In Singapore, eating, or as the locals say, makan, is more than just sustenance or even a hobby. It's a national obsession, a passion, a way of life.
Friends don't greet each other with a "hello" or "how do you do?" Instead, they'll say in Singlish slang, sudah makan or, "have you eaten?" And the quickest, cheapest way to get your makan on is at the humble hawker center. Hawker centers are semi-enclosed buildings housing rows and rows of small food stalls that serve a variety of food and desserts, almost always prepared to order.
At first glance, these stalls resemble walk-in closets, cluttered with cooking equipment and ingredients, but don't let their size fool you—these cramped little kitchens punch far above their weight.
For the first-timer in a Singapore hawker center, the sheer size and outward disarray can be downright disconcerting, if not a little intimidating. With the help of friends and guidebooks, I, myself a recent Singapore newbie, decoded the basics of hawker center etiquette to help demystify this unique eating experience for future greenhorn foodies.
Finding The Right Hawker Center
So you've got your heart set on trying food at a hawker center. Where to start?
You'll want to think about what you want to eat. Each center tends to converge on just a few of the many noteworthy food cultures represented in Singapore: Malay, Thai, Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern among others. Singapore food luminary KF Seetoh publishes an excellent guide book, Makansutra, which is updated almost every year to keep on top of the dynamic dining landscape. The Yelp-like website, hungrygowhere.com, is also a good resource to narrow down options by cuisine, price, and neighborhood.
Get The Local Flavor
Now you've settled on a hawker center. Perhaps you've chosen Lau Pa Sat in Chinatown or Newton Circus near Orchard Road, both of which are easier to swallow for tourists (although the food I'm told is commensurately pedestrian). Indeed, your first visit to a hawker center is bound to be a little confusing. But there's no reason to be nervous—no one will mind, and the locals are incredibly helpful and informative, especially when it comes to food.
Your taxi driver will more than likely talk your ear off if you ask for a recommendation. And if you ask someone in line for a stall (always look for the stalls with the longest lines) for their recommendation, they'll not only tell you exactly what to order, but also what condiments to apply and how to eat the prescribed dish.
Hawker center seating is first come, first serve, no reservations and no pretension. Before you place your order, find an open seat. Don't worry if that seat happens to be next to or across from a stranger. Just ask for permission to sit, and plunk down a packet of tissues to hold your spot, noting the table number that you've staked out.
Reserving a Seat
Oh, and the tissue packets. Any convenience store in Singapore will sell armfuls of them for a dollar or two. But you'll also notice elderly, needy peddlers who roam the centers and push four or five packets for a dollar. Go ahead and buy from the pensioners with confidence—they need to make a living as well.
Once you've acquired a tissue packet and staked your claim, it would be an unthinkable crime for anyone to disturb your plot. An umbrella can also be used to reserve a seat, but you can't wipe hot fish head curry off of your fingers with an umbrella, now can you?
Delivery, Self Service, and Take-Away
Have you remembered your table number? Good.
Find a stall, or two or three, and order away. Unless denoted with a sign noting "self service," every stall will deliver your food to the table number you've provided. On the other hand, for self service stalls, you'll need to wait for your food at the stall and take the food away yourself.
Also, unless specified, it's assumed that you're dining-in (a tray and sometimes real plates and silverware will be provided with your meal). Almost all stalls will do a take-away order, complete with packaging, plastic utensils, and packets of sauces, typically a 20p fee.
Touting, or the harassing of customers by overly pushy stall owners, is not only illegal but indicates that the stand probably isn't very good. The well trafficked stands with great food don't need that sort of marketing. Of course, having a major food celebrity plug your stall on cable television can't hurt.
Thirsty yet? Each row of hawker stalls will have one or two stalls that sell drinks. Heavily sweetened, and nutty barley tea (pronounced bah-lee) is the popular choice, and usually goes for a song ($1). Soft drinks, other forms of tea, and beer can usually be found as well.
You can opt to order directly from the counter or during peak times when people from the drink stands will make their rounds and take drink orders. You'll need to pay them as soon as the drink is delivered. Tipping isn't necessary.
Go ahead and leave your plates behind—every hawker center has staff on hand to bus tables. If you're feeling a bit sticky after eating a fish head curry or murtabak with your bare hands, every hawker center will have an outdoor washing station with soap (you must provide your own tissues for drying off) or you can head to the bathroom, which are usually well maintained, but cost around 10 to 30p per visit.
A Quick Word About Eating Houses
The open-air eating house is a slightly different beast but recalls the same level of quality and roughly the same price as the hawker centers.
Here you can eat just as well if not better in a slightly more relaxed and convivial environment. Take note of the menu as you enter and order away. Just be prepared to pay for each dish or bottle of beer as they arrive at your table.
Although this walk-through is by no means an exhaustive guide of eating etiquette and hawker erudition, hopefully it's enough to put the nervous novice in the right direction.
Singapore is an amazing city with amazing food just waiting to be explored and eaten. Now, sudah makan?