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Six Modern Singaporean Hawkers

We chat with six new generation hawkers who are cooking up a storm in Singapore's kopitiam scene. Photography by Ahmad Iskandar.

hawker onekueh

One Kueh At A Time

Nick Soon, 49
I've been making Teochew kueh for a year and a half. The most popular one is the soon kueh (turnip dumpling), which is wrapped gyoza-style to appeal to the younger crowd. I don’t use artificial food colouring, so the png kueh (glutinous rice dumpling) is white instead of the typical pink.

I make every kueh by hand from dough to fillings to wrapping it. It’s a laborious process, but my kueh are much more flavourful and have thinner skins than mass-produced ones. I used to sell four kinds of kueh but now I only sell soon kueh and gu chai kueh (chive dumpling) on weekdays with the addition of png kueh on weekends.

I've never made kueh in my life prior to starting this business. I've never even stepped into the kitchen, although my mum has been making kueh at home since I was young. She never had the courage to start a store, although that was always her dream.

My initial plan was to supply kueh to cafes, but no one wanted to take them. So I picked the cheapest option - a hawker centre - and set up my own store. Surprisingly, I managed to break even within half a year.

Social media plays a big part in my business. Even before I opened the store, I was already posting on Instagram. And that's how word gets around. This hawker centre isn't the busiest, so I don't get a large number of walk-in customers, but I take many orders for events.

I hope to set up a private space in the near future so I can do pop-up events and invite other chefs to share their skills.

DISH TO TRY

hawker onekueh2

Stuffed with juicy turnip, black fungus and dried shrimp then wrapped in an almost translucent skin, the soon kueh ($1.20) is best eaten piping hot.

 

hawker jinji

Jin Ji Teochew Braised Duck and Kway Chap
Melvin Chew, 38

My father had been running this stall for over 30 years, and I took over when he passed away around 2014. Before that, I worked in a garage, filing accident claims for about four to five years.

I started helping out at the stall when I was about ten. I washed the dishes, served customers, and by the time I was 12, I could slice a whole duck. I was also a problem child - I was expelled from school at 13.

I wanted to take over our family business years ago, but my parents discouraged me from being a hawker. It's a tough job long hours, no downtime, cleaning out duck intestines. But I've adapted to the environment.

The hawker food scene is definitely dying. Youngsters don't want to be hawkers, especially for traditional dishes like char kway teow. They don't even teach culinary school students how to cook such food anymore.

More than half of my regular customers have passed away from old age, so to keep up, I knew I needed to create something new. For this Bento Combo Jumbo set, I based it on presentation to appeal to today's Instagrammers.

If given the choice, I'd still be in this business. There's a passion in me to continue my family's legacy.

DISH TO TRY

hawker jinji2

The Bento Combo Jumbo Set's ($8) a generous, Instagram-worthy platter of yam rice balls with kway chap, pork belly, tau kwa, tau pok, cucumber chunks, radish, kiam chye and, rather than a hard-boiled one, an onsen egg.

 

hawker hambaobao

Ham Bao Bao
Ryan Wee (left), 27, Clare Ng (right), 24

As told by Ryan Wee:
I'd always wanted to start my own business. I grew up in a Peranakan family, so every Christmas and New Year's Day, we'd have buah keluak - it's one of my favourite dishes, but it isn't easy to eat. That was how I came up with the ayam buah keluak burger.

I've always had an interest in cooking, and began experimenting with ingredients back in secondary school. After completing my Diploma in Food Science and Nutrition at Temasek Polytechnic, I worked in an SME, cooking baby food to freeze and sell, then at Jason's Marketplace. Clare was a staff nurse, and we pooled our savings to start Ham Bao Bao.

The struggle arises when you want to be really good. It's difficult to find affordable suppliers to keep prices down. But the best bit is having the freedom to find work-life balance.

The hawker scene's a tough one to be in, but I don't see why people don't want to do it. Setting up a cafe costs too much - hawker stalls are an option that many don't consider when they want to sell food. I believe food can be cheap and good.

DISH TO TRY

hawker hambaobao2

The Ayam Buah Keluak Burger's ($5) a juicy affair with a minced chicken patty laced with buah keluak and homemade rempah, and your choice of chap chye gravy or Nyonya vegetable stew. Complete your meal with the raved-about handcut fairy fries ($1 with burger; $1.50 a la carte).

 

hawker carvingboard

The Carving Board
Gary Lum, 32

We were operating as The Soup Bar in a hawker centre in the CBD before we had to move. We rebranded to The Carving Board as we decided soups wouldn’t work well in this neighbourhood setting.

Mains are one of my strengths. I’ve worked in hotel restaurants for over ten years, so The Carving Board focused on a lot of grilled mains and pastas for the past year and a half.

The menu has just expanded to include starters and soups such as pumpkin ginger and minestrone from our Soup Bar days.

Our dishes are not the typical Western food you're accustomed to in other hawker centres - you won't find coleslaw and baked beans here. Instead, we offer handmade and unique side dishes like vegetable ratatouille and lentil salad that go well with our mains.

Our tuna salad is similar to the French Niçoise salad - it’s refreshing and not as heavy as other cream-based salads such as the Caesar salad. Our version has a freshly grilled tuna steak, and we replaced the typical boiled potatoes and eggs with potato salad and an onsen egg.

Chefs’ hours are always long, no matter where you’re working. As the chef, it's my responsibility to ensure that all the food in my kitchen is prepared correctly and carefully.
We hope to show our customers that they can get restaurant-quality food in a coffee shop at a much more affordable price since our overheads are lower.

DISH TO TRY

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The Carving Board's spin on the classic Niçoise ($14) is a garden of romaine lettuce, steamed green beans, cherry tomatoes, olives and, not to forget, a slab of grilled tuna steak as the pièce de résistance.

 

hawker fishnchicks
Fish and Chicks
Justin Lim, 26

I had zero F&B experience when we opened last November. Prior to this, I dabbled in IT and dealt motorbike accessories and parts for my family business.

Shortly after graduating from JC and completing NS, I opened Fish and Chicks. I’m very particular about my food, and didn’t want to serve something I wouldn’t eat. I worked with [Fish and Chicks chef] Albert Tan to come up with the recipes – we researched online, experimented, and consulted zi char and goreng pisang stalls on how to get the perfect batter.

Our salted egg yolk and chilli crab sauces help us stand out from the crowd, and appeal to the younger generation. The most rewarding thing is when people praise our dishes on social media.

If younger generations like ours don’t keep the hawker food scene alive, it might just die. The main struggle I face is manpower. Who wants to work in a coffee shop when you can get a cushy, nice job in an air-conditioned office?

I’d probably be a pilot if I weren’t doing this. I’ve got a private pilot’s license. But I see myself running Fish and Chicks in the long-term while exploring new food concepts to set up.

DISH TO TRY

hawker fishnchicks2

Like its name suggests, Best of Both Worlds ($13.90) comes with chips and two slabs of battered fish – one topped with salted yolk sauce and the other a ‘no-crab’ chilli crab sauce. Snap a photo if you must, then tuck in ASAP: the crisp, light batter yields to the sauces blanketing its golden body and gets soggy fast.

 

hawker noodle
A Noodle Story
Gwern Khoo (left), 35, Ben Tham (right), 34

As told by Gwern Khoo:
Before setting up this store in 2012, I worked as a chef at various fine dining restaurants in Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa.

I always wanted to create my own dishes, and a hawker store is a good low-cost platform to test out my ideas. Having worked with Japanese chefs, I’m familiar with Japanese cuisine and ingredients so I decided to create a Singapore-style ramen.

There’s only one item on the menu because I believe in making one quality dish rather than five mediocre ones. Every bowl that leaves my kitchen has to be up to my standards. I sell roughly 200 bowls every day.

Singaporeans like their noodles dry - for example mee pok tah and bak chor mee – so I serve my ramen dry to cater to local taste buds. There’s usually a queue during lunchtime so I try to move as fast as possible – right now, I take about 1.5 minutes to prepare a bowl.

Winning the Bib Gourmand was an unexpected shock. I'm really excited by it. But now that the initial euphoria has settled down, I took a step back and realised the enormous expectations people will have of us. The pressure is definitely on. That said, we'll continue to do what we have always been doing best – cooking with all our hearts.

I’m the happiest when customers tell me they like the food and sometimes, they post good reviews on our Facebook page. It makes me feel that what I’m doing is worth it and that it’s not time wasted.

DISH TO TRY

hawker noodle2
Not much choice here: there’s only the ramen ($5.90/small, $7.20/medium, $8.50/large) on the menu. But that’s enough. Because the noodles are springy and coated in an umami-rich sauce, the sous vide char siew melts in your mouth, and the potato-wrapped prawn provides the necessary crunch.

 

Article from Time Out Singapore 

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