One of the most unique elements of the Singapore experience is its culinary influences from all over Asia and even into the West. Nowhere is this more evident than in the 100+ hawker centers scattered throughout the city. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of a hawker center, it’s basically a food court on steroids, with a bunch of local food vendors in permanent stalls selling all sorts of cuisines at great prices.
When first walking into one, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the number of choices – every center has at least 50 stalls and some claim over 200. Here are some tips for getting the most out of the hawker centre experience.
Know what you’re in the mood for
With strong influences from India, Malaysia, Thailand, the Middle East and China, as well as dishes that are uniquely Singaporean, paring down what you’re in the mood for is a daunting task. While every hawker centre is going to have variety, some centers are better at foods from certain regions. If you’re in the mood for great Chinese, head down to Maxwell Road Food Centre near Chinatown, or stop by Tekka Centre in Little India for – you guessed it – an authentic Indian experience.
Hours of operation aren’t consistent from centre to centre, or even stall to stall, and your options may be completely different at breakfast than they are at dinner time.
If you forget this one, there is usually an ATM or two at each centre, but you may have a preferred bank (Citi is big in Singapore, so if you have an account with them, keep an eye out). With meals averaging about S$3.50, credit cards aren’t accepted at most places, and on the rare chance that they are, many Singaporean businesses pass on credit card fees to the consumer.
Tissues or napkins
Most restaurants don’t have napkins available to use, so make sure you bring something to wipe your mouth and hands. If you’re like us and like to eat Indian food authentically with your hands, but still aren’t that great at it, you’re going to feel pretty silly with masala sauce all over your hands and nothing to wipe it on.
Like cash, if you forget a pack of tissues, you can usually get one from vendors walking around and selling them for S$1 each. There is also a hand washing station or two in each center, but that may entail grabbing your bag with dirty hands and walking the length of the center just to find it.
If you see a pack of tissues sitting on an empty table, it’s not yours for the taking. That’s the local way to reserve a table, especially during peak hours. If you find yourself struggling to grab a seat (really only an issue during the lunch or dinner rush), find a tissue vendor and throw down a pack at the first table you see.
The hand washing stations are great for rinsing off before you chow down, but be warned that the hand dryers aren’t very powerful and don’t get the job done (another handy opportunity for a pack of tissues or a handkerchief).
Since the government keeps the centers highly regulated for sanitation standards, there isn’t much to worry about when it comes to food safety. That’s not always something you can say in Southeast Asia, but considering that Singapore water is completely safe to drink from the tap, contamination is of minimal concern from any angle.
Go where the lines are
Most of our trips to hawker centers weren’t at peak hours, mostly because our bodies were still in this weird jet lag time warp, so it was harder to get a sense of what was popular. By day three, we were eating breakfast at a normal hour and noticed a prata stand where the queue was 15 people deep and none of the surrounding stands had anyone queueing at all. It didn’t disappoint. Hawker centers are extremely popular among working class locals, and they know where the hotspots are, so follow their lead if you can.
Many stalls will have a very similar menu to their neighbor, or the stall around the corner, but they may not have the same price. Shop around to save a dollar or so, but also take note of the portion sizes. Some stalls have a lower price because they give you less food. We always got the smallest size of each dish and never found portion size to be an issue, but if you have a big appetite, it may be worth an extra 50 cents.
When you walk up to many of the stalls, you may notice a sign designating “self service”, which means you need to stand there and wait for your food. Other stalls will gladly bring your food to your table, and even some of the self-service stalls may do this if you’ve found a spot right in front. That said, you can eat your food at any table in the center and don’t have to stay near the stall you ordered from if there aren’t any empty seats, or you wanted to grab something else from a different area. Many stalls will offer a S$0.20 takeaway charge to get your meal packed to go, but don’t feel like you need to get that if you’re eating within the center.
Generally, the rule is to take your trays to the tray return racks scattered throughout the centre when you’re done with them, but if you’re eating your meal close by the stall you purchased it from (and you were served by the vendor at your table) the vendor prefers that you leave it at the table. Dish collectors come around the center and grab used dishes, returning them to the appropriate stalls, so if you leave it on the table it’s fine. Make sure to take note of the tray rack you are returning to; they are marked halal and non-halal.
I like my coffee black, always have, but the default coffee or tea drink in Singapore comes mixed with evaporated milk. There are worse things that could happen to a person, but make sure you let the vendor know beforehand that you want your coffee or tea “O,” which is the local term for without milk. It took me three days and several failed “no milk” requests before I caught on to this terminology, and by then it was time to leave. If you don’t mind milk and sweetener in your coffee, though, drink like a local and just order “coffee/tea” or “iced coffee/tea” to get it with evaporated milk.