Historically descending from pushcart vendors who were directed away from the roadside into government initiated complexes, hawker centres continue to offer the best of multi-ethnic Singaporean food in an alfresco-dining setting, from as low as S$3 to S$5 per dish!
While this culinary adventure is a must-try if you are in Singapore, visitors need to be aware of the unique culture that hawker centres possess. Here's a quick guide to ensure you are getting the best out of this experience.
Reserving or 'Chope' Seats
Grabbing a seat at the hawker centre can be tricky business, especially when you are trying to beat the lunchtime crowd. If you are eating in a group, have one person sit at the table while the rest are ordering food. ”Chope” is Singapore slang for “reserving” a seat. Placing a packet of tissue paper, newspaper on the table or a bag on a seat indicates a table is taken. If there are no other vacant tables, sharing one with strangers is not a problem. In fact, it can even be a good way to get recommendations on the various food stalls!
Each table usually comes with a table number located near the border. Take a note of your table number as hawker vendors would request it in order to serve food directly to your table. However, not all hawker stalls provide such services. If you spot a self service sign, you would have to take the food to your seat by yourself. Having said that, most hawkers would allow you to venture to other places to order more food before returing to collect your share.
While most hawker stalls speak adequate English, some colloquial dish names can be a mouthful if you are unfamiliar with the original language. Simply pointing out what you want on from the board or calling it by its given code number listed can be a good idea.
Some stalls also offer different portion sizes according to the given prices. If a dish indicates that it is, for example, $3/6/8, the numbers indicate the prices for small, medium or large portions respectively. Unless requested, most hawker vendors would usually serve the smallest portion by default.
It is the norm to pay once your meal has been served as opposed to once an order is made. If you are unsure when to pay, observing other patrons might also be a good idea.
Most hawker stalls have been in business for years. Hence most good hawker stalls tend to have a large cult following. Singaporeans are notoriously known for being able to queue up for hours with the mental preconception that something should be worth the wait if there is a long line involved. So while long queues are usually a good indication of a quality food, a good hawker stall’s name would be inextricably linked synonymously to a hawker centre’s reputation. Asking locals for recommendations would therefore be the best way to go, rather than making judgements based on long queues. A good hawker stall usually serves only one or two signature dishes with newspaper reviews plastered all over the shop front.
If you are observant enough you will notice that there are big labels placed in front of each stall with “A”, “B” or “C” signs. These labels are hygiene ratings given by health inspectors. Such ratings are taken seriously by the government; a failure to pass as an A, B or C grade would cause vendors to lose their rental lease. If you are really particular on food hygiene though, stick to stall that scores an “A” or “B”.
Take-Away or 'Da Bao'
'Da Bao' is a common term you will come across while queuing up for your food. “Da Bao” is another Singapore term for take away. If you can’t pronounce the word properly you can ask the vendors to “packet” which is the literally translation of 'Da Bao'.
Most drink vendors tend to make rounds requesting orders. Unless you are targeting a specific stall or prefer a freshly squeeze fruit juice from the fruit stall, most drink stalls do not vary as much in terms of their selection or quality of drink. Touting is not allowed in Singapore, so a polite “no” would work fine if you do not wish to order.
Chicken Rice with Roasted Pork
Muslims have a strict code of protocols when it comes to dietary habits. If you are ordering food from a Muslim stall, indicative of the Halal certified sign, cutlery should be kept only to that particular dish. If you wish to sample other dishes that are not Halal, use a separate set of cutlery. Similarly if someone else wishes to sample your Halal dish, scooping a portion onto their plate is the given norm.
There is no need to clean up or return your dish and cutlery to the respective food stalls as there are usually dedicated cleaners who will do this job.
Now that you have learnt the ample protocol to enjoying your hawker centre experience, dig in to some of the more popular hawker joints around town!
Gluttons Bay - Gluttons Bay is a good place to start if you are clueless as to what’s good when it comes to hawker fare. Gluttons Bay is a chic outdoor eatery by the Esplanade theatre which comprises of stalls personally hand-picked by one of the most respected judges of Singapore’s food, Makansutra Seetoh, as an exemplary on a classic Singapore hawker dish.
Lau Pa Sat Hawker Centre - Housed in the largest remaining Victorian filigree cast-iron structure in Southeast Asia, Lau Pa Sat Hawker Centre is famous for its all-night Satay Club stalls decked out along the roadside at night.
Newton Food Center - best known for their seafood, Newton, as it is known by locals, is slightly more expensive due to their prime location. Nevertheless it remains a popular supper spot for roaming night owls.
Newton Food Centre at Night
Maxwell Road Food Centre - Not to be fooled by its unattractive appearance, Maxwell Road Food Centre is a throwback to the old days and is known for serving up one of the best Singaporean breakfasts in town.
Chinatown Food Centre - Possibly one of the oldest and more traditional takes on hawker culture, Chinatown Food Centre offers up a wide variety of Chinese food at ridiculously cheap prices stretching across an extensive complex.
Golden Mile Food Centre - Because of its popularity with the local Thai community, the Golden Mile Complex in Beach Road has become Singapore’s very own “Little Thailand”. As such, the mall’s food centre serves some of the cheapest and most authentic Thai dishes in town. Thanks to the nearby Arab Street and Kampung Glam, Muslim-Indian and Malay delicacies are also served here.
East Coast Lagoon Food Village - located along East Coast Parkway, this place offers up the freshest culinary seafood. Enjoy the sea breeze and the swaying palm trees to go with its iconic chilli crabs or black pepper crabs.
For a list of popular Hawker Centres, look here: http://comesingapore.com/m/business-directory/category/hawker