The only thing more rewarding than eating in Singapore is eating like a local. That means knowing all the inside stories of how and why different cultures in Singapore eat the way they do. In a business or casual setting, most Singaporeans are easygoing about table etiquette so feel free to ask if you’re unsure about anything. But if you’d really like to blend in, check out our food etiquette guide and you’ll be more comfortable eating like a local!
Chinese food culture places great emphasis on piety and respect for elders, so defer to older guests at the table. Meals are served in courses, or in large shared dishes at the centre of the table. Chopsticks are standard, but you’re welcome to ask for a fork if that’s what you prefer. If you’re unfamiliar with chopsticks, remember that they should neither cross each other, nor be used to point at someone. They should also never be stuck vertically into a bowl, as this is reminiscent of offerings to the deceased. If you’re served a whole fish, it may seem natural to flip it over but this is considered a bad omen for fishermen, so try to slide the flesh out from the underside without flipping the fish. When your tea cup is refilled, signal your thanks by tapping the table, a tradition that has its roots in legend.
In Malay cuisine, alcohol is rarely, if ever, served as most Malays are Muslim. Rice is generally the main dish, along with a range of meat and vegetable dishes. Malays traditionally eat with the right hand. The left hand is used for bodily hygiene and is generally not used to touch food. Finger bowls are usually provided to clean your hands before and after the meal. However, both when eating in a restaurant and at home, cutlery is provided as well. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims break fast at sunset. If you’re invited to join a Muslim family during a fast-breaking meal, bear in mind that this is an occasion of great religious significance. Breaking fast usually starts with dates. If you bring a gift of food, ensure that it’s halal.
People from several areas of India also eat with their hands, and the right hand rule applies here as well. However, as with Malay cuisine, restaurants do provide cutlery, so you don't have to worry. In any case, washing your hands before eating is considered polite. Hindu Indians generally don’t eat beef, and many are vegetarian, with some avoiding eggs and garlic as well. Depending on the type, your food could be served individually, or with all the dishes at once. Many Indian meals will also have the vegetarian dishes placed slightly separate from the meat-based ones. If you clean your plate completely, you might find that your host insists that you eat more; leaving a bit of food on your plate shows that you’re full and satisfied.
At food courts, you might notice empty tables with packets of tissue left on them. This is a great way to learn the Singaporean term ‘chope’, which means ‘to book.’ The tissue packets are a way of reserving your table while you go to a stall to buy something to eat. So if you're unwilling to leave your bag and valuables unattended, go ahead and place your own tissue packet to chope your table! Singaporean food courts and fast food restaurants ask that you return your tray to one of the tray return stations after you’re done with your meal. Though there is usually a cleanup crew, it would help make their job easier if everyone does their part to clear their own tables after their meals.
So go ahead and enjoy Singapore’s diverse food culture with everything you have – and simply follow these tips to get the most out of your food adventures in Singapore!