Food Stalls at Tekka hawker centre. TODAY FILE PHOTO
SINGAPORE - In the midst of a fiercely ambitious dining scene, sometimes made more befuddling by a seemingly relentless wave of new restaurants taking root, the humble hawker haunt brings balance to our forceful nature as avid consumers. Price structure aside, they allow a diverse band of patrons to gorge and binge without remorse or snobbery. In a nutshell, it's cheap and good.
Hawker food culture also holds a uniquely Singaporean legacy, albeit a slowly dying cultural inimitability. Never mind the mountain one would have to move just to convince someone that taking over the family's hawker business is a considerable and respectable prospect. Sure, it's hard honest work, harder than most would dare imagine. But if it wasn't for the S$3 bowl of braised noodles with handmade dumplings, or S$4.50 sliced fish porridge, all prepared a la minute, would we still see such large scale patronage, one critic asked?
As it stands, hawker fare remains unabashedly satisfying. Despite losing a few stalls to age and apathy, popular destinations still abound - from the contentious tourist trap that is Newton Circus Food Centre to the slightly more dispassionate invitations at East Coast Lagoon Food Village.
Even those nestled a little off the beaten track don't deter fans. They still make a beeline to stall 91 at Golden Mile Food Centre on Beach Road for pork and lard-free char kway teow; Longhouse on Upper Thompson Road for the duck rice from Soon Kee; and Tiong Bahru Market Food Centre for Hui Ji fishball noodles and yong tau foo. And you still get long queues for Hoover Rojak at Whampoa Food Centre that start an hour before dinnertime; or the growing online buzz surrounding Nam Xing Hokkien Fried Mee's purported "best in Singapore" rendition of this street favourite.
Interestingly, hawkers Betty Kong and her husband Ha Wai Kay's headline-making offer of S$3.5 million to sell their roast meat business, recipe and all, came to naught (they're keeping the Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint on Upper Paya Lebar Road, although the recipe is still for sale - at S$2 million).
We guess hawker centres aren't going the way of the dinosaur any time soon. The National Environment Agency (NEA) currently manages 109 markets/hawker centres in Singapore, housing over 15,000 stalls. The trick is where to go to satiate your wandering palate. To that end, we've asked local hosts of food infotainment programmes - who've filled themselves up with the right experience - to share their favourite colloquial feast.
It's probably no suprise that Kym Ng, who is currently starring in the Chinese drama It Takes Two (Channel 8, weekdays at 9pm) and hosting The Sheng Siong Show (Channel 8, every Sat at 9pm), won the Best Presenter honours at the 2011 Star Awards for Love On A Plate. Yes, it's about food. And Ng certainly digs her hor fun, loves her satay, char kway teow and yong tau foo, and has a soft spot for bo bo cha cha, chendol and ice kachang. But the best thing this seasoned star likes about hawker centres is the laid back invitation to dine. "Whether you are in a gown, or in singlet, shorts and slippers, you are welcomed to have your meal at the hawker centre," Ng quipped. One of her favourite haunts is Longhouse on Upper Thomson Road, because of its proximity to MediaCorp. She added: "I have my dinner there every Saturday with Dasmond Koh and company during our break before our 'live' show. The duck rice is my favourite and the goreng pisang is a must-have.
"Some stalls are run by professional chefs and some are run by inspired undergrads, and they provide a high level of service, too!
"Well, when I don't know what to eat, I just go to the nearest hawker centre - (so I) won't go home (with an) empty stomach," she laughed.
It's also no surprise that Bryan, who has hosted many an eating programme, enjoys the local offering hawker centres celebrate, and his favourite is the Bedok Corner Food Centre (1 Bedok Road), opposite Bedok Camp, where he gets his fix for cuttlefish with kangkong ("jiu he eng chye") and for dessert, cheng teng; both choices that he confessed are "very old school". His favourite coffeeshop? "The one along Geylang Road, near a mosque," he said obliquely - it's actually the Sing Lian Eating House. He was, however, very clear about his favourite dishes: The fried oyster and Hainanese satay. "And the (Swee Guan) Hokkien fried prawn mee is to die for," Bryan gushed. Suffice it to say, not much escapes this shrewd diner. "After covering one too many (eating) places, nothing surprises me, liao."
Two years ago he took his first leap into the food service business. Today, he is a successful restaurateur with five to his name. But most, though, will remember him as the charismatic host of televised food odysseys. As for hawker centres, the best thing about them, he divulged, is that he gets to dine in his pyjamas. Havelock Food Centre is his preferred haunt, and its nostalgic setting has a lot to do with this. "Reminds me of the first hawker centre that I went to when I first came to Singapore. Somehow, you just become friends with the stall owners; I guess that's the magic of this hawker centre."
His choice dishes include the congee at Ivan's Porridge. "His raw fish is superb. I'm not really a huge fan of raw food, but his yu sheng just hits the spot, and it doesn't have any fishy smell, slimy texture or aftertaste." Ivan also boasts a strict commitment to quality, Pornsak asserted - the owner will not open his stall on days he cannot get fresh fish. "Usually, I order two servings. I'm hooked on his yu sheng," he said.
And you can glean some useful information at hawker centres, too. Said Pornsak: "The stall owners taught me about www.myhawkers.sg (an initiative by the NEA Hawker Centres Division) ... I never knew hawker food had (entered the) virtual world."
Some might recognise the award-winning TV host of Let's Talk! from the highly popular food infotainment series, Sizzling Woks, which he co-hosted with Pornsak. And despite his popularity, this budding entrepreneur (he also owns a couple of streetwear boutiques) enjoys braving the crowds at the hawker centre. "It is a good location to interact with the people around the neighbourhood," he said. You'll probably find him at Kallang Bahru, where he would often dine during his years at Victoria Secondary. "The duck rice is really awesome even though the aunty sometime pulls a long face," he quipped. His top pick: Char kway teow. "It is a dish only found in Singapore for some reason … there are similar ones in other countries but I still love this local dish the most!
"You need to differentiate yourself from the other stores yet not too deviated from the mainstream," Lee Teng posited. "I used to think that hawker centres are very alike … selling similar dishes like wanton (noodles) and chicken rice, but there are now much more varieties."
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