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Suffolk private chef Lilian Hiw takes us on a trip to foodie heaven in Singapore

Singapore is a food paradise! A culturally diverse city, you can find food from all over the world on this tiny island which houses 5.9 million people. The population is made up mainly of three ethnic groups, consisting of 77 per cent Chinese, 14 per cent Malay, 7 per cent Indians, 1 per cent Eurasians, plus a sprinkling of people of other descent. The food scene is heavily shaped by these ethnic groups and we have also adopted the different cultures and cuisine from our neighbouring countries and embraced international culinary influences.

You can eat like a king in Singapore. There is a cuisine for every taste and budget. A full meal can be enjoyed for less than £3 at hawker centres, or, at the other end of the spectrum, there is an abundance of fine dining restaurants, including three-Michelin-star establishments where the country’s vibrant fine dining scene has emerged as one of the world’s most exciting.

A Singapore hawker centre offering food for every taste
A Singapore hawker centre offering food for every taste

In this week’s column, I would like to write about hawker centres. It is close to my heart as my three sisters and I grew up helping my parents in Princess Market, a hawker centre where my parents had a stall selling pig’s intestine congee and fried noodles. This was my first apprenticeship into food and customer service.

Let me set the scene. The early migrant population, in search of a livelihood, started to sell food from makeshift push carts on street pavements, neighbourhood parks and wherever there was a crowd. There was always the risk of unhygienic food preparation by unlicensed street hawkers such as smoking while preparing food or the wrong handling of raw and cooked food, dealing with money in between cooking or serving without washing their hands and the spread of diseases by rodents and stray animals feeding on leftover food by the stalls. I vividly remember an incident where I was eating supper with some friends at a makeshift stall after a late work shift. We were sat at a communal table by a drain, and a rat, as huge as a cat, brushed by our feet, that was not a pleasant experience.

A typical dish of chicken and rice
A typical dish of chicken and rice

After numerous foodborne outbreaks, the Singapore Government decided to build open-air complexes with fixed stalls, with al fresco and sheltered common seating areas and invited multiple street hawkers to come together under one roof to offer their wares. In this way, the health authorities can help to monitor food safety and keep vendors off the streets. Over time, some hawker centres, or food courts, have become fully air-conditioned.

Hawker centre culture

Each hawker will showcase their heritage and specialise in selling one or two dishes from their respective ethnic background. Their focus on cooking solely these dishes 24/7 throughout the year almost guarantees great tasting food. With the dizzying array of dishes, some might find the choices overwhelming. If in doubt, the good option is to join the stall with the longest queue and strike up a conversation with the person in front of you for advice on what is the best dish to order. Or, simply point at the dish of the person in front and tell the hawker “same thing” and hope that they have ordered the good stuff!

A dish of chilli crab
A dish of chilli crab

It is common for people to share tables at hawker centres. A word of caution though on the causal ‘reservation of seat’ method – there is a locally understood technique commonly known as “chope” (chope being loosely translated as “reserved”). The chope master hones in on an empty seat, puts a half used packet of tissue, a water bottle or a ball point pen to mark their turf, before joining the queues to buy their food.

National dish

Mention national dish, and it’s fairly easy to pinpoint Thailand’s Pad Thai, Taiwan’s Beef noodles, Indonesia’s Nasi goreng, as the defining food of those countries. Singapore has been such a melting pot of cultures and flavours over the decades, it is difficult to pinpoint just one particular dish that best represents the culinary creation of the country. Visitors to Singapore have a checklist that often include chicken rice and chilli crab, there are just so many choices and so much to love. I have included a mere few of my personal favourites.

Chicken rice is loosely referred to as Singapore's unofficial national dish as it is the most popular street food in the city and can be found everywhere, from the humble hawker stalls to top hotels. The traditional Hainanese chicken rice features poached white chicken with silky smooth skin, gleaming rice cooked in chicken fat, rich chicken stock and perfectly infused with aromatics, dipping sauces of chilli, black soy sauce, ginger sauce and a side bowl of chicken broth. Soya sauce chicken rice is also a popular choice, as well as roast chicken rice.

In July 2016, Hawker Chan Hon Meng won a Michelin star for his soya sauce chicken rice, the first time a street-food establishment has been recognized by the prestigious Michelin Guide. He was also awarded ‘the cheapest Michelin-starred meal in the world’. He did lose his star in 2021, but what an achievement to have positioned Singapore hawker food on the world map! I am sure he is working furiously to reclaim that star.

Chilli crab

Recently a client asked me: “Lilian, do you cook chilli crab? I proposed to my wife when we were eating chilli crab at a hawker centre in Singapore. It is our wedding anniversary soon and I would like to recreate that plus a few other hawker delights we had.” Well, what a lovely romantic tale, I love my job as a Private Chef; every event is different and the privilege of sharing these moments with clients is precious.

So, what is this famous signature dish of most seafood establishments? Proudly originated in Singapore, chilli crab gets its delectable flavours from a combination of garlic, shallots, chilli sauce, tomato ketchup and soya sauce, thickened with eggs. Despite its name, chilli crab is not really spicy. Steamed or fried mantou is normally served to soak up the gravy. Tip - do not wear a white top when eating chilli crab!


The word ‘satay’ translates to ‘three pieces’ in the Hokkien dialect. Traditionally, these skewers will have only three pieces of meat, marinated in warming spices, chargrilled and served with rice cake (ketupat), onion, cucumber and peanut sauce. You can order chicken, pork, beef or mutton satay.

If you're considering planning your own pilgrimage to Singapore for some excellent food, I would encourage you to be adventurous, explore and enjoy the city where foodies meet!

I hope you will like this satay recipe I am sharing. I would love to hear of your creations.

Better still, send me some pictures on Facebook or Instagram @Lilianhiw or email me at

Lilian's Singapore chicken satay
Lilian's Singapore chicken satay


Yield: 25 satay

Prep time: 25-30 minutes

Cooking time: 3-35 minutes


500g Chicken breast or thigh

2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoons cornflour

1 teaspoon ground coriander

2 teaspoons ground turmeric

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

25–30 Bamboo skewers

Peanut Sauce:

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon chilli powder

3 tablespoons water

200ml coconut milk

200ml water

2 level tablespoon smooth peanut butter

1 teaspoon vinegar, malt or cider

1 tablespoon soya sauce

1 tablespoon crushed roasted salted peanuts

½ to 1 teaspoon salt (to taste)

To serve:

Cucumber, roughly diced

Red onion, roughly diced

Crushed roasted salted peanuts


Fully immerse and soak the bamboo skewers in warm tap water for 10 minutes. (See recipe notes 1).

Cut chicken roughly into 2cm x 1cm pieces, mix with all the satay ingredients.

Thread three pieces of the chicken onto the skewers and leave to marinate for 10 minutes.

Brush chicken lightly with vegetable oil, grill over an open barbeque or under a grill on high heat, turning chicken till both sides are slightly charred and cooked through. (See recipe notes 2).

Serve with peanut sauce, roughly diced cucumber, diced red onion and another sprinkle of crushed peanuts.

Peanut sauce:

Mix the ground spices into a paste with the 3 tablespoons of water. (See recipe notes 3).

Heat vegetable oil in a saucepan over medium high heat, fry onion and garlic till lightly brown.

Add sugar, continue to fry till dark brown.

Turn down the heat and fry the spice paste for 2 minute, add 2 tablespoons of the coconut milk and continue to fry on low heat for another 5 minutes, till the oil seeps out of the spice mixture.

Add the rest of the peanut sauce ingredients, bring to the boil then simmer, stirring frequently, for 20 to 25 minutes till some oil oozes from the sauce and floats to the surface.


1. Soaking in water removes any ‘storage smells’ from the bamboo skewers and reduces the chances of the skewers burning and catching fire while grilling over an open fire.

2. If cooking under an overhead grill, cover the exposed bamboo skewers with a strip of aluminium foil to prevent them from getting burnt.

3. Adding the water to make a curry paste prevents the dry ground spices from burning and turning bitter.

4. Great make ahead party food as both the satay and the peanut sauce can be prepared ahead and freezes well. If making ahead, freeze the skewered chicken uncooked.

Private chef Lilian Hiw

Call 07813 702759