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Haute or hot?
IN 10 to 20 years, Singapore hawker food will be extinct. Or so the naysayers think as old hawkers fade away with no descendants interested enough to keep traditions alive. But will hawker food die or will it simply evolve into a totally different animal? Even as the traditional definition of hawker food as something prepared in a sweltering food centre by uncles or aunties slaving over a raging hot fire is threatened by a) the unglamorous profession and b) the lack of talent and difficulty in charging higher prices, something else is happening. There's a growing number of independent chefs who are looking into their own heritage, including hawker food, for inspiration in developing their own cuisine.
One of the first to do so was Willin Low of Wild Rocket fame, who serves hawker-inspired dishes such as his version of chicken rice that comprises roasted chicken wing stuffed with glutinous rice.
"When I coined the term 'Mod Sin' 10 years ago, it was to celebrate Singapore flavours and we will continue to do so," says Low. "I don't set out to preserve any dish or worse, replace the original dishes, but what I hope to do is to set people thinking about how and why we love our flavours. And hopefully this might cause Singaporeans to treasure the original dishes more and perhaps encourage foreign guests to go to a hawker centre to seek out the original dishes."
Whether hawker food needs to stay in hawker centres and whether it can be transported to classier surroundings or adapted to create a uniquely Singaporean cuisine is a question that is currently being asked by those in the F&B scene and was a hot topic of discussion at the recently concluded World Street Food Congress.
The problem, most chefs say, has to do with the perception among Singaporeans that hawker food is cheap food and should stay that way.
Damian D'Silva of Immigrants Gastrobar has been doggedly trying to preserve heritage cuisine in his Joo Chiat restaurant but while his customers may appreciate his efforts, "most Singaporeans compare us to hawker fare and are not willing to pay the difference", he says. "Of course, we can up the ante and change to look and feel European, but is that what our food should be?"
Whether the hawker of the future will be toiling in shorts and flip flops while wielding a Good Morning towel or dressed in chef's whites carefully plating sous vide chicken and freeze-dried chilli sauce - or both - remains to be seen. In the meantime, the number of Singaporean chefs paying more attention to their roots is growing and their efforts show that whatever the final execution, Singapore hawker cuisine may still have legs yet.
By Rachel Loi
Tan Ken Loon
Owner, The Naked Finn
Block 39 Malan Road Tel 6694-0807
"SINGAPORE has a very strong and thriving hawker culture. A lot of people say it's a dying trade and the younger generation is not taking over, but I beg to differ. It may not necessarily be the top stalls, because their kids may not want to take over so those will die. But so be it. There'll be a new generation that will build their own reputation and style, and evolution will happen. We don't need to do anything, it's a natural cycle.
When I was a kid, my parents would say Chinatown used to have very good food, but I did not grow up with those. I grew up with places like Newton, and to me those are good. So I'm sure when my son grows up, he will have his own preferences too.
Also, Singapore has some amazing infrastructure for hawkers - every HDB has a hawker centre, plus kopitiams. These stalls need to be filled up, and along the way people will realise if they serve mediocre food, they won't make the cut, so they will up their game and competition will drive survival.
Of course it's not easy. I added hae mee tng (prawn noodle soup, S$25) to my menu purely for personal reasons. I love to eat it so I'd rather make my own than go to a hawker centre and queue up in the heat. In fact, we are working on fish soup now, and in time I intend to add more. I'm not here to save the hawker scene or make the best bowl of soup, I'm just here because I like to eat and I might as well do it with ingredients I love.
We do the Penang style of frying the shells first before blending it into pulp and boiling the soup, but the difference is we use the entire prawn instead of just the shells. We fry the whole prawns, pound them up, then make the soup - altogether it's an eight-hour process, and we use three types of expensive prawns. Then we serve with grilled prawns on top.
There are people who understand this, and there are those who say it's too expensive. They don't care how many hours it takes to cook, or the expensive ingredients, or the amount of time and research spent on it. They don't care about the air-con and free one-hour parking, they only care about the S$5 versus S$25.
At the end of the day, inflation will happen for sure. When I was young, you paid an average of S$1.20; now it's S$3, but hawkering won't die. This strong hawker culture makes it very hard for restaurants like us - who elevate dishes with quality ingredients - to be accepted." RL
Han Li Guang
Chef-owner, Restaurant Labyrinth
5 Neil Road Tel 6223-4098
"THE style of Labyrinth is to balance the traditional and the modern. We are hawker-inspired in the sense that our sauces are done old-school style like my grandmother used to - get ingredients from the market, pound spices with a mortar and pestle, make rempah, etc. About 70 per cent of each dish is traditional, but the execution or unusual presentation is what's modern.
While all my dishes are locally-inspired, there's also Western influence, so the flavours could be based on a foreign dish, but the visual could be more local, and vice versa. Take my Hainanese curry rice for example - what I like about curry rice is having a lot of curry on my rice so it becomes almost like a risotto or porridge. So I created a curry quinoa risotto where every bite is rich in curry sauce. Then we have other elements of the dish like potatoes presented as "rocks", chicken parading as "black truffles", and deep fried potato skins that look like tree branches. We also have coriander sponges, and a "nest" where a soft-boiled quail egg sits.
Of course, our food often faces criticism. People eat my signature chilli crab ice cream and say they can get a better sauce elsewhere. But I am here not to create the best chilli crab sauce in the world, I am here to create an authentic chilli crab sauce that's presented in a different form, to deliver an element of surprise.
We justify our premium prices through our innovation and presentation of a dish, as well as service and ambience. We have to avoid a comparison with hawkers by making each creation original so customers cannot say they could have gotten it at a tenth of the price.
Plus my competitiors are not just restaurants or hawkers, it's the mothers and grandmothers at home cooking local food. It's why we don't just put a chilli crab sauce on pasta. Why pay S$30 for a chilli crab pasta when I can get authentic Italian pasta for S$25, or even buy pre-packaged chilli crab paste and cook my own pasta at home?
Thankfully, people are responding well to us, after all that I'm still around. Regulars come back often, we are able to try new creations, and we're expanding later this year to an outlet that's twice the capacity. I cannot say that Labyrinth will always serve this type of food, as our cuisine will change with the times and demand. But we will always aim to deliver a high level of innovation and that surprise element - that's crucial to us." RL
Business director of gourmet catering company Preparazzi
"PEOPLE always talk about getting the younger generation to become hawkers and preserve the tradition, but the question is whether the hawker stall model is commercially viable in the first place. A lot of Singaporeans treat our food like cheap food, but are willing to pay a premium for the novelty of foreign cuisine. They can pay S$2.50 for laksa and complain the portion is small, but then go and eat S$15 ramen - it's sad.
I experimented with a take-out concept called Bazuka Yakibuta, and I have two outlets now - one at National University Hospital and one at Great World City. What I did was I took char siew roast pork rice and branded it to look very sexy, cosmopolitan, and like a foreign chain. I served the meat with short-grain rice and pickles, and you can add an onsen egg that's sous vide at 63 degrees, so each bowl is S$10.80.
What I didn't expect was aunties and uncles buying the roast pork at S$15, which is double the price at hawker centres and coffeeshops. They bought it because it looked and tasted good. It shows that Singaporeans are willing to pay a lot of money to try something new, and will pay for good food, but maybe they will not pay a lot for hawker food.
So it's about first coming up with a very, very good offering and not being afraid to charge a premium for it. And we should also stop saying things like how being a hawker is very tough because of the long hours, it's very hot and you stand up all day. Every job has its own difficulty, but you don't hear others complaining to the press about it.
The most amazing thing about Singapore is how multi-cultural we are. Any food we adopt as mainstream can be part of our national cuisine. For example, now that we have more Koreans living here, I wouldn't be surprised if someday zi char stalls started doing kimchi fried rice.
When people ask me what makes the food Singaporean, I say because it's made by a Singaporean. Then they say, isn't it unfair that everyone else can't cook Singaporean food? I say you can - you just need to do the time.
Authenticity is about understanding the DNA, where we come from, how we eat, and why we eat it. Only then can you present food that is authentic." RL
Executive sous chef, The Clifford Pier
The Fullerton Bay Hotel Singapore
80 Collyer Quay Z6597-5266
"OUR menu here is mostly made up of local food, with a few classic Western dishes, but the local dishes are definitely our best-sellers.
About 90 per cent of customers order local food at lunch - perhaps because it cooks faster and they are in a hurry.
We seldom hear people complain about the price here, because I think they understand what they are paying for. Our location in the central business district also plays an important part as we are surrounded by people with high spending power and they don't mind paying more for comfort and ambience.
Personally, I don't mind getting away from the bustling hawker centres where it's hot and noisy.
Of course we try to stay traditional with our recipes, but it's not our focus to be fully traditional. We go by general demand and do lots of research and development (R&D). This means we go around Singapore to taste the most popular hawker food, and come up with our own formula so any chef who cooks it can get the same result. That way, customers will get the same texture, colour, and taste every day, as opposed to when a hawker uncle just estimates everything and throws it into the wok.
Having a hotel to back us helps of course, since it can take a long time to R&D. The longest trial period was for chicken rice, which took about a month of trying different versions every day, adjusting the water, changing rice brands, soya sauces, all to get the perfect recipe.
One popular dish is our wagyu beef rendang which uses premium grade wagyu beef short ribs that are more tender. After sauteing the beef cubes in spices, they are simmered in a housemade kerisik (a coconut paste slow-cooked for three hours) and freshly squeezed coconut milk.
It's also important to hire experienced chefs who are well trained in local cuisine because it can be quite hard to cook. European recipes are quite standard, but hawker food is more about skill and gut feel, so it's harder to standardise. Say person A and person B uses the wok differently - with different cooking timings and amount of heat applied - the end products will have a slight difference. It really depends a lot on the chef, and even his mood that day." RL
Leong Khai Git
Executive chef, Dibs restaurant and bar
51 Duxton Road Tel 6223-3784
"I CAN'T say we do hawker-inspired dishes but rather we serve food with local flair. For example, we have a Rendang Poutine, a blend of Canadian & Asian ideas, and glutinous rice balls with jamon serrano and sriracha mayonnaise. The rendang poutine is more popular.
It's not so much about preserving hawker culture but more because this is my modern take on food I grew up eating. My aunt cooked rendang only at Chinese New Year and my mother would steam glutinous rice for me when I was in primary school.
I would say 10 per cent of our menu is hawker-inspired and it appeals to both locals and tourists. The locals because they like to see how familiar dishes are modernised and tourists are curious.
I don't deconstruct hawker food, I try to combine Asian flavours with western cooking techniques and ingredients. There's usually a bit of confusion when we serve it, followed by pleasant surprise when customers understand the concept and taste it for themselves.
I don't think that hawker food is something that should be tampered with because it holds a lot of meaning for every Singaporean. There are a few local chefs in Singapore who are forging their own identity and we all do different types of cuisine but we are distinctively Singaporean.
It isn't because we take a local favourite sauce and toss it with pasta, but rather it's because we have a Singaporean palate and we create dishes to suit that palate.
Hawker fare will always play an important role in Singapore's culture as something traditional and cost-friendly. There is a need to develop the talent pool in Singapore, and not the dishes themselves, further. I feel that we as local chefs are revolutionising the dining scene but hawker fare has always been a separate identity and we never planned or intended in any way to take it over. We have left it alone as something close to our hearts and childhoods.
For now, we are still trying to penetrate the mindsets of locals and pushing them to try things out of their comfort zone and hopefully, once their minds are more open, we can change the dining scene in Singapore."
By Avanti Nim