Hawker Culture, in the Words of a Singaporean

An ode to hawker culture, a new addition to UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list.

17 December 2020, 10:56am

The hawker center, with its neatly lined food stalls serving bustling crowds, has long been a symbol of Singaporean culture. And now it’s official. On Wednesday, the country’s hawker culture was officially added to the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, after a big push from the government and citizens. 

Other traditions that made it onto the UNESCO list this year include camel racing in the United Arab Emirates and Oman, Budima dance in Zambia, and Yeondeunghoe or lantern lighting festival in South Korea — all distinctive expressions of local culture.

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In the 1960s, Singapore’s hawker centers first emerged as a solution to unregulated street hawking, providing an organized facility for vendors to sell food. Today, hawker centers are celebrated for their multicultural culinary offerings, their promotion of national identity, and their function as “community dining rooms.”

Having amassed over 850,000 pledges from Singaporeans and various community initiatives in support of the UNESCO nomination, the inscription of hawker culture on the UNESCO list is, to many Singaporeans, a long time coming.

While the essence of hawker culture may find palpable resonance among Singaporeans, others may not be quite sure why a cluttered collection of food stalls is firmly placed as an emblem of local culture. What exactly is hawker culture?

Well, here’s my attempt at explaining the “intangible.” The way I see it, hawker centers are the locus of contradictions. It’s where unhurried “uncles” and “aunties” enjoy their morning cup of kopi (coffee) over neighborly chit-chat, but also where busy bees wolf down fuss-free meals during their work breaks.

Kaya (coconut jam) toast with kopi (coffee), an iconic local breakfast commonly enjoyed in neighborhood hawker centers. Photo: Lim Shi Min

It’s mingling with ultra-friendly hawkers and stripping away the unnecessary courtesies with aloof ones. It’s unabashedly flirting your way to getting an extra hearty portion of food, but also no-nonsense transactions at peak efficiency. At a hawker center, both are perfectly acceptable modes of interaction.

It’s about getting an affordable meal in a matter of minutes. But Singaporeans know that many would travel far and wide just to wait in an excruciatingly long line for the “best” local dishes. Some hawker stalls are critically acclaimed, even boasting accolades like Michelin stars, while others gain immense popularity simply by word of mouth.

“But it’s also ideal for the simplest comfort meal like fish noodle soup, roti prata, or chicken rice — and perhaps eating in awkward silence with a stranger who’s sharing the table.”

It’s going to a culinary playground with a large group of friends, each ordering something different so everyone can try everything. Hawker centers are perfect for a chaotic social gathering. But it’s also ideal for the simplest comfort meal like fish noodle soup, roti prata, or chicken rice — and perhaps eating in awkward silence with a stranger who’s sharing the table.

A hawker center is where everyone gets to try a little bit of everything. Photo: Ye Qian Wei

It’s getting paralyzed by the sheer variety of culinary delights all crammed into one place, not knowing which one to choose — I know it’s just a meal, but still! It’s also the reassuring knowledge that, on your less adventurous days, there’s always that trusty food stall serving the best iteration of your favorite dish.

A glistening plate of chicken rice. Photo: Koh Ewe

It’s the undeniable affordability and generous servings — “let’s go to a hawker centre!” I would suggest, when my wallet starts to feel the ache of recent impulse buys — but also the unparalleled satisfaction of the taste buds. Let’s face it. You’re probably not going to find the best Singaporean food in a fancy restaurant. Hawker centers are where the good food’s at.

A helpless picture taken that time I got tragically lost in the maze that is Chinatown Complex Food Centre, one of the largest hawker centers in Singapore. Wasn’t my proudest moment. Photo: Koh Ewe

Hawker centers are a sweaty mess of a culinary fest. No matter how glamorous they looked on Crazy Rich Asians, a meal at a hawker center is always a noisy, humid fare. You’re probably going to emerge hair frizzed from perspiration and makeup melting off your face, but that’s OK because no one will be looking their best anyway. Plus, for such unpretentious and satiating eats, you probably wouldn’t even care. I know I don’t.

Tagged:

Culture, Singapore, Hawker, Hawker Centers

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