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Food Courts, and Why We Need More of Them

Imagine hearing the clanging of woks and the sizzle of meats while the aroma of garlic and sweet chillies cling to the sticky, humid air. This is what I call chaotic heaven. Under a gigantic canopy sits huge families, grandparents included, around circular tables covered in dishes like chicken satay, chilli crab, char kway teow noodles, and fishball soup. Or you can simply find old-timers strolling around for good company. 

Hawker centres, or food courts, are the heart and soul of Singapore. Growing up in Singapore, nothing beats the cheap eats and seriously faint-worthy food in hawker centres. Each and every stall, peppered all over the country, represents a piece of the community of different races and generations. Hawker centres are a heritage symbol of the multiculturalism of Singapore. But beyond that, it’s a place to gather. When I came to America for college, that aspect of a food community just didn’t exist. 

Hawker stalls in Singapore originated from street vendors in the mid-1800s when early settlers set up these stalls with minimal cost and skill. These settlers came from all walks of life—they were Chinese, Malay, Indian, and more. Over time, each cultural dish melded into the unique Singaporean local cuisine we know today. By 1968, the government moved street hawker stalls into licensed centres with proper amenities and sanitation. There are now over 110 hawker centres all over Singapore, some tucked away in apartment buildings as a social gathering place for the neighborhood. These stall owners, or hawkers, can be family-run businesses across generations. The vitality of hawker centres is crucial to Singapore’s cultural heritage. 

What if we had hawker centres in America? What would that look like?

In Boston, the closest comparison to a hawker centre would be Time Out Market. The concept is the same—community tables, outdoor seating, and individual stalls with different cuisines to mix and match your orders. However, the prices are very different. You can get a Michelin star meal for as low as $5 at hawker centres! 

But beyond just prices, Time Out Market doesn’t emulate the soul of hawker centres. And it boils down to America’s lack of generational connection to food and community sharing in a culture steeped in individualism. 

I remember taking my cousins from Australia to a hawker centre. We feasted on dishes like fried carrot cake (my favorite—white radish pastry fried in sweet black sauce with an egg omelette), laksa (rice noodles in a rich and spicy coconut broth), chicken rice (a Singapore classic), and more. You couldn’t see the yellow plastic table beneath all the food. This is how we introduce Singapore when visitors come. The sharing aspect is key. And beyond small tapas in a wildly Americanized Spanish restaurant, I don’t see that level of sharing here. Appetizers, entrees, and side dishes? Just eat anything that’s in front of you! That’s the mindset. Nothing is yours and nothing is mine. 

What’s worse, non-American/European dishes lose their authenticity in America. I’m not talking about the small cultural restaurants owned and run by people of color. It’s the places like Time Out Market, marketing off the idea of diverse food selection, that dilute the foods itself to make it more palatable to a white customer base. Places like PF Changs also rub me the wrong way. It’s this blatant ignorance for authenticity that would make the idea of a hawker centre fail in America. 

At the same time, is that what we need? Can the concept of traditional cuisines in a community gathering space normalize cultural sharing in a country that’s so afraid to do so? Time Out Market needs a new marketing team.

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