In Singapore, lunch time frenzy is akin to Black Friday shopping, well almost. With a satisfying meal at a hawker centre or coffeeshop setting you back for as little as $3, most people head out of the office for lunch, instead of bringing lunch from home.
Just head to Raffles Place where the Central Business District for the classic lunch scene. The office working crowd - men in ties, women in heels, making a beeline for their desired lunch spot, which they've probably decided on already the same morning on their way to work. Well in food nation Singapore, asking "What's for lunch?" while having breakfast is common.
What's for lunch?
10 years ago, sandwiches, salads and broths were a no-no for a meal. Those were snacks, and what people described as 'ang-moh' (a Westerner's) food. A meal meant something like rice or noodles - something substantial and filling. Now that soup, salad and juice bars have been in the dining scene for a good ten years perhaps, those especially the younger generation exposed to more diet concepts are more receptive. Compared to spending $3 at a hawker centre for an imbalanced meal of chicken rice, people are willing to spend $15 for a salad. Having said this, hawker centres would still win hands down as the go-to spot for lunch. With easily 50 stalls to choose from at a hawker centre serving classic Singapore dishes like prawn noodles in a thick shrimp and pork rib broth, or moist char kway tiao (thick noodles fried in lard and dark sauce) with extra cockles, which self-respecting local would pass up at least a day's lunch in a week there?
Because of the lunch rush and the challenge to find a seat at the eateries, many just takeaway their lunch and then head back to the office to dine at their desks. Speaking of a takeaway, here, the word takeaway is used to mean to have your food order packed, instead of the phrases 'to go' or take out". A good word to pick up here is the Cantonese word 'da-bao', which is used interchangeably and colloquially here. If you are dining in, usually the phrase used would be 'having here' (as in 'I will be having my food here.'). Well, proper English might not be our thing, but Singlish sure is. Probably just about 10 to 20% of the people would pack lunch from home and pop their food in plastic containers into the microwave at the office pantry.
Most people, especially the ladies, would be armed with an umbrella and a packet of tissue. The most important function of these items would be to reserve a seat, while they go to purchase their food. Yes, when you see a long umbrella place across a table in Singapore, that means that the owner of the umbrella will be coming back to that table for a meal. It does not mean 'free umbrella'. Same goes for all other random items including packets of tissue, name cards, handkerchieves, even shopping bags, you name it. A useful Singlish word to pick up here is 'chope', which means, to put something on reserve.
Getting a seat
This requires skill, and friendly smile. Everyone understands it is impossible to have personal space during lunch eating out. Asking to share a table is almost always a must. The bigger your lunch group, the bigger your challenge of finding adjoining seats. The key is to leave the office early for lunch (say, 11.40am?), or just wait for the lunch crowd to clear out at a later time. Most people, especially the ladies, would be armed with an umbrella and a packet of tissue. The most important function of these items would be to reserve a seat, while they go to purchase their food. Yes, when you see a long umbrella place across a table in Singapore, that means that the owner of the umbrella will be coming back to that table for a meal. It does not mean 'free umbrella'. Same goes for all other random items including packets of tissue, name cards, handkerchieves, even shopping bags, you name it. A useful Singlish word to pick up here is 'chope', which means, to put something on reserve.
Caffeine, or not
Something that locals here will not exchange anything for is that daily, or twice a day, caffeine shot. Other than long queues at local coffee and tea stalls (at just over a dollar!) before work hours, the snaking queues resume post-lunch when a coffee or tea is a must for most to seal the lunch deal. While some prop their drinks over to a table to sip, most would just do a takeaway back to the office. The more health conscious folks would be found at small shops selling fruit and juice getting a packet of fruit.
Whether you’ll be living in Singapore for a couple of months or years, or will be visiting for a short period of time - Singapore is not cheap. Prices in Singapore are rising and if you’re looking to stay in Singapore on a budget, you’re going to have to stay in hostels and scrimp on several things. Fret not, because here we’ll give you some tips to save some money during your stay here!
If you’re going to be living in Singapore for a while, let us introduce to you some tips to surviving on your budget.
1. Cook your own meals
Groceries in Singapore are affordable. Not every food is cheap, of course, but most vegetables and meat at the wet markets and the supermarkets are fairly cheap. If there’s a wet market near your area, buy your food there - most of the time, it’s cheaper and fresher than the supermarkets. Otherwise, head to NTUC, Giant or Sheng Siong Supermarket to get your daily necessities. These supermarkets tend to be cheaper and have offers from time to time, especially during festive seasons. Chinese new year just passed, so you would have seen lots of discounts and festive goodies to satisfy your tummy. Shiok!
2. If you want to eat out… eat at the hawker centres
Avoid the cafés and the restaurants if you want to eat cheap. But cheap food doesn’t mean bad food. There are lots of hawker centres in Singapore that offer a large variety of delicious food in different cuisines that will leave you salivating and coming back for more. The Old Airport Road Food Centre, Chomp Chomp Food Centre and Maxwell Road Hawker Centre are some of the famous great ones you’ll find, just to name a few. Give them a shot and you may be surprised at some of the quality food you’ll be able to sniff out.
3. Don’t shop at Orchard Road
Sure, Orchard Road is Singapore’s famous shopping belt in town. That’s true, but along with its name comes the high cost. Many branded stores line its roads, rent is high, and thus clothes are expensive. Orchard Road does offer a lot of stores for you to enjoy, but if you want really cheap clothes, let us introduce you to online shopping - and in particular, an online platform called Taobao. There, you can find almost anything but for a fraction of the price. If you see a gorgeous skirt in store, chances are, you’ll find a similar or the exact same one on Taobao! I once bought a shirt for S$2. Yes, it’s possible. Everything is manufactured in China, so expect some waiting time and some products that may have low quality. There are many websites online that provide you with information on which store in Taobao to purchase from, so check them out and rock your stylish outfits!
If you prefer buying in stores, visit the cheaper stores within neighbourhoods, Bugis Street and Chinatown.
4. Don’t buy bottled water
Tap water in Singapore is safe to drink. Bring a water bottle with you and fill it up with tap water. You’ll do fine.
5. Buy an EZ-Link Card to travel around
The EZ-Link Card stores cash value in it and enables you to take public transport anywhere, be it the train or the bus. You can top up any amount you want, depending on the length of your stay. Instead of using taxis, use the card and travel around on our fairly efficient public transport system. Singapore’s not that big so you’re likely to be able to get to your destinations using just the trains the buses.
Alcohol is expensive in Singapore. I’m in Europe right now and alcohol in Singapore costs more than most parts of Europe and the US due to the high taxes imposed on it. Drinking at a bar or a club will cost you quite a bit of money and you will have to drink in moderation if you want to save.
What Singaporeans like to do is to buy drinks from the convenience stores such as 7-Eleven, then hang out with their friends to drink together. That’s a cheaper alternative you can do. Just note - no buying of alcohol or drinking in public areas after 10.30pm.
7. Go for all the Freebies
Singaporeans absolutely love freebies. Free food, free drinks, free anything - many kiasu Singaporeans will almost certainly go for all the freebies they can find. If there’s free entrance to museums, use the chance and visit them. If entry to Sentosa through the boardwalk is free - and it IS free till end 2017 - take the chance and visit Sentosa’s beaches and whatever nature it has to offer. Skip the Universal Studios because the entrance fee is expensive. But use the chance to explore Singapore and all its free parks for you to enjoy.
So there, you can survive in Singapore on a budget and yet still soak in all the charms it has to offer. Good food, city life and beautiful parks - you can be sure to have the chance to experience it all without breaking your bank. You’ll be able to experience many parts of Singapore’s culture in your everyday life and have the time of your life enjoying festivities and having fun in a safe environment.