You can take a Singaporean out of Singapore but you can't take the love of hawker food out of him or her. No matter what the latest designer food trend is, hawker food remains a stalwart of the Singapore food scene.
From their grimy origins to their successful rehoming in purpose-built hawker centres, street food vendors have been feeding Singaporeans with hot, affordable food since the 1960s. Today, there are 107 markets and hawker centres in place.
In the past, hawker food was about convenience and filling the tummy. "Today, it is about identity and culture. Our street food has garnered attention in the world, and now it is about recognising what is ours that has been under our noses all this while," says KF Seetoh, founder of Makansutra, who organised the recent World Street Food Congress.
What's changed too, is the number of young people who willingly join this trade, which is often seen as a low-end job.
Li Ruifang, 31, quit work as a settlement officer in an MNC to become a hawker. Since January last year, she has been running 545 Whampoa Prawn Noodles stall at Tekka Market.
The third-generation hawker says she feels it is a waste to allow her family's prawn noodle recipe to end with her father's generation. "With me becoming a hawker, I'm able to serve customers the authentic taste of old-school prawn soup," says Ms Li. She also didn't like her desk-bound job, preferring instead the challenges of food and cooking. "Being a hawker is a tough journey, but an easy choice," she says.
She still follows the same recipe and the only change she's made is to offer large prawns in addition to the traditional sliced prawns.
Despite the long hours, such as reaching the stall at 3am to start food preparations, and ending nearly 12 hours later, she has no plans to quit. "Although I might agree somewhat that it is a low-end job, I do it with a lot of passion, but I don't see it as the public duty of hawkers to provide cheap food for the masses. I have to survive and have plans to flourish."
Mr Seetoh is encouraged by young people such as Ms Li joining the hawker trade. "I applaud this as a form of continuity and preservation. Singapore food had always evolved and a new generation must continue the conversation."
Benson Ng, 28, thinks it is bold of young people to become hawkers. "It is not easy due to the nature of the job, the seemingly unclean environment among some factors. Most people are enticed by the thought of running cafes or coffee joints."
Mr Ng is a wonton mee-seller, but of a different stripe. He sells wonton mee, not in a hawker centre, but in a chic-looking shophouse in Amoy Street, that has a bar counter where diners slurp up their noodles. Instead of the traditional char siew and wontons, diners can choose to have roasted Spanish pork belly, slow-braised trotters and even scotch eggs to go with their noodles. And in place of canned chrysanthemum tea, there's Ju Hua, a vodka-based chrysanthemum tea cocktail served in a pot.
His wonton mee is decidedly more atas or upmarket. "Hawker food becomes upmarket when people decide to put their own spin on the dishes and then market it so as to create an appeal to customers. This is inevitable as people are relatively creative and will want a place to showcase that side of their craft," he says. "That said, I do not think the concept of hawker food will become upmarket entirely. Both kinds of hawker food exist to serve their own purposes and attract different crowds."
Regardless of that plate of chicken rice being sold in a hawker centre or in more upmarket settings, hawker food is here to stay, with no fear of it dying out.
"Some old popular stalls may close forever, but new favourites will definitely replace them," says Tan Ken Loon of The Naked Finn, which sells a fancy prawn mee soup.
Mr Seetoh says: "With the creation of over a dozen new-generation hawker centres in place, and set to be managed by private organisations, I think the scene will come of age. It is now thwarted by the fact that there is no proper learning facility or street food academy to seed tomorrow's professionals. I hope this will change."
A playground for foreign chefs
The world of food is getting smaller as there's less need to fly out of Singapore for a taste of say, Gordon Ramsay's food. You can get that at Bread Street Kitchen at Marina Bay Sands (MBS). Or if it's the creamy potato puree by Joel Robuchon that you are craving, that is just a short drive to Sentosa.
Singapore is a magnet for celebrity chefs, and this trend looks set to stay. Just this year alone, celebrity chefs David Thompson and David Myers joined Ramsay in opening up their restaurants, Long Chim and Adrift respectively, in MBS alone. Wolfgang Puck, who already has a steak restaurant Cut in MBS, will open his second restaurant, Spago, in the integrated resort soon. MBS was unable to comment in time on this trend, but a spokesman from Resorts World Sentosa says: "With the presence of nine celebrity chef restaurants at RWS, we seek to expand Singapore's culinary landscape and elevate its status as a dining destination."
Andrew Walsh, the British chef behind the newly opened Cure, says: "Before, people were jumping on planes to get to London, Paris and Copenhagen to get the dining experience and now we have it the other way round with many great international chefs having to jump on planes to Singapore to do pop-ups, events and also to open restaurants here."
His resume includes working for English chef Tom Aikens, and three-and-a-half-years worth of heading Jason Atherton's Spanish tapas restaurant Esquina here in Singapore.
Bacchanalia Restaurant's executive head chef Ivan Brehm notices that in the short three years that he has been here, there has been a dramatic change in palate and also expectations from guests. "Diners seem to have grown tired of the wagyu craze, there is a growing demand for grass-fed beef, lighter, fresher, organic, local and sustainably sourced ingredients." Chef Brehm used to work at The Fat Duck.
Ingredients-wise, chefs say it is now much easier to get their hands on them than before.
Les Amis's executive chef Sebastien Lepinoy says that he finds it easier to ship in certain better quality ingredients from France. "For example, when I first arrived in Singapore about a year ago, our suppliers could only deliver fresh fish from France on a weekly basis due to logistical constraints. But now, we are able to receive our supply of fish three times a week, which makes a lot of difference for us."
Foreign chefs in Singapore are doing more than just dictating what Singaporeans should eat.
Chef Lepinoy notes that a career as a chef is gaining popularity, and perhaps becoming even more recognised in Singapore. "I see more young chefs armed with a degree or diploma, and a passion for the job, entering my kitchen," he says. "Their goal is to learn as much as they can while with us, and hopefully one day to open a restaurant of their own and be the owner/chef."
He is confident that in the next decade there will be even more small restaurants popping up. "And since these young chefs are driven by so much passion and exposed to such varied global influences, it will be interesting to see how the dining scene evolves further."
Chef Brehm adds that he is also involved in supporting local talent and motivating loyal staff, even after their time with Bacchanalia has passed, to keep pushing boundaries in a way that is respectful to their peers and to their environment, .
Despite their presence, foreign chefs say that traditional Singapore foods will not disappear. Chef Lepinoy says that he is very fond of Singaporean food, and always makes it a point to support small local eateries.
"For instance, I would have my coffee and kaya toast at a small local coffeeshop rather than an international coffee chain. Street food is part of Singapore's heritage and identity and we must continue to preserve them by giving them our support," he says.
Singaporean chefs coming into their own
Long before celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay, Jason Atherton or David Thompson turned cheffing into a glamorous profession, it was just another means of making a living. In Singapore, it probably meant you didn't do very well in school, and thus lacked better options.
This means that most of the older generation, from hawkers to even the traditional Chinese chefs who now command tremendous respect, had chosen their path out of necessity, rather than a pure pursuit of passion.
Things have changed over the years however, and cheffing has become a lot "cooler" and more respected, says Han Li Guang, chef-owner of the restaurant Labyrinth, which focuses on modern interpretations of local cuisine. Not only has this made it easier for people like him who love food to choose cheffing as a career, it also gives local chefs more confidence to explore their identities as chefs cooking Singaporean cuisine.
"Chefs are now exposed to other people's styles of cuisine, and they can learn. With knowledge and skills comes the confidence to try something new beyond French or Italian cuisine," he explains. Next week, his restaurant will officially move from its 1,100 sq ft space in Tanjong Pagar to its new location at the Esplanade that's more than double the size.
Jason Tan of Corner House believes that local chefs can in fact be as good as their Western counterparts these days as well. He says: "We have opportunities to be trained for many years in authentic French cuisine, and also have the advantage of our Asian heritage."
At the same time, he adds that, "I strive not to copy other famous chefs - there is no point, their food is so well known and recognisable. I feel it is important to develop one's own identity."
Of course, it helps a lot that Singaporean diners have also become more open-minded over the years - a change that has been noticed by restaurateur Pang Hian Tee, who co-owns the popular Mediterranean-influenced small-plates restaurant Lolla, and its sister restaurant Lollapalooza.
He observes that as the population becomes more well-travelled and well-read, they are also discerning and adventurous so local restaurants can experiment with fresh or unusual concepts.
He says: "We've embraced our multi-ethnic and multi-cultural heritage well, and this lack of 'baggage' allows us to use the best of what we have to our advantage. At our restaurants, we're equally comfortable cooking our dishes using olive oils, espelette peppers and piementon as we are with sesame oil, soy sauce, mirin and miso."
Not to mention how Singapore cuisine is unique in a way because of its migrant culture, says Jeremy Nguee, owner of gourmet catering company Preparazzi. "Singapore cooking is very much about being dynamic, open to influx and influence of new cultures and new cuisines. . . We have so many more burger and cup cake shops now, we should think of them as part of the new street food landscape," he adds.
In fact, he observes that these Western foods are already infiltrating our local culture especially with the likes of har cheong gai burgers, and chilli crab pizzas becoming increasingly common. Explains chef Nguee: "Chefs doing so-called Singaporean flavours in things like pizzas and burgers are actually part of a changing mindset. We're trying to reconcile our cosmopolitan lifestyle with things we think of as very traditional, except in a very unconscious way."
This article was first published on August 1, 2015.
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