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Singapore: Food centre etiquette

March 20, 2012

Above: Fresh fruits at Tanjong Pagar food centre

Over the last few weeks, my initiation into life as an expatriate in Singapore has been enriched by friendly new colleagues who have shared the task of introducing me to various affordable food venues around my workplace. If you follow me on Twitter and Instagram (@catchychan), you would have seen my lunch time food photos. Some of my friends back in the UK have complained they’ve not seen much else of Singapore!

Above: Wonton noodles and freshly squeezed sugar cane juice from Amoy food centre

From high-end restaurants to fast-food joints, coffee shops to food centres – Singapore, and certainly the area around my workplace has it all. Of these, the food centres are probably my favourite place to eat. As I alluded to in my previous post, food centres are open-air buildings with numerous food stalls mainly selling a variety of inexpensive local fare. This is generally cooked food although some also incorporate a food market. In their attempt to help me fit in, my colleagues (bless them!) have so far taken me to four food centres located within ten minutes’ walk from us – Lau Pa Sat, Amoy Street, Tanjong Pagar and Maxwell Road food centres. Of these, Amoy FC has stood out as the one serving the better fare, with the added benefit of being located closest to my workplace. Trust me when I say on the hotter days, the shorter the walk, the more attractive the place.

Above: Office workers arrive at Amoy Street food centre

To give you a sense of size, there are over 130 stalls, each about 5x10ft at Amoy Street FC laid out over 2 floors in a purpose-built open-air complex. The more popular stalls seem to be located on the upper floor, amongst them selling nasi lemak (Malay-style coconut rice), Teochew-style fish soup, wonton noodles, horfun (flat rice) noodles, chicken rice, Chinese-style pastries, dim sum, Nyonya desserts, fresh fruit juices and much more.

Above: Fish ball and minced pork noodles, and roast chicken rice

Whilst the variety of local delights on offer is mouth-wateringly interesting, what has been more fascinating for me to observe is the whole lunching etiquette of the thousands of office workers who descend on these food centres over lunch time.

First of all is when lunch ‘time’ itself is observed. Here in Singapore, if you were lunching at a food centre, the ‘race’ to fill hungry tummies begins at around 11.30am with the aim of joining the queue at your preferred food stall of the day by 11.45am. Of course, if you’re not lunching at a food centre or preferred to wait an extra 15 minutes for your food, by all means, move at your own leisurely pace! Now, I use the term ‘race’ loosely here – the average walking speed of most Singaporeans is, in my opinion, much slower than that of Londoners. I blame the heat from the midday sun which seems to slow even this usually fast-paced-ex-Londoner down.

So, let’s say you’re new on the scene and do not have the benefit of nice colleagues who take the time to explain how things work around here to you. You amble along to a food centre at around noon. You see queues of about ten people or so at what appears to be the more popular stalls and think, ‘It’s alright, the queues are moving fast’. You join one of these queues and wait in hungry anticipation, taking in the sounds of vendors hollering for customer orders and said customers hollering right back with what they want, stomach growling in response to the delicious aromas wafting through the whole centre.

Above: Signboard of a typical food stall in a food centre

Perhaps more minutes than you anticipated later, you’re feeling relatively smug albeit a little damp under the collar (remember: multiple hot stoves+lots of bodies+no air-conditioning). You finally got yourself understood by the ‘uncle’ who shakes his head at your English, strange accent and perhaps halting dodgy Mandarin, that you want to purchase a SGD$3.50 plate of roast chicken rice (Tip: just point at any available photos or food on display). You scan the vicinity, note the empty tables and think ‘Excellent, looks like it’s my lucky day’, then begin moving purposefully if carefully with your tray of food towards what looks to be an empty table closest to you.

Then you clock the packets of tissues, umbrellas, newspapers and even filled shopping bags on the ‘empty’ tables and seats. What’s this then?

Welcome, to the Singapore lunch time reservation system, where the smart punters stay ahead of the race by leaving their less-treasured belongings to reserve a space BEFORE they join the queue to buy their lunches! It’s a bizarre scene, and one that I’m now used to seeing but still find amusing. Yes, I do it now too and needless to say, carry a packet of tissues at all times (also most useful to dab at the beads of perspiration that won’t fail to gather as you savour your bowl of hot soupy noodles!). If you do struggle to secure a whole table to yourself, ask politely to share where an empty seat is available. If you’re lucky, you might even get a chatty local who will recommend the best dishes around to you, or some local-looking expat like me who will at least be able to share her packet of tissues!

Above: Fishball horfun noodles in soup and Teochew-style fish soup

Once you’ve sussed out the ingenious reservation system, lunch at food centres cost a fraction of what you would pay, for pretty much the same dish in an air-conditioned restaurant. It’s relatively clean too, with dedicated cleaners to clear away your empty dishes and cutlery, and to wipe down the tables. Whilst it doesn’t make for the most relaxing and comfortable dining experience (you get evil-eye-balled if you hang around too long after you’ve finished your plate/bowl of food), I love the vibrancy and character that all the smells, sounds and sights conjure. Plus I get to sample some of the tastiest local cuisine. That, to me is well worth the race.

Note: All photos above taken with my iphone 4S.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 20, 2012 9:06 AM

    Ha, used to be same at Colindale’s Oriental City food court – during busy times, you really had to find table first, and eiher leave things on the table to reserve, or take in turns to go and place the orders, otherwise you’d have food and no table to eat at. They had a ticket system, so you could order, go sit back down or wander away, and come back when your number came up on screen or was shouted out.

    • March 20, 2012 10:57 AM

      Thanks for the comment Kavey. Doubt this same system would work in say Malaysia. People would just sit anyway! Singaporeans are a system-abiding lot…

  2. Suk-yi permalink
    March 20, 2012 2:51 PM

    I used to work opposite Lau Pa Sat in 2005…..that place was my lunch time staple, hahaha 🙂

  3. March 20, 2012 11:10 PM

    Wow, this all looks amazing!

  4. March 25, 2012 11:19 PM

    I love you posts, incredbile information and the photos! I would love to try everything that you wrote about!

    • March 26, 2012 12:26 PM

      Thanks as always for your kind words RaeDi! Perhaps you visit someday. I’d be happy to bring u round!

  5. April 29, 2012 7:28 PM

    For some unknown reason most of the cooked food looks incredibly tastier to me than a sandwich or whatever fast food you can have in the uk 😀
    Oh some nicely freshly cooked hot meal (Although I guess it’s not that god if the weather is also hot is it?)
    Please keep on posting! Love reading insights on the life at far away places! xx

    • May 1, 2012 12:48 PM

      Hi Snejana! Thanks for the comment. I must admit that my lunches now beat the average office lunch in London hands down 😛 It is a little bit of a struggle though especially when the weather is especially humid (just before it rains) but generally the fans around the building really help. Thanks for your continued support on the blog! x

  6. April 30, 2012 3:44 AM

    Great to hear that you are being shown around by the locals. It’s funny you mention the umbrellas to reserve seats. I wonder how long that would last in London 🙂
    In Hong Kong I was really surprised by people leaving ipads and iphones on their tables while they went to pick up their meals. Very trusting indeed 🙂
    Are you going to the Singapore Food festival in July?

    • May 1, 2012 12:46 PM

      Ipads and Iphones? You’re kidding. I’ve seen some women leave their handbags in a couple of places but not at food centres. I think they’d get a rude surprise if they tried that in London.
      Singapore Food Festival?! I’m checking it out now!

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