In Singapore, food courts and hawker centers are where the locals eat. They’re where you go to get good food cheap.

A food court is just what it sounds like – a collection of food stalls located inside a mall or shopping center. A hawker center is the grandfather of the food court – a collection of outdoor food stalls (and often vendors selling dry goods, bath items, etc.).

A true hawker center, though, is less of a thing and more of an experience. At many of them, you begin by sitting at a table and waiting for someone – usually an older woman, seems like – to come take your drink order. You tell her what you want, and she – turning but not moving toward her stall – relays your order to some unseen person. Shouts it really. Screams it. Across ten tables and fifty people. Hawker center vendors have projectile voices. Voices that hit you just at the base of your skull.

After you place your drink order, you walk to the stall of your choice and order your food. Many dishes emphasise animal extremities. Feet and tenticles are big. Balls are big too – pork balls, prawn balls, cuttlefish balls.

The food experience can be hit and miss. Sometimes it’s user error, sometimes it’s bad luck, and sometimes it’s just bad. The other day, in the food court at work, I had a piece of fish that tasted like paint thinner. It was the first time here that I ordered, then aborted my lunch. I switched to chicken rice – one of Singapore’s signature dishes (more on those later).

Last night, on the other hand, (my colleague) Tracy and I walked to the hawker center around the corner, and she had some of the best congee I’ve ever tasted. I had something called “oysters and eggs”, which was basically, well, oysters and eggs. All for about US $10. This was dinner, although both dishes would have qualified just as well as breakfast. Congee – a slow-cooked thin rice porridge, usually with meat or seafood mixed in – in particular is a traditional Chinese breakfast.

According to the taxi driver I talked to today, hawker centers used to line the streets and alleyways of Singapore. Now they’ve been “cleaned up” and relegated (zoned) to specific permanent spaces. They’re regulated and inspected, and therefore a lot cleaner than they used to be.

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