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 in Singapore for as little as US$2? Singapore street food is so affordable that most working adults eat out for lunch and dinner instead of preparing home-cooked meals. Read on to see 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:
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 useful guide for you, containing:
- A printable checklist of Singaporean dishes
- A cheat sheet of stalls to try in 3 popular hawker centres
- Recommended supper spots, dining 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
You can also instantly download my FREE guide to get: a printable street food checklist, a cheat sheet to visit 3 popular food centres, plus recommended supper spots, dining discount apps, and food souvenirs!
Get your free guide to Eating in Singapore Like A Local
Header photo by Afur Wong/Singapore Tourism Board. Images by Brooke Thio / various owners as linked.