Discovering hawker food in Singapore, a culture worth preserving — and devouring
By DAVID PIERSON | Los Angeles Times | Published: February 6, 2019
SINGAPORE — There’s little that can prepare an outsider for the onslaught of food in Singapore.
Every stroll through this city shrouded in tropical heat is interrupted by open-air food centers, coffee shops and restaurants vying for your stomach’s attention.
Seek sanctuary inside an air-conditioned mall and you’ll be greeted by sprawling subterranean food halls that seem to span the distance between subway stops.
Dining out is a way of life in Singapore. One in four residents say they eat out daily, a recent Nielsen survey found. Many choose food centers, which aren’t your hot dog on a stick-variety mall food courts, but keepers of a proud local cuisine and tradition cobbled by generations of the city’s Chinese, Indian and Malay inhabitants.
The abundance and convenience of food in Singapore can be a shock to the system -- particularly for someone like me who has lived in a community of tract homes in Santa Clarita, Calif., where dining out meant choosing between two equidistant McDonald’s.
I admit I have a weakness for Big Macs, but it’s no contest when outside my hotel on a stretch of Killiney Road I can choose between world-class satay, chicken rice, curry laksa, prawn noodles, fish ball soup, dim sum, Indian prata, chicken biryani, beef rendang or Cantonese barbecue - all for about the same price as a six-piece Chicken McNugget meal.
Straying from my neighborhood has been even more rewarding.
There were the piquant chili crab and salted egg yolk prawns at the East Coast Seafood Center that looks out onto the Singapore Strait, where at night, the tankers and cargo ships are anchored so close together they look like a neighboring city.
There was the crunchy fried Hainan chicken wing vendor at the Toa Payoh Lorong Food Center, who commands such a loyal following that customers line up long before opening to beat the crowds.
At Golden Mile Food Center, I took my first bites of Peranakan food, a centuries-old cuisine born out of the intermarrying of Chinese and Malays. The cuisine, which requires meticulous preparation, is slowly fading from fashion along with the few remaining chefs who know the recipes by heart.
“You’ve only scratched the surface,” I was told by K.F. Seetoh, an evangelist of Singaporean food culture, founder of the Makansutra food guide and the subject of profiles by R.W. Apple Jr. and Calvin Trillin.
Over a plate of beet red mee goreng, a local Indian take on stir-fried Chinese noodles, Seetoh spoke about a looming crisis. The storied ranks of Singapore’s food vendors, known here as hawkers, are aging faster than they can be replaced.
Their children, equipped with elite educations and living in one of the most affluent countries in the world, have little interest in working 12-hour shifts in 10-by-10-feet hawker stands in unrelenting heat.
“Thousands of old heritage hawkers - proud, loud, humble, authentic - are marching toward a cliff,” said Seetoh, who has been keeping a running tab on his Facebook page of the latest dining destinations to close. “They’re going to go down and into the sunset. Behind them are perhaps 10 new hawkers to replace them.”
Without them, Singapore wouldn’t have its frenetic dining scene where unpretentious food reigns and the instinct to eat elbow-to-elbow with strangers forms the basis of community.
Hawkers typically specialize in one thing, like a Hainanese chicken rice or bak kut teh, a pork rib soup, and rarely charge more than $4 a portion. Their artisan’s way of cooking set standards high, making it hard to find a bad meal in this island nation.
“We have professors coming from the U.S. and they go to our canteen here and they say, 'This is restaurant-type food and you pay two U.S. dollars. You guys are spoiled,’" said Malone-Lee Lai Choo, an expert on urban development at the National University of Singapore.
Hawkers are the descendants of itinerant street food vendors who predate Singapore’s founding in 1965. After nationhood, they were licensed and housed in pavilions located in or near public housing, where 80 percent of Singaporeans live today.
That gave the masses access to cheap, clean and abundant food that helped power Singapore’s productivity. By taking away the chore of cooking, it enabled both spouses to work. Government statistics show about 65 percent of Singaporean households with children include two working parents. That’s a rate slightly higher than in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Buying groceries can also cost more than dining out, providing another reason to eschew the kitchen.
The Singaporean government has long played a heavy hand in the way its citizens eat. It has to, it says, for the sake of food security in a country of merely 278 square miles and no room for farms. More than 90 percent of everything Singaporeans consume is imported from countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, China and Brazil.
After perhaps underselling its appeal, the Singaporean government has jumped on the hawker bandwagon in recent years. It established a hawker incubation program that allowed applicants to lease a stall at half-price for six months to encourage a new generation. And it launched a campaign to include hawker culture into UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage alongside things such as France’s gastronomic dining and Italy’s Neapolitan pizza. Singapore’s submission is due in March.
“You see any restaurant food in 'Crazy Rich Asians'?” said Seetoh, a proponent of the UNESCO bid. “Nada. It’s all chili crab and satay. Hawker food is a national icon.”
It remains to be seen whether Singapore can retain its hawkers’ artisan roots. It’s easier today to buy staples such as fish balls wholesale than it is to make them from scratch. More food service companies are operating air-conditioned facsimiles of the hawker centers and supplying the vendors there with semi-prepared meals from a central commissary.
There are 114 hawker centers in Singapore, each housing 100 to 200 stalls outfitted with sinks and a few burners. One of the older locations, Golden Mile Food Center on Beach Road, was built in 1975 under public housing that sits on former waterfront property long obscured by reclaimed land.
On a recent weekday, the center’s two-story dining area hummed with the sound of undulating electric fans. Hundreds of diners, mostly workers from nearby office buildings, tucked into orders of clay pot rice, braised duck and lor mee, a popular dish of egg noodles submerged in a thick dark gravy.
To one side of the floor, in stall B1-30, stood Charlie Tan, chef and owner of Charlie’s Peranakan Food. Tan returned to cooking in 2017 after an eight-year hiatus triggered by poor health.
“I was burnt out,” said Tan, 62, whose perpetually furrowed brow is befitting of a man who works from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week. “This isn’t ordinary food. It’s very complex. It takes proper planning.”
Consider one of Tan’s most popular dishes, ayam buah keluak. The recipe relies on buah keluak, a walnut-size seed found in mangrove swamps that has to be soaked for days to remove poisonous toxins.
“Otherwise you get the runs,” Seetoh said.
Tan painstakingly empties the flesh of each seed, blending it with minced pork and shrimp before returning it into its casing. It’s then simmered in a sauce with chicken and served with rice and a Popsicle stick to scoop out the contents of the buah keluak. Sour, inky and earthy, it is like eating a mixture of Mexican mole and Filipino adobo.
Tan is one of only a few cooks with Peranakan bloodlines still preparing this kind of food in Singapore. He’s even more of an anomaly because he has a son who wants to take over the business.
Joshua Chen, 20, recently finished his two-year compulsory national military service. Now he stands at his father’s side, hoping to absorb the elder’s exacting techniques, one dish at a time.
“The passion is there,” Tan said of his son, “but I don’t see the flair yet.”