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It’s noon, we are starving and we have 45 minutes before we need to be back for an appointment. We noticed a sign for the Market Street Food Center (at the junction of Market Street and Malacca Street). We walk up the stairs, through the car park to a door that says food court. Once through the door, we suddenly experience a wave of smells and warmth and people. There are tons of table and food stalls. Some stalls have long lines. Some stalls have even longer lines. We have arrived.
But First an introduction to Hawker Center Etiquette.
In Hawker Centers, there are tables for eating either in the middle of the stalls or around the stalls. It is open seating and they fill up fast. One of the first things you do when you arrive is to find a seat. This can look easy. It’s not. When you look around, you’ll see what looks like an empty table BUT there will be tissue packets or business cards on the table. That means those seats are taken. This is called CHOPE. If there are seats left, you are welcome to put your own tissue packet down to reserve your seat. Oh, and, there are no napkins. That’s why everyone brings tissues–to CHOPE and to use.
City Center Hawker Center
City Center is located downtown and is very crowded during lunch time. It serves office workers and executives. Our first task was to find a seat for three people–no easy matter. We were finally successful and then turned to deciding what to eat among the dozens of stalls. One trick of the trade–if you have time–find the stall with the longest queue. That is the most popular stall of the moment and is likely to yield a delightful experience. In this case the Curry Rice Stall had the longest line. We were in a hurry, so were not able to sample that dish. Curry Rice is very popular right now and we saw the longest queues for those stalls at a number of hawker centers.
We ordered from the Tiong Bahru Roaster Pig Specialist. We had four dishes: roasted duck with noodles, roast pork with rice, roast pork wonton noodles and a side order of Chinese broccoli. All for $13.50. Did I forget to tell you that the food in hawker centers is cheap? Each of the dishes came with soup. And, there are fruit and drink stalls that sell sugar cane and fresh squeezed fruit juices to go with your meal. The food was tasty–the duck was well cooked, though covered in a brown, oyster sauce which was okay. The roast pork was just the right amount if sweetness and “chardness.” The veggieswas drowned in sauce which was a little salty. Even with that, it was a satisfying meal and we were on our way in time for our next stop.
Ask a group of Singaporeans about their favorite dish or place to eat and you are likely to start a long and spirited debate about the best Hawker Center, the best place for chicken rice, chilly crab, Char Kway Teow. Debating about food is the national sport in Singapore, second only to traveling all over the island for the best [name your dish]. Upon your first meeting with someone from Singapore, don’t be surprised if one of the first comments is, “Have you eaten?” Followed closely by “Do you take Spicy?”
The people of Singapore take their food seriously! And for good reason–its among the best in the world. Just ask Anthony Bourdain or Gordon Ramsey or Andrew Zimmerman ……. or me!
Singapore is an island nation within striking distance of Malaysia and Indonesia and is the gateway to most of Asia. It has an extremely diverse population-Indian, Chinese, Peranakan, Malay, Eurasian and, now, second and third generation Singaporeans. The food has been influenced by all of these cultures into an exquisitely and endlessly evolving cuisine.
There are a lot of very good restaurants in Singapore. Every cuisine and every fusion possibility can be found in the country. I have eaten in many restaurants, but my favorite place has always been Hawker Centers–outdoor food courts found all over the place from city center to the residential neighborhoods. Hawker centers can have a handful of stalls or up to 100. Each stall has their own specialty. Most of the stalls specialize in a certain dish or a certain kind of food. Since there are many stalls, there are endless varieties of meals to select. Some hawker centers are well-known to tourists, while others are located deep within the neighborhoods. All are regulated and rated for food safety by the government.
At lunch with some friends, I recently asked people about their favorite Hawker Centers. During the ensuing heated conversation, I made a list of the places that I wanted to go: the Old Airport Road, Maxwell Food Center, Bedok, Amoy Street, Seah Im and several others. And so, I eat my way through the week.
Tomorrow we’ll start a tour of the Hawker Centers I visited.