Singapore: Food centre etiquette
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.