Founded as a British trading colony in 1819, the city-state of Singapore has developed into one of the most prosperous metropolises and one of the busiest ports in Southeast Asia. Due to its notoriously strict legal system, it has also developed a reputation for bland sterility and predictability (the author William Gibson famously referred to it as “Disneyland with the death penalty”). One aspect of Singaporean culture that is decidedly not bland, however, is its food, and one of the best and most memorable ways to sample the regional cuisine is by visiting one of its many legendary, bustling hawker centers.
One of the main appeals for budget-minded tourists of visiting Singapore’s hawkers is simple: it’s cheap. The city is at once comparatively affluent and densely populated, and these two features combine to render the cost of living (and, needless to say, visiting) relatively high compared to other Asian destinations. One of the ways that residents and visitors attempt to rein in their bottom lines is to take advantage of the delicious fare available in hawker centers in nearly all of Singapore’s disparate districts, typically procurable for as little as five dollars a bowl. While “authentic” fare is widely available, and many different culinary cultures are duly represented, the most popular fare served in hawker centers is noteworthy for its heavy use of chili, fermented shrimp paste and other exotic condiments, and, of course, lots and lots of noodles. The latter are served not only in soups, but also “dry”, or tossed with chili and spices in one dish, with the soup served separately.
Your watchword for dining etiquette at hawker centers is self-service, but its advisable in some centers to reserve your table upon arrival before selecting your meal. Take care to steer clear of the more aggressive restaurateurs, barking loudly in search of customers. The better establishments don’t need to advertise.