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How to Eat in Singapore Like a Local

How to Eat in Singapore Like a Local

Compared to the rest of Southeast Asia, Singapore is considered an expensive place for tourists. But did you know that you can get a meal here for as little as $2? Singapore street food is so affordable that most working adults eat out for lunch and dinner instead of preparing home-cooked meals. This in-depth guide shows how you can eat in Singapore like a local – the shiok* way.

*Shiok (int./adj.): Expressing admiration or approval: ‘cool!’ ‘great!’ of food, a meal, etc.: delicious, superb.

Quintessential Singapore street food: the hawker centre

Truth is, there aren’t actually any food carts on the streets. From the 1960s through to the 1980s, the Singapore government decided to clear the streets and solve issues with food hygiene by stationing licensed food hawkers at permanent structures with electricity, water, gas, and seating for customers. These food centres – colloquially known as “hawker centres” – can host dozens of food stalls offering a wide range of cheap local cuisine. The tradeoff? No air conditoning, no table service, and you clear your own plates.

Food centres are where you can find most popular Singaporean delicacies, like those Gordon Ramsay was challenged to make. If you just want to know what to eat in Singapore, these are the top local hawker dishes to try:

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Of course, there are tons more local dishes than that – we’re not known as a food capital of the world for nothing. The thing is, you’re likely to get confused by all the blogs and websites telling you where to eat – because no one can ever agree on the best place to go! (For instance, we’re not that fond of Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice though tourists love it).

This is why I’ve put together a FREE PDF guide for you, containing:

Get your Free Singapore Food Guide - Roamscapes

  • A printable checklist of Singaporean dishes
  • A cheat sheet of stalls to try in 3 popular hawker centres
  • Recommended supper spotsdining discount apps, and food souvenirs

 

Download it now to save time and get prepared for your food adventure in Singapore!

There are around 107 hawker centres in Singapore, so instead of going around to eat “the best” version of a dish, you’ll actually check more items off your street food list by trying a few dishes in one place.

To hunt down all this delicious food, prep yourself for getting around Singapore using public transport.

Wait…where’s the Chilli Crab?

Yes, chilli crab (as well as black pepper crab) is the most famous Singaporean dish. However, it’s not a hawker dish – chilli crab is expensive as it is priced according to seasonal availability and total weight of the crabs. Expect a serving for 2-4 to cost $50 (S$75) when you order it at seafood restaurants like JUMBO Seafood.

There are also some must-try delicacies that aren’t considered typical hawker food. Kaya toast, served with soft-boiled eggs and local coffee, forms the traditional Singaporean breakfast. You can find it at chains like Killeney Kopitiam, Ya Kun (my personal favorite), and Toast Box. There’s also Bak Kut Teh or “pork bone tea”: pork rib soup with either a herbal or peppery broth. Try it at specialty diners like Song Fa Bak Kut Teh.

Singapore food: Chilli Crab. Photo by jh_tan84 / Flickr
Chilli crab: spicy, messy, but so delicious. Photo by jh_tan84 / Flickr

How to Order at Food Centres

English is an official language in Singapore. Even though hawker food stalls are run by older folk who may not be highly fluent in English, they will understand requests like “no chilli” and you should have no problems ordering whatever a stall sells.

If you want to customize your order, here’s a fun article that will show you how to order traditional Singaporean coffee, and how to choose different types of noodles for noodle dishes!

Special Tip: In Singapore, we use the terms “uncle” or “auntie” respectfully to greet elders, even if they’re not our relatives. Use this to say hello when ordering your food from stall owners and you might get bigger helpings 😀 If someone looks about the same age or younger, a friendly “Hi, boss,” works well too.

Etiquette for Dining in Singapore

Singapore dining etiquette: the "chope"
This is not a free pack of tissues. I “choped” this seat!

If you want to eat like a local, you gotta act like a local. One of the quirkiest practices in Singapore is the “chope“, which means “to reserve” in Singlish. Whenever visiting a food centre, you’re likely to chance upon seemingly empty tables or seats that have packets of tissue paper, umbrellas, or random personal belongings left there.

Do not plonk yourself down, push the objects aside, or assume the tissue paper is a free gift! They’re actually being used to mark the seat as reserved while someone is off queuing at a food stall. This is a common sight during lunch hour on weekdays, when snake-like queues form and everyone just wants to grab their grub as quickly as possible.

Another thing to note when eating at food centres: Singapore is a multi-religious country, and we try to respect our fellow Muslim countrymen by not mixing utensils from Halal food stalls and non-Halal stalls. When you’re clearing your table, look out for separate tray drop-off stations for Halal and non-Halal food. During the Muslim month of Ramadan, you’re free to dine whenever and wherever you want but refrain from asking fasting Muslim friends along. Instead, head to the annual Ramadan bazaar with them after dark for delectable street eats!

Last but not least, tipping is not customary in Singapore, though you can drop your spare change in the tip jars of cafes and restaurants. Prices in food centres are nett, while a 10% service charge + 7% tax is applied in restaurants.

How to dine at restaurants in Singapore…for less

Street food aside, Singapore also has a staggering number of cafes and restaurants. We do like to treat ourselves to a nice meal every now and then when a birthday comes up or…a dining promotion! Whether for mid-priced chains or exclusive, high-end establishments, Here’s how we indulge ourselves:

  • Credit card promotions. The availability of dining rewards is a key factor when Singaporeans choose a credit card! For visitors, however, these are limited. I know for sure that if you have a Citibank card issued anywhere, you can enjoy Citi World Privileges.
  • Happy Hour & Ladies Night. For the drinkers and partygoers, alcohol is exorbitantly priced in Singapore, but many pubs and diners offer Happy Hour deals. Ladies also have the advantage of free entry and drinks to clubs on Wednesdays.
  • Restaurant delivery. We’ve got FoodPanda, Deliveroo, and UberEats in Singapore; from time to time these apps will offer discounts and restaurant promotions – and yes, you can order chilli crab to savor from your hostel or hotel room!
  • BONUS: Dining discount apps. Want 1-for-1 meals and discounts of up to 50% on popular restaurants in Singapore? Download my free guide revealing apps Singaporeans use to dine on a budget!

Have more questions about tasting Singapore food and dining like a local? Let me know in the comments.

Download your free guide

Contains a printable street food checklist + a cheat sheet to visit 3 popular food centres + recommended supper spots, dining deal apps, and food souvenirs!

Get your Free Singapore Food Guide - Roamscapes
Eating in Singapore Like A Local

Header photo by Afur Wong/Singapore Tourism Board. Images by Brooke Thio / various owners as linked.

27 Comments

  1. 9 months ago

    This post is making me so hungry! I haven’t really had Singaporean food before, so my stomach is growling reading this! Thanks for sharing the etiquette tips too! Super helpful 🙂

  2. 9 months ago

    I absolutely adore your post! I’m a big travel foodie and love seeking out and trying all the proper local dishes. I haven’t made it to Singapore yet but I’m now very inspired to go. And your downloadable resources are so fabulously innovative!

    • Brooke
      9 months ago

      Thanks for your kind words 🙂 I hope you’ll make your way here one day!

  3. 9 months ago

    Living in Bali means Singapore is one of my main destinations for a visa run (flights there are among the most convenient). Buuuuut also the destination that kills my budget most and has thus so far kept me from going. HOWEVER I just might have found my solution, at least partly lol. Happy hours and ladies night. What else could I ever wish for!

  4. 9 months ago

    Singapore means good food to me! I just love getting to one of the food centres and eating genuine, tasty food. It’s usually the first thing we do when we get there. Now I just want to go back…

    • Brooke
      9 months ago

      Haha the first thing I do is to apply sunblock, or grab an umbrella 😛 Hope to see you in Singapore someday!

  5. 9 months ago

    This speaks to me! I love street food and it’s such a shame that it’s banned in a lot of countries. I know it can be a bit dirty, but it’s always so delicious! These dishes look amazinggg

  6. 9 months ago

    Omg yesss! I’ve been hearing about that street food in Singapore for ages and it’s one of the reasons I want to go! Thanks for this guide, definitely keeping it handy for when I get over there – it all looks so delicious!

  7. 9 months ago

    I love your cheatsheet and helpful language! If only I could come back to Singapore! Singapore is amazing and I Wish I knew I could have eaten for this low price! In my article on blog about Singapore is almost everything except for food mentions, because I was disappointed about how expensive it is!

  8. 9 months ago

    I didn’t know half these dishes and yet they look so delicious! Satay and fried hokkien prawn mee sometimes can be found also in Italy, but definitely not at these prices! Oh and I loved the downloadable checklist, it’s SO useful!!!

  9. Jade
    9 months ago

    What a fabulous idea having the downloadable sheets! Love the idea of ‘chope’-ing your seat – think I’ll be doing this next time!

  10. 9 months ago

    Eat eat eat.. makan time! Singapore is about eating, shopping, napping, eating! Hopefully exercising and sweating profusely to offset all the eating. 😉

  11. 9 months ago

    This is great! I love the tip about calling elders “Aunt” or “Uncle” that is pretty cute. Love your photos!

  12. 9 months ago

    I ‘ve visited Singapore few year ago and I really enjoy this city ! And you’re right, Singapore has a vibrant culture of food at very affordable prices 🙂 Some of my favorite places to eat are not cozy at all, air-conditioning, maybe not, tables, not always 100% clean. But you know that, the only comfort is the food !! I particularly love Lim’s Fried Oyster, for me a hidden gem at the ground floor of Berseh Food Centre. And also Siang Yuen Traditional Roasts (Chai Chee Technopark, Food court)… All the roasted items go so well with rice, kway teow or noodles !!

    • Brooke
      9 months ago

      Omg you know even the most obscure spots (but what were you doing in Chai Chee!) Glad you enjoyed the food here and hope you’ll visit again.

  13. 9 months ago

    First of all, wow, I can’t believe there aren’t any street carts! SECOND, omg thank you so much for this cheatsheet. This will be my bible when I visit!

    • Brooke
      9 months ago

      I’m just glad you find it useful! Give me a buzz if you’re ever in town 😉

  14. 9 months ago

    I just got so hungry – I love the food in Singo!!

  15. 9 months ago

    Ooh the food looks so good! I am yet to visit Singapore but cannot wait to get there ASAP. Awesome post 🙂

  16. 9 months ago

    I loved eating in the Hawker Centres while in Singapore! My couch surfing host took me to a few. So many options and cheap as well! I just got hungry… 🙂

  17. 9 months ago

    i am coming to singapore very soon and you’re reight it’s on the expensive side for tourists 🙂 so this post is incredible helpful 🙂

  18. 9 months ago

    Mmmmmm I love eating street food and its so much cheaper than restaurants, especially in Singapore! Thanks for sharing <3

  19. 9 months ago

    This could not come at a better time – off to Singapore for two nights next week and desperate not to blow the backpacker budget! This is an absolute DREAM. thank you! I’ll make sure to tag you in my pics 🙂

    • Brooke
      9 months ago

      Thanks, glad you find it useful! You’re just in time for the Night Festival too, might want to check it out 🙂

  20. 9 months ago

    Gosh I am getting hungry just reading this, I need to go to Singapore now!

    • Brooke
      9 months ago

      Psst…I have a spare room 😉

  21. 9 months ago

    Love this post! Having been to Singapore twice I know how expensive it can feel, especially as a budget backpacker. These tips and guides are so valuable though. Thanks!

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