Singapore is a true foodie’s paradise, with the local dishes being an exciting fusion of flavours that are influenced by Chinese, Malay, Indian and European cultures. If you want to experience the authentic tastes of Singapore food, forget fancy Michelin-starred restaurants and trendy bistro bars. The best Singapore foods are found in hawker centres!
What Is A Hawker Centre?
A hawker centre is typically an open-air complex that houses many independent stalls selling all kinds of affordable food from different ethnic groups. Nowadays, there are air-conditioned versions of hawker centres that can be found in shopping malls as well. These food places are where the local community hangs out for meals or to chit-chat over coffee.
It is an extraordinary and uniquely Singaporean dining experience. But, we know that it may be daunting to foreigners who have no idea how to navigate the bustle of a hawker centre. Let us show you how to eat like a local with this step-by-step Hawker Centre Guide For Beginners!
Step 1 - Get A Seat: First Come, First Serve Basis
When you first step into a hawker centre, you may feel overwhelmed by the noise and crowds. Take a deep breath and venture in with a firm foot. An important thing to note is that the tables are all free-seating and you have to find your own space.
The first step is to secure a seat. Now, this is fascinating stuff and it really works. Getting a seat reserved simply requires a pack of tissue paper and the locals call this ‘Chope’! A packet of tissue typically represents that the seat is taken, so go ahead and place 4 packets accordingly if you need 4 seats. You can even use a long umbrella to reserve a row of seats.
However, do not always expect an entire table to yourself. A hawker centre is made for communal dining and it is perfectly normal to have strangers sharing the same table as you. This is the beauty of dining at a hawker centre.
<Local Tip> - A hawker centre can be very big, sometimes with more than 100 stalls. Check out what you want to eat first and try to find a seat nearby so that you do not have to walk a long distance while carrying plates of hot food. Some of the hawker centres come with table numbers, which helps in locating your table!
Step 2 - Order Food & Drinks To Your Heart’s Delight
Eating is the best way to discover new cultures and to bond with friends, and Singaporeans have got it down to a fine art. For the uninitiated, the first impression of a hawker centre can seem rather chaotic. Imagine it as a big boisterous street food scene but in a more hygienic fashion. In a similar free-and-easy dining concept, everyone can buy food from different stalls and eat at their table of choice.
And, here comes the fun part - choosing what food to eat.
In every hawker centre, you will get to see gastronomic delicacies from various cuisines and cultures. There are countless stalls selling the most mouthwatering local dishes, from the ubiquitous Chicken Rice to spice-studded Mutton Briyani. Rice dishes, noodles, soups and stews, western grills and even vegetarian meals; there is really something to suit every taste bud. There are plenty of drink stalls as well where you can find local coffee, fresh fruit juices, soft drinks and even ice-cold beers.
Most stalls are self-service so the strategy here is to order your food first and then get your drinks because the food typically takes more preparation time. Just remember to go with a big appetite!
If you want to get a takeaway and enjoy your food elsewhere, it is very simple too. Just tell the stall owner that you want to “dabao” (pronounced as da-pow). In true-blue Singlish, it means to pack the food for takeaway.
Feeling overwhelmed by the sheer variety of choices? Let the Wak Wak app help you! We have compiled a good list of over 90 food stalls in various hawker centres and the signature food items they sell. Just browse and take your pick.
<Local Tip> - A small number of hawkers do not speak English but not to worry. Most stalls display a basic menu and prices of the food they sell. If you are unsure of what to order, just choose from the pictures and point. Yes, the locals do it as well!
Step 3 - Clean Up After Your Mess
The older generation of Singaporeans are used to the culture of leaving their trays and dishes on the table after eating. This used to be the norm back in the days. However, in recent years, the government is trying to encourage diners to clean up their used cutlery as a further step to improve the cleanliness of hawker centres. So, be considerate to the other diners and return your trays to the designated tray collection points.
If you have not noticed by now, Singapore is a multi-cultural society and it is very common to see people from various religions eating together. To maintain religious harmony, do note that there are separate tray return points for halal and non-halal foods.
<Local Tip> - Hawker centres do not have the cleanest or nicest-smelling toilets. Learn from the locals and bring along wet tissues, so that you can clean your mouth and fingers before and after eating! Some places have wash basins at the sides where you can wash your hands too.
Recommended Hawker Centres In Singapore
For the first-time beginners >> Lau Pa Sat and Singapore Food Treats
These two hawker centres are popular with tourists and the hawkers here are used to interacting with foreigners. You can set your mind at ease as it will be a very enjoyable first experience. Lau Pa Sat also has a Satay Street where you can indulge in skewers of marinated meat that are char-grilled to perfection. Just ignore the touts!
For beginners who want a challenge >> Maxwell Food Centre and Amoy Street Food Centre
Maxwell and Amoy are well-established hawker centres and a favourite haunt for many locals, especially during lunch time. The fantastic variety of local delights and cheap prices make them a wonderful one-stop hawker experience for both tourists and locals alike.
For seasoned visitors >> Tekka Food Centre and Tiong Bahru Market
Closer to the heartlands, you can find a treasure trove of traditional hawker stalls at these two places. Both Tekka and Tiong Bahru were built to incorporate a fresh produce wet market where locals go to buy their groceries before heading for some yummy bites. This is where you can experience the real side of Singapore.
Safe Distancing Measures At Hawker Centres Due To Covid-19
Now that Singapore is gradually opening up, there are safe distancing measures that we all have to abide by in order to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission.
*depending on the latest information on 9th February.
▪︎ When queueing up at stalls, please maintain a 1-metre distance from others.
▪︎ Facial masks are a must for all diners at the hawker centres. You are only allowed to take them off when you are eating and you have to put it back on after your meals.
▪︎ Please do not sit at seats and tables that are marked out with red tape.
▪︎ You are only allowed to eat in groups not exceeding 8 persons and you cannot interact with other patrons.
Extra Tips For A Great Hawker Experience, Even For A Newbie
▪︎ Get a group of friends so that you can share and try more dishes together!
▪︎ Avoid the lunch and dinner peak period crowds. It is easier to find a seat at odd timings.
▪︎ Do not use the same set of cutlery for halal and non-halal food.
▪︎ Try not to pay in $100 notes for a small order. Most dishes are within $5 and the hawkers may not have change for a big bill.
▪︎ Address every hawker as Aunty or Uncle and remember to say thank you or 謝謝. It will definitely win you some brownie points.
▪︎ Be adventurous and try something new! Even if you do not like it, it merely costs a few bucks.