A new Bedok hawker centre preparing to open in October will provide customers with the option of paying with NETS contactless cards, while free wi-fi makes it easier to upload a selfie over kopi and kaya toast.
The news comes even as Lavender Food Square is slated to be torn down to make way for an office building, and Longhouse was sold to a developer in April. In Penang, the Malaysian government proposed to ban foreign cooks in hawker stalls, ostensibly to preserve the authentic taste of its key asset–Penang’s world-famous street food as cooked by its locals.
Singaporeans love their hawker cuisine, as seen in Weber Shandwick’s Food Forward Trends Report 2014 ( www.webershandwick.asia/foodforward ), with 81% of respondents eating most frequently at hawker stalls and 86% confident that hawker food is here to stay. We idealise our hawker cuisine as it has traditionally been of high quality and taste at cheap prices for specialised, individually prepared dishes. Hawkers, such as the Tan sisters interviewed here, would typically spend hours hand-making their ingredients, before more gruelling hours in front of a hot stove cooking and serving their dishes.
Today, as older hawkers retire and fewer hawkers step up to the plate, we bemoan the loss of such dishes cooked with dedication. Factors such as out-of-control rising rentals, high food costs and F&B competition–along with changing consumer taste and habits–have contributed to the decline of the ‘artisanal hawker’  (to borrow chef Shen Tan’s words, see her interview on next page).
So, what’s the future like for our hawker cuisine? There have been no new hawker centres built since 1987, but the government has committed to building 10 new ones in the next decade. To fill these new stalls, we need more of everything–more hawkers, more diners, more appreciation for the genre, and most of all, more room to innovate and grow a uniquely Singaporean food culture that we can be proud of. BiTES gives a big thank you to our hawkers who shared their stories, and for continuing to feed us with food from their heart.

Who: The Tan sisters

Where: Hua Bee Restaurant, #01-19 Block 78 Moh Guan Terrace

Serves: Dry mee pok ($3) with a clear soup of fish balls, fried fish cake slices and her giao (Teochew fish dumplings), topped with homemade chilli and black vinegar.

This stall’s been around since the 1940s, when it was originally run by the Tan sisters’ father. Last year, the coffeeshop was bought over by restaurateur Loh Lik Peng (Keong Saik Snacks, Cocotte) and part of it has become yakitori bar Bincho. In a welcomed move, the stallfront has been conserved, down to its weathered signboard and retro coffeeshop chairs and tables. The Mandarin-speaking sisters, who are in their 50s, were persuaded to continue cooking their famous mee pok, which set the scene in Eric Khoo’s film Mee Pok Man . The elder Tan has been dishing out bowls of noodles from her 20s, while the younger Tan started helping out due to a manpower shortage.

How have hawkers changed? The younger generation lacks the experience and thus flavours have changed. Prices have also increased, it’s an upward trend. The business model now is to keep prices low so more bowls can be sold to maximise earning power. If you don’t do that, it’s like a ’slap on your bottom’.
How did you end up specialising in mee pok? Our father started the noodle stall; we just followed in his footsteps. In recent years, we stopped making things from scratch due to the high cost and manpower issues. We now get our fishballs, fishcakes, etc from a factory as it’s cheaper and easier. We used to head to the fishery port at 5am to buy fish, return to our stall to make the fishballs, etc. It was longer hours and harder work. We won’t go back to making it from scratch.
Have your customer profiles changed? We still have our regulars, but now there’s an additional younger crowd and tourists who read about us in the media. When we were featured in a Hong Kong magazine, we had an influx of HK tourists.

If you could change anything, what would it be? We’d want to improve the quality of our food by using better ingredients, but we’ll still stick to the traditional taste. We’d also offer a wider menu to gain more customers. Perhaps installing air-conditioners would be good so our patrons are more comfortable.

Have we lost our heritage? Yes, food joints are more Westernised. The younger generation is less accustomed to hot working conditions and being on their feet for long periods. It’d be good if the government can groom this new generation. Even our children are not willing to continue after us. Kopitiams like ours are now a rarity.

Who: Daniel Suren
Where: Heavens Heritage, stall 5 Lau Pa Sat Festival Market (newest outlet)
Serves: Freshly-made putu mayam (2 for $2.60), a Tamil steamed dish known as ‘string hoppers’ made of rice flour. Princess appam ($3.50) is another regal delight; egg, butter and cheese on a traditional South Indian pancake.

Daniel Suren, 27, has been helping out at his mum’s stall (Heavens Indian Curry, #01-15 Ghim Moh Market and Food Centre) since he was a wee tot, while his dad has been running a teh tarik stall for over 30 years. In Nov 2012, opportunity knocked for him to have his own stall at the now defunct outlet at Bedok Marketplace. True to the spirit of preserving food heritage and putting freshly made putu mayam back on our little red dot, he travelled to India for research and to buy the moulds. As for the appams, he grinds raw rice and ferments it, then makes each batch of dough by hand daily.

How long has your family been cooking? My mother started in 1995; she’s 52. I expanded from my mum’s business and currently have five outlets, with the help of three investor partners.

What are the differences between hawker centres today and before the 1980s? The most glaring would be in prices and taste. Both have been inversely proportional with prices going up, and taste of food going down. However, there are good differences, such as better hygiene, efficient cleaning, water and gas services. Business was also more brisk before: hawker food was a staple as restaurants were few and far in between.

How about being a hawker now and before? Before, it would be easier to actually get people to work. Nowadays, not many people want to be associated with the ‘hawker’ trade though technically we don’t ‘hawk’ anymore. It’s more of a properly run business with relevant paperwork needed, unlike those days where if you had a makeshift table, a few chairs, a working stove and a handy recipe, you could become a hawker.

How did you end up specialising in your dish, and why do you still make things from scratch? My mother started modifying recipes in 1995 when she felt that the flavours in traditional dishes such as thosai and appam were not enough. Eventually we had our own unique recipes and I built upon them and insisted on only freshly made food in all our outlets. I always believe cooking is a labour of love. And every customer should be able to taste and feel that through our food.

Do you feel we are losing our “hawker heritage”? Definitely. There was a time where most food would be at worst decent tasting. Nowadays, to get a fairly good char kway teow or mee goreng, you better do your research before stepping out.

Who: Casey Ong

Where: Newton Roast, formerly at #01-51 Newton Circus Food Centre. Reopening soon, look for updates on www.newton.sg

Serves: KO Pork Knuckles ($39.90, about 500g of hind knuckle) and Six-Pack Pork Belly ($33.90, about 500g) with sauces of wasabi, mustard and sambal belachan on the side.

Newton Roast, named for the scientist Isaac Newton rather than the hawker centre, specialises in one thing: roast pork. Casey Ong, in his early 40s, formerly a mechanical engineer and IT consultant, personally created and tweaked his recipe for two years, and finally saw the opportunity to enter the F&B sector. This entrepreneur’s is peppered with jargon and questions like, “What perimeters can I change to increase the quantum in outcome?”  He tells us about applying corporate world lessons to the “so-called simple”  food business.

Why did you choose a hawker centre? For entrepreneurs, whether short or long term, a hawker centre is great. For me, it served as a bridge to interact with the market and expose the business. I opened in May and closed the stall in July to relocate to bigger premises in a couple months. As I add more business-to-business customers, I need to scale up to meet demand.

Isn’t it expensive to rent a hawker stall? Monthly rental is about $5,500 for 9 sqm, which allows me flexible opening hours and the ability to test consumption patterns. It was also flexible to enter and leave. It never crossed my mind to rent in a food court, as I would not have the same visibility and it would not be convenient for my customers to drop by and pick up their orders.

Why did you become a food entrepreneur? To be in the F&B industry, the question is, what do I need to validate in the concept? The thinking has to be different, by systemising production and the delivery. In anything you do, you need to scale and create IP (intellectual property).

Who: Immanuel Tee

Where: Immanuel French Kitchen, #01-40 Block 119, Bukit Merah Lane 1. Tel: 9297 3285, www.facebook.com/ immanuelfrenchkitchen

Serves: French food, “good ingredients, well made”  with innovation, care and attention to detail, such as in the duck confit ($14.90), sauteed frog ($12.60) and Burgundy escargot ($11.90).

Immanuel Tee is a chef with a (French) food mission. He spent stints training under top chefs at fine dining restaurants JAAN, Guy Savoy and Keystone, and since June this year, has chosen to open his own business. Sous vide and espuma techniques feature in the tight menu: tender sous vide chicken; airy potato foam made with a siphon gun; and onsen egg cooked with a thermo circulator.

What made you choose a hawker business concept? I wanted to start something small; a business that is owned by myself. And most important is to introduce French cuisine to more people who have never tried it.

How has the reception been? People accept the food and also price; the products we get are
mostly imported from France.

What would you change about being a hawker? I would like to change people’s perspective and encourage them to be one. It actually has a lot of potential and the starting capital is affordable compared to opening a restaurant.

Do you feel we are losing our “hawker heritage”? Yes, because less Singaporeans are going into the hawker business and in future it will be harder for us to eat our own local delicacies if no one is going to step up and cook.

FROM HAWKER TO HOTEL

Shen Tan started Madam Tan’s Nasi Lemak as a food stall at Maxwell Market in 2009. At the time, the self-taught cook in her mid-30s had chucked her secure job and steady paycheck for the uncertain life of a hawker. The stall led to Mod-Sin bistro, Wok & Barrel (20112013), and most recently to Ujong, an upmarket modern Singaporean cuisine restaurant at the Raffles Hotel that serves her signature nasi lemak with beef rendang ($19.90) and bar chor mee pasta ($25.90) alongside new twists on local dishes.

What were your plans in 2009? To learn how to run a food business which required the least amount of capital. A hawker stall requires relatively little capital investment as compared to a restaurant. But at the back of my mind, I was thinking of how that hawker stall could be expanded on with multiple locations i.e. Madam Tan’s Nasi Lemak stalls all over Singapore! That is why right from the beginning, there was always a strong brand presence for Madam Tan’s Nasi Lemak. I created a logo, had a web presence and created some signature dishes.

What was the hardest part about starting the food stall? Learning to cook for hundreds of people a day in a small space (9 sqm). Finding out where to buy supplies wholesale. Washing hundreds of oily melamine plates. Pricing. The list is endless. I also doubted my ability to cook and just about everything under the sun.

Then Wok & Barrel came along. How are the challenges different for restauranteurs and hawkers? Finding good service staff was the hardest part of The Wok & Barrel. With a hawker stall, you only need to produce the food, there really isn’t a service element. I also had not run a restaurant before and quite often had to jump between the kitchen and front of house if someone didn’t turn up for work. You also have a fixed seating capacity with a restaurant as opposed to a hawker centre. We had to turn people away at times at The Wok & Barrel because we only had 40 seats.

Have we lost our “hawker heritage”; how do you define this term? I don’t think that we are losing our hawker heritage but I do think that we are losing traditional dishes like Fuzhou oyster pancake, rickshaw noodles and ngoh hiang liver sausages. Increasingly due to labour constraints and economies of scale, we are losing the artisanal ‘handmade’ element of hawker food. You tiao, fishball, chilli sauces and carrot cake are now made in factories and shipped out to hawker stalls to be sold.

Is the route you’ve taken–bringing traditional Singaporean dishes into a haute space–one way of “saving” these dishes? Hahaha; I don’t think of myself as a ‘saviour’ of hawker food! There are great initiatives under way that I believe will carry on this great tradition of Singaporean dishes by KF Seetoh, AtSunrice and others. Sylvia Tan, the author, is also a great chronicler of our hawker heritage through her cookbooks and I believe it through such work that we can preserve our food culture and innovate new dishes.

CHAIN REACTION

Aston Soon is his name, but you may recognise the brand of his food outlets instead. With 14 Astons Express stalls in hawker centres and food courts, 13 standalone Astons Specialties and 1 Astons Steak & Salad restaurant, the simple Western food stall that Soon started in 2005 has seen exponential growth in less than 10 years. The humble restaurateur began as a “waiter, broiler-cook, dishwasher, everything”  at Ponderosa, as he told The Straits Times , rising up to become restaurant manager. In his early 30s, Soon borrowed $35,000

to set up a one-man stall in a kopitiam in East Coast Road, and before long created a buzz around his good value steaks. Within a year, he shifted into his own shopfront, and the brand kept growing from there. Part of his success has been the good relations with his suppliers, allowing him to serve beef from New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. at prices as low as $12.90 for sirloin. With one foot of his business still in hawker stalls, Soon is very much a heartlander who enjoys wanton mee and other trueblue local cuisine.

Back in 2005, did you think that you would start a branded F&B chain? At the start, never did it cross my mind to own a chain of Astons today. My focus was mainly on the basic fundamentals of a food operator, which concerns overall guest satisfaction.

What was the hardest part about starting the food stall? At the beginning, it was really tough mentally and physically. I was always filled with anxiety on a daily basis because I was (and still am) dealing with perishables. If business was slow for a few days in a row, I would have huge losses. If business was good, I would be concerned whether I had enough to cater to every guest. In short, my projection back then had to be as accurate as possible. Physically, due to a very tight budget, a lot of tasks had to be undertaken by myself: from cooking, closing and cleaning, purchase, paperwork, and more. Basically, a lot of multitasking.

How are the challenges different for restaurant owners and hawker stall owners? The hard part of running the business today is manpower. The difficulties in running a restaurant and a hawker stall are quite identical. It is very difficult to hire locals and have them commit to their job.

What do you think Singaporeans are looking for when they eat in a restaurant versus a hawker stall? In both, anyone will have the basic expectations of good food, reasonable pricing, comfortable and clean environment and good service. But for hawker stalls, diners tend to be more forgiving.

How often do you dine at a hawker stall these days, and what do you think has changed most? I love to eat at hawker stalls and I do it very frequently. The most noticeable differences I see today comparing back to 2005 is that many stalls are short of manpower. Cleaning services are also very short handed. Some stalls have closed down due to manpower issues and many hawkers are struggling for someone to take over as their age is catching up.