Singapore’s food culture - a guide for expats
Singapore is a vibrant and exotic country, with a unique culture around food. The cuisine is infused with influences from the many different nations that surround the island city-state in southeast Asia. Expect to find Malay dishes alongside Indonesian fare, Thai noodles with Vietnamese curries, all with a Singaporean twist.
The people of Singapore take their food very seriously, which makes it a great destination for foodies. From the popular hawker centres, to fine dining establishments, there is never a shortage of places to experience Singapore’s food culture.
What are hawker centres?
Hawker centres are at the heart of the Asian food experience, with over 100 government-run public hawker centres in Singapore alone. The local people are passionate about these dining experiences; ask anyone which is the best to visit and they will all have their own personal favourite. Therefore, as an expatriate new to the region, the only way to really dive into the famous food culture is to start trying a few out for yourself.
A hawker centre is essentially a large, open food court. Stalls are set up around the perimeter of a large eating area. It is a world-away from the Western food courts found in shopping centres, however. Everything is freshly cooked, and the sights, sounds and smells of a good hawker centre typify everything about Singapore.
The food stalls serve a mixture of Chinese, Malay, Indian and many other dishes. However, every chef will give a traditional dish their own unique twist. These market stalls, therefore, offer some of the best fusion food in the entire country. Most dietary requirements are well catered for too. Expect to queue for the most-popular stalls – Singaporean people are quite happy to wait for their favourite foods, such is the importance of eating.
A hawker centre is a great place to socialise, as well as get to grips with the language and the people of the nation. Eating together in groups in this way is typical of the Singaporean food culture. If you want to immerse yourself in Singapore after relocation, your nearest hawker centre should be top of the list.
Picking a hawker centre
The most popular hawker centre is considered to be Lau Pa Sat on Raffles Quay, at least by size. It can seat up to 2,500 people and it’s right in the centre of the Business District, making it a popular option with professionals. There is usually live music at night to add to the atmosphere. It’s open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with different stalls opening at different times.
However, many locals and expatriates who have been in the country a long time will say that Lau Pa Sat is overrated and overcrowded. Many prefer the smaller hawker centres that offer a calmer experience, without any compromise on the quality of the food. The Chinatown Food Street is popular for those looking for excellent Chinese food, while Tiong Bahru Market is a good choice for breakfast and brunch.
In 2016, two hawker stalls became the first Asian street stalls to be awarded with Michelin stars: Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle and Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Boodle. Proof that the low-key style of dining in a hawker centre doesn’t mean comprising on the quality of your food.
Food courts aren’t for everyone or for every occasion. They epitomize the food culture in Singapore perfectly, but they don’t offer a more formal or intimate dining experience.
Luckily, there is much more to explore when it comes to eating in Singapore. There are a number of high-end fine dining experiences that are worth indulging in. These cover all manner of cuisines and are highly popular with local residents and expatriates alike.
One thing you might experience as an expatriate is ‘Kiasu’, which is a Singapore term that broadly means a ‘fear of losing’. It’s similar to the modern English use of ‘fear of missing out’. Kiasu is responsible for long queues outside new restaurants when they first open, in eagerness to be among the first to try it. It does add to the whole cultural experience of eating out, but it can be a bit overwhelming. If you prefer a quieter dining experience, wait for the rush to die down after a couple of weeks.
If you’re looking for the very best restaurants in Singapore, try Odette or Les Amis, both three-star Michelin restaurants. Odette is in the National Gallery, offering modern French cuisine that is as artfully designed on the plate as its opulent surroundings. Les Amis is more classical French food, served with timeless elegance. See more Michelin starred restaurants in Singapore.
Hosting and attending dinners are also a key part of the Singapore culture, so you may find yourself invited to dinner parties by clients, colleagues and acquaintances. These occasions are often determined by the host and their own culture, so each experience is unique.
You should also respect the cultural norms of your host. For example, those from Malay are often Muslim and this will impact on the type of food served. By way of consideration, you should also not take alcohol as a gift for the host or drink any during the meal without permission. If your host is of Chinese heritage, do not give a gift of food, as this can indicate that you don’t think the host can provide ample food for guests, and it’s also wise to avoid flowers, which are associated with sickness. If you are at a business meeting, gifts are not usually given to the host, as this could be seen to constitute a bribe.
Singapore people are generally very open and friendly, and will show no offence if you ask questions when accepting an invite. There is a lot to learn with any new culture as an expatriate, but if you immerse yourself in the experience, you will soon get to grips with the exciting and unique Singapore lifestyle.
If you’re moving to Singapore, get in touch with Cadogan Tate today for a free, no-obligation quote for your shipping, packing and storage requirements.