One of the joys of oversea traveling for us is an opportunity to explore and eat where locals eat. Street food is a way of life in many Asian countries. It was for me when I grew up in Thailand. We embrace it when we travel. Our most memorable experience in each country we visited often includes hanging out where locals live and eating street food.
I still vividly remember enjoying cockles (bivalve mollusks) in sweet chili sauce on a street of Ho Chi Mihn City. Or the time we had our dinner on the sidewalk of Siem Reap, Cambodia. Whenever we visited Thailand, we kept our eyes out for grilled skewered fermented sausages, grilled cuttlefish, or a yummy bowl of noodle with stewed beef and meat balls among many other things to try.
Some countries in Asia, like Hong Kong and Singapore, are more organized and regulated about how food can be sold. You seldom find vendors selling food on pushcarts or in temporary stalls on streets and sidewalks there. Yet street food could be found in places like hawker centers or cooked food centers. It’s a more organized and sanitary way to deal with selling street food. In Singapore, hawker centers are open-air building complex that house stalls that sell a wide variety of affordable local food. They are typically located in city centers, near public transportation hubs or high density housing complex. In contrast, food courts, which are air-conditioned version of cooked food centers, are typically located in shopping malls.
David and I visited Singapore for one week in December 2011. Although Singapore’s hotels are notorious for being expensive for the size, finding ones near good hawker centers means you can feast on wonderful local food without breaking the bank. That’s what we did (and our room was tiny). There were so many options for local food within walking distance from our hotel in Chinatown.
In hawker centers, each stall that sells food is operated independently. They generally have a limited menu of what they sell posted along with the price on an overhead board. Some might have accompanying pictures of the food. I like seeing food stalls with limited menus. For me, the more limited the menu they have, the more likelihood the food will be good. It indicates that the vendors only do what they do best. Limited menus also mean fewer ingredients they have to carry in stock. Carrying what they use all the time means a fast turnover of those ingredients and things don’t have time to get stale.
After decided what you’d like to eat, you order and pay for your food at the stall. Everything is self-service. You bring your own food to a table. Some hawker centers have large tables, so it’s not uncommon that you will be sharing the table with other diners, especially during busy meal times.
During our one week in Singapore, we ate at a few hawker centers, some more than once. We found the quality of food to be good or excellent. Most food in hawker centers that we had were delicious. Some were better than others. When the food wasn’t expensive, it’s a great opportunity to be adventurous without feeling like being ripped off.
What is your experience with street food?