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Street Smarts: Guide to Eating at Hawker Centres in Singapore

Updated 20 Oct 2011

While Singapore’s culinary scene has certainly matured over the last few years, the addition of Michelin star restaurants and celebrity chefs hasn’t stamped out the stove fires that started the city-state’s rich food culture. Street stalls and hawker centres, a food-court type collection of street stalls, still retain their reputation as the best and the cheapest eateries on the 'Little Red Dot'.  

These venerable institutions may be initially intimidating to the unseasoned expat, but swallowing your pride and sampling some of the mysterious and delicious dishes will no doubt leave you more satisfied than you may have initially believed.

Hawker centres, open-air, typically unairconditioned buildings, are found in many of the Asian countries, like Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore. They have evolved considerably since the 1950s and 60s, at which point they were scattered in streets and neighbourhoods serving unhygienic and cheap food to the less affluent.

These days, they are found near housing estates and transport hubs, and are owned by three government bodies and managed by the NEA, which established a portal to ensure relevant standards are upheld.

They are the great levellers, where people from all social classes and income groups gather to enjoy the rich culinary diversity and the food heritage unique to Singapore. Friends and family meet to indulge in their favourite meals, and to share in the discovery of new and exciting dishes from all over the world.

Tables and chairs are arranged in some sort of regular pattern surrounded by the actual food stalls. It would be impossible to try and detail the food in any manner, and the best way to learn would be with the help of a local or the purchase of a good book (“There’s No Carrot in Carrot Cake”). The more adventurous and fun approach is to start with food you recognise, and to slowly explore the wonderful and diverse foods from around the globe.

Outdoor food centres also include fresh food markets, which are typically a lot more cost effective than buying from shopping centres. You can buy freshly displayed fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs, fish and meat; which also make for fantastic eye candy and prime photographic opportunities.

Tips for eating at hawker centres in Singapore

  • Visiting a food centre as an expat for the first can be a trying experience, with hordes of people and a mind-blowing choice of dishes with foreign food names that can make you feel lost. Try not to get overwhelmed, and keep in mind the following.

  • Food centres are informal gathering places, and due to the lack of air conditioning, dress casual and cool. No one wears a suite to eat street food.

  • In contrast to their appearance, the best food centres are the old, authentic venues. While the modern venues may have air conditioning and newer amenities, they do not usually include the accompanying food markets.

  • Parking is not free, so get your parking vouchers from a 7Eleven to avoid not being able to park when you reach your favourite Food Centre.

  • To reserve or “chope” a table, place a packet of tissues on the table before ordering your food. If you find a table with a tissue packet, it is obviously reserved. Not all food stalls will bring your food to the table, typically marked with a “Self Service” notice, else get your number and proceed to your table.

  • The food is “Fixed Price” and there is no bargaining. You do have the option to select certain ingredients and add more at certain stalls.

  • All food stalls have a cleanliness rating, with “A” being the best and “C” the worst.

  • Singaporeans tend to talk fast, and the diverse nationalities of the food stalls can be confusing. Do not be afraid to ask.

  • Some dishes are best ordered to be shared, and there is no such thing as individual portions of Chilli Crab, Fish Head Curry and Black Pepper Crab. It is common practise to order several dishes, even from different stalls, and to share amongst friends.

  • If you see a long queue at a specific food stall, it does not necessarily mean the food is outstanding. Funny enough, Singaporeans love to queue, and will do so simply to not miss out, no matter the quality of the product in question.

  • Food centres are very busy, and it is customary to share a table with strangers if you cannot find table that is not occupied.  

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