Hawker centres are places for wallet-friendly meals. But how cheap is cheap?
The Ministry of Trade and Industry has compiled a list of the cheapest hawker food across the island in an online directory .
Called the Islandwide List of Budget Hawker Food, the pilot portal features 22 popular dishes, including chicken rice, economical rice, mee goreng and roti prata, found in hawker centres managed by the National Environment Agency.
Users can search for up to three hawker dishes at one time and the locations of the food stalls.
The stalls are grouped into four regions - Central, which spans from Novena to the Central Business District to Harbourfront; North, which covers Sembawang to Serangoon Garden; West, which includes areas such as Jurong and Bukit Timah; and East, from Geylang to Pasir Ris.
The website lists the name of the stall, its address and price of the food and has a photo of the stall.
Prices of the food start from 80 cents for a plain roti prata from Zaafira Famous Food Place stall in Bedok Reservoir Road.
A spokesman says the ministry hopes "the public can find comparatively lower-priced hawker food and make more informed choices that suit their budgets".
The ministry conducted a year-long survey to collate food prices from more than 1,300 stalls in 103 hawker centres before listing the cheapest 30 per cent of each dish in the directory.
However, some prices of dishes have become outdated since the survey was completed in April this year.
The directory has received more than 26,000 unique page views.
Besides getting public feedback to make improvements to the directory, the ministry will evaluate the feasibility of maintaining the website in the long term.
When Life spoke to diners, most were not aware of the directory, but welcomed the initiative as a convenient way of looking for affordable food options.
Account manager Fiona Cher, 25, who eats out four times a week, says there is no comprehensive portal dedicated to hawker food, adding that most blogs and websites focus on cafes and restaurants.
She says: "Besides not being mobile-friendly, the directory looks too plain and text-heavy, and the categorisation of locations can be confusing. Perhaps it can be sorted by MRT stations."
Operations manager Ira Zulkifli, 30, thinks the guide will come in handy for food-hunting trips on weekends.
She says: "On weekdays, I prefer to go to eateries near the office ."
Housewife Jen Lee, 56, says the directory can help her save some money with "the high cost of living here".
"It is very important to list the opening hours of these stalls, as I do not want to waste my bus fare and time to travel all the way there, only to find out that they are closed."
However, some diners have doubts about the usefulness of the directory.
Property agent Samuel Goh, 26, says: "While it is good to know which stalls sell food that costs $1.50, these portions are usually small. I'd rather pay $3 for a bigger portion of food and be full."
Bank manager Mei Ang, 30, says: "Cheap does not necessarily mean good and I think that the quality and taste of the food are more important."
JI DE LAI HAINANESE CHICKEN RICE
Where: 01-152 Block 104 Yishun Ring Road, Chong Pang Market & Food Centre
Open: 8.30am to 8.30pm daily
What: Stall owner Joey Yong, 42, uses a chicken rice recipe that he learnt about 20 years ago before setting up his first chicken rice stall in Chong Pang in 2012. The former chef got the recipe from a Hainanese colleague in Shangri-La Hotel Singapore.
A plate of chicken rice (from $2.50) comprises rice and steamed white chicken. He sells up to 90 chickens daily.
"I can make a small profit while keeping the price affordable for the mainly elderly residents in the neighbourhood," he says.
He also owns a chicken and braised duck rice stall in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10. Over there, a plate of chicken rice, which is cooked by a different chef, starts at $2.
"The chicken rice there is priced lower as we have to deal with competition from three chicken rice stalls in nearby hawker centres."
Competition has also heated up at his Chong Pang stall, with the opening of a chicken rice stall beside it last month.
It also sells a plate of chicken rice at $2.50. Despite being caught in an "awkward situation", Mr Yong says: "We do not want to start a price war in the hawker centre, and undercut each other."
MING RI VEGETARIAN STALL
Where: 01-05 Block 341 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1
Open: 7am to 1.30pm, 5 to 8pm, daily except Monday or Thursday
What: For $1.50, most vegetarian food stalls serve a basic plate of fried bee hoon. But at this 11-year-old stall, a plate of fried bee hoon (left) is generously topped with vegetables, mock char siew, slices of mock duck and fried beancurd skin. And the price of this dish has stayed the same since day one.
It is little surprise that the fried bee hoon is a breakfast hit, with about 100 servings sold daily. Stall owner Tai Wong Li, 45, fries up to 5kg of bee hoon with salt, sugar, soya sauce and a mushroom-based sauce every day.
Despite the rising price of ingredients, he keeps prices low to attract customers.
"Having low prices brings customers to my stall and they usually come back for lunch and dinner and order dishes that cost more."
At lunch, zichar dishes such as fried rice and hor fun cost $3 a serving and set dinner menus, which include dishes such as mock kung pao chicken and mock prawns with tofu, start from $13 a set.
Mr Tai, who used to be in the construction industry, adds that low prices help his stall stand out from five other stalls in the hawker centre which also sell fried bee hoon.
ZAAFIRA FAMOUS FOOD PLACE
Where: 01-04 Block 630 Bedok Reservoir Road
Open: 7.30am to 6pm, Monday to Thursday, 7.30am to 1pm, Friday, 7.30am to 6pm, Saturday, 7.30am to 2pm, Sunday
What: For the past three decades, stall owner Zegabaraly Abdul Jelam (left), 56, has increased the price of his roti prata by 10 cents every 10 years. The hikes are due to increasing prices of ingredients such as flour, eggs and vegetable oil.
However, at 80 cents each, his prata is still cheaper than those sold by other stalls in the neighbourhood.
He says: "I can still make a profit, and my customers are happy with this pricing, which is still lower than those at other coffee shop stalls in the neighbourhood. They are selling them at $1 each."
His stall is a hit with residents in the Bedok Reservoir estate, with 300 roti pratas sold daily. When Life visited on Thursday for breakfast, there was a steady queue until 11am.
The stall also sells thosai ($1), appom (80 cents) and puttu mayam (60 cents).
Mr Zegabaraly says of the budget hawker food directory: "Most of my customers are regulars who live nearby and already know about my stall, so I don't think it will help improve business."
ALIF NASI PADANG
Where: 01-40 Block 107 Aljunied Avenue 2 Market & Food Centre
Open: 6am to 2.30pm daily
What: A plate of nasi padang typically costs $3, but prices start at $2.20 at this one-year-old stall. Customers can choose from two vegetable dishes such as tempeh goreng and sayur lodeh to go with a fried chicken wing and rice.
Stall owner Wasni Ang (left), 42, also sells other Malay dishes at marked-down prices - a plate of nasi ambeng with five dishes, including mutton curry, begedil and sambal goreng, costs $4, while mee rebus, mee soto and lontong cost $2.50 a serving.
She limits the amount of food that she serves daily. She cooks 20 chicken legs for her sambal chicken and limits portions of mutton curry and beef rendang to 3kg each,
Mrs Ang says: "With limited food portions, I can ensure that my food gets sold out by lunchtime, so there are no leftovers."
The former school canteen vendor adds that her prices are also kept low to stay ahead of the intense competition in the hawker centre, which has seven other stalls selling Malay food.
"Naturally, customers will come to the stall with the cheapest food," she says.
SENG KEE COOKED FOOD
Where: 01-69 Block 38A Beo Crescent, Beo Crescent Market & Food Centre
Open: 6am to 2pm daily
What: The old-school signboard that hangs at a corner of this stall has seen only one change in the past 40 years.
Just last year, the price of the yong tau foo at this stall increased from 30 cents to 35 cents a piece. The prices of its other dishes, including laksa and laksa yong tau foo, have remained the same.
A $2 bowl of laksa comes with noodles, cockles, chopped tau pok (beancurd puffs) and beansprouts. There is a bigger portion priced at $2.50.
Having worked in the hawker centre for 35 years, stall owner Seng Siew Hian, 55, knows her regulars so well that she remembers their orders by heart.
She also knows that most of them come from low-income families who live in rental flats in the area.
The second-generation hawker takes advantage of the subsidised stall rental rates. She took over the running of the stall from her late father 10 years ago.
She says: "My customers are mainly in their 70s and they do not have big appetites, so serving smaller portions reduces food wastage and helps them save money."
She sells at least 50 bowls of laksa a day. She also sells yong tau foo at $2, with noodles or rice, and four other ingredients, such as tofu and eggplant.
"Although I may earn less, when my customers are happy with my food, I feel good too."
NUSA & TARA
Where: 01-22 ABC Brickworks Market 7 Food Centre, 6 Jalan Bukit Merah
Open: 5.30am to 1.30pm, Tuesday to Sunday. Closed on Monday
What: As a grassroots member in Queenstown's Hock San Residents' Committee for the past 10 years, stall owner Sarponen Amin, 59, has seen during house visits how the low-income elderly struggle to make ends meet.
He says: "I can give them a helping hand by providing cheap food."
His $1.50 mee siam comes with a generous heap of bee hoon drenched in a piquant gravy made with assam, crushed peanuts, dried onions and shrimps, and is topped with sambal. The $2 version comes with a whole hard-boiled egg. The mee siam, which is cooked by his wife, Madam Mariani Maria, 50, is so popular that the stall sells out its 70 portions by 10am daily.
Mr Sarponen says he is able to keep food prices low as he gets his ingredients from a trusted supplier at Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre.
He buys up to 20kg of sotong and 20kg of ikan bilis at one go and he would get an extra 2 to 3kg of ingredients free of charge.
"The prices that I get from the wholesale market are up to 20 per cent lower compared to buying ingredients from the wet market, so I pass the savings to my customers," he says.
Where: 02-06 Market Street Food Centre, 50 Market Street
Open: 7am to 7pm daily
What: Stall owner M.A. Abdul Malik (left), 50, has been selling mee goreng for breakfast at $2 a serving for the past two years. It is available only from 7am to noon.
He says keeping the prices of breakfast items such as mee goreng and nasi goreng low is a strategy to lure customers to return to his stall during lunch time.
This business tactic seems to work as he sees customers from the morning return at lunchtime and ordering more expensive dishes such fried chicken biryani ($5) and fish curry rice ($4).
He adds that keeping prices low at breakfast also encourages customers to buy snacks such as curry puffs and goreng pisang, as "they can afford to have more variety".
"It is a business of plus and minus," he says. "It is how my business can continue being profitable and survive."
GUAN CHUN SENG MIXED VEG RICE
Where: 01-267, Tekka Food Centre, 665 Buffalo Road
Open: Noon to 4pm, weekday, closed on weekend
What: Having a good relationship with long-time ingredient suppliers has enabled this stall to maintain its prices for more than 10 years. For more than three decades, it has been buying vegetables and meats from the adjacent Tekka Market at up to 20 per cent lower than the market rate.
So the prices of the food are lower than other economical rice stalls in the hawker centre. Prices at Guan Chun Seng start at $2 for a plate of rice with one vegetable and one meat.
For $2.50, diners can choose two types of vegetables and one meat to go with rice (above, left). There are more than 15 cooked dishes such as sweet and sour pork, fried fish, pork chop and stir-fried bittergourd to choose from.
Business is also brisk for this long-time stall.
A stall assistant, who wanted to be known only as Madam Lin, 61, says prices are kept affordable to cater to the elderly residents who live in the nearby flats.
She says in Mandarin: "I just want to make enough money to get by, so that I can pack up and go home and rest."
YONG FU RAMEN STALL
Where: 01-97 Empress Road Market & Food Centre
Open: 8am to 8pm daily Wednesday to Monday, closed on Tuesday
What: This noodle stall is one of a handful with food options priced below $3, in a housing estate surrounded by private homes.
Stall owner He Xin Pin, 49, says that a good number of his customers are Japanese, American and British expatriates who live nearby.
The ban mian ($2.80, left), noodles made fresh daily, come with accompaniments of minced pork, ikan bilis, vegetables and egg.
Besides ban mian, he also sells eight types of you mian (thin noodles) with prices starting at $3.30 for those with steamed dumplings. He makes about 10kg of noodles daily.
Mr He has maintained these prices for the past six years. The prices of ingredients have been going up, but he says that he has been absorbing the extra cost.
"Singaporeans are very sensitive to price increase of food; even with an additional 10 cents or 20 cents, they will stop patronising a stall," he says.
XIANG WEI FRIED KWAY TEOW
Where: 02-102 Taman Jurong Market & Food Centre, 3 Yung Sheng Road
Open: 11am to 8pm, Wednesday to Monday, closed on Tuesday
What: In more than 20 years of selling char kway teow, the biggest problem that stall owner Lim Siew Chon (left, with her husband, Mr Chua Teck Hua), 52, has faced is the increasing prices of cockles.
She says in Mandarin: "The price of cockles has increased by at least 25 per cent in the past year, so I have no choice but to add fewer to a plate of char kway teow to ensure that my prices stay the same."
A plate of char kway teow at her stall starts at $2.50, and larger portions are available at $3 and $3.50.
She sells more than 100 plates a day, catering mostly to residents and workers from the nearby industrial estate.
Her stall started out at the old Taman Jurong Market & Food Centre and moved to Teban Gardens Market and Food Centre before moving back to the renovated Taman Jurong Market & Food Centre last year.
She says of the online directory: "Youngsters turn to the Internet to find places to eat these days, so it will draw new customers to our stall."