Singaporean hawkers are some of the best food creators in the world

by on August 25, 2013 at 3:03 am in Economics, Food and Drink, Sports | Permalink

From a recent cook-off challenge:

Singapore’s humble but beloved hawkers have triumphed 2-1 in a cook-off with the legendary Gordon Ramsay who runs restaurants that have earned not just one but three Michelin stars. Are our hawkers then worthy of Michelin star attention? Well, they may not be decorated, but it looks like they still win the hearts of locals.

Nearly 5,000 people thronged the Singtel Hawker Heroes Challenge to see the Ramsay, the Hell’s Kitchen star, pit his skills against three hawkers who were chosen in a national poll drawing 2.5 million votes. The chef only had two days to learn and prepare the same hawker food that these local masters have been doing for decades.

There is more detail here, additional coverage here, and it is no surprise Ramsey fell flat on the laksa.

There is, by the way, plenty of talk that the hawkers are an endangered species.  With rising rents, various bureaucracies are asking whether the hawker centers really deserve so much dedicated land in the city plans.  There’s also a question whether the younger generation wants to take on jobs which are so stressful and demanding, when so many other good jobs are available in Singapore.  Other hawker centers are suffering in quality just a wee bit from the gentrification of their neighborhoods.  Let’s hope for the best but I fear for the worst.

My Singapore food recommendation, by the way, is the Ghim Moh Market and Food Centre, which has numerous gems and is one of those “pre-upgrade” hawker centers, with a design dating from 1977.  (Unfortunately they will close it for renovation next year, which will probably mean the loss of some hawkers.)  My favorite dish was the dosa at Heaven’s Indian Curry, arguably the best I have had, including in South India.  They open at six a.m. each morning, every single day, see my remarks above.  Their dishes cost either one dollar or two dollars (roughly, actually less).

Eric August 25, 2013 at 5:05 am

I don’t see what is so special about hawker centers. You can get the same food at food courts or coffee shops. In my opinion the biggeat threat is the influx of immigrants that don’t particularly care for the local cuisine.

david August 25, 2013 at 5:20 am

They simply join the hawker centers too, if you haven’t noticed. Deep-fried northern Chinese fare turns up in hawker centers near where the migrant workers stay.

Eric August 25, 2013 at 7:13 am

What I meant was that there is a threat of losing some of the local food culture due to immigration. Though this is not really tied closely to whether there are hawker centers or not, some people don’t make the distinction.

Emil August 25, 2013 at 8:05 am

Singapore food culture was always (where always is intended as 100 years or so) an ongoing mix of different cultures. There is no genuine singaporean food, only imported food that was then adapted and possibly mixed with others

philemonloy August 25, 2013 at 6:42 am

+ 1 david

They bring new items to the table–better northern Chinese food, for instance.

In any case, the problem is not so much that the new comers ‘don’t particularly care for the local cuisine’ (they might not, for all I care). Rather, it’s not if the children of the local hawkers are taking over the family business. More than one hawker has told me the same story–it’s not the sort of life they want their children to have, especially when other opportunities exist. In light of this very expected outcome of development, I think the best hope for the continuation of cheap but good food in Singapore is more and not less immigration (see Tyler’s own theory about how the availability of good+cheap food is positively correlated with income inequality).

david August 25, 2013 at 5:26 am

You might not have noticed at Gmih Moh, but Singapore’s middle-class food courts have been undergoing an unexpected change over the past couple of years. They’re sprouting Korean and Japanese dish stalls, none of which are actually cooked or owned or operated by Koreans or Japanese. If I had to guess, they’re probably lead by a local experienced hawker plus a crew of migrant workers.

Gary Leff August 25, 2013 at 6:31 am

With apologies, I do not intend to spam, but I think it’s pretty on-point. Here’s my introduction to enjoying Singapore Hawker center:

http://boardingarea.com/viewfromthewing/2013/08/14/an-introduction-to-singapore-hawker-centers-how-they-work-and-which-one-is-best-for-you/

Rusty Synapses August 25, 2013 at 9:48 am

Not spam – thanks – good intro, especially the pictures.

philemonloy August 25, 2013 at 6:45 am

Kudos to Ramsey for his very generous comments about the hawkers (from the first link):

“Chefs are obsessed with other chefs beating them,” said Ramsay. “But to see the generosity and the way they treated me inside their hawker stalls…and I am the disruption, I am the one turning their little world upside down, and being a pain in their a*se. And to see them still teach me how to do their food, it is just humbling. Forget the corporate stuff, forget the sponsors. This is about them.”

angus August 25, 2013 at 9:48 am

I was stunned by the quality of dosa you can get in Singapore.

jonathan drake August 25, 2013 at 12:05 pm

I think the quality of cuisine and “aesthetics” of a proper hawker center, as opposed to the more sterile and air-conditioned food court, is often significantly better. That the younger generation is increasingly reluctant to take up the rigors and challenges of this sort of job is sad but understandable, though perhaps ironic when you catch a glimpse of a gold Rolex on the wrist of some hard-working stall operator sweating over nasi lemak or char kway teo, who then closes shop when sold out to head home in their Mercedes. We probably need more dedicated proponents like K.F. Seetoh (seen counting down Ramsey and company in videos of the cook-off) to remind Singapore that the true hawker center is very much a locus of the nation’s cultural soul…

Dan Hill August 25, 2013 at 12:19 pm

It’s nearly ten years since I left Singapore and I was just starting to get over missing the the hawker centre food, especially the Hainanese chicken rice and the laksa and I could go on, not to mention roti parata and kopi tarek for breakfast. Thanks a lot Tyler!

Alex Barcelona August 26, 2013 at 5:28 am

Singaporean streed food is amazing.

But you should also try True Blue restaurant (www.truebluecuisine.com), original Peranakan food.

Its lovely though overpriced.

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