South East Asia Food Court Etiquette
If you consider yourself a foodie, you should definitely consider making a pilgrimage to one of the many hawker centers that are hugely popular with the locals in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Hong Kong. Before you unbutton the top button on your pants and head out the door, I’d like to tell you about the rules at these establishments so you don’t look silly in front of the locals. Everyone is there to get yummy, cheap food so people will not tolerate a foreigner getting in the way of their goal.
Step One: Overcome your fears of street foods. Hawker centers are the source for very cheap meals that are often better than restaurants, where you will pay at least double. Hawker centers are open buildings without air-conditioning housing a few rows small food stalls that serve a various local specialties as well as favorites from neighboring nations. You can typically find your favorites from the following cuisines: Malay, Indonesian, Indian, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, and Middle Eastern. Also, you can find fresh juices, desserts. Everything is almost always prepared fresh after you order.
Step Two: Choose a hawker center. Do a bit of homework before venturing out. I suggest simply googling and checking out reviews online. For instance, as huge Anthony Bourdain fans, we made sure to visit the Maxwell hawker center that he chose as part of his episode about Singapore.
Step Three: Finding a place to sit. Once you are there, first try to find a place to sit. It’s likely that the hawker center you’ve decided on is going to be busy, especially if you go during the lunchtime hustle and bustle. It may be that all the tables are taken. Don’t be shy and feel free to approach a table with a free seat and ask if it would be alright for you to sit down. It’s pretty common for a couple of parties to share a table. Prior to getting up to browse, claim your seat by placing a packet of tissues on the table. Yes, tissues – you will not be able to find napkins at hawker centers so it’s common practice to carry a pack of tissues with you, which also serve to claim your spot. Trust me, you’ll need all the tissues you can get with those hot, spicy and flavorful dishes! If you didn’t get a chance to pick up some tissues on the way, no problem: you’ll easily spot peddlers roaming the hawker center trying to make a living by selling tissue packets.
One more thing: if you spotted a table number on the table, make sure you memorize it. If you don’t see one, no worries, it simply means that your are at a self-service hawker center. More on that later…
Step Four: Picking the right vendor. With so many choices, how to narrow it down to just one?! The beauty is that you don’t have to. Usually portions come in two or three sizes: small, medium and large or small and large. I recommend starting with small and just seeing how it goes. If you love it, get more. If you don’t, try something else!
When I get to a Hawker center, I usually browse for a while checking out the scene in front of every vendor. If there is a long line, you’re pretty much guaranteed a good dish there. Also, look around the tables in front of the food stall, do you notice a dish that most everyone is eating? You should go for that.
For instance we knew we had to visit the chicken rice food stall Anthony Bourdain he raved about on his Singapore show at the Maxwell hawker center. We were not disappointed.
Our other favorites include: Bak kut teh
If you see similar pictures at a fairly busy stall, head for it. We give you a foodie’s guarantee.
Step Five: Ordering. If you don’t understand the menu, most food stalls have a display of pictures for you so you can simply point to the one that looks best to you. At some hawker centers, you will see signs for “self-service” all over, which means that you order your food, wait for it and pick it up and take it to an available table. However, most of the time, hawker centers are not self-service and you are supposed to go pick out your table number prior to ordering (all tables should have a little number on it somewhere). As you place your order, you will be asked for your table number. Once your food is ready, your food will be delivered to your table. That’s also when you pay.
Step Six: Getting your drink. There are separate stalls for drinks. If you’re at a self-service hawker center, you will need to spot that stall and head over there to pick out a cold beer or a juice to accompany your meal. If not self-service, someone should be walking around to take your order and bring the drink to your table. By the way, hawker centers is where some of the cheapest brews are hidden throughout South East Asia. If you’re not up for alcohol, or hung-over, I suggest sugar cane juice, which is prepared fresh and tastes delicious.
Step Seven: Enjoy! This one is simple. Once you finish, and still have a bit of room left, it’s not unusual to hit up another stall to taste something else. Again, small portions is the way to go!
Step Eight: Cleaning up. Feel free to leave your tray at the table. All hawker centers have employees who clean up tables in a quick, efficient manner. Your tray will be gone in moments to make room for another hungry local.