Learn the food lingo: How to order and get what you want in Singapore

Patrons queueing up at Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice in Maxwell Food Centre during lunch hours on April 26, 2012. PHOTO: ST FILE
Patrons queueing up at Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice in Maxwell Food Centre during lunch hours on April 26, 2012. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Over lunch on Thursday, my brother asked me "how do I order 'ji wei fan' in English?".

"Chicken backside rice?" I hazarded.

It just didn't sound as appetising as the euphemistic Mandarin version - "chicken tail" rice.

He settled for normal chicken rice, so as not to hold up the queue with his linguistic conundrum.

A few hours later, I read a blog on The Wall Street Journal by Laura Schwartz on the woes expatriates in Singapore face when ordering food.

In "On finicky expats in Singapore, and their double standards", the Singapore-based Irish writer calls service in Singapore "halfhearted", but also tells her fellow expats, "Perhaps the onus is on expats to learn some new rules, especially in hawker centres."

She offers this advice: "Know what you want to order by the time you get to the front of the line, order (in "Singlish" or Chinese, if necessary), bring your own tissues, pay with cash, and retreat quickly to a table with your meal."

"That should save some eye rolling on both sides," she adds.

I scratch my head. Isn't this the way you always get lunch?

The way she put it, Singapore hawkers seem as demanding as Seinfeld's soup Nazi. And I can't help but reflect that what I always assumed were the pedestrian rituals of food ordering, unthinkingly adhered to, can seem arcane to others.

But what Ms Schwartz lists are just the basics - the minimum required to avoid getting glares from busy hawkers.

The secret lexicon of kopi

There's the minefield of ordering drinks, for example. What does one make of a whole argot devoted to getting a cuppa?

It's so fraught that an acquaintance once used her German boyfriend's ability to order drinks in local parlance as proof he has "integrated".

To be fair, some of us can't keep the terms straight ourselves. Expatriates, remember these terms:

Kopi siu dai - coffee with less sugar

Kopi o kosong - coffee, black, no sugar

Teh see - tea with evaporated milk

Teh tarik - "pulled" tea, a frothy, sweet, milk tea

Tat kiu - Milo

Diao yu - Chinese tea

Michael Jackson - Soya bean milk mixed with grass jelly

The list goes on.

The customisation code

Other food shorthand, to bring one's ordering skills to the next level:

Tabao or bungkus - Takeaway (Chinese), takeaway (Malay)

Mai (ingredient) - no/ I don't eat/ I am allergic to (ingredient)

Mai hiam - no chilli (not to be confused with mai hum - no cockles)

Kay (ingredient) - add/ more of/ I love (ingredient)

Kay liao - more of everything

Kay png - more rice

Fan shao - less rice

Code-switching

But it's not just the expatriates who have problems decoding Singaporean quirks.

Singaporeans and long-time residents will notice that moments of cultural confusion are inevitable as our workforce has become more multi-national. And we adapt to immigrants and their ways too.

Sticking to food, the range of cuisine that is available in restaurants and hawker centres here has increased exponentially. The people who serve them come from different parts of the world as well.

My brother had problems translating his order into English, but I have had to help English-speakers convey their needs in Mandarin. I sometimes try both languages to make sure I get what I want.

Code-switching for me used to mean Singlish to standard English and vice versa. It's become multi-dimensional, because the varieties of English you can encounter each day are endless.

It makes you realise that despite Singapore's multi-culturalism, we are still very "Singaporean", and can be quite blind to our own peculiarities.

Sure, sometimes we don't get the chicken parts we want, but I think questioning the assumptions of our cultures, and learning to adapt to others make us better people.

Ultimately, it's a skill we all have to learn in the age of globalisation.

chuimin@sph.com.sg