Get­ting a taste of Singapore’s street food and the na­tion-state’s hawker cul­ture

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - TRAVEL - Story and photos by Liza Weis­stuch

SINGAPORE — Mr. Zul learned to make roti prata, a South In­dian flat­bread, when he was 7. He is 67 and makes hun­dreds of roti ev­ery day. His wife makes the curry sauce it’s served with.

They get to their stall around 6 a.m. to pre­pare mango-size mounds of dough and load them into plas­tic con­tain­ers, sep­a­rated by mar­garine. Then Zul, as he’s known to ev­ery­one, ex­e­cutes a com­pli­cated ma­neu­ver over and over all day long: slam­ming a dough mound onto the ta­ble, knead­ing it rapidly with the bot­tom of his palm and stretch­ing the flat­tened piece un­til it’s pa­per-thin.

He cracks an egg over it with one hand and spreads it, his fin­gers mov­ing as quickly as a mu­si­cian play­ing one of Chopin’s études, folds its four cor­ners so they meet in the cen­ter, and tosses it onto a grid­dle, sprin­kling it with melted ghee and work­ing it un­til browned.

He hands me one on an orange plate along with a saucer of curry sauce. It’s fluffy in the cen­ter, crisp on the out­side and a per­fect late-morn­ing snack.

Zul learned his trade from his fa­ther, but nei­ther of his adult daugh­ters, who are both teachers, are in­ter­ested in car­ry­ing on his legacy. Zul rep­re­sents the in­ter­est­ing cross­roads at which Singapore’s hawker cul­ture sits.

In May, the coun­try’s government sub­mit­ted a bid to in­scribe the na­tion-state’s hawker cul­ture on the UNESCO Rep­re­sen­ta­tive List of the In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage of Hu­man­ity, a cat­a­logue that in­cludes the reg­gae mu­sic of Ja­maica and tra­di­tional Korean wrestling.

The hawk­ers here are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to Singapore’s de­vel­op­ment as a na­tion. Their ori­gins can be traced to the mid-1800s when im­mi­grants ar­rived from China, In­dia, Indonesia, Malaysia and else­where and cooked the foods of their home­lands in the streets. Un­em­ploy­ment be­came an is­sue af­ter World War II, so more peo­ple en­tered the busi­ness, caus­ing hy­giene, proper dis­posal of food waste and street con­ges­tion to be­come a prob­lem. Af­ter Singapore be­came a sov­er­eign na­tion in 1965, a cen­sus found more than 24,000 hawk­ers on the streets, so the government un­der­took a sweep­ing pro­gram to re­set­tle them in cen­ters with proper san­i­ta­tion and plumb­ing, as well as seat­ing.

To­day, there are 114 pub­lic hawker cen­ters and more than 13,000 li­censed food ven­dors in those cen­ters and other mar­ket build­ings, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional En­vi­ron­ment Agency, the reg­u­la­tory body. If you in­clude stand-alone shops, can­teens and hole-in-the-wall food courts, there are about 30,000 li­censed food es­tab­lish­ments through­out the is­land’s 279 square miles. With their in­ex­pen­sive meals and cen­tral lo­ca­tions, hawker cen­ters are the cor­ner­stones of so­cial life. As hawk­ers get older, how­ever, and younger gen­er­a­tions cast their eyes be­yond their home­town, no one is quite sure what the fu­ture holds. Yes, the first Miche­lin star was awarded to a stall in 2016 (more have been awarded since), but mar­gins are low and prices for in­gre­di­ents go up. Some are con­cerned.

That’s why the UNESCO bid is valu­able. It’s hard to find a more de­voted sup­porter than KF See­toh, who first pro­posed the idea to the government. A long­time writer and tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity, See­toh is the founder of the World Street Food Congress, a two-day showcase of the best ven­dors.

I ar­ranged to meet him be­cause to at­tempt to de­cide which among the tens of thou­sands of hawk­ers to visit on my own would have been as prac­ti­cal as flip­ping through a vol­ume of Shake­speare son­nets ex­pect­ing to land on the great­est one. On a steamy Septem­ber night, I met him and three of his friends, in­clud­ing Lionel Chee, a chef who works with See­toh, and we hopped into a van for a whistlesto­p tour.

Our first hop-off was the Berseh Food Cen­ter, a sleek white build­ing in cen­tral Singapore and one of the city’s smaller hawker cen­ters. See­toh led the crew to a stall near the en­trance. A yel­low sign an­nounc­ing Lim’s Fried Oys­ter hung over the counter. Images of the two op­tions — fried oys­ters and oys­ter omelet — book­ended the sign. Since 1977, John and Weil­ing Lim have run the op­er­a­tion.

“I call these guys one-dish en­trepreneur­s. Some of them put their kids through col­lege cook­ing one dish. Look at this — this is love. When this guy cooks for me, he doesn’t tear a thing out of a packet. He cracks his own egg. Ev­ery­thing,” See­toh mused, his eyes fixed on John. The reverie was cut short as Lim flipped an omelet onto a foam plate and de­liv­ered it to the group, wait­ing with chop­sticks poised. Cooked with chili and topped with fresh pars­ley, the heap­ing meal seemed to dis­ap­pear in mere mo­ments.

See­toh then whisked us off to M.A. Deen Bi­asa, a road­side spot owned by a Mus­lim In­dian whose spe­cialty is sup tu­lang, halal mut­ton soup. I got a messy les­son in how to rat­tle and shake and use a straw to dig into a dense bone cov­ered in thick flu­o­res­cen­tor­ange to­mato-chili broth to ex­hume the mar­row. See­toh’s eyes rolled back in his head in hap­pi­ness as he vic­to­ri­ously ate his spoils.

Next: to a cof­fee shop, lo­cal par­lance for a deli, which itself is lo­cal par­lance for a more in­for­mal col­lec­tion of hawker stalls. See­toh headed straight to Kwong Sa­tay, where he gave owner Sim Peng Kuen a fa­mil­iar hand slap and asked for pork and chicken sa­tay. Tra­di­tional peanut dip­ping sauce gets a tangy zip here with the ad­di­tion of pineap­ple.

Late night meant a visit to a spot known for its frog por­ridge, clay pots filled with frog legs in a savory-sweet soy sauce. The ac­com­pa­ny­ing bowl of dense con­gee cut the in­tense, punchy fla­vor. The out­door ta­bles were oc­cu­pied by groups of young rev­el­ers an­gling for the per­fect Instagram shot and fam­i­lies with lit­tle chil­dren out for a late sup­per. A stop in a quiet bak­ery for chur­ros closed the bois­ter­ous night.

Day­time hawker cen­ters are a com­pletely dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence from the noc­tur­nal, as I learned a few days later from Karni Tomer, an Is­raeli ex­pat who moved to Singapore in 2010 and started Wok ’n’ Stroll, a culi­nary tour com­pany, in 2013.

I met her at Tiong Bahru Hawker Cen­ter in the neigh­bor­hood of the same name. His­tor­i­cally an area where Chi­nese im­mi­grants set­tled, it’s in­creas­ingly trendy to­day. Tomer in­tro­duced me to Man­fred Lin, an erst­while en­gi­neer and third-generation hawker who ar­rives daily at

7:30 a.m. to make his mee, a fam­ily recipe for the tra­di­tional dish of yel­low noo­dles in thick broth cooked over a char­coal stove. His mother, who’s in her 80s, is of­ten there cut­ting veg­eta­bles and boil­ing stock. Lin’s cook­ing method is time-con­sum­ing: He stir-fries the noo­dles like risotto so they ab­sorb the stock grad­u­ally. His ef­forts are de­li­cious.

Tomer or­dered us kopi, the rich tra­di­tional cof­fee made with beans roasted with mar­garine and sweet­ened with con­densed milk. She or­dered nasi lemak, a Malay del­i­cacy with a med­ley of co­conut-steamed rice, fried fish, sam­bal, peanuts, cu­cum­bers and dried an­chovies bun­dled like a pyra­mid in a ba­nana leaf. She un­folded it dra­mat­i­cally, re­leas­ing a heav­enly fra­grance.

She gave a warm greet­ing to Law Tan, 60, who for 45 years has been work­ing at his fam­ily’s stall mak­ing Teochew kueh, a savory cake of gluti­nous rice. He sells tra­di­tional brightly hued va­ri­eties such as yam and co­conut, and his own cre­ation made with 19 whole grains for the modern health­minded con­sumer. He en­cour­aged me to visit his web­site and fol­low him on Face­book and Instagram. It was the first mo­ment in my trip that felt like 2019.

Frog por­ridge is a pop­u­lar late-night meal in Singapore. Frog legs are served in a savory-sweet soy sauce and ac­com­pa­nied by a bowl of dense con­gee to cut the in­tense, punchy fla­vor.

At Lim’s Fried Oys­ter, heap­ing plates of fried oys­ters and oys­ter omelets are served to hun­gry cus­tomers.

Left: For decades, Mr. Zul and his wife, Ti­pah, have been mak­ing roti prata, a South In­dian flat­bread, in the bustling Tekka Cen­ter in Singapore. Right: Law Tan makes Teochew kueh, savory gluti­nous rice cakes that orig­i­nated in China, at a stall in the Tiong Bahru mar­ket in Singapore.

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