Hawker centers in Singapore are basically food courts. I’ve had a few people argue with me that a hawker center indoors is actually a food court, but they have the same types of stalls and selections of food so I don’t see the point in differentiating the two. Coming from the US I initially considered them to be the ‘poor man’s’ choice of dining establishments, but experience has proven otherwise.
There are a lot of good sit down restaurants in Singapore, like Sakura and Seoul Garden, but the majority of what Singapore has to offer in terms of food comes from its hawker establishments. Hawker centers can have anywhere from a handful to dozens of stalls to choose from. You can get anything from ‘Western’ style food (typically fried chicken, steak, lamb and fish & chips) to mee goreng and roti prata. You won’t find much in the way of Italian food that I’ve seen, or anything Russian, etc. The choices seem to focus mostly on Asian cuisine, which only makes sense given that Singapore is in Asia.
Some of the best eating I’ve had has come from hawkers, like Hainanese Chicken Rice, which is one of Singapore’s signature dishes. You can also find chili crab in hawker centers, which is another local favorite. These hawker centers are like a door to experiencing Asian eating. I can’t even count the number of foods I’ve ‘discovered’ through eating at them. My latest discovery is a great mutton soup from a hawker stall at Bedok’s interchange. It’s incredible!
Indoor hawker centers do closely resemble what you’d see in the US in terms of set-up. The only major difference is that when you want drinks you have to go to a separate stall to order them, where in the US you would order your drink along with your food. The stall that serves drinks is also where you go for local desserts like pulut hitam or ice kachang (sp?), should you want to sample them. The outdoor hawker centers are typically covered, or partially covered, by a roof with fans. Most will also have a TV to cater to the beer drinking, football (a.k.a. soccer in the US) loving crowd. People do tend to gather together in the evenings here, especially the weekends, to watch TV and drink at the hawker centers, which is pretty cool.
There are a few things you have to keep in mind when eating at a hawker center, as a foreigner. The first thing you need to know is to bring your own napkins! Hawker centers won’t provide you napkins, with few exceptions. Most food in Singapore is spicy too, so if you don’t come prepared you’ll wind up using your hand and pants / shirt to wipe away your sniffles. I’ll admit I’ve had to do that myself a few times and it’s not at all pleasant, and is a bit embarrassing. Another thing to keep in mind is that you’ll want to wash your hands somewhere else before-hand, or bring hand sanitizer. Not all hawkers have a restroom, and the ones that do are often not the best smelling or cleanest looking. That’s more the case with outdoor hawkers than indoor ones, because indoor hawkers are typically located in malls which have great restroom facilities. Also, most hawker stalls have pictures on billboard style menus to help customers with the ordering process. It helps in a lot of cases, but don’t let the pictures fool you. Sometimes the food is better than it looks. And well… sometimes it’s not.
During my first trip to Singapore in March of 2008 I avoided the hawker centers. Like I said before, I considered them to be the ‘poor man’s’ choice and assumed I would find better food in sit down restaurants. I was actually disappointed with my choices and wasn’t too impressed with the food offered in Singapore. Later, my wife told me to stop being so damn picky and to eat at the hawker and I’m glad I did.
In closing, if you come to Singapore don’t fall into the trap that I initially did. Don’t assume that price equates with quality or good taste when it comes to Singapore’s dining scene. If you come to Singapore and don’t try the hawker food you’re going to be missing out on most of the best of what Singapore has to offer.