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20 Things to Know About Hawker Centres in Singapore

Geek, gamer, writer, graphic artist. Ced's favorite shows and adventures are those that allow him to enjoy the world from his bedroom.

A complete guide to enjoying hawker culture and food in Singapore.

A complete guide to enjoying hawker culture and food in Singapore.

A Relic That Withstood the Test of Time

Hawker centres, spelled the British way, are an oddity in ultramodern Singapore.

They are institutions from the past century, mostly built from the 1960s to the 1980s when rapid urbanization created the need for large-scale, regulated eating complexes able to cater to hundreds of diners at any one time.

In the 1990s, newer, air-conditioned “food courts” in shopping centres and the like threatened their existence. Like wet markets (raw food bazaars), Singaporean hawker centres look to be replaced by more comfortable and modern eateries. Soon to be a relic of the past too.

Jump forth to the 2020s, hawker centres continue to exist in Singapore and incredibly, are as popular as ever. Singaporean hawker culture was even added to the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in December 2020. A testimony to their enduring popularity and cultural importance.

If you’re visiting Singapore, a meal at any of these institutions is a must.

It’s a dining experience that might not immediately appeal, especially if you’re visiting the Lion City for its ultramodern, posh side. However, a little patience and knowing what to expect beforehand will guarantee a yummy adventure. One that’s incidentally, also highly affordable and atmospheric.

You might even end up loving these food markets more than Singapore’s glitzy, chic, and expensive attractions.

Guide to Hawker Centre Dining in Singapore

  1. Dress Casually When Visiting a Hawker Centre.
  2. Nowadays, Most Hawker Centre Stalls Are Self-service.
  3. Bringing a Packet of Tissue Paper or Wet Wipes Is a “Must.”
  4. At Peak Hours, You Might Need to Share Tables.
  5. Don’t Expect All Stalls to Be Opened, and Check Whether the Hawker Centre Is Operating Before Going.
  6. Be Ready to Wait If You’re Ordering From Popular Stalls.
  7. Since 2021, You Must Return Your Trays and Bowls After Eating, or Risk a Fine.
  8. Use Utensils Provided by the Stall You Purchased From.
  9. Many Hawker Centre Stalls Now Offer Cashless Payment Options.
  10. Unless You’re Ordering Chinese Restaurant Style Dishes, a Meal for One Rarely Costs More Than SGD 10/-.
  11. Be Sure to Check Prices Beforehand If They Aren’t Clearly Stated.
  12. Smoking Is Not Permitted.
  13. Touting Is Not Permitted at Singaporean Hawker Centres Too.
  14. Alcohol, I.E., Beer Is Not Permitted to Be Sold After 2230 Hours.
  15. Many Hawker Centre Dishes Offer “Customization” Options.
  16. Hawker Centre Beverages Can Be an Adventure!
  17. You Can Bring Your Own Food to a Hawker Centre. But …
  18. Singapore Hawker Food Aren’t Health Food. But There Are Aggressive Efforts to Encourage Healthier Cooking.
  19. Some Larger Hawker Centres Have Entire Floors Dedicated to Shops.
  20. Kopitiams Are Not Hawker Centres, They Are Miniature Versions Of.

Appendix A: Must-try Hawker Food in Singapore

Appendix B: The Most Convenient Hawker Centres in Singapore for Visitors

Lunch crowd at a popular hawker centre in the east of Singapore.

Lunch crowd at a popular hawker centre in the east of Singapore.

1. Dress Casually When Visiting a Hawker Centre.

Singaporean hawker centres are not air-conditioned. During peak hours, many can be smoky, noisy, and warm too. To ensure the best experience, dress casually when visiting any; shorts, bermudas, and sleeveless tops are fine. This is especially important if you have yet to acclimatize to Singapore’s extremely humid tropical climate.

2. Nowadays, Most Hawker Centre Stalls Are Self-service.

In the 70s and 80s, many hawkers will acknowledge your order and then serve you at your table after your food is prepared. With the exception of Chinese Zi Char (see tip 11) stalls and some hotpot vendors, this rarely happens nowadays. You are expected to bring your own purchases to your table.

Note though that some stall assistants might still offer to serve you if there’s no crowd. In such cases, you’d need to tell them the number of the table you’re sitting at.

The practice of “choping” is not without its critics in Singapore. However, there is no other easy way to reserve a seat. You could, of course, also use an umbrella, a disposable water bottle, etc.

The practice of “choping” is not without its critics in Singapore. However, there is no other easy way to reserve a seat. You could, of course, also use an umbrella, a disposable water bottle, etc.

3. Bringing a Packet of Tissue Paper or Wet Wipes Is a “Must.”

This is not only for cleaning yourself after dining. It is also to reserve your seat or table when ordering from stalls.

The practice is known locally as choping. (Pronounced as ch-yee-o-ping) It is an absolute must during busy hours, when you’re dining alone, or if you’re unwilling to leave your bags unattended.

4. At Peak Hours, You Might Need to Share Tables.

This is only to be expected of any public food market. If you’re averse to doing so, try to visit slightly before typical dining hours.

A typical closing notice. Information can also be found online.

A typical closing notice. Information can also be found online.

5. Don’t Expect All Stalls to Be Opened, and Check Whether the Hawker Centre Is Operating Before Going.

A variety of economic reasons forbid hawker stalls from operating 24/7. Some are also open only in the morning, or during evening hours.

On weekdays, some stalls shut down during the afternoon too.

More importantly, hawker centres are regularly closed for days to facilitate extensive cleaning. To avoid disappointment, check this schedule by the National Environment Agency before visiting any.

Late afternoon queue at a popular chicken rice stall at Maxwell Food Centre. This stall is regarded as one of the best chicken rice in Singapore.

Late afternoon queue at a popular chicken rice stall at Maxwell Food Centre. This stall is regarded as one of the best chicken rice in Singapore.

Believe it, or not, many Singaporeans will not balk at the thought of queuing for an hour for a bowl of noodles from a popular hawker stall. In local media, there are often also reports of Singaporeans waiting for hours to buy from legendary stalls that are closing for good.

Such stories are sometimes exaggerated. However, they are not completely untrue too. For travelers, what this means is that you must be prepared to wait especially if you are buying from popular stalls; half an hour is considered “fast” in these cases.

Be ready to eat something else too if the wait is really too long. (Some hawkers may warn you in advance)

Singaporean law requires all to return trays and crockery after dining at hawker centres. And it’s easy to do so.

Singaporean law requires all to return trays and crockery after dining at hawker centres. And it’s easy to do so.

7. Since 2021, You Must Return Your Trays and Bowls After Eating, or Risk a Fine.

As of September 2021, it is mandatory to return your trays and used crockery/utensils after dining at a hawker centre. You must also clear your table of litter such as used napkins, toothpicks, etc. Not doing so risks a fine of SGD 300/-.

You should also differentiate between halal and non-halal stalls when returning. Simply put, if you’ve purchased from a halal stall, you should return your tray and crockery to the halal collection corner.

As troublesome as the above might sound, it is easy to do so. Designated tray collection areas are plentiful and prominently marked, some also come with washing facilities. From 2022 onwards, some hawker centres even provide trolleys for dinners with heavy crockery to return.

At places such as the Marine Parade Central Market and Food Centre, there are even automated machines to accept your trays and crockery.

Singapore’ Halal sign.

Singapore’ Halal sign.

8. Use Utensils Provided by the Stall You Purchased From.

There are no laws stating that you must do so. You will certainly also not be fined or shamed if you fail to do so.

The practice is, instead, largely for the benefit of halal-certified stores. As such stalls are not permitted to come into contact with pork and lard, not using their utensils to eat Chinese Char Siew or Roasted Pork rice is a form of cultural courtesy. A form of religious respect too.

Cashless payment options at a sugar cane drinks stall. Note the “healthier choice” notice too (see point 18 below)

Cashless payment options at a sugar cane drinks stall. Note the “healthier choice” notice too (see point 18 below)

9. Many Hawker Centre Stalls Now Offer Cashless Payment Options.

In line with the official Singaporean government push for a cashless, digital society, many hawker stalls now offer cashless payment modes. For example, GrabPay is accepted by many stalls.

Never bet on all stalls having such options, though, or all stalls having your preferred/installed mode of cashless payment. When visiting a hawker centre for a meal, it is still best to have some cash with you.

This satay meal, purchased at Newton Food Centre (featured in Crazy Rich Asians), cost SGD 9/-. Each skewer costs SGD 0.50. The Malay-style rice cake is one dollar.

This satay meal, purchased at Newton Food Centre (featured in Crazy Rich Asians), cost SGD 9/-. Each skewer costs SGD 0.50. The Malay-style rice cake is one dollar.

10. Unless You’re Ordering Chinese Restaurant Style Dishes, a Meal for One Rarely Costs More Than SGD 10/-.

Most hawker dishes meant for consumption by one person cost between SGD 4/- to SGD 10/-. Hot drinks such as tea or coffee would be around SGD 2/-. Fruit juices usually begin from SGD 3/-.

Many dishes also come in different sizes, and prices for these are typically displayed on signboards. For example, a plate of Fried Hokkien Mee could be stated as “$4/5/6.” The largest option is usually enough for two persons. Maybe even three.

Tip: If you’re ordering one dish for a larger group of diners, consult with the hawkers. They are usually able to whip up a larger-than-usual serving.

A “Zi Char” or “Cooked Food” hawker stall at Chinatown Complex.

A “Zi Char” or “Cooked Food” hawker stall at Chinatown Complex.

11. Be Sure to Check Prices Beforehand If They Aren’t Clearly Stated.

Zi Char is the local name for Chinese hawkers that serve restaurant-like dishes. For example, Sweet and Sour Pork, Chilli Crab, Kang Kong with Belachan, Whole Steamed Fish with Ginger and Shallots, etc. These dishes are meant to be eaten with rice. They are also shared between diners at the same table.

Most Zi Char nowadays have signboards with prices. If not, they have proper menus with pictures and prices. If for whatever reason prices are not clearly indicated, though, it is imperative to check before finalizing your order.

Unlike a plate of Mee Goreng, or a serving of Rojak, a single Zi Char dish could cost over ten bucks. If you order seafood such as fresh fish or seasonal crab, your bill could even run into the hundreds.

The same applies to stalls selling barbequed seafood by weight, etc.

Outdoor smoking seats at Old Airport Road Food Centre. Such seats are a rarity nowadays.

Outdoor smoking seats at Old Airport Road Food Centre. Such seats are a rarity nowadays.

12. Smoking Is Not Permitted.

Long gone are the days when one can leisurely light up a cigarette after a satisfying hawker meal. In 2006, smoking was also banned in all hawker centres.

Some hawker centres still have designated smoking seats, though. These were approved before 2006 and the Singaporean government decided not to revoke them. However, they are increasingly rare and so if you must smoke, you’d have no choice but to leave the hawker centre and head over to a nearby open space. Ensure the space is away from any building or bus stop too.

13. Touting Is Not Permitted at Singaporean Hawker Centres Too.

What this simply means is that hawkers are not permitted to hard-sell or pressurize you into buying from their stalls. For example, if someone keeps pestering you to patronize a certain stall the moment you enter, that’s touting. You should ignore the person and walk away.

Enjoying afternoon beer at People’s Park Food Centre.

Enjoying afternoon beer at People’s Park Food Centre.

14. Alcohol, I.E., Beer Is Not Permitted to Be Sold After 2230 Hours.

Beer is sold at some hawker centre drinks stalls. In accordance with Singapore’s Alcohol Consumption Law, no sale is permitted between 2230 hours to 0700 hours too.

If you had purchased your cans just before 2230 hours, you can continue to drink within the hawker centre. However, you cannot leave the centre with your beer as drinking in “public places” outside of F&B establishments is not allowed during the above-mentioned time frame.

In a public statement, the Singapore government has also stated that beer sold at hawker centres are meant to be consumed there. In other words, some if not most stalls will not entertain takeaways.

What’s confusing is furthermore the fact that during the COVID-19 pandemic, these regulations were continuously changed. At the height of the pandemic, even consumption at F&B establishments beyond 2230 hours was disallowed. These rules might return.

For travelers and locals alike, the easiest approach is therefore to ask before buying. Should a stall decline to sell, for whatever reason, please also respect their decision.

A Chinese noodle stall at Maxwell Food Centre. Note that items such as No. 3, No. 4, and No. 9 are listed as (soup/dry).

A Chinese noodle stall at Maxwell Food Centre. Note that items such as No. 3, No. 4, and No. 9 are listed as (soup/dry).

15. Many Hawker Centre Dishes Offer “Customization” Options.

Most stalls prominently display their food selection on their signs. Most hawkers are also used to many dishes having customization options.

For example, the classic Fishball Noodles can be served in a broth/soup or served “dry.” The latter comes without broth and is tossed with chilli or ketchup, like Italian pasta.

Chinese noodle dishes hawkers will also ask whether you want your order to be spicy or non-spicy. They will also expect you to indicate your choice of noodles.

Some Singaporeans can even get amazingly detailed with such options. Less spicy, just a bit spicy, no chives, lesser oil or lard, no this-or-that, more this-or-that, etc. Naturally, these customers are usually attended to with tight expressions.

But for travelers, no worries. The hawkers will guide you. Just be ready to decide on the spot.

Many hawker centre drinks stall feature an astonishing variety of beverages, outside of the usual tea and coffee, and canned sodas.

Many hawker centre drinks stall feature an astonishing variety of beverages, outside of the usual tea and coffee, and canned sodas.

16. Hawker Centre Beverages Can Be an Adventure!

The above picture says it all. Some drinks stalls offer as many as over 20 types of drinks. Many are also new-age spins on classic beverages or desserts.

Younger travelers and food photography lovers will especially be delighted.

17. You Can Bring Your Own Food to a Hawker Centre. But …

Unlike restaurants and cafes, no one will chide or bill you for bringing your own food and drinks. However, if you do that and linger at your seat for a long time, you might ultimately invite sarcasm and stares. Best be “automatic” and refrain, as Singaporeans will say.

Singaporean Char Kway Teow, or stirred-fried flat rice noodles, is bursting with sweet and savory flavors. It is also prepared using much oil, sweet sauce, and other seasonings. Quiet the nightmare for the health conscious.

Singaporean Char Kway Teow, or stirred-fried flat rice noodles, is bursting with sweet and savory flavors. It is also prepared using much oil, sweet sauce, and other seasonings. Quiet the nightmare for the health conscious.

18. Singapore Hawker Food Aren’t Health Food. But There Are Aggressive Efforts to Encourage Healthier Cooking.

Beloved hawker delicacies such as Char Kway Teow and Nasi Biryani regularly feature on lists of unhealthy Singaporean dishes. The local joke is also that the unhealthiest dishes are the ones that taste best.

In line with official campaigns to promote healthier dining, though, many Singapore hawkers have switched to using healthier ingredients. Some are also taking the effort to use lesser oil, lesser seasoning, and so on. Stalls that do so sometimes have an official “healthier choice” sticker on their stall fronts.

Beautiful and affordable sarees on sale at the upper floor of Tekka Centre.

Beautiful and affordable sarees on sale at the upper floor of Tekka Centre.

Budget clothing store at People’s Park Food Centre Second Floor.

Budget clothing store at People’s Park Food Centre Second Floor.

19. Some Larger Hawker Centres Have Entire Floors Dedicated to Shops.

Some older, larger Hawker Centres have entire floors of shops. Examples of which are:

  • People’s Park Food Centre (A sizable collection of Chinese fabric stalls)
  • Tekka Centre (Singapore’s biggest collection of Saree stalls)
  • Chinatown Complex
  • Old Airport Road Food Centre

Hawker centres located in residential districts will inevitably be surrounded by numerous shops too. Many of these establishments are retail heaven for budget travelers.

A typical Singaporean kopitiam.

A typical Singaporean kopitiam.

20. Kopitiams Are Not Hawker Centres, They Are Miniature Versions Of.

Kopitiam is the Chinese Hokkien dialect name for “coffee shop.” Usually located on the ground floor of low-rise buildings or residential blocks, these are mini hawker centres selling the same food at the same prices.

Most Singaporeans will also consider them distinct from hawker centres. However, if it is hawker food that interests you and not the location, there are few differences. In fact, you probably should visit a mix of both to truly enjoy the Singapore hawker food experience.

Appendix B: The Most Convenient Hawker Centres in Singapore for Visitors

  1. Adam Road Food Centre: Across the road from Botanic Gardens MRT Station and the Bukit Timah Gate of Botanic Gardens. Famous for Nasi Lemak (Coconut rice with different side dishes), Fishball Noodles, and local desserts.
  2. Chinatown Complex: Right behind the Buddha Tooth Temple and home to some of Singapore’s finest Chinese hawker cuisine. Adjacent Kreta Ayer Square often hosts community performances.
  3. Haig Road Market & Food Centre: A short walk from Paya Lebar MRT Station, this beloved food centre is full of Malay Muslim hawkers stalls. For more variety, head up the road to Geylang Serai Food Centre too.
  4. Lao Pa Sat: The “old market” is housed in a restored Victorian-era structure, and is at the heart of the financial district. Other than a more cosmopolitan feel, Lao Pa Sat is famous for its open-air Satay Street.
  5. Makansutra Gluttons Bay: Nothing beats the location beside Esplanade Theatres on the Bay. There’s a good selection of classic Malay dishes and seafood, with prices slightly costlier than usual hawker centres.
  6. Maxwell Food Centre: Another Chinatown culinary institution. Across the road from the Buddha Tooth Temple and famous for many dishes recommended in Appendix A.
  7. Newton Food Centre: Across the road from Newton MRT station and famously featured in Crazy Rich Asians. Full of barbequed seafood and satay stalls, with a relaxed, open-air ambiance. Could get touristy, though.
  8. Old Airport Road Food Centre: 3 minutes from Dakota MRT Station and home to the above-featured outdoor smoking area. Famous for Prawn Noodles and Char Kway Teow.
  9. Tekka Centre: Beside Little India MRT station and the historical district itself. Beloved for its Indian-Muslim stalls although there are many great Chinese stalls too.
  10. Tiong Bahru Market: Not near any MRT station but the surrounding area is full of whimsical shops and cafes. Home to a wide selection of classic Singaporean hawker food.
Enjoy the presentation at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, then head over to Lao Pa Sat to check out the dishes featured!

Enjoy the presentation at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, then head over to Lao Pa Sat to check out the dishes featured!

Further Reading

© 2022 Ced Yong