Woman walking in Singapore's Chinatown.
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Global Traveler

A 3-Step guide to mastering Singapore 'street food'

Nicole Frank, contributor

Singapore may be referred to as Asia 101, but it's common to arrive at this culinary paradise and get schooled by the local food scene.

Unlike other Asian cities, Singapore's "street food" is no longer found on the streets. Starting in the late 1960s, the government moved to formally resettle street vendors into organized centers with seating and strict sanitation requirements.

But where to start?

Here is a guide to satisfy the most apprehensive to the most adventurous of palates.

Step 1: Food courts

Food courts are located in malls, office buildings and shopping centers around the island. They are clean and air-conditioned, and for many visitors, they're the easiest way to sample local cuisine. Food Republic, Kopitiam, Koufu and Food Junction are some of the food court operators with multiple outlets in Singapore.

To get started, consider:

Fitra Hainanese Chicken Rice at Wisma Atria — As the name implies, Fitra (which is halal) serves up Hainanese chicken rice, the unofficial dish of the city-state. A generous helping of rice is cooked with chicken stock, garlic, ginger and pandan leaves and then served with either poached or roasted chicken. Small dishes of dark soya sauce, chili and garlic accompany the dish, with cucumber spears on the side.

Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore.
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HK Roast, Food Republic at Manulife Centre — Char siew wonton noodles are a savory dish of noodles, green vegetables (often cai-xin), roasted pork and boiled wontons filled with pork. It comes dry or in a soup — state your preference when you order.

A plate of Chinese noodles with pork char siew and wontons sold in local food centre of Singapore.
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Indian Express, Rasapura Masters at The Shoppes at Marina Bay — This spot is popular for naan (Indian flat bread cooked in a tandoor). Choose it plain or with butter, garlic or cheese, tear into small bites and dunk it into a dish of butter chicken.

Step 2: Hawker centers

Hawker centers are open-air food markets, usually with covered seating. Certain hawker centers, due to their location or reputation, are popular with tourists, including:

Lau Pa Sat — Every night at 7:00 p.m., a street adjacent to this center is closed to cars and filled with tables and stools so customers can eat under the night sky in the Central Business District. These evenings are famous for satay (stall Nos. 7 and 8), which are small sticks of barbecued lamb, chicken or beef dipped in peanut sauce.

A grill and skewer expert at work at Lau Pa Sat hawker center's famous Satay Street in Singapore.
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Newton Food Centre — Arguably the most popular center of all (even before it was featured in "Crazy Rich Asians"), this spot is famous for many dishes, including the carrot cake at Heng (stall No. 01-28), a 2018 Bib Gourmand Winner. Not to be confused with the Western dessert, this is a savory dish of steamed white radish and rice flour fried with egg, preserved radish and spices. Order it white (plain) or black (fried with dark soy sauce) and with or without chili.

Chai tow kway, or carrot cake, from a hawker centre in Singapore.
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Glutton's Bay, Esplanade — For a local twist on a classic bar food, try the prawn paste chicken at Hong Kong Street Old Chun Kee stall. This dish of chicken wings fried with spices and fermented prawn paste is great to share with friends or wash back with a Tiger beer. This hawker center overlooks Marina Bay and has convenient public transportation options nearby. If you're lucky, there may be a free outdoor concert courtesy of the Esplanade too.

Step 3: Hidden gems

If you've mastered (or have no interest in) the touristy spots and are looking to go local, there is:

Adam Road Food Centre —Selera Rasa Nasi Lemak serves nasi lemak, a Malay breakfast favorite. The rice, cooked with coconut and pandan, is served with small, fried ikan bilis (anchovies), peanuts, a fried egg, sambal chili and cucumber slices. You can add on fried chicken, otak (fish paste and spices grilled in a banana leaf), fish cake or fried fish, depending on your taste.

BBQ stingray with spring onions and red chillies paste.
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Chomp Chomp Food Centre — This center in Serangoon Gardens is best visited in the off-hours, as it's uber popular with locals. Hai Wei Yuan B.B.Q. (stall No. 1), has excellent stingray, which is slathered in sambal chili and barbecued in a banana leaf.

Tiong Bahru Food Centre — For a touch of sweet, there's Tian Tian Yuan Dessert House. Ice desserts are cool and refreshing, and you'll find over 50 options here with a variety of toppings like flavored syrups, colored jellies, creamed corn and condensed milk.

Ice kachang, a shaved ice dessert.
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Traditional ice kachang is a good place to start, as is red ruby (shaved ice with coconut milk and jellied water chestnuts) or aloe vera sea coconut ice.