Singapore’s slice of culinary heaven
Text Selina Tan
Photos Justin Ong
Daylight is nigh. While the neighbourhood sleeps, the nighttime silence is broken by the sound of shallots being pounded, peanuts toasted and grounded, and a huge volume of small prawns tossed over, ready to be coated in specially prepared batter. This array of ingredients has to be chosen and accessed carefully before it is presented to the Indian rojak specialist’s loyal customers, who will be waiting in line at the 35-year-old Ayer Rajah Food Centre – a popular makan (eating) hangout that operates from late morning till 10.30pm daily. Throughout the day, an appetising aroma permeates this assembly point. It spells a picture of vibrancy and a constant for Singaporeans who gather over one simple thing, good local fare.
Grafted onto the daily lives of citizens of this island nation, hawker centres are a vital part of Singapore’s national heritage. Typically, an open-air complex housing a wide variety of food stalls selling tasty, quickly prepared and affordable dishes, the hawker centre is an iconic reflection of Singapore’s status as a melting pot of cultures. People taking their pick from a range of Chinese, Malay, Indian, Western and even Thai options is a common sight, although many often make a beeline for their familiar favourites. Long queues are a testimony to the taste and quality available.
See beyond the nondescript exterior and one will delight in the details. The stove is the cornerstone of our households and for a considerable number of hawkers, the stall is regarded as an extension of their home kitchen, an avenue for them to eke out a living, as well as put their culinary prowess on display.
Food critics will opine that hawker food is artisanal because the hawker has spent as long as 50 years trying to perfect this one dish. Few Michelin-starred chefs can rival the skills of 69-year-old Singaporean Ng Chang Siang of Hill Street Char Kway Teow. His ability to control the fires and work the wok hei (Cantonese for “scent” of the wok) into his plates of flat rice noodles is inimitable – the result of having cooked, maintaining his father’s recipe, six days a week for more than five decades.
At Selara Rasa Nasi Lemak, Hassan Abdul Kadir was a rare master who achieved the perfect balance in his combination of coconut milk and basmati rice for his delectable, evenly flavourful nasi. Whipped up with a traditional sambal recipe hailing from the late Kadir’s mother, the acclaimed nasi lemak (Malay for “coconut rice”) even includes some special Japanese seafood ingredients. He opened the stall in 1998 and his dish became so successful, the Sultan of Brunei continues to request the item for breakfast each time he visits the island nation. An extremely successful hawker, Kadir used to take in a monthly revenue in excess of S$120,000.
A different fate?
Fortunately for fans of Selara Rasa Nasi Lemak, Hassan found a successor in his eldest son, Abdul Malik Hassan, before he passed on four years ago. Although the second-generation hawker wanted carte blanche to run the business, which led to him streamlining processes and tweaking the menu, it remains food created with passion by specialists. Already a popular stall in 2003, Selara Rasa at Adam Road Hawker Centre became an even bigger draw.
Earlier this year, Abdul Hassan invested in a central kitchen to open multiple outlets all over Singapore. An equal partnership between himself and the co-founder of Pezzo Pizza, the joint venture commits Abdul to taking care of the standard of the food. “I have never liked the idea of franchising our brand (as) you cannot control the quality,” the man at the helm asserts.
The brand’s direction differs greatly from that of Ng Ah Sio Bak Kut Teh, one of the pioneers of a Teochew style pork-based, peppery herbal soup widely popular in Singapore and Malaysia. From serving the crowds at New World Amusement Park (Kitchener Road) with his father, to greatly improving the recipe and moving the expanded stall to Rangoon Road in 1988, Ng has created cuisine that remains a firm favourite among locals and foreigners, including political dignitaries and celebrities. It was eventually sold to Jumbo Group in 2010, following the founder’s retirement for the lack of an inheritor in the family.
Although Singapore’s hawker scene has been experiencing a roaring trade in the past decade, with over 800 new stalls coming on board in the next 12 years, veteran hawkers attest that more needs to be done to attract new blood, as many current industry players are likely to retire in the coming years.
Sulaiman Abu, the owner of the D’Authentic Nasi Lemak stall in Marine Parade Food Centre, who is in his 50s, is one of them. He plans to have his children take over, but, he opines, “it is very hard to tell if other young people want to become hawkers (as) it bodes long hours and hard work”. Abu himself wakes up at 4am and works at least 12 to 14 hours daily.
By far the biggest problem plaguing Singapore’s hawker heritage is that there is little or no renewal in the system. For every young hawker who picks up a ladle, there are at least twice as many who leave. In 2014, hawker legend Ng Ba Eng from Eng’s Noodle House passed on from a heart attack, leaving his son to take over the legacy. As well, Lim Seng Lee Duck Rice Eating House closed down in June last year due to founder Lim Ah Too’s retirement.
The ingredient of continuity
Through it all, Singaporean foodies believe there is still hope. There are young hawkers who see potential in this line, entering the field and insisting it is imperative to hold onto authentic, homegrown recipes.
Forty-three-year-old Abdul isn’t the only individual who decided to pilot his father’s stall, despite being a degree holder, a mechanical engineering one at that, which put him in good stead for a job with Singapore Airlines. Admittedly, it was hard for Abdul to give up his dreams at first, but the call to take over from his father motivated him to keep the tradition alive and flourishing.
In the west of Singapore, 27-year-old Abdus Salam is treading a similar path. After obtaining his honours degree, he worked as an assistant semiconductor engineer for close to a year before deciding to take over his father’s rojak reins. His family owns an Indian rojak stall at Ayer Rajah Food Centre, which Abdus’ parents named after him when the business took flight in 1994. Since becoming a full-time second-generation hawker, Abdus, a hawker centre lover himself, has experienced firsthand the difficulties of keeping a stall running without any compromise in the cooking process.
The Indian rojak expert puts an emphasis on getting the proportions right, such that the prawn fritter comprises more prawn than dough, ensuring a much richer taste. For 20 years, Abdus’ father has been religiously guarding the secret to the high quality of his food, earning the stall many prestigious accolades. Long-time patrons are die-hard fans of their mouthwatering dollop of sauce, which boasts a spicy, satisfying finish. The young hawker finds his motivation in pleasing the palates of his customers, some of whom come all the way from Malaysia, Australia, Canada and London, and affirms that he has no regrets about
“Contrary to popular opinion, there are a lot of incentives to working in hawker centres. Besides it being a good platform to learn techniques and soft skills, it prepares you for hardship and also earns much more than a regular job,” he says. Indeed, most who do well take home an average of S$7,000 to S$8,000 a month. Topping the charts is Mr Lee Chee Wee, owner of the award-winning Beach Road Prawn Noodle House along East Coast Road, who achieves sales of more than S$150,000 a month!
Abdus has no qualms about encouraging his young son to take over in the future, as he believes in the vision of trademark hawker stalls, in spite of its less-than-glamorous image. He also hopes that the government would make the environment more conducive for hawkers by allowing them to hire foreigners as assistants. Evidently, one major problem besetting him and his contemporaries is the dire lack of manpower.
From past to future
The origins of hawker food date back to the days when early immigrants from China, India and the Malay Archipelago brought with them the cuisines from their homeland, which evolved over time to incorporate local influences. Early immigrants hawked these dishes on the streets as part of their livelihoods. As the city developed, street hawkers were relocated to sanitised hawker centres built by the government to maintain a hygienic environment. These iconic traditional dishes flourished as more hawker centres were set up over the years, eventually making an indelible mark on Singapore’s food culture.
The first Singapore hawker centre – Yung Sheng Food Centre in Jurong – was built in 1971 as part of a government programme to resettle street food vendors into better-managed facilities. The Yung Seng Food Centre model was considered a success because it led to major improvements in food preparation standards and saw a steady stream of regular diners showing up at a single venue. Many more such facilities were built over the next two decades, and in 1986, the last street food vendor was successfully resettled into a hawker centre.
Today, we embark on a brand new chapter in our hawker heritage. With changing mindsets, new ideas and the innovative hands of Singapore’s youngsters who derive inspiration from age-old delights, it is obvious that the most powerful way to this nation’s heart is undoubtedly through her stomach.
For more stories and photos, check out Asian Geographic Issue 113.