Jill Dupleix and Terry Durack discover Singapore's dynamic new generation of hawker-chefs. Here's where to dine.
We don't shop when we're in Singapore. We don't do business. We don't sit by the pool. We just eat. It's the street food of Singapore – the smoky, sizzling satays; the spicy, wok-charred noodles; the juicy clams and the tender chicken rice – that pulls the two of us back. But the hawker chefs of the postwar generation are getting older and their children, whizzed off to business school at a young age, aren't tempted into a life at the wok. Treasured recipes are dying with the cooks who perfected them, and the colour and movement of the street-side stalls are fading. The question is: how long can these hawkers survive?
Street food has been the best eating in Singapore since the late 1800s, when men from China, Malaya and southern India were drawn to work in the maniacally busy port city. Outnumbering women 10 to one, they cooked the dishes they missed from home, selling them on street corners from pots suspended on shoulder poles or from bicycles ingeniously fitted with little portable stoves.
Long before anyone had thought of the label "fusion food", these street vendors were borrowing delicious flavours, techniques and ingredients from each other, unwittingly forging south-east Asia's most beguiling food culture. Relocated into hawker markets or food centres by the government in the 1970s, they keep the spirit of old Singapore alive with every rattling wok and every cup of pulled tea. You can't help but respond to the sheer energy of the surging crowds, the sizzling spontaneity of food fresh from the fryer, steamer and wok, and the appealingly cheap and cheerful prices.
Unable to picture a world without Singaporean chilli crab, creamy curry laksa and spicy mouth-burning sambal, we track down the Lion City's most respected food bloggers, publishers, critics and entrepreneurs. We meet up in food courts, on the street and in coffee houses for breakfasts, lunches, countless sweet cups of kopi (coffee) and more plates of coconut-scented kaya toast than most people have had in a lifetime. We found a battalion of people determined to save their street food.
Amy Van, the editor of Singapore's Appetite magazine, recently devoted an entire issue to celebrating this integral part of the culture, believing it has long been taken for granted. "We've seen the distinct character of many old hawker centres disappear over the years," she says, "slowly transformed into sterile cookie-cutter settings in food courts."
K. F. Seetoh, the mercurial entrepreneur behind the successful Makansutra hawker food guides, credits the growing global obsession with street food for turning a spotlight on Singapore. "Now that street food culture is becoming such a Singaporean icon, the government is looking at ways of preserving it," he says. Indeed, last year Singapore's National Environment Agency announced the construction of 10 new hawker centres with 600 stalls. In April, minimum rental fees were abolished in an effort to keep hawker prices affordable, and there is even talk of training colleges to teach the "official" recipes.
Aun Koh and Su-Lyn Tan, the new faces of food publishing in Singapore and the dynamic couple behind the Chubby Hubby food blog, have made it a personal quest to commission a series of books that document hawker food recipes and stories. "We feel that part of our culinary culture is waning," Su-Lyn says. "Cooking the recipes at home is another way to keep them alive."
Dr Leslie Tay, a food blogger, GP and author of The End of Char Kway Teow and Other Hawker Mysteries, has seen many of his beloved hawker stalls succumb to the generational shift. The difference now, he says, is that there is greater realisation that the hawker centre is the perfect launch pad for enterprising Gen Y "hawkerpreneurs".
Tay tells the story of Tom's Citizoom, a coffee shop specialising in mee pok, flat yellow noodles with fish balls or minced meat (Block 57, Lengkok Bahru). The Tom in question is a polytechnic engineering graduate in his 20s who gave up engineering to join the hawker trade. Why? "Because he likes mee pok," Tay says. "In fact, he's so passionate about it, that very love might be just what is needed to preserve our mee pok culture for another generation."
Another of Tay's new-gen success stories is Yeo Hart Pong, who took over his father's business, Song Fa Bak Kut Teh (11 New Bridge Road), a small kopitiam (coffee shop) serving bak kut the; meaty pork bones simmered in a simple broth of salt, pepper and garlic. We meet over tiny cups of the traditional accompaniment, kungfu tea. Yeo has gently adapted his father's recipe to suit contemporary tastes, buying less-fatty pork and slow-cooking it until tender. "I'm challenging the young generation to use better ingredients," he says. Since moving his father's business to a large, comfortable corner coffee shop, he hasn't looked back. "All my friends are investment bankers," he laughs. "But with the economic crisis, I think I'm doing better than they are." (A popular roast-meat stall, Kay Lee, recently had its recipe and business on the market for $SGD3.5 million ($2.7 million).)
Purists might argue, but this generational change is infusing Singapore's street food with new life by reducing the traditionally heavy use of oil and fat and making the experience cooler and more comfortable.
As well, private-sector food and beverage groups such as the Select Group and BreadTalk are reinventing the hygienically correct but dreary food court by adding the missing ingredient – a big dash of nostalgia. Two in particular have a real charm of their own. Food Republic, on level four of the Wisma Atria centre in shop-lined Orchard Road, has been retro-designed in homage to the heyday of hawker food – the golden era of the 1960s. Spanning 2000-square-metres and seating 800 people, it's big and buzzy, filled with good smells and great food and a wonderful array of soybean and fresh fruit drinks. The 23 hand-picked tenants were selected for their much-loved signature recipes: our favourites are fried beef hor fun from the venerable Odeon Beef Noodle stall; a great pomfret fish soup from Toa Pa Yoh Long; and the classic char kway teow (fried rice noodles with prawns and cockles) from the hugely popular Thye Hong.
The second retro-fitted food court, Food Trail (30 Raffles Avenue), lurks beneath one of Singapore's most popular tourist drawcards, the big wheel of the Singapore Flyer. A virtual "road" lined with 17 heritage food stalls, Food Trail offers everything from the black rice vinegar pork noodles of High Street Tai Wah and barbecued stingray of Boon Tat Street, to popiah (fresh spring rolls) at Chinatown Ann Chin, and smoky, scorchy carrot (radish) cake served straight from the wok at Changi Village.
Then there's the vast Rasapura Masters at the Marina Bay Sands resort, billed as the world's most expensive stand-alone casino. The big-ticket stuff is upstairs in restaurants opened by some of the world's finest chefs (Tetsuya Wakuda, Daniel Boulud, Mario Batali, Guy Savoy), but the real action is in the 2000-square-metre basement food court where you can spend less than $10 on a cracking meal.
Even with 960 seats, there are still swirling crowds of people bearing trays of noodles and chicken wings doing a desperate dance for a table. Worth the queue are Teochew-style claypot frog porridge from A1 Porridge; freshly made la mian noodles with king prawns from Noodle Star; and ayam penyet (flattened fried chicken with spicy sambal) from Edy Penyet.
Even K. F. Seetoh has put his money where his mouth is by opening the lively outdoor Gluttons Bay Hawker Centre (8 Raffles Avenue). Next to the Esplanade Performing Arts Centre, it's a great spot for nasi lemak from Kampong Wok, char kway teow from Soon Lee and fried carrot cake from Huat Huat.
For an authentic dose of old-school open-air hawker centres, Seetoh says, you can't go past the wonderfully hustly-bustly Maxwell Road Hawker Centre in Chinatown (11 South Bridge Road), the sprawling East Coast Park Lagoon Village (1220 East Coast Parkway) and the Old Airport Road Food Centre (19 Old Airport Road). Just follow his advice when choosing which stall to frequent: "If a kitchen doesn't smell good," he says, "you know the food sucks."
These days, you don't have to leave your hotel for a great oyster omelet. The Grand Hyatt's gleaming $5 million, 260-seat Straitskitchen (10 Scotts Road) may be in a ritzy hotel and not, say, the Victorian splendour of Lau Pa Sat hawker centre, but you still get a dazzling display of 30 chefs wok-frying, griddling, grilling, steaming and roasting their way through Singapore's street-food repertoire. Not to mention the bonus of being able to order a glass of wine on the side.
Even the heritage-listed Hotel Fort Canning ventures into the future with a reinvented "laksa spaghetti" of curry laksa with sauteed spaghetti, silver sprouts, fresh shrimps and egg, topped with caviar.
Restless, creative, entrepreneurial Singapore will always play with its food. But in just four days – and 24 meals – we feel nothing but gratitude to our self-appointed guides, thankful that the street food we love has a real future. It's the food of the people, after all, and it's the people who will save it.
Terry Durack and Jill Dupleix travelled courtesy of the Singapore Tourism Board and Hotel Fort Canning.
Singapore Airlines has a fare to Singapore from Sydney and Melbourne for about $965 low-season return, including tax. Fly non-stop from Sydney (8hr 5min) and from Melbourne (7hr 35min); see singaporeair.com.
Signature Singapore efficiency is in your favour, with a network of taxis, buses and the brilliant Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) rail system that gets you from hotel to hawker centre and back. Download the train route at smrt.com.sg and use it to navigate your way around the island.
The majestic former British military headquarters is now the Hotel Fort Canning, a graceful 86-room hotel, situated — unusually for Singapore — in the tropical greenery of a beautiful park in the middle of the city. Complimentary all-day Nespresso coffee and evening drinks — and two swimming pools, no waiting — make it feel more of a holiday resort than a hotel, which is no bad thing. Rooms from $S350 ($275); see hfcsingapore.com.
Food blogs we love
Singaporeans are the world's best and keenest food bloggers. You can keep up with the local food scene via these favourites.
I eat I shoot I post: Meet Dr Leslie Tay — GP by day, fearless food blogger and hawker-food champion by night — with a certified 14,000 hits a day, making ieatishootipost.sg the best-read blog in Asia. If you want to drive yourself crazy with hunger, get his ieathawker app (99¢ on iTunes). See ieatishootipost.sg. Signature sign-off: Never waste your calories on yucky food.
Chubby Hubby: Founders of the Ate Group communications agency and publishers of the Miele guide to Asian restaurants, Aun Koh and Su-Lyn Tan represent a new breed of food-obsessed local publishers. See chubbyhubby.net. Signature sign-off: Food, family and the finer things in life.
Makansutra: The irrepressible K.F.Seetoh is the founder of the culinary guide and media company Makansutra, and a long-time crusader for local hawker culture. See makansutra.com. Signature sign-off: Die, die, must try!