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Singapore’s Legendary Street Food Stalls Finally Get UNESCO Recognition

News Food + Drink
by Elisabeth Sherman Dec 17, 2020

Singapore’s legendary street food culture is finally getting the recognition it deserves. Reuters reported that UNESCO has designated that these “open air food courts” have special cultural significance.

The Southeast Asian country is famous for its late night communal outdoor dining experiences, which feature stalls packed with delicious meals like tempura, seafood, rice, satay, sweet kueh (cakes), noodle soups, and other dishes. These groups of food stalls are known as hawker centers, which are essentially food courts with outdoor seating, set up as a more sanitary alternative to the traditional outdoor food stalls in the 1970s.

The hawker centers are now on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, alongside Armenian Lavash bread and Cambodia’s Royal Ballet. Singapore applied for UNESCO recognition two years ago.

“These centres serve as ‘community dining rooms’ where people from diverse backgrounds gather and share the experience of dining over breakfast, lunch and dinner,” UNESCO said in a statement.

The designation comes with a set of requirements. Every six years, the government of Singapore must submit a report to UNESCO that details how the country is safeguarding the longevity of the hawker centers. This prospect might be tough in the era of COVID-19: Many stalls had to shut down due to concerns that the large groups that gather at these food courts would quicken the spread of the virus. That was probably the right move: Singapore has the lowest death rate from COVID-19 in the world.

Recovering from that blow to tourism is on the horizon, however. In November, hawker centers welcomed back diners as long as they wore masks. As of early December, Singapore has reopened to tourism from five countries, including New Zealand and China, but the United States still hasn’t made the list.

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