As new arrivals, there are a few things you might need to know about the etiquette and protocols to follow on the culinary battlefield.
Step 1: The Chop
Once you’ve located a suitable hawker center, either through research or word of mouth, the first thing you’ll need to do is find an empty table and “chop” it. You won’t need an axe or cleaver; “Chop” is Singaporean slang for reserving the table. Typically you just leave something on the table, the most common thing being a packet of tissues, which signals, ‘back off, this baby is taken’. Don’t be foolish and use your wallet or cell phone, or you’ll find yourself out of both the item of value and your “chopped” table. Take note of the number on the table if there is one, and head on to the next step.
Step 2: Locate a suitable food stall
After securing your table, take a look around and see what looks tempting. Different stalls have different offers and if there’s a long line, chances are they got the goods. In fact, it’s an odd sight to see two stalls offering the exact same types of food, yet only one of them has a line! Some stall owners will try to entice you to choose theirs, but there is a fine line called touting, and I say fine, as in if they get caught, they can be fined. Now order your dish and let them know your table number or where you’re sitting. You usually don’t need to pay right away, as they’ll collect the payment when the dishes are delivered.
Step 3: Makan Time!
Hope you’ve got cash, or you’re going to have a very mad hawker on your hands, because the only plastic you’ll find used in a hawker center is the cutlery. Now is when you pay for the hot steaming dish and tuck in for some good makan (food). Usually by now someone will have come by to take your drink order, and if an old person comes up offering tissue packs, you’ll find them quite useful and for many of these elderly folks, this is their sole source of income, so feel free to tip them.
Step 4: The aftermath
It’s a bad habit and a sad fact in Singapore, but most locals, after they’re done eating, don’t clean up their table or throw their trash away. Often times the table will look like a war zone, until the trusty cleaners swarm out and take care of it. Now’s a nice time to have that tissue packet, some of the table towels see soap about as often as the dark side of the moon sees the sun.
Step 5: The Away Mission.
If you want to take home your selection instead of eating it on the spot, be sure to let them know you want it “Ta Bao” which is local slang for “to go”, and “To go” a phrase which they will not recognize. The local English phrase is “take away,” make sure you say it clearly when you order your food, to avoid any confusion.
Text and photos by Jeffree Benet for The American Club Singapore