Eating street food in Singapore: How to do a hawker market right

I don't need to tell you why. Hainan chicken rice is why: that pale, poached chicken with chicken-flavoured rice and the broth in which the chicken was cooked. And char kway teow, chilli crab, spicy laksa noodle soup, oyster omelettes, freshly-made popiah rolls, and that lovely, soupy, bak chor mee of noodles with minced pork and black rice vinegar.

But you may need to know a little more about how. If you bowl up to the first hawker stall you see and load your tray up with dishes, then I'm sorry, you're doing it all wrong.

The big mistake is getting your food before you get the table, because then you're wandering around with a tray, letting all your food get cold. Your best friend here, apart from having a best friend with you, whose job it is to get the table, is a small packet of tissues or hand wipes. When a table comes up, leave one packet of tissues per person on it; a simple code that is always honoured by locals. My home-grown Singapore experts – son Max and partner Lynette – say it's also perfectly acceptable to hover over a table you think will be leaving soon.

As to which stalls to frequent, look for the longest queues. Or cruise around the tables first – if you like the look of someone's dish, track it back to the right stall by the colour of its chopsticks and plate.

But make it snappy. A hawker centre is not a place to hang about in. It's too hot for a start. You might be on holidays, but they're all on a fast lunch break, and won't take kindly to you hogging the table all afternoon.

My favourite hawker centres are the historic Lau Pa Sat, the popular Maxwell Food Centre near Chinatown and the aromatic Tekka Centre in Little India, but you can't really go wrong at Satay by The Bay, Tiong Bahru or the bustling Chomp Chomp at Serangoon Gardens.

Another classic mistake is hoping to pay by smart phone or credit card: most food stalls are cash only. As for etiquette, just be nice. If you want to ask a question of the stall-owner, simply say "excuse me, auntie" (or uncle) as a sign of respect.

Once you've put all this to use, and reaped the benefits – that Hainanese chicken rice, those sizzling satays – there's no going back. Except there is, time and time again.