How to Eat at a Hawker Centre

Hawker Centres in Malaysia
A fairly quiet hawker centre in Singapore.

When you’re traveling through Malaysia and/or Singapore, there’s no better place to get delicious and cheap food than at a hawker centre. But what’s a hawker centre you might be asking? It’s essentially like an outdoor food court made up of a bunch of different food vendors selling a variety of dishes and drinks. There’s usually at least one hawker centre in each neighbourhood of a city, with most people having a favourite. It might seem overwhelming at first, but once you get the hang of how to eat at a hawker centre, you’ll be coming back again and again.  So to help you navigate your first appearance, and to make you look like a pro on your first go, here’s an insider’s guide on how to eat at a hawker centre.

Find a Table

The first thing you’ll need to do is find a table. Since most places are busy throughout the day, and especially at night, finding an open table might be tricky. Just be patient and quick on your toes. Don’t worry about sitting down at a table with dirty dishes. Just push them to the side and the cleaning staff will come by and pick them up. One thing to be aware of though, is sitting down at a table with a package of tissues lying in the middle of it. A friend of ours, who had been living in Singapore for some time, recounted a story of how he had sat at a table and pushed a package of tissues to the side thinking someone had just left them behind. Well it turned out someone purposefully left it behind as a “claim” on the table. Needless to say, he received some dirty looks from nearby diners and when the original person returned, they were none to pleased to see someone else at “their” table.

Scope Out the Merchandise

Before making any decisions, take a walk around the centre and see what’s there. You’ll be surprised at how many different foods and drink options are available and everything will look amazing! Sorry, but this article won’t be able to help you choose. Most vendors will specialize in some sort of dish or two and their prices are almost always posted. You’ll know if a particular vendor has “the goods” if you see a line up of people in front of it. If you’re dining at a centre on your own, you may want to scope out what’s on the menu first before finding a table.

Place Your Food Order

Before placing your order, make note of the number on your table. Every table in the centre will be numbered (so the vendors will know where to deliver your food). Head over to your vendor(s) of choice and place your order. Many dishes will come in either a small or large size and you can even stipulate less or more oil and/or spice, so indicate your choices when you place your order. You’ll then be asked for your table number and that’s it! Head back to your table and wait for your food to arrive. Note: If a vendor has a sign that says “self-service” it means that you will have to wait for your food to be cooked and then you’ll take the food to your table yourself.

Hawker Centrea in Singapore
Note the prices listed across the top and the small sign on the bottom indicating you'll have to wait for your food.

Get Some Drinks

While waiting for your food to arrive, order a drink from one of the drink vendors. There will be lots of options, from fruit juices (the most popular being lime), sodas, coffees, and beer. In fact, getting beer at a hawker centre will be the cheapest place you’ll find it, especially in Singapore. So, drink up! Just like the food, you’ll place your order and wait for it to arrive at your table.

Pay For Your Food

If you’ve ordered your food or drinks and it will be delivered to your table, you’ll pay the server when it arrives. If you’ve ordered your food from a vendor that’s “self-service”, you’ll pay for your food first before getting your order.

Enjoy!

The only thing left to do now is enjoy your meal. If you’re visiting a centre with a few other people, order a variety of dishes so you can sample as much as possible. Then on your return visit, you’ll have a better idea of what you’ll want to eat (or maybe not if you’re as indecisive when it comes to food as me!)

How to eat at a food court in Malaysia?
Dig in and enjoy!

While your first time eating at a hawker centre may seem a little daunting, it’ll be one of your more memorable experiences while traveling in Malaysia and Singapore. They’re the perfect one-stop shop for quick, tasty, and cheap food! And once you make that return trip home, you’ll be wishing for them again.