The first thing you need to do if you’re visiting Singapore’s famous hawker markets is “chope” your table. That’s right folks, an everyday packet of tissues is your No. 1 friend. It’s the Singaporean equivalent of Germans reserving sun loungers with their towels. The practice is widespread – and it’s controversial – but it’s what we’re told to do.
Tissues, I learn, not soy sauce, not chilli and definitely not vinegar, are your best accompaniment. Not only do they help you mop up hands and face after another memorable hawker feast, but a packet placed on your immaculate, laminated table is a signal that the table is yours – known locally as to “chope” – leaving you free to wait in line and collect your food at leisure from your chosen vendor.
Not that we need to stand in line, or stall hop. We’re in the capable hands of Karen Zheng, our guide from Wok ‘n’ Stroll. Pint-sized Karen, a local and a hawker aficionado, is sweating like she’s at a Bikram yoga class, as she loads up groaning trays of delectable dishes from the Tiong Bahru Food Centre on a sultry Saturday morning, keen for us to try everything.
It’s 10am, and people are fainting before our eyes. Seriously. Overcome by the heat, we see an elderly lady go down twice before an ambulance arrives and carts her off. Later I hear it’s a common occurrence at Singapore’s hawker centres, with many elderly people overwhelmed by the hot weather. Anyway, back to the tissues and the reason we’re here – to eat.
Karen arrives with our first tray laden with tasty fish balls, chwee kueh (steamed Chinese water cake) with a decent kick of sambal, otah (fish wrapped in banana leaf) and deep fried fish cake. It’s easy to work out which are the most popular stalls by looking at the longest lines. But Karen knows the best thing to order, and from which stall.
There are 250 stalls in the two-storey centre – one of the oldest hawker centres in Singapore and a tried and true favourite. Downstairs is where you shop for flowers, fresh produce, seafood and meat; upstairs is where you eat. Dishes cost as little as one or two Singaporean dollars, Karen says, which makes you wonder why anyone would cook. It’s here you’ll find Tiong Bahru Hainanese’s boneless chicken rice, included in the Michelin guide, Jian Bo Shui Kueh’s famous chwee kueh and Lee Hong Kee Cantonese Roasted for its renowned char siew. Karen tells us it would be sacrilege to leave without trying the famous “Michael Jackson”, a super sweet “black or white” soy and jelly drink.
Most Singaporean families eat out on the weekend, and many choose to come to Tiong Bahru for breakfast, says Karen. The atmosphere is slightly festive with a man playing keyboards, and generations of Singaporeans sitting around tables piled high with food.
After Karen shows us around downstairs, we head back upstairs for yet another round of delicious dishes. Finally, we admit defeat, ready to collapse in a food coma. Maybe, just maybe, it’s not the heat leading to the elderly dropping to the floor after all? Or maybe they just forgot their tissues.
The writer was a guest of Accor Hotels and Resorts, Singapore Tourism Board and Qantas.
Qantas flies between Sydney and Singapore twice daily with three flights offered on Sundays, Mondays and Fridays on a combination of A330s and A380s. From Melbourne, Qantas offers twice-daily services. See qantas.com
Rooms at Swissotel the Stamford, Singapore start from $250 a night including breakfast. See swissotel.com/hotels/singapore-stamford/
Wok ‘n’ Stroll’s Hawker Centre Discovery tour runs for between two and three hours, includes food and drink and costs $SG100 a person. See woknstroll.com.sg