than 30 minutes to get your porridge. Once at the front of the line, it’s all business, as a crotchety lady-boss of few words takes your money while her husband grimly ladles his masterpiece into a large bowl.
The rice is cooked for so long that it breaks down into a thick, almost creamy texture, so fragrant and smooth. Have your congee with fish, pork or century egg in it and include a side of super-fresh yu sheng raw fish. When you taste how the herbs, fried shallots, sesame seeds and lime atop the fish perfectly complement the hearty porridge, you’ll suddenly understand the queue and happily endure it again.
Classic Malay Staple
At first glance, the main event at Lagi Best Nasi Lemak (#01-101) appears to be just a boring mound of bland white rice scattered with by some fried stuff. But don’t be fooled; the chicken and fried fish stacked on plates behind the glass counter hint at the great nasi lemak you’ll get, either served on a plate or wrapped in a banana leaf for takeaway.
The rice is cooked in coconut milk and accompanied by crispy dried anchovies (ikan bilis), a small fish or fried chicken wing and with a fried egg. The coconut essence in the rice is distinct and decadent and the items surrounding it crisp and strong. Drizzle on some fiery sambal to get the morning juices flowing. It’s an excellent version of this iconic Malay breakfast, now served throughout the day.
The Sweetest Ending
One thing I never pass up at Maxwell is pisang goreng (whole banana fritter) from Kim Lee (Orchard) Banana Fritter (#01-61). Picture a whole banana, immersed in a thick creamy batter and deep-fried until golden and crispy. Inside, the soft, hot sugars caramelise into an intensely sweet flavour that will drive you, well, bananas.
Maxwell’s over 100 stalls offer so much choice that the only way to decide your personal favourites is to go there again and again, each time trying something different. And why not? It’s central to everything and easy to get to. So head to Maxwell to discover some of the best classic Singaporean hawker food.
The closest MRT station is Chinatown (NE4). Exit at Pagoda Street, walk the gauntlet of trinket stalls to the end of the street and turn right onto South Bridge Road. Maxwell Road Food Centre is two short blocks away on the left, opposite the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple.