Singaporeans, to a man and a woman, contend that you can judge the quality of the food at one of their renowned hawker food stalls by the length of the queues. True enough, at the Old Airport Road Food Centre,in the island city state's unglamorous east, you can actually read a whole broadsheet Chinese newspaper (that is, if you can read Chinese ) by the time you finally place and receive your order.
I realise this fact as I sit at a table in the food centre, waiting for a local friend to deliver me a ridiculously inexpensive and delicious dish of lor mee (braised noodles in a delectable thick starchy gravy) from a hawker stall called Xin Mei Zheng Zong Lor Mee.
As I eat, I watch as a remarkably patient middle-aged man standing in a queue turns another page of his newspaper. Lined up at Xin Mei Zheng Zong Lor Mee, the man then moves one spot ahead, turns another page, then moves one spot ahead and so forth, until he eventually reaches the counter.
Although he has had his head resolutely buried in the paper, such queuing can actually be quite convivial. "Sometimes the line at hawker stalls is so long it becomes quite social," says Juliana Tan, a Singaporean foodie. "You get to know the people in front and behind you."
The newspapers, while on the subject, in Singapore recently have been full of stories about the decline of the hawker stall, as emblematic a feature of the city state as the prohibition of chewing gum used to be. The average age of Singapore's hawkers is nearing 60, after all, The Straits Times reported last year. Long hours and often low or non-existent profit margins in a notoriously price-sensitive market that still expects quality ingredients, among other factors, are deterring younger entrants.
But the prospect of a looming hawker shortage has not checked the appetite for more food centres to accommodate them, with nearly 20 new ones expected to open in the next decade. And it was testament to the venerable position that hawker stalls still occupy in Singaporean society that when the inaugural Michelin Guide to Singapore was released last year, three dozen or so such businesses scored either coveted stars or Bib Gourmand awards.
One Michelin-starred stall, Hong Kong Soy Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle, at the Chinatown Complex Market and Food Centre, became an overnight sensation with reputed six-hour-long queues forming soon after the guide's release. But such success has not allayed the concern surrounding the future of the hawker stall in Singapore.
With Singaporeans reluctant to import hawkers from Malaysia to fill the gap, the last hope for the industry, it appears, are the "hawkerpreneurs", a new generation of young hawker stall operators. But, in reality, this "flow" of hawkerpreneurs is more of a trickle.
Young, highly educated Singaporeans prefer better paid careers in an airconditioned office rather than sweating it out inside a tiny hot kitchen. Nonetheless, of those hawker stalls to be recognised with a Michelin Bib Gourmand listing, nine are run by young first-time hawkers or multigenerational families.
Back at the Old Airport Road Food Centre, hawkerpreneur Kai Koh, 31, and business partner, Randall Gan, 26, opened Roast Paradise, a few stalls up from Xin Mei Zheng Zong Lor Mee, last year after quitting careers in event management. With no experience in the food business, they spent several months in Kuala Lumpur learning the art of hawker cuisine, and the cooking of roast pork, or char siu, from Koh's uncle, who runs a hawker stall in the Malaysian capital.
"We spent about five months training in washing, preparation, roasting, chopping and serving," Koh says. "Every day we did the same thing, over and over again until we were confident and met my uncle's benchmark. We learned everything about the process of cooking a good roast pork, even to the slightest detail, such as sourcing the raw product, trimming the meat, the control of the fire for roasting, and also the size to slice the finished product."
A year or so later, Roast Paradise's promise is that "no appetite will be left unsatisfied" with its remarkably tender and succulent pork dishes with textbook glistening caramalised skin, sold for as little as $S4, a rare bargain in what has become the Switzerland of south-east Asia. Koh believes that the hawker industry is worth preserving because it supports Singapore's working-class.
Although the prosaic Old Airport Road Food Centre, with its open sides to allow the air to flow through and its basic tables and chairs, is one of Singapore's most popular and respected hawker centres,I find I'm one of just a few Caucasians present. Yet, in terms of design at least, it is the antithesis of the Timbre+ Gastropark on the other side of town in a light industrial area about 20 minutes from the heart of the city.
It's home to another hawkerpreneur, Douglas Ng, owner of The Fishball Story, which is built inside a niftily repurposed shipping container. Timbre+ is a contemporary food centre pitched at Singapore's younger generation and there are even stalls selling, heaven forbid, western cuisines.
Ng, who turns 26 this year, was inspired to open his hawker stall by his grandmother's homemade fishballs. Here you can order a bowl of his own "bouncy" fishballs, featuring "100 per cent fish meat", served with noodles, from just $S4 a bowl. Aside from wishing to honour his grandmother's culinary legacy, Ng says he was attracted to the hawker stall industry by a desire to help preserve Singapore's street food heritage and culture as well as to motivate more young Singaporeans to enter the trade.
A former engineering student with experience in the Singapore culinary scene, Ng says that while hawkerpreneurs like him have attracted a lot of attention, he fears there just aren't enough young Singaporeans to fill the gap left by the ageing and retiring hawkers.
"Something has to be done in order for this trade to carry on successfully as at the moment it's not in a very good shape," he says. "This trade is definitely worth saving as it is our culture. It's an important part of our Singaporean heritage and our tourism industry. I'm very proud of our food."
Back at Old Airport Road, where you could conceivably eat quite contentedly and cheaply during your whole visit to Singapore, another queue has formed, this time outside Roast Paradise just before its 11am opening time. Such patronage after so short a time is a tribute to the success and unceasing toil of the two fledging hawkerpreneurs who operate it. And, as the line grows ever longer, it's starting to look like I might need to go and grab a newspaper from somewhere.
FIVE MORE HAWKER STALL DISHES TO TRY
HAINANESE CHICKEN RICE
Singapore's adored national dish is also one of its cheapest and most ubiquitous. Famed for the tenderness of its sliced chicken, it is available virtually everywhere but nowhere is it more authentic and delectable than at a traditional hawker stall like Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice at the famed Maxwell Food Centre.
CHAR KWAY TEOW
Yet another Singaporean crowd-pleaser, this dish typically consists of fried flat rice noodles with sweet and savoury soy sauce, chilli, eggs, bean sprouts and cockles, Chinese pork sausages, chives and sometimes prawns and fishcakes. One of the best places to sample it is at No 18 Fried Kway Teow at the respected Zion Riverside Food Centre.
FRIED OYSTER OMELETTE
A Singaporean hawker stall staple and one that is available nearly everywhere, fried oyster omelettes are made with fresh oysters, sweet potato and flour. One of the best places to order the dish, according to Singapore hawker food lovers, is at Katong Keah Kee Fried Oysters at the Chinatown Food Street.
CHEE CHEONG FUN
A silky rolled rice noodle roll, originally from southern China, chee cheong fun is a popular hawker breakfast dish in Singapore. One of the best versions is sold at the Freshly Made Chee Cheong Fun stall at the Old Airport Road Food Centre. Unlike other chee cheong fun that can be pre-made, the dish at this hawker stall is renowned for being freshly prepared on the spot.
Each night a small section of Boon Tat Street in the CBD, and right across from the Lau Pa Sat hawker centre and the fashionable So Sofitel Singapore hotel, is closed to traffic to make way for a series of stands selling a variety of tantalising skewered meats. Down your satay with a local Tiger beer or two.
Singapore Airlines operates regular daily flights to and from Sydney and Melbourne and other Australian capitals. See singaporeair.com
Roast Paradise and Xin Mei Zheng Zong Lor Mee are at the Old Airport Road Food Centre, 51 Old Airport Rd, Singapore. The Fishball Story is at Timbre+ Gastropark, 73A Ayer Rajah Crescent, Singapore. Phone +65 6252 2545. See timbreplus.sg
Naumi, at 41 Seah Street, Singapore, is a centrally located boutique-style hotel across the street from Raffles and some excellent cheap eat hawker-style restaurants. Doubles from $A374. Book though Small Luxury Hotels, of which Naumi is a member. See slh.com
Anthony Dennis visited Singapore as a guest of Small Luxury Hotels.