Government statistics will tell you that the typical Singaporean spends 12% of his income on cooked food1, and that there are almost 7,000 stalls in Government hawker centres throughout the country2. This works out at one stall for every 571.5 people, which seems unlikely at first reading. However, there is also an abundance of privately-owned coffee shops and food centres, as well as the more upmarket fast-food outlets and restaurants, so a Singaporean can always find somewhere to eat without queueing behind 570.5 other people.
Hawker centres first appeared in the 1970s. Before that, hawkers worked from mobile stalls, travelling around the island selling food. Since they also had a reputation for giving away food-poisoning as an extra ingredient, mobile foodstalls were relocated to fixed sites, where they could be more easily monitored, and the mobile hawker was extinct by 1986.
A hawker centre is a group of stalls, each selling a different kind of food, and sharing a common seating area for the customers.
Food courts and coffee shops follow the same basic structure. A food court is air-conditioned and therefore more expensive, and is usually found in a shopping mall. A coffee shop is smaller and privately owned.
Just walk in and find a table. At lunchtime, this may be harder than it sounds, but it's usually possible to find somewhere to sit within a few minutes. One way is to move in on a table that has some empty seats. But take care - packets of tissues or umbrellas left on the table or stool are not lost property. They've been left there by other diners who are in the process of ordering food.
Another common technique is to find a table where the occupants have almost finished eating, stand very close to them and stare until they get the hint.
Once you've found a table, one person in the group usually stays to guard it, while the rest go to the stalls to order, or leaves a packet of tissues on the table or stool as a marker. Despite Singapore's reputation as a crime-free country, leaving shopping bags as a marker is not recommended.
Diners can select from any stall, but convention dictates that people eating together shouldn't mix halal3 and non-halal food, especially if they are planning to share. Halal stalls usually have green signboards, often with prominent star and crescent symbols. All stalls are graded by the National Environment Agency and are supposed to display their certificates prominently. In practice, the prominence of the display is directly linked to their grading. One important point for a visitor to note is that the grading is for hygiene, not taste. For taste, the best guide is the size of the queue.
Some food stalls are self-service, whereas others deliver to the table. If it's not obvious, watch to see what the person in front does. If the stall delivers, the diner is supposed to tell the stallholder the table number, but in a smaller coffee shop they will usually be able to find you. Drinks and desserts usually come from different stalls, but many drink stalls have staff walking round who take orders at the table.
Payment is made on receipt of the food, either at the stall or the table. There will be no tax and no service charge. Tipping is not expected.
If it's a peak time, a diner is expected to leave the table promptly after eating (see 'how to get a table' above). Some food courts ask you to clear the table, but whether you do this or not probably depends on how much mess you made using chopsticks for the first time.
Western food is commonplace, but is usually of the 'something and chips' variety. It can be a good, cheap meal for a tourist who doesn't like spicy food, but be warned that a £2 steak and chips tastes exactly like a £2 steak and chips ought to taste. Westerners should also note that 'porridge' refers to congee - a savoury dish made from rice and typically served with century egg and various other extremely salty ingredients.
Japanese, Korean and Thai food is widely available at the more upmarket food courts but is less common at the outdoor centres. Indian food is commonplace, is usually South Indian, and is often vegetarian.
Most places have at least one halal Malay food stall, selling either noodle or rice dishes. Typical dishes include Nasi Lemak (rice with fried fish, chicken wing, cucumber and an egg), Satay (beef, mutton or chicken barbecued on skewers, with a peanut sauce) and Rendang (a dark beef or mutton curry with coconut milk).
The most common food sold is a fusion of South-East Asian, Chinese and Indian cooking styles that has evolved over the last hundred or so years into a new cuisine that is now considered native to the Malay peninsula and Singapore. Almost everything is spicy, but where a dish is cooked to order, it's fine to ask for no chilli. A lot of the dishes are served with the chilli separate, either as slices of green or red chilli or as a sauce (chilli padi). Green chilli is the mildest.
Noodles may be served as a soup dish, such as Laksa (very spicy, with coconut milk and cockles) and Chicken Macaroni (mild), or dry dishes such as Mee Goreng and Char Kuey Teow4 (both fried noodle dishes with various added ingredients). Some dishes come in both versions, such as Char Siew Wonton Mee, (sliced roast pork and minced pork dumplings) which can be served as a soup or as a dry dish with the soup served separately.
The best-known rice dishes are Chicken Rice and Duck Rice. The chicken may either be white and steamed or roast. Cooked Rice stalls, which serve rice with three or four pre-cooked dishes, are also found everywhere. These are among the easiest dishes to order, as all you need to do is point.
Other dishes such as Yong Tau Foo (various types of vegetables and tofu cooked to order in a soup), Kuey Chap (different types of vegetables and tofu, with offal) and Bak Kut Teh (pork or offal in a dark, herbal sauce) are served with rice on the side.
Kaya toast is a traditional breakfast dish. Kaya is coconut jam, which is unexpectedly green5. Roti Prata is a local version of Indian paratha bread, and Roti John is French bread with a spicy topping. Chicken curry is also usually served with french bread.
The bigger food courts have dessert stalls, with hot and cold dishes, all of which are very sweet. The most Singaporean of desserts is Ice Kacang, which is a mountain of shaved ice on top of red beans, sweetcorn and other traditional dessert ingredients. Syrups (usually rosehip) and evaporated milk are poured over the top. It looks wonderful, and tastes mainly of ice.
Drinks tend to be the same as everywhere else, but some local drinks also exist. The most famous is teh tarik, which is a Malay drink made by pouring tea from a mug into a glass at arm's length. It includes condensed milk, which makes this a very sweet drink, and diners may request 'teh tarik kurang manis' for a less-sweet version. Other local drinks include home-made soybean and barley drinks, served hot or cold, chin chow (grass-jelly drink) and bandung (essence of rose with milk or water). Asking for lime or lemon drinks gives no guarantee of which you will receive6, and if looking for lemonade, it is best to ask by brand name.
The chicken in chicken rice is often still bloody at the bone. Chicken and many other cooked foods may have been hanging up at the stall, at ambient temperature, for several hours. Despite this, salmonella is extremely rare7.
Vegetarian food is usually Indian or Chinese. Chinese-style vegetarian food frequently includes gluten products, so may need to be treated with caution. A lot of the dishes, in particular Satay, include peanuts, and MSG8, while less common now than in the past, is still widely used. However, a lot of stalls have 'No MSG' signs outside.
A lot of the food is high in cholesterol, since seafood, squid, cuttlefish and coconut milk are all common ingredients in Singapore cooking. Some stalls offer a healthier option, but only on request.
Fresh fruit and fruit juices are widely available, and at least one stall sells an especially healthy version of sugar-cane juice with a sign outside proclaiming 'No Added Sugar'.