Char kway teow stallholder chosen as hawker master trainer says anyone can cook the dish
I have no secret char kway teow recipe, said Mr Tan Ah Guan, 62, who has been cooking the dish for more than 40 years.
He has been running the popular Apollo Fresh Cockle Fried Kway Teow at Marine Parade Food Centre since 1975.
He said anyone can do it.
"Everyone keeps asking me, but there is really no secret.
"Okay, you will need some hand-eye coordination and you need to fry it with some effort," he said.
Mr Tan is one of the Hawker Master Trainers in the Hawker Master Trainer Pilot Programme, which was launched last month to preserve Singapore's hawker heritage.
Other veteran hawkers involved include Mr Thian Boon Hua, who owns chicken rice chain Boon Tong Kee, and Madam Lai Yau Kiew of Ji Ji Wanton Noodle Specialist at Upper Cross Street.
The slim Mr Tan shyly declined an interview at first because he was worried about the attention.
"Too many people know me. They don't call me by my name, but they will call out, 'Apollo, Apollo', instead," he said.
The self-taught hawker started out selling fried carrot cake from a makeshift cart with two younger brothers at Haig Road, opposite the former Paramount Hotel.
They also helped their parents, who sold durians at the same place.
Mr Tan moved into a stall in Marine Parade Food Centre in 1975.
In 1997, he paid $17,500 for a 20-year lease of the stall.
His stall sees an endless stream of customers, even during the non-peak period in the mid-afternoon, and it is open from 8am to 8pm, six days a week.
A friend helps collect the money.
He has three children, a 24-year-old son and two daughters in their 30s who are university graduates. They are not interested in taking over the business.
Mr Tan, who lives in a four-room flat in Bedok and cycles to the hawker centre every day, said: "They like char kway teow and I take it home for them. They have never stepped into this hawker centre.
"I didn't want them to hang around here when they were younger because I was worried that they would mix with the wrong company."
He told us the kind of apprentice he prefers to teach.
He said: "Preferably someone in his 30s because this is a tiring job. He needs to have the patience too.
"And the person should be a Singaporean because char kway teow is a Singapore dish, after all."
He conceded, however, that this job may not be for everyone.
Although he can retire soon, Mr Tan wants to continue selling char kway teow, at least until his stall's lease ends in four years' time. A plate of his char kway teow costs $3 or $5.
Gesturing to his tiny work space, he said: "This place is hot and oily and once you step inside, you are stuck here for almost the whole day.
"But I've been doing it from the start for so many years so I'm used to it."
Before signing on to the pilot programme, Mr Tan was not able to find a successor.
When asked if it would be a pity, he shrugged.
Added Mr Tan: "Char kway teow is a popular Singapore dish that everyone knows.
"I will try my best to teach. If he puts in the effort, the apprentice should be able to master the skill."
HIS RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
His stall is near Parkway Parade. Business was at its peak in the 1980s, when the mall first opened.
Be generous with ingredients
Mr Tan says he is not stingy with ingredients because customers can tell the difference. Stalls that try to cut costs this way will become unpopular, he reasons. He buys about 50 bags of cockles a day.
His char kway teow is "watery" compared to other versions of the dish.
This makes his noodles special, says Mr Tan.
He uses the sauce from the cockles to create the effect, and says this makes it more delicious.
Have a catchy name
His stall is named Apollo, after the historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon in 1969. It is an easy name to remember and customers associate it with him and his dish.
He acknowledges that lard is unhealthy, but insists that char kway teow will not be tasty if cooked using other types of oil. He adds that he does not use a lot of lard and people usually do not eat char kway teow every day.
By the numbers
12: The number of hours he's on his feet daily at his stall (except on Tuesdays, his day off).
100: The minimum number of plates of noodles he sells a day.
1984: The year his stall became really popular as Parkway Parade opened nearby, bringing in the crowds.
$2,000: That's how much he makes in a month.
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