CBS News November 3, 2018, 1:27 PM Singapore's open-air food markets challenged by glitzy, upscale restaurants

In food-obsessed Singapore, being a picky eater isn't a character flaw. It's a national pastime.

Nowhere is that passion more on display than at the city's open-air food markets, called hawker centers, where vendors spend decades perfecting one or two distinct dishes from sugar cane juice to steaming piles of noodles — all for just a few dollars a plate.

Hawker centers are so essentially Singaporean, almost every neighborhood has one, reports CBS News' Christina Ruffini. Tiong Bahru is one of the oldest, and a favorite of locals Lilly Lim and Stefan Loe.

"In Singapore, if you're going to a hawker center and want to find something really good, just look for the longest line," Loe said.

Some of the stalls, though humble, have even been awarded Michelin stars. But despite their loyal fan-base, hawker centers are losing popularity, especially among young people who tend to prefer the glitzy, upscale restaurants of the central business district – and their central air conditioning.

Vendors at hawker centers spend decades perfecting one or two distinct dishes

CBS News

"I blame Instagram. If it's not on Instagram it doesn't exist," said KF Seetoh, a heritage food expert and hawker evangelist.

The food may not be necessarily photogenic, but Seetoh said Singapore will lose an essential part of its culture if hawkers shutter their stalls.

"This is a place where Singapore comes to celebrate not just food, but Singaporeanness. If you come here at lunch, it's packed with people. And they don't care who you are … even our prime minister lines up for his food," Seetoh said.

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In an effort to help preserve these places, and possibly skip the line, the prime minister's government has nominated hawker culture for the United Nations' list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Started in 2008, the distinguished roster includes more than 400 global traditions, including Indian yoga and Neapolitan pizza twirling.

But waning popularity isn't the only problem.

"He's done this for 30 years. All his kids have all grown up, done their degrees … None of his kids are gonna do this when he takes over. So when he goes, this whole thing goes," Seetoh said.

Fortunately, there is a crop of young hawkers who are eager to take the open spot. Young upstarts like Kai, who gave up a sales job to open the Roast Paradise pork stall off old Airport Road. At $10 dollars a plate, his fare is one of the more expensive hawker dishes, but also one of the best.

But for Singaporeans to keep going there, Lilly and Stefan said getting new, younger chef's interested in hawking will be key. And although they appreciate the international acclaim, hawker centers will disappear unless they continue to give this island of fanatical foodies exactly what they're after: exceptionally-crafted food at an unbelievable price.

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