Taiwan is known for its signature Asian cuisine found at night markets whereas Singapore is known for its hawker centers — but how do they actually differ?
The frenzied night markets found in Taiwan are truly the epitome of Taiwanese culture. They are loud, busy, and filled with a seemingly endless array of delicious local foods. Hawker centers are essentially the same, but with a few key differences.
What are Hawker Centers?
Hawker center is the name given to the numerous informal open-air food stalls that are found in Asian countries like Singapore and Malaysia. They sell inexpensive local foods and are often found near major transportation hubs, like bus stations or large train stations.
Singapore is probably the country most recognized and renowned for their hawker centers. Singapore has also helped improve the overall image of hawker centers as they were once known for unlicensed hawkers selling non-hygienic foods. In the past, many hawker centers were not properly managed and had problems with no running water or lack of appropriate cleaning facilities.
Today, Singapore has turned some hawker centers into more of a food court atmosphere, moving them inside air-conditioned shopping malls, a smart move given the extremely hot and humid climate of Singapore.
Types of Food Served at Hawker Centers and Night Markets
The types of food sold at hawker centers versus night markets is one of the biggest differences between the two.
Hawker centers are more like fast food restaurants, serving whole meals and combination platters. In places like Singapore, many hawker centers even feature special Halal cuisine, meaning the food passes Islamic dietary laws. There are even signs reminding patrons not to mix the dishes from a Halal stall with those from a regular Chinese food stall.
Typical night markets, like those found in Taiwan, serve more snack type foods. Most booths or stalls feature one or two types of specialty items and patrons walk from booth to booth to sample many different foods. One food stall may carry only steamed dumplings while the next food cart features stinky tofu and oyster omelets, two of Taiwan’s signature snack foods.
Popular food items at Singapore hawker centers include large seafood meals, from Singapore’s signature chili crab to more obscure items like barbecued stingray. Many dishes have noticeable Malay or Indonesian influences as well. Besides oyster omelets and stinky tofu, Taiwan night markets are known for a variety of delicious local foods like sausages, grilled squid, candied tomatoes on a stick, large fried chicken patties, and practically every chicken (or duck) organ imaginable. Signature Taiwanese drinks found all over night markets include pearl milk tea, aiyu jelly, and blended fresh fruit concoctions and smoothies.
Seating at Singapore Hawker Centers versus Taiwan Night Markets
Another major difference of hawker centers versus typical Asian night markets is the availability of seating. Hawker centers usually feature numbered tables where patrons can spread out and enjoy their meal. The typical process is to scope out a table, remember the number, and then go place an order. The person taking the order will ask for the table number and the food will then be delivered. This means a person could order food from different stalls and have everything delivered to their table.
Night markets are traditionally standing room only, which is why snack foods are the featured fare. Vendors typically use mobile carts and many are not permanent storefronts or stalls like a hawker center. People may sit along a curb or some carts have a small table and several stools set up, provided there is room. Taiwan is known for serving many unexpected foods on a stick and it is the night market culture that has lead to these popular foods being served on a skewer.
Lines are often lengthy at night market food carts, especially those vendors who have developed a following over the years. It is not uncommon to see 50 people or more in line at some food stalls. Many tourists have learned to seek out the long lines to ensure they try the best local cuisine.
Some of the larger night markets, like the famous Shilin Market in Taipei, have a separate food building where very limited seating is available; however, it is not nearly as comfortable and spacious as a hawker center. The Jiantan food building at the Shilin Night Market is not for the faint of heart or those with claustrophobia. The aisles are extremely narrow and on weekends it is not uncommon to be packed in like sardines.
Location of Hawker Centers and Night Markets
Hawker centers are in a permanent central location with structural starting and ending points. They are typically adjacent to major transportation hubs and greatly resemble shopping mall food courts in the United States.
Night markets span entire blocks and feature a mix of food, shopping, and entertainment. They tend to be in many neighborhood districts, located close to transportation hubs, but especially near trendy shopping or university areas.
Taiwan night markets also blend temporary, mobile elements with permanent storefronts and restaurants. During the day, a night market area may appear as a regular neighborhood with shops, restaurants, etc. Once late afternoon hits, vendors begin setting up for the rush of nighttime visitors. While there is still some risk of unlicensed vendors setting up, police typically patrol most night market areas to verify vendors are properly licensed.
Overall, the concept of hawker centers and night markets are fundamentally the same. They serve as central hubs where locals go to enjoy inexpensive local foods and provide an opportunity for tourists to experience some of the best cuisine the country is known for.