Cravings in a Food-obsessed Nation
By Daryl Lim Wei Jie
Ambrosia for the People: Hawker Centre Food
As I am writing this review, I can't help but think of my maternal grandpa, gong gong. He left us just a month ago. It's been a deeply grievous loss, an emotional earthquake that has left waves and waves of aftershocks. In moments of quiet between the extended bouts of severe Singaporean busyness, my mind inevitably wanders to him. (Showers leave me particularly vulnerable to these attacks of grief. There is something about the sheer solitude of showers, and one's necessary nakedness, that draws out, even demands, utter emotional honesty.)
Thinking back to the wake, one thing that fascinated me was how much attention my mother and my aunts paid to the food that was offered to him. They debated among themselves: Would he have eaten this? Was this Pa's exact order when he was alive? Not just a single consistent order either – they drew up a whole roster of different meals, matching his lifetime preferences. They also made sure to only buy food from the stalls he liked in the hawker centre. (On the night I kept vigil, I was relieved in the early morning by my aunt, whose first priority of the day was to buy and offer my grandpa his daily cup of kopi-o. I found this incredibly, almost unbearably, moving.) These were acts of veneration, catering precisely to the needs of the deceased. They were acts of memory, attempts to re-create the presence and personality of this man. It was also, of course, an extension of the fussy and exacting Singaporean palate to the afterlife.
My grandpa spent much of his later years in hawker centres, having kopi with other seniors, chatting to stallholders. Younger Singaporeans may not quite realise how important these sites of sociality and community have been to the older generation living in the heartlands – and therefore, how difficult and devastating Covid had been to this social life. It was over these cups of kopi that friendships were formed (and broken), gossip was traded, and the achievements (or lack thereof) of one's children and grandchildren were compared.
We may also forget what an important innovation the ubiquitous hawker centre has been. By bringing in itinerant street hawkers under one state-managed roof, proper sanitation and hygiene was ensured, facilities for patrons were maintained, rents were kept manageable, food was kept affordable, and a diverse selection of food, catering to Singapore's multicultural population, was provided. Anthony Bourdain famously loved Singapore's hawker centres, saying that:
(Before his untimely death, he had intended to set up a Singaporean-style food hall in Manhattan, with Singaporean food guru K.F. Seetoh – a project that seems to be proceeding again.)
As Lai Chee Kien shows in his informative introduction to Ambrosia for the People: Hawker Centre Food, hawker centres have evolved considerably across the decades, growing in sophistication and concept. What had been a regulatory solution by the colonial authorities in response to sanitation concerns has become an everyday cultural institution, which culminated in 2020 with the inscription of Singapore's hawker culture on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. (As an aside, I have always thought it a shame that a process meant to showcase the most wonderful aspects of human culture sounds so tediously bureaucratic and intimidating.)
Lai points out that hawker centres also served a host of other functions: such as encouraging inter-cultural mixing and tasting, and allowing some families to dispense with cooking at home, to facilitate work or other demands. Hawker centres are also public places, and Lai notes that public campaigns, such as the Speak Mandarin Campaign, have been launched vigorously through the hawker centres. Political campaigns too – and one can witness, at many hawker stalls, photographs of the hawker taken with the Member of Parliament of the area or a Cabinet Minister. (The highest tier is, naturally, a photo with the Prime Minister himself.) During election season, hawker centres become sites of considerable contestation. I remember an incident in the 2020 general elections, where supporters of the two parties contesting the area started to chant opposing slogans at Ayer Rajah Food Centre – perhaps a release of pent-up election energies, as physical rallies had been called off due to the Covid situation.
The rest of the book features a stunning array of 129 hawker stalls – all of them receiving a single page treatment each, with beautiful sketches by Koh Hong Teng accompanied by write-ups of the hawkers, their food and their stories. It's a wonderful labour of love, constituting a veritable ethnography of Singapore's hawkers. There are some lovely, quirky stories, such as how Robin Ong, who runs Tian Tian Dao Hokkien Fried Noodles at Chong Boon Market and Food Centre, runs his stall with the help of his friend, Lin Chun Yan, whom he met 15 years ago while playing the computer game Dota.
One thing that struck me is how earlier generations of hawker innovators and their descendants continue to labour alongside newer generations of innovators. Tau kwa pau, a stuffed fried tofu dish, was invented by Khoo Buck Teck, in the 1950s. Khoo had the idea of marketing these stuffed tofus to gamblers in the area as golden purses, and these proved a hit. Today, Khoo Lian Hwa, his son, continues selling tau kwa pau at Say Seng Famous Tau Kwa Pau, in Dunman Food Centre. On another page, we read about how Ziza Ibrahim innovated on her family's traditional goreng pisang recipe, developing a version with chocolate and cheese, which has become a hit. There are also mentions of banh mi, pizza, Korean food, mala xiangguo, and I am glad that the book also catalogues these new, invigorating additions to our hawker culture.
It's an important reminder that Singapore's hawker culture is a living one: it has never been static, and has been constantly innovating. It's been the result of our openness to global and regional cultures, and it's also our unique multicultural inheritance. That legacy of experimentation is how we got dishes such as chilli crab, fish head curry and too many others to count. While the instinct to preserve and appreciate this heritage is commendable, we should resist the urge to ossify and fossilise. (I was perturbed to read recent expressions of concern in Singapore's Parliament that hawker centres "are no longer serving local food, but more and more foreign food", a statement that hints at a sort of rigid and misguided gastronomic nativism that I find terrifyingly stultifying.)
Nonetheless, it's hard not to be struck by the sense of loss, and of many elderly hawkers nearing the end of their life's work, without successors in sight. We will have to accept the loss of some foods catalogued in these pages, which may soon only be a memory, such as loh mei, the Cantonese stew made with fermented bean curd (nam yu). Even with initiatives to help budding hawkers, such as apprenticeship programmes, the central paradox in Singapore's food scene remains: that middle-class diners are somehow willing to pay upwards of $20 for mediocre café food or bland ramen served at soulless joints, yet not willing to fork out a little more for what is essentially, in modern parlance, artisanal food. It's not a simple issue, however – one can't ignore the fact that many Singaporeans who are more budget-constrained do rely on hawker centres for affordable food. (This too is against the backdrop of exceptional inflationary pressures in 2022, due to the war in Ukraine, among many other things.) At the very least though, we should treat and respect the craft and work of our hawkers like the painstaking, back-breaking artisanal work that it is, and urge others to do so as well.
I spent many hours of my childhood and teenage years in the hawker centre in Sims Place (the official name is the Sims Vista Market and Food Centre). The other day, I found myself craving a particular oatmeal pancake I'd eaten growing up – an item I've found sold nowhere else in Singapore but at a stall in Sims Place, called Fu Ji Shu Shi (Fu Ji Cooked Food). On a whim, I messaged my mum, and we talked ourselves up into an extreme state of craving (in Hokkien, we call this "gian"). We went the next day to pick up some of these pancakes. I remarked to the old man selling them that I had never seen them sold anywhere else, and that they were rather special. He replied that yes, these were indeed rare – but with the implication that he hadn't invented them, and they used to be more widely sold. (I passed my lead on to Singapore's doyen of kueh, Christopher Tan, the author of The Way of Kueh, and he has promised to investigate.)
The pancakes were as delicious as ever, half-moons filled with peanuts, with a comforting, oaten sweetness. Instantly, I was pulled back to my childhood and the sense of joy and discovery I felt each time I was in this hawker centre. I remembered all the things I'd eaten there: my favourite mee pok with fish slices; soft png kueh and chives kueh; fresh soy milk; aromatic, bitter coffee with notes of chocolate; economic rice with fried prawn fritters I would devour after school; Hainanese curry rice with pork chops sliced thin and fried to a crisp, almost like a pork chip; my first taste of bitter gourd in fish soup. It was also where I first had nasi padang – with this mean rendang – and this particular oatmeal pancake.
I also remembered the many, many mornings with my grandpa and the family, having our cups of kopi and waiting for my grandma to finish her shopping at the wet market. I remember my grandparents eating wonton mee and updating each other on the latest gossip. This was also where my grandpa met his friends. A day or two after he died, my father and I went to inform one of the hawkers here, a family friend, of the news. Funnily enough, no one knew his name. We only knew him as the chee cheong fun man, and that was exactly how his condolence contribution (aka pek kim, "white gold") was recorded. An oddly apt moniker, in this food-obsessed nation.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 2 Apr 2022
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