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S'pore hawkers on global stage

Seventeen street food outlets earn Bib Gourmand status in first local edition of Michelin Guide.
Jul 15, 2016 5:50 AM


LOCAL heritage street food vaulted into the global spotlight on Thursday when 17 hawkers earned Bib Gourmand status in the first Singapore edition of the Michelin Guide - the widely respected food bible.

The 17 are among a total of 34 eateries to receive this accolade ahead of the coveted one to three Michelin stars that will be awarded in a glittering ceremony on July 21. The hawkers include not just the usual suspects such as Tian Tian Chicken Rice, Hoover Rojak and JB Ah Meng, but also second-generation hawkers The Fishball Story and A Noodle Story. The restaurants in the list include Peony Jade at Keppel Club, True Blue Cuisine and Yhingthai Palace.

What wowed the Michelin team was Singapore's "diversity of local cuisine", says Michael Ellis, international director of Michelin Guides, in an email interview from Paris. "We found good quality not only in classical restaurants, but also in hawker and street food. It highlights the good quality of the local cuisine in Singapore."

Key criteria

Traditionally, Bib Gourmand is a distinction given to restaurants serving good affordable food, but in recent years, Michelin expanded the category in cities such as Hong Kong (and now Singapore) to include street food as well.

In Singapore's case, this means any eatery can qualify as long as they offer meals under a maximum of S$45. The other main factor is quality of the food, judged by the same team of inspectors as the main guide. Says Mr Ellis: "There is no difference in the selection process - we apply the five criteria to judge quality. The only difference is that the quality of a star is higher than a Bib Gourmand."

Douglas Ng, the 25-year-old owner of The Fishball Story, was having a quiet breakfast on Thursday morning when he happened to check his phone and found it flooded with missed calls, messages and Facebook notifications. "I had no idea they came, and it's difficult to recognise an inspector in a hawker setting. But anyway whether it's an inspector or not, we serve what we serve, there's no special inspector-only fishball noodles," he laughs.

While he feels honoured to be in the list, Mr Ng promises that his prices will not be increased as a result. Instead, the recognition and promise of more customers has given him a renewed motivation to continue pursuing his craft.

Mixed reactions

The Bib Gourmand category was started in 1955, and named after Bibendum - the nickname for Michelin's mascot, say the Michelin Man. It came 55 years after the French tyre company first launched the Michelin Guide as a way to highlight food destinations and drive up the sale of car tyres.

Leslie Tay, founder of ieatishootipost, was happy to see hawkers getting the recognition they deserve, but noticed that some deserving ones were not on the list.

"I'm hoping the more famous ones might even get a star - it would be worldwide news if that happens," said Dr Tay. "I don't think it represents the best hawkers we have, but it being the first year, it's a good start, and a good boost for the food industry." On the other hand, founder of local food guide Makansutra, KF Seetoh, was disappointed with the results.

"If they're doing this for tourists, then the list should at least be reflective and give a glimpse into the extensive heritage and street food culture that exists here. Some of the stalls on it, I don't even know why they're there," he said. "After 20 years, I'm still finding that there is so much more to uncover. I know their intentions are good, but they should be a bit more extensive. Their purpose should be clearer. The range doesn't spell out the true colours of street food in Singapore."

For most of the general public, however, the main concern is likely the question of whether prices will rise at the awarded stalls. To this, Dr Tay said: "If one or two hawkers raise their prices a bit after getting the award to keep up with inflation, I'll be happy. Without recognition, it's hard to justify that increase in prices because they might lose customers. If a restaurant gets a Michelin star, they can up prices by S$50, so what difference does it make if hawker stalls raise their prices by S$2?"

Additional reporting by Avanti Nim