Many say the best way to get perspective on a country is through its taxi drivers. They are the all seeing eyes and ears of any nation. Though I’ve had my fair share of colourful cabbies (there was one who sang Waltzing Matilda and waxed lyrical about British colonisation throughout our half an hour journey), this post is not about them. This one’s about the humble hawker centre.
If you’ve never been to Singapore, hawker centres are a little piece of foodie heaven. Whatever your poison, be it seafood, pasta, chicken wings or noodles, they’ve got it! These are not quaint little restaurants with romantic ambiance. These places are laid out in a noisy, oily, rambunctious circle of little stores. Think of a grubbier high school canteen with better food and a slimmer chance of people chucking food at you (no promises). They even have the Antony Bourdain seal of approval.
Now hawker centres are no easy undertaking. A simple visit could result in you waddling away, stuffed to the gills with your body weight in edibles. So here’s a simple instructional to make sure you come out of your first experience with your BMI intact.
- There is strength in numbers.
This is definitely a time where the more the merrier. Hawker centres are a great place to eat family style where everyone gets to pick whatever catches their fancy. The more people you bring, the more options you have. A budget of $10-$12SGD per person should more than feed a group of 4 or more (if you get seafood, it could be a little more). Great time to make a couple of new friends at the hostel and take them over.
- The fanciest places doesn’t mean the best food
Yup, this is one those instances that make social media invaluable. The best hawker centres are not the ones that are the poshest or the ones that are raved about in guidebooks. Not that they are all wrong. Places like Newton Circus, Makkansutra at the Esplanade and Lau Pa Sat have good food; they’re just not very good on your wallet. It may seem like all food is the same but there are subtle differences and there are some places that are just better than. So ask the locals at your hostel or hotel or be a child of the 21st Century and just Google it!
- The Hawker Centre Guide to Singlish
Everyone in Singapore speaks English but we also have Singlish. It’s a combination of English, Malay and Dialect. It’s especially pronounced in hawker centres, where we’re too lazy to be proper. For example, “dah pao” means “to go”.
Where it gets the trickiest is trying to order coffee or tea. Yeah, you heard me. While we might not be known for our coffee or tea culture, the stuff is pretty good. Just like Miami has its colladas and café con leches, we have Kopi-O and Teh Peng.
- Teh/ Kopi – tea/coffee with condensed milk
- Teh-C/Kopi-C – tea/coffee with evaporated milk and sugar
- Teh-C-kosong/Kopi-C-kosong – tea/coffee, milk, no sugar (“kosong” means “empty” or “nothing” in Malay)
- Teh-O/Kopi-O – tea/coffee with sugar only
- Teh-O-kosong/Kopi-O-kosong – tea/coffee without milk or sugar
- Teh-peng/Kopi-peng – tea/coffee with ice
- Teh-siu-dai/Kopi-siu-dai – tea/coffee with milk and less sugar (“siu” is the Cantonese pronunciation of “subtract” or “less”)
- Teh-gah-dai/Kopi-gah-dai – tea/coffee with extra sugar (“gah” is the Cantonese pronunciation of “add” or “more”)
- Kopi-gau – strong coffee with condensed milk – (“gau” means “thick” in Hokkien)
- Kopi-poh – weak coffee with condensed milk (“poh” means “thin” in Hokkien)
Always get tissues from the aunties
While you are waiting for our food to arrive, chances are a little old lady will accost you to purchase packets of tissues. No, it’s not some great Singaporean scam. They are just trying to make a living. The tissues are typically invaluable as NO hawker centre EVER provides you with napkins. Don’t know why, they just don’t. So here’s your chance to not look like a Pollack painting after your meal. No matter how careful you are, someway, somehow, something will get on you.
Plus you can be part of the great Singaporean Kiasu Culture. “Kiasu” is Singlish for “hate to lose”. Black Friday purchasers have nothing on the average Singaporean. We hate to miss out on a deal. Without a hostess, we take matters into our own hands at a hawker centre. There is always the perfect table. Too close to the store barbecuing wings and you leave smelling like charcoal. Too far out and it takes forever for the storeowners to find you and deliver your food. So when Singaporeans find their perfect table, they use these tissue packets to “chope” or reserve them. Makes these aunties invaluable. Though I never really want to see them in a little black dress…
- Things to try
Food is very close to our heart. Tell a Singaporean that they can’t have any of their local delights again and they get the same expression as a fat kid when you tell them that all the French fries are gone. This is my perfect meal day.
Toa Payoh Little Paus
Paus are little fluffy buns of steam bread with fillings. These are handmade and are fresh everyday and are just delicious and worth the wait. Teochew Handmade Pao, Blk 127 Toa Payoh Lorong 1, #02-02
Roti Prata with Curry
It’s a thin grilled bread made flakey with ghee and much skilled flipping and folding. They come in savory and sweet kinds. Casurina Curry, 126 Casurina Road, off Upper Thomson Road
You can’t leave Singapore without trying this. Hainanese Chicken Rice is Singapore’s signature dish. Unlike the Singapore Sling, locals actually love this. It’s tender chicken, cooked to perfection then plunged into iced water so that the fat is gelatinous. It’s served with garlic-ginger chili and gooey dark soy sauce. I like the one with the crispy skin personally. Kampong Chicken Rice, 255 Upper Thomson Road
A plate of seafood deliciousness. Grilled firm stingray covered with spicy sambal, it’s one of Singapore’s signature dishes. I officially miss the most when I am away. Chomp Chomp Hai Wei Yuan Seafood Barbecue, 20 Kensington Park Road
Maxwell Center Sweet Potato Puffs
A deep-fried sweet, chewy dough that is wrapped about different fillings that ranges from coconut to peanuts. Your arteries are going to hate you but your tummy will be oh so happy. Fried Sweet Potato Dumpling, Stall 76, Maxwell Road Food Centre, 1 Kadayanallur St
All this talk of food is making me hungry, I’m off to a hawker centre 🙂 Let us know if the game plan helps!