We can thank – or blame – the extensive British colonial reach for making exotic islands, like Hong Kong and Singapore, user-friendly. Hong Kong has retained a bit of it’s gaudy, naughty glamour with an edgier persona than the fastidious Singapore, but safe and easy and extremely approachable, Singapore is an excellent entrée to Asia, jokingly called Asia-light for it’s ease to newcomers, there are a few tips to enjoy an authentic Singapore experience. Since Singapore is food crazy we will start with a few dining tips. While there are many options for fine dinning the best experiences can be found at coffee shops, hawker stands and food courts and that is the English-language ‘wheels fall off the bus’. Street food can be found at coffee shops, Kopitiams, which seldom actually sell coffee. Singaporeans refer to stand-alone or loosely organized groups of food stands as coffee shops. Typically each coffee shop specializes in one to three food items. Most owners have specialized in that one dish and have avoided the distractions of an extensive menu allowing them to bring that dish to perfection. Organize several coffee shops under one roof and you have a hawker stand. The name hawker stand harkens back to the day when the owners of the individual stands would yell out what they sold or “hawk” their wares. Hawker stands are a great way to experience a wide variety of foods and drinks, some have a theme such as the hawker center down by the cruise ship port, that is a Halal hawker stand (a strict Muslim code of food rules similar to kosher) or the one in the business district that is mostly satay. Finally, if you put a hawker center in an air-conditioned building you have a food court like a much tastier version of a western mall food court.
Etiquette for eating at Singapore coffee shops, hawker stands and food courts. Remember those small packs of tissues your grandmother carried in her purse next to the star mints? Well they serve an important purpose in Singapore, since the tables are open-seating they serve as a way to save seats so if you see a section of tables that has those little packs of tissue those seats are reserved, so don’t mistakenly assume they are complementary. In Singlish (a hybrid of english, malay, Hokkien, and slang) it is called ‘chopping’ which translates to reserved. Additionally, most of these styles of eating establishments do not offer napkins, so bring your own (hence, the little tissue packs!) and although most bathrooms are clean and well-stocked, in some neighborhoods they may not be, enough said. If there is a halal section there will be special bins to place your plates and utensils separately from other non-halal service, if you have to bus your table it is best to observe the locals and do as they do, but normally someone will bus the table for you.
What to eat with in Singapore. What to eat with can be as different as the multitude of food options. Chop sticks and the spoon that looks like your mother’s stove-top spoon rest are the most common utensils and should be self-explanatory, scoop and slurp, just remember to not stick you chop sticks in your food leaving them standing up this is considered a sign of death and highly disrespectful throughout out southeast Asia. Some Indian restaurants will serve your food on a banana leaf without any utensils and may or may not have eating utensils available. If you wish to go traditional eat with your hand – note, your right hand – do not eat with your left hand as this is highly offensive and disgusting as the left hand is reserved for less sanitary tasks. Roll rice into balls and use them to soak up the wetter parts of the meal or sop it up with naan (flat bread). Spoons and forks are becoming more common but used slightly differently, the fork is used to cut and scoop the food on to the spoon and food is consumed from the spoon not the fork.