With Singapore's hawker culture officially added to the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, AsiaOne takes a look at young hawkers who snub the corporate rat race to slave over stoves instead.
For Vincent Wong, swopping his office shirt and pants for a T-shirt, apron and jeans was a dream come true.
Instead of working in air-conditioned comfort, his "cubicle" is now a small hawker stall at Amoy Street Food Centre, where he sells nasi lemak.
The 31-year-old former auditor in a bank gave up his stable career and took a step into entrepreneurship, setting up the stall with a like-minded business partner. Unlike Vincent though, banker Javin Goh, 35, didn't quit his job in finance, but helps out with food preparation on weekday evenings and mans the stall on weekends.
Vincent had always harboured dreams of starting his own little business, but only took the plunge last year when he felt the timing was right.
Why nasi lemak?
With the taste of his grandmother's sambal seared into his memory from his younger days, Vincent wanted to bring the unique flavour to the masses.
His late grandmother had passed down the sambal recipe to his mother, and she in turn, passed it on to him.
"I wanted to introduce this traditional taste so that more people can enjoy it," said Vincent. His allergy to MSG also meant he was particularly driven to create delicious food using natural ingredients instead of the flavour enhancer.
Vincent told AsiaOne that after giving the venture serious thought, he and Javin embarked on a year of extensive research, where they taste-tested the most popular plates of nasi lemak from around the island.
They use basmati rice for their version of the local favourite, because it had the best result and "it goes very well with the sambal," said Vincent. Besides the regular fried chicken, they also decided to create a butter chicken accompaniment, inspired by Vincent's love for the rich Indian curries he had while working in London.
And with that, the idea for Spice & Rice was born. But they still had to source for a location.
Being astute finance professionals, they had anticipated that hawker stall rents would fall during the pandemic. And they swooped in when they did.
The pair were also eyeing Amoy Street Food Centre because of its hectic lunchtime crowd, as well as their familiarity with the area.
The pair jumped at the opportunity to make a bid for a stall and successfully secured it in March 2020, right before the circuit breaker period.
According to Vincent, the previous stall owner's rent was $4,000 a month, while they ended up paying less than half the amount. This allowed them to tide through the initial rocky phase of their business, where they only sold less than 30 plates per day.
The duo poured a combined total of $15,000 into the stall, and Spice & Rice officially opened a few months later last August. Through their friends' support and subsequently through word of mouth and social media, their popularity spread.
But life as a hawker is undoubtedly different from a desk-bound office job. The biggest adjustment they've had to make is with the long hours that come with the territory, way beyond the regular nine-to-five.
"There is a lot of hard work involved in putting up a simple plate of good food, especially so when we do everything from scratch and advocate for no MSG."
Their current schedule sees a typical day for Vincent starting at 9am on weekdays and 8am on weekends. The stall opens for business at 11am weekdays, 10am weekends and currently serves only the lunch crowd.
After they close at 2.30pm, preparation for the next day begins till about 6pm, before Vincent attends to other tasks such as stock-taking, ordering, and online marketing activities.
The experience has not been a walk in the park for sure.
Said Vincent: "It has been tough both physically and emotionally." But what makes the effort especially worth it, "is when we see our customers coming back for more or complimenting us on how good the food is, especially the sambal."
Drawbacks to the hawker business
As first-time business owners, they found out that there are drawbacks to operating a hawker stall in Singapore.
For one, storage space was a problem in their cramped stall. Furthermore, being in the CBD area meant that the crowd largely dissipates after lunchtime.
"The people who eat here already know what they want to eat, and are not so open to trying anything new. We plan to push out some promotions, that will hopefully entice customers to try our food," said Vincent in an earlier interview with Lianhe Zaobao.
Another challenge they faced was in hiring staff, especially for cleaning tasks "which locals generally shy away from". Government rules entail that hawkers are only able to hire locals or permanent residents to help out at the stall.
"We wish to continue operating the hawker stall and continue the legacy of hawker culture. But if hiring needs are not met, it might be more sustainable for us to move to a commercial stall or even start a restaurant after building our brand name."
So is an expansion in the works?
Yes, according to Vincent, who said they are looking to create a new concept at another stall they successfully got hold of at Chinatown Complex.
"The crowd at Chinatown Complex is extremely different from those at Amoy," said Vincent, who teased that the stall could be selling "roti prata or something even more exciting".
The stall, located on the ground floor of Amoy Street Food Centre, saw a steady stream of customers when I was there during lunchtime on a Tuesday.
Their menu consists of two options on the day I went — nasi lemak with classic fried chicken and nasi lemak with butter chicken. According to Vincent, their other dish, a low-carb salmon with barley pilaf, is not available every day.
For $7.90, each plate comes with a runny-yolked egg, cucumber slices, ikan bilis with peanuts, and of course, the quintessential sambal. Instead of "achar", a pineapple salsa on the side helps cut through the richness of the dish.
Eaten on its own, one can just about taste the lemak-ness of the basmati rice, but the coconut flavour fades into the background when paired with the robust butter chicken. The butter chicken gravy is uniquely infused with lemongrass, which lends a Thai twist to the traditional dish. Not bad.
As for the fried chicken leg, it's well-marinated with a mix of herbs and spices and flavourful — the thin-ness of the skin testament to the well-executed frying technique.
But the star of the show for me would definitely be the sambal, which boasts a good balance of sweetness with depth of flavour. It also delivers a spicy kick (but not too much) that lingers on the tastebuds.
While $8 for nasi lemak is undoubtedly on the pricey side, one can think of it as paying for an elevated version of the local favourite that is still priced below what some other eateries are charging. That, plus its no MSG assertion.
Where: Spice & Rice, 7 Maxwell Road, #01-15, Amoy Street Food Centre, Singapore 069111
Opening hours: Mon - Fri 11am to 2.30pm, Sat 10am to 2.30pm, closed on Sun