SINGAPORE - In the wealthy city-state of Singapore, eating is a national pastime. Cheap fast food from hawker centres, the local forerunner to shopping mall food courts, is a dietary staple, with most locals happy to wait in line for the best dishes and the fortunes of hawker stalls rising and falling on word of mouth.
Dishes like chili crab, laksa noodles, fish-head curry, fried carrot cake (actually made from shredded radish) and bak kut teh, a hearty pork rib soup, are just a few examples of food from India, Malaysia, China and Indonesia that one can find in abundance in Singapore's hawker centres.
In Singapore, where the authorities leave nothing to chance, hawker centres were first set up in the 1950s with subsidized rents to control and regulate the sale of food. Over time, they have become ubiquitous and can be found in office blocks, shopping malls and tourist haunts. In fact, these days, hawker centres are a must-go for tourists keen on a taste of local flavors. For Singaporeans, the names of the best stalls are passed around like gifts.
However, many mom-and-pop stalls have been forced to close over the last few years, hit by a combination of high rents, lack of interest in hand-me-down shops among the children of proprietors and a general sense that the days of Hainanese chicken rice for a few dollars are nearly over.
What may replace the hawker centre can be gleaned in a souped-up version of what is known as a kopitiam. Before the proliferation of hawker centres, there was the kopitiam, a transliteration of the Hokkien term for coffee shop. Each kopitiam typically housed stalls selling drinks, noodles, rice, Indian food and Malay food. They were a Singaporean version of a British local pub where neighbours gathered, ate and drank together.