What's a Hawker?

Navigating around the hawker center

When talking about Singapore's local cheap and good eats, you will definitely hear of food courts and hawker centres. It is well-known that locals dine out most of the time in this busy metropolitan city. If you happen to be one of those who prefer home-cooking, you should definitely experience eating out at a hawker centre - just like the locals do!

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When talking about Singapore's local cheap and good eats, you will definitely hear of food courts and hawker centres. It is well-known that locals dine out most of the time in this busy metropolitan city. If you happen to be one of those who prefer home-cooking, you should definitely experience eating out at a hawker centre - just like the locals do!

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What does 'Hawker Centre' mean?

A hawker centre is, as its name implies, a facility where many food stalls are situated, sometimes including street vendors. In the early days, the government was worried about the hygiene of many of these street hawkers. By moving them to one location and improving the conditions, the concept of the 'hawker centre' was born. Today, the hawker centre is an integral part of the Singaporean way of life. Besides being a place where food is sold, hawker centres have also become a gathering point for people from all walks of life, at the same time, playing a social role in developing the community.

Hawker Stall

Hawker centres are a multi-ethnic phenomenon unique to Singapore where you can enjoy a mind-boggling variety of cuisine from various countries. If you are one to avoid sharing tables with strangers, this might be a great opportunity to grab a seat on one of those distinct round tables and interact with the locals! There are both indoor and outdoor seats, but the latter is recommended if you want to have an authentic hawker experience. It might be a tad warm in the daytime, however, when night falls, the combination of a cold beer and local hawker fare under the stars is absolutely delightful!

Hawker Stall
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Hawker Centre Etiquette

1. 'Chope' your seat

Hold your knives! To 'chope' a seat in the local context means to reserve one. During peak periods such as lunch and dinner, hawker centres can get rather busy and it might be difficult to find empty seats. It is always recommended to secure a seat in advance before ordering your food. Do what the locals do - place a packet of tissue on the table of the corresponding seat you would like to reserve. Be sure to leave a packet for every person! It is also common to share available seats at each table, so feel free to ask around if you can’t find any vacant tables for you or your group.

Hawker Stall
- Hawker Point -
'Is this seat available?'
'Is this seat available?'

As mentioned, it is common to share seats at a table in a hawker centre. If you’re at a table with vacant seats, at some point you will definitely be asked, 'Is this seat available?'

At times like this, reply with 'Sure! Go ahead.' or if you would like to try your hand at colloquial Singaporean English (otherwise known affectionately as Singlish), try saying 'Can! Can sit! Okay (lah)!'.

2. Ordering food

Orders can be communicated with gestures. Food menus are usually indicated at the storefront and pictures of the dishes tend to be available as well. Making an order is as easy as pointing to the picture! At this point, you will be asked, 'Having here? Take away?'. Sometimes, you might even hear the phrase 'da bao', which means take away in the local slang.
Up next would be the payment for your order. Most hawker dishes cost around $5 per item. As $50 bills tend to be avoided for small individual orders, it is a good idea to prepare $5 bills, $10 bills, and coins in advance. Credit cards cannot be used, although there is a growing trend for QR code payments being accepted for only local banks. Occasionally, there are food stalls that will deliver your order to the table. If so, the payment could be made then instead. At times like this, it would help to take note of your table number beforehand, usually indicated right in the middle or at a corner of the table surface.

Hawker Stall

3. Self-service

Chopsticks, soup spoons, forks and spoons etc. are usually placed near the cash register. While waiting for your food, you can help yourself to the cutlery you need. Stainless steel cutlery is for eating in, and plastic ones for taking away. A mix of sauces and condiments such as pepper, soy sauce and chilli are usually available, so feel free to help yourself to them.

Hawker Stall
Hawker Stall

4. After your meal

When you are done with your meal, don't forget to return your tray. Previously, there will be cleaner who will clear the tables - which was an impressive sight to witness in Singapore's hawker centres. However, due to the push for better hygiene islandwide, the government has encouraged us to return our trays and dishes to the designated collection points. From September 2021 onwards, this practice will become mandatory to all diners dining at the hawker centres. There will be a penalty issued to those who leave their trays, dishes and items like tissues, straws, cans and litters. So please make sure that nothing is on the table after your meal!
Additionally, do note that the return/collection corner is divided into "Halal" and "Non-Halal". Food offered at Halal stores (Malay and Indian) should be returned to the "Halal" shelves.

Hawker Stall

Be careful of touting and theft

There are people who go around selling tissue packets in hawker centres. Feel free to refuse if you do not require them. Also, never leave your personal baggage at your seat when placing an order or when using the toilet. Always carry your valuables wherever you go.

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Tips for choosing a food stall

How to pick a good stall from the seemingly endless choices?
Here are some tips to identify the better selections.

1. Food stall with a queue

It goes without saying that if there is a long queue, the food must be good. You should be able to discover local delights that are worthy of Singaporeans’ taste buds!

Hawker Stall

2. Magazine clippings

Many food stalls that have been interviewed by magazines or TV programmes tend to display clippings or photos on the storefront. This is often an indication of the tastiness of the dishes and popularity of the stall. Sometimes, there are stalls that boast of photos taken with celebrities, prime ministers or even presidents. Those might be worthy to check out.

3. Food stalls with A or B rating

The hygiene of every food stall in the hawker centre is inspected twice a year by an official of the National Environment Agency and given a rating from A to D annually (A being the best). Be sure to check the prominent government-approved labels on the storefront which is a good indicator of its cleanliness. Most establishments with A or B ratings are usually very safe. For those who are concerned with hygiene, try to avoid C ratings or places that do not display the labels.

Hawker Stall
- Hawker Point -
Muslims and the Halal mark

Halal foods refer to foods that Muslims may eat, and that which adheres to Islamic law. These are indicated with the Halal mark. 'Halal' is the Arabic word for 'lawful' or 'permitted'. In Singapore, about 15% of the population is Muslim. When they eat out, the 'Halal mark' is an important criterion for choosing their food. The world's population of Muslims is currently said to be about 1.6 billion people, which makes up about 23% of the total population. This number is expected to further increase. The Halal mark has been increasingly introduced by companies in Europe, the United States, China and South Korea, and is likely to be given more attention in the future.

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Customise your noodles

There are various types of noodles in Singapore. When ordering noodle dishes at a hawker centre, you will often be asked, 'Which noodles would you like?'. While samples of the noodles are sometimes placed at the counter for easy reference, it is always good to know your noodles beforehand so that you can order like a pro!

Below is a handy guide to some examples of the noodle varieties you might find in Singapore.

Ingredient Very Thin Thin Wide Very Wide
Wheat flour
Mee Kia Yi Mian Mee Pok
Wheat flour
Mee Sua You Mian Ban Mian Mee Hoon Kueh
Rice flour
(Rice Vermicelli)
Mee Hoon
Mee Hoon
Lao Shu Fen
Kway Teow Hor Fun

Wheat flour(with lye water)

This refers to the yellow Chinese noodles similar to ramen. It has a distinctive taste.

Mee Kia
Yi Mian
Mee Pok

Noodles with lye water are bitter?!

While lye water adds softness and elasticity to wheat flour noodles, it may sometimes cause bitterness or a peculiar numbness on the tongue. Do be careful! If you add these noodles to a light-flavoured soup, there is a possibility that you might regret the bitter aftertaste...

Wheat flour(without lye water)

This refers to white wheat-flavoured noodles like udon and somen.

Mee Sua
Ban Mian
Mee Hoon Kueh

Rice flour

This refers to smooth noodles made from rice flour. It is generally light and easy to eat.

Mee Hoon
Lao Shu Fen
Hor Fun
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Customise your drink

'Kopi' and 'Teh' is coffee and tea in Malay. The drinks are usually sweet if mixed with condensed milk and they are customisable based on how sweet you like it.

Flowchart Kopi / Teh Flowchart Kopi / Teh
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Toilets in Singapore

In restaurants, toilets are free-of-charge most of the time. However, in hawker centres, there is usually a fee of 20 cents upon entry. Do take note that there may not be toilets in hawker centres in local residential areas away from tourist spots. Also, toilet paper is often not provided in the cubicles, so it might be wise to bring your own or purchase them beforehand.

Restroom Entrance

Toilets in commercial buildings or the metro (MRT) stations are usually free-of-charge and generally cleaner. Try looking for those locations if you are slightly more particular.

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