SINGAPORE — For many, eating Western food at hawker stalls and coffee shops used to be a luxury. It cost slightly more than your usual local fare, and it just seemed fancier to be eating a grilled pork chop with fries than, say, a bowl of bak chor mee.
Growing up, I had no idea the food was as much eastern as it was Western — thanks to the Hainanese. “Many Hainanese who came to Singapore when we were still a colony worked as chefs on British ships, for British families and later hotels,” shared Mr Teo, the chef and owner of Happy Chef Western Food, which would explain why many Western hawker stalls continue to be run by Hainanese.
This also explains why western foods at hawker centres tend to use Asian or local ingredients such as soy sauce, Shaoxing wine and chilli padi. Even the ubiquitous airy and fluffy bread buns that come with western hawker food today can be traced back to our colonial roots, when the Hainanese eventually became the first Chinese bread and pastry bakers in Singapore.
But there’s also a new generation of hawkers who are trying new things. Some are following Damien D’Silva’s cue when he set up the now defunct Big D’s Grill almost six years ago to become one of the first places to bring Wagyu beef to the coffee shop, while introducing fine-dining ingredients such as truffle oil or iberico chorizo into the heartlands. Others are well-travelled and keen to introduce novel cuisines or flavour profiles at affordable prices. There was also Chef Kenneth Lin who took his French fare hawker business from Queen Street to Holland Drive, and in a breakout move, into a bistro space on the corner of Prinsep Street late last year. Some might even remember a chef-owner Xavier Le Henaff who shook things up early in the game when the Brittany-native opened The French Stall in a food court on Victoria Steet a decade ago, which progressed to a bigger space on, of all streets, Serangoon Road, just off Little India. Bizarre? Well, maybe a tad. Inspiring and delectably enabling? Most definitely.
#01-53 Old Airport Road Market and Food Centre, Blk 51 Old Airport Road
Chicken chop is a staple in Western food at hawker centres, and the one here (S$6) has a huge loyal following. Chang, who has been working at Western Barbeque since he was 11, thinks there are a few reasons for that. For a start, he uses deboned chicken drumsticks that are marinated for a full day instead of the more commonly used and cheaper chicken breast, so the meat tends to be juicier and more tender. But the secret weapon is hidden in his sweet and slightly tangy garlic sauce, which uses more than 10 ingredients. Chang is the only person who knows the recipe, which has not changed for 20 years.
BBQ Cajun chicken from Happy Chef
Happy Chef Western Food
#01-12 Tai Hwa Eating House, 466 Crawford Lane
The highlights here are more Western than Western food at hawker stalls tend to be. While many Hainanese-style Western hawker food feature Asian ingredients such as soy sauce in marinades, Chef Teo — a former chef and owner of an award-winning restaurant in Sydney — opts for herbs like basil and oregano, and his menu reflects a knowledge of Western cooking techniques.
Take the technically difficult Chicken Kiev (S$9), for example. Teo shared how there’s a method to wrapping the chicken breast with ham and cheese to make sure the chicken is cooked uniformly and the cheese doesn’t flow out while you’re deep-frying it. What he manages with consistency is a middle of gloriously oozy cheese, a crispy breadcrumb crust and moist and juicy chicken. The Cajun BBQ Chicken (S$6.50) is another must-try — the addictively tangy BBQ sauce is made from scratch and takes over six hours of cooking over a slow fire.
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