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Weekday Office Lunch Culture in Singapore

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.

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.

A table unofficially ‘chope-d’ or reserved

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.


Always thinking about what's next, spends a fortune on teh. Instagram: @globetrotj

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