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The Strategic Approach to Hawker Food in Singapore

Singapore has always been known for a quick stopover or shopping spree en route to somewhere else, but in recent years it’s become something of a global food mecca. Thanks to promotion from TV food gurus like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern, as well as the city-state’s recent 'Singapore Takeout' campaign, visitors are actually venturing out of the air-conditioned malls and luxury hotels to explore its famous open-air hawker centres.

Owing to its long history as a cross-cultural trading post, the tiny island not only features excellent examples of Chinese, Indian and Malay cuisine in their purest forms, but these disparate threads have combined to create uniquely Singaporean dishes (and flavours) that are virtually impossible to replicate anywhere else in the world.

In my non-scientific opinion, Singapore probably leads the world in most eateries per capita (and per square metre). From open-air hawker centres (which are monitored by the government to ensure cleanliness and sanitary kitchen practices), to ubiquitous mall foodcourts, to Western chains to 5-star celebrity chef-helmed restaurants, food is never far from sight here. People joke that the national pastimes are eating and shopping. It’s actually kind of true.

One need not walk further than the nearest shopping mall to find tasty local snacks like pork buns or bubble tea, but for the true hawker experience it’s best to consult the locals. From cab drivers to hotel concierges, everyone will have their own vociferous opinion. There is honestly no better way to engage with the locals than to get them talking about food!

When I first arrived I made the mistake of asking people what their favourite hawker centre was; I quickly learned that what really matters is the individual hawker stall within the centre. Each numbered stall will generally ply only a single dish (or a few variations on that dish), creating hyper-specialisation rarely found outside Southeast Asia. The men and women who cook these dishes have often spent decades perfecting their technique and identifying just the right ingredients; I find it’s almost as much fun watching some of these masters at work as eating their culinary creations. Equally amazing is the fact that most hawker dishes are both made-to-order and ridiculously cheap, usually costing between just $1.50-$4 (S$2-$5), depending on size and ingredients. 

If you’re keen to research the best dishes and individual stalls before arriving in Singapore, I can heartily recommend two resources in particular. For starters, the blog IeatIshootIpost describes and rates hundreds of hawker dishes on the island. It’s a great primer on the history of Singaporean food, and the accompanying photography is nothing short of mouth-watering.

Another great resource is the Makansutra guide, which is Singapore’s answer to the Good Food Guide for hawker dishes. Organized by both dish and location, each stall receives a rating of up to three full chopsticks ('Die Die Must Try!'). The book is available at local bookstores (and occasionally on Amazon), but has also spawned a decent website with passionate discussion forums.

Two important bits of hawker centre etiquette: 1) Tables can be reserved with nothing more than a packet of tissues. This practice is called 'choping', and it’s completely sacrosanct. If an empty table has nothing but a packet of tissues on top, don’t even think about sitting down! 2) If you get to a hawker centre and feel overwhelmed, just join the longest line. Singaporeans have no problem waiting for a good thing, so chances are that will be the best dish on offer.

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Tips by

Deal Expert, Singapore
Thursday, April 5, 2012
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Kate McFarlane