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