Singapore and Hong Kong street food showdown

Popular Hong Kong food blogger K.C. Koo picked Singapore's street food scene over Hong Kong's in an article in The Sunday Times last week. The 45-year-old newspaper columnist was sponsored by the Singapore Tourism Board to write a food guide on the Republic's street food, which is published online at STB's Your- Singapore website (www.yoursingapore.com/content/traveller/zh/browse/international/countryexclusive/hk/whats-new.html?intcmp=foodguide_ redirection_hk_).

While focused predominantly on hawker fare, the guide also has options for afternoon tea and happy hour, which feature restaurants and bars.

Since the Sunday Times story, however, the article has sparked controversy on which city has better street food in terms of variety, flavour, consistency and quality.

Foodies in the two cities weigh in.

Singapore food has greater variety

Like fellow Hong Kong food blogger K.C. Koo, Hong Konger Janice Leung laments the loss of street food in her city and lauds Singapore's scene for its diverse cultures.

The 29-year-old food writer, whose articles have been published in the South China Morning Post and Wall Street Journal, says: "I have heard that the demise of street food is a hot topic in Singapore, but compared to Hong Kong, it is alive and kicking.

"In Hong Kong, street hawkers are almost non- existent because of licensing restrictions, and small shops are disappearing because of unsustainable rent hikes and homogenisation brought about by chain stores.

"We have redevelopment plans that will knock down old buildings and force traditional food shops to close, but have no plans to offer them new spaces.

"If you define street food in Hong Kong as curry fish balls, stinky tofu and egg waffles, good versions of them are virtually non-existent. Fish balls, for example, are more flour than fish and come from industrial producers. They are a far cry from the real thing."

Ms Leung, founder of farmers' market and social enterprise Island East Markets in Hong Kong, visits Singapore every five years and counts kaya toast, bak chor mee, Hainanese chicken rice and laksa as some of her favourite dishes here.

Foodies that SundayLife! spoke to all agree with MrKoo that Singapore's street food scene trumps that of Hong Kong's, and echo the sentiment that the Republic's hawker culture is much more vibrant.

According to Mr Edward Chew, Singapore Tourism Board's regional director, greater China, Mr Koo shortlisted the stalls and restaurants for the guide - which was in the works for six months - on his own.

Mr Chew says: "We suggested 15 food categories from which Mr Koo did his research on. We did not dictate the stalls and restaurants he wanted to visit and eventually include in the food guide. The stall owners were not informed of Mr Koo's tasting sessions either. This guide serves as an insider's guide to the hidden gems of some of the most authentic hawker fare in Singapore."

Dr Leslie Tay of ieatishootipost.sg, 43, whose blog focuses on hawker food, says: "I've known it all along. Our flavours are more robust and Hong Kong street food lacks the variety that we have, especially for Malay and Indian food. For example, laksa is the tastiest thing under the sun, nowhere else makes it like we do."

Photographer Michelle Tng, 25, who moved to Hong Kong with her partner Davis Ng, a 28-year-old financial analyst, in March this year, also lauds the variety in Singapore.

Ms Tng says: "We have a diverse range of dialects plus different ethnic groups, so we get different tastes and spices. In general, Hong Kong has predominantly one dialect type - Cantonese. While it's really good, over time, the dishes start to be very similar."

Mr Dennis Wee, 61, chairman of real estate agency Dennis Wee Group, says: "I think each place has its own individual style. But as a Singaporean, I would pick Singapore's food over Hong Kong's. Our hawker culture here is also stronger."

Accessibility is key for Ms Cheryl Lee, 27, a Singaporean postgraduate student at the University of Hong Kong who moved there in August this year.

She says: "It's not easy to locate street food stalls in Hong Kong while in Singapore, we can just go to the hawker centre to get what we want."

While the outlook for Singapore's street food scene is still positive, those that SundayLife! spoke to also feel there is room for improvement.

Hong Kong-born master chef Lap Fai of Orchard Hotel's Hua Ting restaurant, 50, who moved to Singapore in 1991 and is now a citizen here, says: "The issue here is that the prices for hawker food have gone up significantly over the years, making the 'street food' no longer as cheap as before."

Civil servant Gwendolene Phua, 25, says: "While I do think that Mr Koo's views may be a bit biased, I prefer the flavours of our local street food. I will go to stalls where the hawkers make their dishes from scratch. More hawkers should do that.

"I also think that the push for the new generation of hawkers is a good thing and should continue."

Hong Kong stalls more ambience

Perhaps the grass is greener on the other side.

That is the case for local foodies who pick Hong Kong's street food scene over the Republic's, even though they do not deny that there is more variety in Singapore.

Systems engineer Wong Tiong Wee, 29, has a bone to pick with the definition of street food - something he associates closely with what he eats in Taiwan, another destination famous for its street snacks.

He says: "For Singapore, the blogger refers more to hawker food and not really street food - food eaten on the streets.

"Our local food culture has a stronger heritage, but there are dishes such as bak kut teh that we cannot really claim as ours either. I would go to Hong Kong for great Chinese food."

Singaporean housewife Karen Lim, 45, says: "In Singapore, we get mass-produced sauces and ingredients in our hawker fare too. The taste is definitely not the same, and even if it is consistent, it can be consistently bad.

"Also, not everyone makes fishballs or popiah skin by hand now, which are dying trades here. I would pick Hong Kong as the better destination for street food because what I've eaten there so far has always been good."

Singaporean business development executive Joshua Sum, 27, who is based in Hong Kong, says: "Singapore doesn't have street food. In Hong Kong, you still can stand by the roadside and eat. People buy street snacks and stand around to eat out of styrofoam boxes, and stretch out to the stall counter for more condiments. You see something like that only at pasar malams (night markets) in Singapore.

"I wouldn't consider crabs or chwee kueh (steamed rice cakes) street food. It's not a like-for-like comparison that the blogger has done." In the food guide, Koo listed five restaurants specialising in crabs, including Chin Huat Live Seafood Restaurant at Sunset Way and Roland Restaurant at Marine Parade Central.

Other categories in the guide include char kway teow, nasi lemak, laksa and prawn noodles.

Human resources manager Carol Chan, 40, a Hong Kong citizen, says: "Even though it's harder to find street food in Hong Kong now, I still prefer it over Singapore's food.

"The ambience is different, with everyone bustling around you eating egg waffles. It's a pity to know that that is disappearing."

Ms Chan travels to Singapore every year to visit friends and relatives living here, and enjoys eating satay, nasi lemak and curry chicken, among other popular local fare.

For the foodies that SundayLife! spoke to, the biggest point of contention with Koo's opinions was his comment on Singapore's seafood being fresher than Hong Kong's.

Hong Kong-based photographer Michelle Tng, 25, says: "I disagree that seafood-wise, Singapore is fresher. I've eaten plenty of seafood in Hong Kong, not just prepared Cantonese style, even sashimi seems to be much fresher."

Dr Leslie Tay of the blog ieatishootipost.sg, 43, says: "I'm not sure that our seafood is necessarily fresher unless Mr Koo went to our wet markets.

"Hong Kong definitely has fresh live seafood."

To preserve local street fare in Hong Kong, Hong Kong food writer Janice Leung hopes that there will be more action taken.

She says: "One of the most important things is for young people to get into the business, learn traditional recipes and respect them.

"Governments need to actively assist with the continuation of street food culture, or at least avoid measures that will directly lead to its demise."


 LESS WELL-KNOWN RECOMMENDATIONS

The 64-page food guide features 58 eateries recommended by Koo. While many are fairly well-known to Singaporeans, the following five stalls may not be as familiar.

Da Po Curry Chicken Noodle Where: Golden Mile Food Centre, 505 Beach Road, B1-53 Open: 11am to 9.30pm daily What: Try the signature curry chicken noodles, which is served in a tasty gravy that is not too heavy or oily, and topped with tender chicken. Add its homemade sambal for an extra fiery kick. The stall also sells chicken rice and laksa.

Keng Wah Sung CafeWhere: 783 Geylang Road Open: 6am to midnight daily What: Regardless of the time of day, diners flock to this coffee shop for their fix of aromatic black coffee and crispy kaya toast. For a full meal, tuck into its nasi lemak instead.

Heap Seng LeongWhere: Block 10 North Bridge Road, 01-5109 Open: 4am to 8pm daily What: For a simple and delicious breakfast, head to this old-school coffee shop for steamed bread with thick butter and kaya, or kaya toast - complete with a cup of rich coffee.

D'Authentic Nasi LemakWhere: Marine Parade Central Market and Food Centre. Block 84 Marine Parade Central Open: 7am to 3pm daily What: The stall serves fragrant nasi lemak, where the rice is cooked in fresh coconut milk. While a variety of ingredients is available, Koo recommends the sambal squid. Food sells out quickly so it is best to go early.

Shi Xiang SatayWhere: Chinatown Complex, Block 335 Smith Street, 02-079 Open: 4 to 9pm, closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays What: The skewered pork, which has crispy charred bits, is moist and tender with bits of lard. The flavourful peanut gravy is topped with minced pineapple for a slightly sweet flavour.