Hawker centres are Singapore's go-to for cheap, affordable and tasty fare - from char kway teow, mee rebus, rojak to... Kyushu-style ramen with Iberico pork cheek, and Mexican tacos?
Yes, you read right. The humble, non-airconditioned cooked food centre now offers more than just local fare or budget Western cuisine.
In the past year, a new wave of first-time food and beverage entrepreneurs has introduced exotic cuisine to the tissue-chope-able dining scene.
Fancy the afore-mentioned fancy ramen? Try Maxwell Food Centre. Want to try Costa Rican food or scarf down affordable, unpretentious Mexican grub? Head to Amoy Street and Golden Shoe Car Park food centres.
Rents for hawker stalls can range from the hundreds to about $5,000 a month, low enough to allow a new breed of hawkerpreneurs to use their units as testing grounds before expanding their food empire.
Typically, a hawker stall's start-up cost ranges from about $15,000 to $30,000, although it can cost more if specialist equipment is needed.
In comparison, setting up a restaurant or cafe can cost in excess of $100,000; rental, depending on location and size, can also be exorbitant.
Chef and celebrity television host Anthony Bourdain coined the term "hipster hawker" when he spoke at the inaugural World Street Food Congress in Singapore last year.
Indeed, these adventurous hawkers are creating new offerings for a new generation, keeping Singapore's street food culture alive.
In previous years, stalls serving French cuisine, Singapore interpretations of ramen and pound cakes have appeared, cheek by jowl with traditional sellers of bak chor mee and chicken rice. Since then, some of these unorthodox stall owners have now gone on to open full-fledged restaurants.
The duo behind French hawker stall Saveur, which started out in a small coffee shop in Joo Chiat, now run the Saveur restaurants in Purvis Street and Far East Plaza as well as Concetto at The Cathay, for instance.
Where: Amoy Street Food Centre, Telok Ayer Street, at the junction of Amoy and McCallum streets, 01-50
Open: 11am to 3pm (weekdays), closed on weekends. A second Mamacitas opens in Lau Pa Sat, stall No. 6, in the middle of next month
The Central and South American food trend has made its way from Singapore's trendy restaurant scene into the humble hawker centre.
At Amoy Street Food Centre, an unlikely stall serving Costa Rican fare, run by a Costa Rican native, has sprung up.
Heredia-born Cindy Castro, 35, a Singapore permanent resident who is married to a Chinese-Singaporean in the finance industry, moved here about six years ago. Heredia is about 10km north of Costa Rica's capital city San Jose.
Ms Castro owns a company that owns and rents properties in Costa Rica, but is based here. She has two young toddler-aged children and a teenage daughter from her first marriage.
The stall owner, who has no formal culinary training, says: "I missed the food from my country and I wanted to see if people in Singapore would enjoy it. I love Singapore food, so maybe Singaporeans would like my country's food."
She adds: "If I were to fail, at least I know I tried."
She admits that she took a gamble and was somewhat worried that no one would accept her or her food when she opened last August. But business so far has been brisk.
When SundayLife! went to her stall on two weekday afternoons last week, it had only one portion of beef for the casado and several servings of mashed potato left.
She will open a second outlet at Lau Pa Sat next month.
On the menu at her stall, which is in the midst of being certified halal, she says, is casado, a Costa Rican rice dish which she serves with stir-fried beef and onions; a vegetable of the day such as mashed potato or pumpkin cooked in milk which is known as picadillo de ayote; and chalupas, a fried tortilla topped with chicken or beef, salad, cheese and pico de gallo (a tomato salsa).
There are also burritos - tortilla wraps filled with meat and vegetables - which are actually known as tacos in Costa Rica.
Vegetarian options are also available. Items are priced at about $5 to $7 a serving.
The new Lau Pa Sat stall will offer a wider variety of Costa Rican fare.
There, expect casado with sides of fried plantains; and gallo pinto, a traditional bean fried rice which she will serve for breakfast with scrambled eggs, sausages, a tortilla and sour cream.
Where: Amoy Street Food Centre, Telok Ayer Street, at the junction of Amoy and McCallum streets, 02-114
Open: 10.30am to about 3pm daily
Mr Adren Lim, 42, owner of seven-month-old Absolute Juice in Amoy Street Food Centre, is one of the first entrepreneurs to take cold-pressed juice to the masses. And what better place to do so than at a hawker centre.
Cold-pressed juice is a method of juice extraction that involves the use of machines with hydraulic cold-press systems that do not generate frictional heat, unlike conventional centrifugal blenders that have high-speed blades.
It is all the rage these days and has had health-nuts buzzing the world over because this method of juicing is said to be able to preserve the highest amounts of vitamins, minerals and enzymes in fruit and vegetables. Proponents believe that this juicing method keeps nutrients intact.
Mr Lim, who also runs a clothing and accessories boutique in Parkway Parade, spent about $20,000 to set up his stall.
An Australian friend introduced him to this method of juice extraction a year ago and he has been hooked since.
The juices' intensity and quality of flavour is superior to that of juices from a normal juicer, Mr Lim says.
While the fruit in his juices are not organic, most of the vegetables he uses are. These include kale, celery and parsley.
He offers 20 blends of juices, including green blends with ingredients such as apple, kale, spinach and celery; and an antioxidant booster blend of orange, lemon, carrot, pineapple and beetroot.
Juices are priced between $2.20 and $5 for a 500ml cup.
There are also traditional single- flavoured juices for the less adventurous.
Orders have been increasing, he says, as diners catch on the trend of juice cleanses. He also bottles his juice blends for corporate events, which are priced similarly. Juices should be consumed within three days.
He says that making cold-pressed juices available at a hawker centre reaches a wider audience and hopes to use this as a springboard to launch into supplying them to supermarkets.
Mr Lim, who is not married, adds: "I started this business to create more awareness of the benefits of cold-pressed juices. Cold-pressed juices retain their natural flavours."
Where: Old Airport Road Food Centre, 51 Old Airport Road, 01-96
Open: 11am to 11pm daily
Info: facebook.com/GelatoParadisoSG New hawker stall Gelato Paradiso sticks out like a sore thumb among its row of neighbours, which sell local delights such as prawn mee and mee pok.
For one thing, the signage is decidedly clean and uncluttered. It depicts the three colours of the Italian flag - green, white and red - and, unlike the other stalls, there are no pictures of food or drink on it.
The stall, which opened last December, sells housemade gelato and offers about six or seven flavours at any one time. There are 16 flavours on rotation, including durian, pistachio, Cookies 'N' Cream, Strawberry Cheesecake and Fruits Of The Forest, a four-berry sorbet with no added sugar.
Gelato Paradiso is owned by five friends, four of whom are 20 years old. The fifth one is 17.
Mr Winfred Quek and Mr Low Zhong Wei are finance graduates from Singapore Polytechnic who are waiting to enter the army; Ms Serene Gan is a business management undergraduate at Singapore Management University; and Mr Glen Nicholas Lim is serving his national service.
The youngest, Mr Kendrick Quek, is Winfred's younger brother. He will soon head to Australia for foundational studies and university.
The business has another silent investor who declines to be named.
They each put in about $10,000 - a combination of savings and loans from their parents - to set up shop.
Three of them - the Quek brothers and Mr Lim - went to Italy for three weeks last year to learn to make gelato at The Carpigiani Gelato University near Bologna. The course cost them about $3,000 each.
Mr Winfred Quek handles media relations while Ms Gan does the marketing. Mr Lim is in charge of operations while Mr Low handles sales and strategy. Mr Kendrick Quek comes up with the gelato flavours and recipes.
Whoever is running the stall that day makes the gelato on site. They have also hired staff to help them out.
The group of young entrepreneurs had initially wanted to open a gelato shop in a mall, but changed their minds when they chanced upon the space in the popular Old Airport Road Food Centre.
The avid ice cream and gelato lovers had noticed a niche as few hawker centres offered desserts other than ice kachang and beancurd. Gelato at their stall starts from $3 a scoop and comes with a free bottle of water. Their price is about 50 cents to $1 cheaper than other gelato shops that make gelato in-house.
Mr Winfred Quek, says: "When people ask why we chose to open in a hawker centre, we ask them, 'Why not?'
"By opening in a hawker stall, we hope to erase some of the stigma - such as cheap and poorerquality food - associated with hawker centres."
Besides the lower start-up cost, running their business in a hawker centre also lets them test the market and better understand what flavours appeal to customers.
They decline to give figures but say business has been brisk as more people take to buying gelato after their meal.
The group has also started a gelato catering arm, Gelato On The Move, to serve gelato at events. They are also keen to expand their gelato business with another physical store in Singapore.
Mr Winfred Quek adds: "Our gelato is made with fresh milk. We used Kraft's Philadelphia Cream Cheese in our Strawberry Cheesecake gelato. We serve only what we would eat."
Where: Golden Shoe Car Park Food Centre, 50 Market Street, 03-29
Open: 11.30am to about 2.30pm (weekdays), closed on weekends and public holidays
Info: facebook.com/ singaporetacos
Head to the second floor of the food centre at Golden Shoe Car Park for freshly made tacos.
Here, everything is made from scratch, from the guacamole to the sour cream and even the tortillas, which are flattened using an imported tortilla press each morning.
Running the day-to-day operations of the stall are Mr Najib Ghazali , 28, who has worked at restaurants such as No Menu and BAM!; and Mr Nur Rhymie Aminullah, 44, who was a cook in a nasi padang shop. Both head the kitchen, while Madam Peggy Lee, 56, takes the orders.
The stall is owned by an American who is a Singapore permanent resident. The 33-year-old works in the investment banking division of a foreign bank and does not want to be named. He has lived here for almost 10 years and is single.
The owner, who is of Spanish descent of Chilean heritage, came up with the recipes, which took him about six months to perfect.
A taco at his halal-certified stall starts at $2.50, about the same price as a bowl of noodles. Each taco comes with a small tub of salsa.
The tortillas are charred-to-order on a locally sourced prata pan and are filled with shredded cabbage and pico de gallo, which is a tomato salsa.
Fillings include breaded fish, sauteed prawns, grilled-to-order sirloin steak and shredded slow-cooked, Mexican-spiced chicken. A selection of four tacos - one with each filling - is priced at $12. Guacamole and salsa are priced at an additional $1 each for a small container.
The owner says: "There has been very little Mexican food in Singapore for a long time and at the ones that have opened recently, Mexican food comes at a premium."
A taco at a restaurant can be priced between $8 and $12 each.
In the United States, he adds, Mexican food is "food for every day - it's affordable and not pretentious".
He wants to keep the authenticity but make it accessible.
In the Central Business District, he adds, there are few options for healthier food, other than sandwiches or salads. He decided to widen the offerings for officeworkers and hone in on a popular hawker centre with high foot-fall.
Business has been picking up, the owner says, and he hopes to expand but does not have concrete plans yet.
Its bulk orders, which include large trays of tacos, have been increasing. Last week, for instance, it had at least two orders of taco trays for nearby offices.
Where: Maxwell Food Centre, 1 Kadayanallur Street, 01-004
Open: 11am to about 9pm daily
facebook.com/jefumaxwell Mr Wong Lip Chin, a contemporary artist who paints, prints and sculpts, is the epitome of Singapore's new age hawker. Dressed in a pair of black skinny jeans, a speckled blue T-shirt, a hat and a pair of eccentric oversized spectacles, the 27- year-old Lasalle College of the Arts graduate is a far cry from the singlet-wearing, towel- slinging stall bosses of yore.
Yet, he is also behind Jefu, a ramen hawker stall at Maxwell Food Centre.
Jefu opened last July and serves his take on Kyushu-style ramen, which starts from $4.50 a bowl. A bowl of ramen with slices of fork-tender Iberico pork cheeks from Spain is priced at $12 a serving. Saltiness has been adjusted to suit local palates.
He is tight-lipped about how much he spent to set up the stall, which features an automated noodle-cooking machine, an induction stove and double-glazed metal bowls for the hot ramen.
The pork bone-based soup here is boiled for at least 12 hours, a skill which Mr Wong picked up from a ramen chef in Osaka. The artist, who is single and travels around the world to work on installations and projects, garner ideas as well as pick up materials for his work, was introduced by a friend to the chef in 2012. He then spent a few months learning the trade.
He says: "The research and amount of energy that I put into learning how to make ramen, including making the noodles from scratch and the broth, is very much the same as I would spend on any installation or artwork."
Food, he says, is a lot like art - crafting a pizza is like sculpting, for example.
On a recent trip to Europe, he ate ramen in Paris, he says.
"I have an obsession with ramen and I go out of my way to eat it," he says.
On choosing to open a ramen stall in a hawker centre, he says: "I believe that good food made with heart, passion and craft should be accessible to all. Singaporeans should be able to have access to good food at reasonable, down-to-earth prices."
He sees the hawker centre as an intrinsic part of Singaporean culture and wants to play a part in bringing quality ingredients and cooking methods to the masses.
For him, his stall is an installation - everything there has been carefully curated, from the bowls to the layout of the counter.
Expansion for his ramen stall is on the cards and he may use his Maxwell Food Centre stall space for another food project.
He says: "I like playing around with concepts. I enjoy the relational aesthetic in art and with the stall, I get to interact with people."
The Salad Bar
Where: Amoy Street Food Centre, Telok Ayer Street, at the junction of Amoy and McCallum streets, 02-115
Open: 9am to 3pm (weekdays), closed on weekends
Shops specialising in salads and nothing else, once clustered around the air-conditioned Central Business District, have trickled into hawker centres.
Over the last three years, more of these mixed greens purveyors have sprouted at hawker centres islandwide.
At Amoy Street Food Centre, for example, there are now three salad shops. The Salad Bar, on the second floor, is the latest to open at the food centre, in August last year. The others started opening from 2010.
The new shop is run by husband-and-wife duo David Low, 38, and Qi Qi, 36. The Lows have two sons, aged five and six.
Mr Low, a graduate of hospitality school Shatec, has a diploma in culinary skills. He used to work at the now-defunct Moomba restaurant, as well as in the kitchens of two five-star hotels.
He then joined his late father's business selling dried seafood for about seven years. He wound up the business when his father died last year and decided to go back to the culinary trade.
He makes all his dressings, which include Garlic Caesar Yogurt, Wafu and Thousand Island, from scratch, and also prepares about 40 toppings each morning.
These include char-grilled eggplant and zucchini, steamed pumpkin, pasta and braised beef.
Here, a salad is priced at $4.80. It has a base of romaine lettuce and a choice of six toppings. Meats and fish are priced at an additional $1 or $1.50 a serving. All the ingredients are then tossed in a dressing of choice. For an extra 70 cents, diners can also opt for a hot cup of housemade mushroom soup to go with their salad.
Asked about the competition from other salad bars in the hawker centre, Mr Low says he is confident because there is no other salad shop on the second floor. His offerings are also unique in that he makes his own soup, dressing and toppings.
Mr Low says: "Diners here are fussy and not every stall can make it in this competitive food centre. Many that opened after me have closed."
He hopes to open more shops, potentially one in a mall, but is concentrating on his hawker stall for now.
He adds: "I gave myself half a year to see if the business would be viable. I haven't closed yet."
This article was published on April 27 in The Straits Times.
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