A visit to Singapore isn’t complete unless you visit one of the city’s world-famous hawker centres. Regardless of which centre you choose, there’s always an overwhelming amount of stalls to choose from. There’s also some etiquette that’s not always obvious to first-timers, so it’s best to know the ins and outs of hawker centre etiquette before starting your culinary food tour.
Here’s the top five tips on how to master the hawker centre like a local.
Reserving a seat
First things first, you need to find a table! You may be wandering around wondering why empty tables have items such as tissue packets, umbrellas, or even business cards on them. This practice is called “chope” and it means these seats are reserved.
Before you queue up to your hawker stall of choice, make sure to “chope” your table so you have a place to sit afterwards.
Navigating the types of hawker stalls
Most hawker stalls focus on a specific dish or a type of cuisine. Some stalls just do one dish (like Hainanese chicken rice), while some might serve an array of items from a cuisine, such as Japanese food. None of the food stalls will include drinks – these are sold separately at various drink stalls.
Choosing the right hawker stall
Hawker centres can be huge and with so many stalls to choose from it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. If you’re unsure what to try and want to try the best option without doing any prior research, find the stall with the longest queue. A long queue indicates that stall is famous, or serving something really good. Don’t forget to bring cash, either: small bills and coins are always appreciated.
Get ready for “self-serve” stalls
Many hawker stalls are self-service – meaning you order, wait for your dish, and then take it to your table. However, some stalls will bring your order to where you are sitting and expect payment at your table. This is another reason why it’s useful to chope your table first – you can take note of your table number and direct the staff where to deliver your order.
Ordering tea or coffee
If you’d like to partake in some teh (tea with condensed milk and sugar) or kopi (coffee with condensed milk and sugar), feel free to order some variations to really feel local. Some common variations include:
Teh “O” / Kopi “O”: No milk, with sugar
Teh “C” / Kopi “C”: Evaporated milk and sugar
Teh “O Kosong” / Kopi “O Kosong”: Black (no milk or sugar)
Teh “Peng” / Kopi “Peng”: With ice
Want to know where to go? Try one of these hawker centres
Hong Lim Food Centre & Market – a solid hawker centre that’s easily accessible in Chinatown. Popular stalls include Outram Park Fried Kway Teow Mee and Tai Wah Pork Noodle. Chomp Chomp Food Centre – a bit out of the way, but a favourite amongst locals. They’re known for satay and sambal stingray.
Tiong Bahru Food Market & Hawker Centre – this centre is special because it was the first modern market to be built in a housing area. Today, it still boasts many famous stalls that serve local favourites such as chwee kueh (steamed rice flour cakes topped with fried preserved radish or turnip) or char siew (roasted meats.)