Ask any Singaporean where to go for authentic local cuisine and it’s likely they’ll point you to their favourite hawker centre, a series of food stalls dishing out some of the best comfort foods in the country.
Feeling lost? Here’s your go-to guide to Singapore’s unique hawker culture to survive mealtime, and have the ultimate local experience.
The first thing you need to do at a hawker centre is to find an empty table.
To the uninitiated, tissue packets, umbrellas and even business cards placed on empty tables might be a baffling sight, but it’s actually a common practice by locals who typically use such items to reserve – or as the locals call it, chope – a seat before heading off to queue up at various hawker stalls.
Having trouble finding a seat? Feel free to ask to share tables during busier periods, especially during mealtime.
NEXT: Get acquainted with the types of hawker stalls →
Some hawkers spend decades honing their skills for a specific dish like Hainanese chicken rice, while others serve up an array of dishes from a particular cuisine. Another variation includes those that offer three or more dishes that are similar to one another, for example, noodle dishes topped with different meats, served dry or in soup.
Note that none of these food stalls will include beverages on their menu – these are sold separately at various drinks stalls.
NEXT: Choosing the right hawker stall →
Many well-known hawker centres house over one hundred stalls, so it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when deciding which to commit your stomach to.
When in doubt, pick the stall with the longest queue, or one plastered with tons of newspaper clippings. A long queue is the easiest indicator of a famous stall, while news articles usually serve as documented proof of praise by local food critics.
NEXT: Ordering tea or coffee →
Flat whites and chai tea lattes are (almost) non-existent in a hawker centre.
To get your caffeine fix, try the robust Singapore-style coffee known as kopi, which can be tailor-made to how sweet or thick you prefer your cuppa to be. (Check out how to order your kopi like a pro here.)
NEXT: How to place your order →
When it’s finally your turn, be ready with your order and relay it clearly.
Not all stall owners will greet you with a smile and some are even known for being impatient. Don’t take it personally.
Simply state your chosen dish, its price (indicative of its portion size) and whether you would like it to have it there, or to go (“tabao” means takeaway).
NEXT: Don’t forget to bring cash →
Make sure to have a handful of smaller notes and coins on you, as most hawker stalls accept only cash.
A meal would typically cost from as low as S$2 to S$7 (US$1.50-US$5.20) per person, including a beverage.
NEXT: Take note of “self-service” signs →
Hawker stalls generally have a “self-service” approach: after placing your order, wait by the side for your dish to be ready, then carry it to your table.
In some cases, stalls owners might ask for your table number and bring it to your seat where payment will be made.
NEXT: Reserve your seat first →
From SilverKris, August 2016
Like this? Read other hawker stories here,