Singapore Hawker Centre 101

It's a fact: Singapore is one of the most expensive cities in the world.  But that doesn't mean that visiting this city-state has to totally break the bank.  It's not hard to find clean, safe, reasonably priced hotels, and on the food front, since everyone is a foodie, you can find good, cheap eats.

The "hawker centre" is one main way.  This is essentially a massive food court, often near or part of larger shopping complexes.  Here you can find rows and rows of stalls specializing in a particular dish or cuisine-style.  Due to the informal, often self-service nature, there are some amazing food deals to be had.  But on the flip side, the whole experience can be overwhelming.  From the wealth of selection, to the sensory overload, to trying to figure out which stalls are the better stalls...a newbie can easily become paralyzed.  

While I'm no expert, let me layout a few things that I, as a relative hawker centre newbie myself, have figured out.

 

Pre-Visit

Things can get crowded during peaks times, so I suggest avoiding them.  If you find the tables are filling up, and you can't just come back at a different time, then you need to start with how you will deal with first come first serve seating.  Many blogs talk about the practice of seat-choping, that is the reserving of seats via an innocuous item like a pack of tissues or a jacket or umbrella.  However, more and more, this practice is falling out of favor.  In fact, just recently two hawker centres (Our Tampines Hub and Tiong Bahru Market) have introduced rules/recommendation to share tables and signage: "Don't Chope Seats".  I've never hit a popular market during peak times and thus have never actually seat-choped and in any event it looks like a cultural shift is brewing.

However another pre-visit consideration is still firmly intact.  With only a rare exception, hawker centres are cash only.  This extends to the toilets and retirees peddling tissue packs, both of which you shouldn't hesitate to use.  The toilets are clean and maintained, and there are never any napkins, paper towels, or tissues to be found.

 

On Site

Maxwell Road Food Centre

This stall, in particular, usually has lines around the corner and completely out the back entrance of the hawker centre.

 

Selecting the right stall (or stalls) is going to be the first thing to tackle.  Unless you have some good inside information and you are visiting for a particular vendor, you are going to want to take a quick lap around and take in your choices.  For a newbie with no specific knowledge, besides finding the kind of cuisine you want to eat, the other main factor to look for is what other people are doing.  If you see a line then that is usually a good sign.  If you see disinterested attendees or attendees trying to persuade you to visit, then you should avoid that stall.  Technically, the touting is illegal, but don't bother complaining to any authorities, just know that the best places are not harassing you to visit.  Take your business elsewhere.

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Chinatown Food Court

Liao Fan's Michelin starred food stall

 

One quick note:  There are drink stalls and food stalls.  Don't expect a one-stop shop at a hawker centre.  If you want a drink, a meal, and a sweet treat to finish off, then you'll probably need to hit three stalls.

There was a day when stalls had "designated" seats near their stalls and/or the tables were all numbered and you would start by seat-choping, noting the table number, then visiting a vendor, ordering and they would bring you the food.  In my experience, this doesn't happen anymore.  I've just made the assumption that everything is self-service.  You find the vendor and order and then wait for your order to be called, then you take that tray to a seat yourself.  This allows the vendors to handle more orders with less staff.  Also, coupled with the fading practice of seat-choping, you wouldn't have that table number in the first place.  Even the highly regarded Liao Fan is self-service.

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Telok Ayer Market

(also known as Lau Pa Sat) this is one of a few 24 hr food markets

 

Enjoy!

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Bedok Hawker Centre

 

Rich & hearty duck noodle dish.

 
 

Downsides

OK...sure... there are a few...
The main issue I have is that most hawker centres are open air or open-ish air so the heat can be a serious deterent.  Often coupled with a lack of good air flow, this is my main concern when it comes to the overall enjoyment.

Also, as mentioned previously, you should definitely buy a packet of tissues from the little retirees because messes are inevitable.  But, you don't have to bus your table and you can hit that clean maintained restroom too!

 

The above info is based on our Foodscape Finds experiences at the following (MRT accessible) hawker centres.
Here's a brief rundown on some specific details:

  • Chinatown Food Court - expansive, old-school, and houses the Michelin starred Liao Fan
  • Maxwell Road Food Centre - not as confusing as it's a set of neat rows, but super busy
  • Telok Ayer Market (aka Lau Pa Sat) - open and inviting, 24hr, becomes a satay grille center after 7pm
  • Bedok Hawker Centre - newer, breezy, not as touristy since it's several MRT stops outside of the main city core
  • Tiong Bahru Market - in an old, historically Chinese part of the city that sees less tourists
  • Newton Food Centre - touristy and you might have to dodge touts
  • East Coast Food Village - not MRT convenient, but oceanfront with a beach vibe

So basically, don't be afraid to dive into the overly stimulating experience that is a Singapore hawker centre.  The food is always reasonably priced (as compared to a nice sit down restaurant) and the quality can often be stellar.  Sure there maybe be even other ways to find reasonably priced food...but that is for another post perhaps!