Written by and photographs provided by Amanda Jaffe
A new column devoted to the things that make Singapore uniquely Singaporean. In an issue devoted to the concept of home. What better way to bring the two together than taking a few moments to reflect on the hawker center? (Bear with me.) Singapore’s Prime Minister has described hawker centers as Singapore’s community dining room. Respectfully, I prefer to think of them as Singapore’s community eat-in kitchen. When you eat in a dining room, you’ve effectively removed yourself from the kitchen. When you eat in a hawker center, you literally are surrounded by them.
Singapore is an amazingly innovative nation. It is, in so many ways, the very essence of modernity. But when Singapore gets hungry, it frequently heads to un-airconditioned, open-air hawker centers to sit at formica tables and eat amazing food out of plastic bowls. That’s hawker culture.
Singapore’s hawkers predate its hawker centers. As far back as the mid-1800s, hawkers sold their food on Singapore’s streets, often to the exasperation of government officials. As a source of cheap food on the go, however, Singapore’s hawkers couldn’t be beat. With Singapore’s independence, hawker centers came about as part of the Singapore River cleanup in the 1970s and 1980s. Clustering licensed hawkers in centers with reliable infrastructure promoted food hygiene. Locating those centers predominantly in or near HDB blocks provided hawkers with a ready supply of hungry customers and gave HDB residents ready access to affordable cooked food. Whether Singapore’s government realized it or not, the seeds of hawker culture were planted.
Walk into any hawker center and you’ll find a microcosm of multicultural Singapore. The Amoy Food Center in Chinatown may be your go-to place for biryani, while the Tekka Center in Little India may have your favorite Hainanese chicken rice. If you want to have some nasi lemak with either of those, you can. And, if you bus your dishes at the end of your meal, no matter which center, you’ll be asked to return your tray to the appropriate “halal” or “non-halal” cart. Hawker culture!
Hawker centers are multigenerational. If you order char kway teow from your favorite hawker stall, there’s an excellent chance that your food will be prepared by a second- or third-generation hawker. There’s also an excellent chance they’ll be using their grandmother’s recipe.
Hawker centers are inherently communal. How many restaurants can you name where you go to the kitchen and order from the chef? Tables are shared, and they turn over quickly. As one party leaves their seats, another can often be found hovering nearby, ready to fill them. Small acts of thoughtfulness, perhaps a “hi,” or a “thank you,” often occur in the transition. The diners are as multicultural as the food they’re consuming, and they’re all consuming it together.
Hawker food also fosters a common conversation. Ask any Singaporean which hawker has the best [insert food item of your choice]. You’ll get an opinion. To which you’ll likely respond with an opinion of your own. I’ve barely lived here six months, and I’ve already had earnest conversations about which hawker has the best pohpia, the best coconut pancake, the best prawn mee. Did you hear about the food courier who was sacked after he falsely claimed to deliver char kway teow from one hawker stall when it actually came from another? He was found out when a customer complained to the stall owner that it wasn’t up to his usual standard. Hawker culture! (It was in the newspaper.)
The food is good. Of the fifty Singapore restaurants that made the Michelin Bib Gourmand list in 2018, over half were hawker stalls. Not the same as a Michelin Star (although there are hawker stalls who have earned those too), but I dare you to find me a Michelin Starred restaurant that will sell you life-changing fried Hokkien prawn mee for under $5.00.
They can call on your strategic strengths. Faced with a plethora of food options, you may opt (as many Singaporeans do) for the stall with the longest queue. Or you may opt (as I often do) to walk the stalls. Then there’s chope-ing., the very Singaporean practice of reserving tables by placing an object (often a very Singaporean packet of tissues) at each seat. Articles – indeed, scholarly articles – have been written on the practice and psychology of chope-ing. I’ve yet to bring myself to do it. Wandering around a hawker center with a tray of hot food looking for an empty seat can be enervating, but it also can lead you to unexpected places. I’ll not soon forget the evening in the Geylang Serai hawker center during Ramadan, when my husband and I found ourselves in that situation. Many thanks to the two elderly Malay women, covered head to toe, who beckoned us to share their table and offered us water and ice. We didn’t share a language, but we shared a meal and space – that’s hawker culture.
Hawker centers are not perfect. As a rule, they’re un-airconditioned in a country on the front lines of global warming. If you can’t tell if you’re sweating because of the ambient temperature or the slow burn from your spicy Mee Sua, that’s hawker culture (and the answer is “probably both.”) You may feel compelled to keep a wary eye on roving birds casting a hungry eye on your plate. (Kudos, by the way, to the Chinatown Complex Food Center, which recently installed a 1,000 meter bird net as part of its renovations.) And the “BYO napkin/serviette” thing? It eludes me. (Just remember — if you see a packet of tissues on a table, think chope-ing, not “free napkins!”)
As you may know, Singapore has submitted a nomination to have hawker culture inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. UNESCO has yet to call me, but I’m standing by, ready to second that nomination if they do.
In addition to exploring Singapore for Bamboo Telegraph, Amanda Jaffe writes about her travel adventures on her blog, Rambling Llama (www.ramblingllama.com).