Date Traveled, February 2013
I was completely ignorant about one of Singapore's best delights, the Hawker Centers and the sheer variety of absolutely delicious food available in them. By pure chance I wandered into the Maxwell Hawker Center one day and was both lost and fascinated by the experience. That day I tried what I now know to be the extremely popular and famous Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice and it was love at first bite.
That was in my first trip to Singapore since visiting many years ago in my childhood. Since then I have had the opportunity to visit Singapore a few times including for a month long stay and I have made it a point to sample as many food stalls and dishes from Hawker Centers as I can. Of the ones I have tried, Maxwell and the Hainanese chicken rice there remains my favorite to this day. And don't just take my word for it, Hainanese chicken rice is considered Singapore's national dish and whether you try it at the Maxwell Hawker Center or somewhere else, you really have no business leaving Singapore without trying it. There is also major drama involved with the chicken rice at Maxwell, a feud that has made it to newspapers in Singapore, the split between the cook of 20 years at the Tian Tian stall and the family running it. Just a few short months after my first visit, the former cook has opened a rival stall, Ah Tian Chicken Rice a mere 20 or so feet away from the Tian Tian stall. There has since been a chicken rice war with divided loyalties among patrons...and greater choice for everyone. More on my 2 cents shortly. The Maxwell Hawker Center is located in the Chinatown area of Singapore on Maxwell road, just south of the narrow lanes where the shops of Chinatown are. It is almost exactly across from the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown and is hard to miss with its large area with parking and prominent sign. In fact I stumbled into it after exiting the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple from the back, one of my most lucky moments and I couldn't believe I hadn't heard about the hawker centers before. It was a fascinating experience, a typical hawker center has several dozen small and narrow food stalls with seating all around the stalls like a food court. They are really open air food courts under a large roof but no franchises here. The variety of the stalls is impressive and part of the reason you are going to feel lost on your first visit. You have everything from different Chinese cuisines, Malaysian, Indian, Indonesian and even western food options but not too many of those. And aside from the food you have stalls specializing in drinks to cool off in the heat.
The bustling Maxwell Hawker Center
Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice Stall
Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice
I was completely lost the first time, but what helps for me since is to research the various dishes that are famous in Singapore's hawker centers and then look out for them in your visit to a hawker center. They are usually prominently advertised in English on the stalls. The list is large and I have tried only a dozen or so dishes, but you start to understand what you like and you will then be able to compare similar dishes at other place. A real challenge would be to try every possible dish, but that would take months or longer. You will notice an interesting practice at the hawker centers of reserving a table spot. People usually leave a small pack of tissues at a chair or table as a way of reserving the spot before going out to get food. I prefer to get my food and flop down at whatever spot I find. There is large turnover at the tables so you usually will find something. The tables can be a little messy and dirty though but that's part of the experience. I probably need not mention, but the food is really cheap, all items typically under 5 Singapore Dollars.
At the Maxwell Hawker center my absolute favorites are the Hainanese chicken rice stalls so I tend to eat those a lot more than try out other dishes. I did try out a few other places that were extremely good. One highly recommended stall is Maxwell Fuzhou Oyster Cake, stall number 5. It is a fried oyster cake made by the proprietor a Madam Hoon and is a real treat. The stall is well known as one of the good ones in Maxwell and the good thing about the oyster cake is that its more of a snack than a meal so you can try something else as well. There was a curry puff place next to the Fuzhou Oyster Cake stall which I tried but did not think it was special.
Another heavy and delicious meal I had here was the Char Kway Teow at stall number 35. Char Kway Teow is another hugely popular dish all over Southeast Asia. It is a flat rice noodle dish stir fried to goodness with a mix of ingredients that can be hard to individually identify in the end result. It typically has eggs, peppers, onions, a blend of spices and sauces, some greens, some seafood like prawns and cockles and of course meats, typically pork. I will be completely honest and say I wasn't sure what exactly mine had except it tasted great and I was very very satisfied. It was oily, fatty and quite heavy though, not exactly the healthiest dish, so it helps to have good workout when you know you will be eating meal of Char Kway Teow.
Char Kway Teow
Maxwell Fuzhou Oyster cake
So the chicken rice...on my first confused visit I wasn't sure of what to try except I was absolutely sure I had to try something. I followed a tried and true method and lined myself at the stall with the longest line. It also helped that they had a poster of Anthony Bourdain's review on the stall. This was Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice. Hainanese chicken rice is a cold dish, the chicken is prepared and cooked in a particular way and the rice is made in the broth and it is also served with a soup of the broth. Quite simple, just chicken and rice and typically eaten with a very spicy hot sauce and served with cucumbers to offset the spicy stuff I guess. As I mentioned, it was love at first bite and I fully understand why this is Singapore's national dish. The chicken is so tender and tasty and the rice so flavorful. It is stunning how suck simple dishes can taste so heavenly. By now I must have eaten at either Tian Tian or the Ah Tian stalls over half a dozen times.
Speaking of Ah Tian, I learned about the feud when I revisited just a few months later. I had to try the Ah Tian chicken rice as well. It was after all started by the cook of 20 years at Tian Tian. And the verdict...great. I like the fact that the Ah Tian chicken rice serves their chicken boneless, but the rice is a little bit more tastier at Tian Tian. I am happy to alternate between the stalls.