Singapore is one of the world’s best food cities, both at the high and low end of the spectrum Hawker centers are one of the primary reasons that Singapore — far from just being ‘a stopover’ — is one of my favorite cities in the world.
What are Hawker Centers?
Hawker centers are basically food courts which host a variety of providers, each of which usually specializes in one or just a few dishes.
Because there are many providers, many of whom make the same or similar things, competition is intense. The best, then, become very good.
The dishes are usually cheap. Singapore is known for the hawker center, and the government owns the facilities — originally they were a move towards centralizing the food stalls and ensuring hygiene. More recently they’re supported to preserve the Singapore food heritage and way of life for the hawker stalls themselves — land values are quite high where many of the hawker centers are located and likely would yield to other commercial uses if allowed to do so.
Which One Should You Visit?
The Newton Hawker Center is probably the most ‘touristy’ because of its Orchard Road location. As a result of location and clientele it tends to be expensive. It’s also the most accessible and most average.
And yet it almost doesn’t matter which hawker centers you go to, the food is still going to be good. Just watch where the locals eat, go to the stalls with the longest lines, and when it’s your turn ask what to order and take whatever they tell you (even if that means you are buying more from them than you need).
My favorite hawker center is the East Coast Lagoon Food Village. That’s not because it has the single best example of particular dishes. Remember, you’re going to do well at all of them. I like it best because of the experience. Most of the hawker centers are semi-covered industrial parks. This one is open air, on the beach. Going there gets you great food cheap. But unlike the other food centers, going here also makes for a lovely evening.
While I think East Coast Lagoon Village makes for the best all-around experience (most stalls are open only in the evening, and it really is a lovely evening), it can be worth checking the others out for their quite different experience. And there are dishes you’ll find elsewhere that won’t be at East Coast, which is best known for seafood.
How They Work
Seating is first come, first serve. I’d find an open seat before going to get your food otherwise you might find a yourself holding food with nowhere to sit.
Hawker stalls don’t give you napkins. You can bring your own, or else there are generally older folks who walk around selling packs of tissues. It’s customary to accept their offer if you do not have any. You’ll need them in any case.
Place something at your seat to save it. The traditional Singaporean method is to leave your tissues at your place, this is respected, although of course you can have a companion stay there while you go and order, too!
You don’t need there to be an entire table open — if there are open seats at an occupied table, the culture is to ask politely to sit there and it’s almost unthinkable that you’ll be denied.
If you haven’t researched in advance which stalls are best, just pick the one with the longest line — they’re all cheap, so the ones the locals are willing to wait for are essentially the ones that are the most expensive, people aren’t just spending money they are also spending time. Those are likely to be worth the wait. And in general ignore any stall where they’re trying to entice you to order something, where they’re calling out for your attention. The good ones don’t need to.
Usually once you get in line to order (cash only), most stalls will deliver your food to your table.
Since each stall specializes in a dish you usually don’t want more than one thing from each.
Here, for instance, is Fu Ming Cooked Food at the Red Hill Road center.
They are known for their fried carrot cake (Chai tow kway – which does not actually have carrots in it, it’s fried radish cake).
You’re going to buy a single dish at a stall and not a drink. There are stalls which specialize in those.
When you’re done you leave your dishes. You aren’t expected to bus your own table.