Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Flavour of Hawkers

Two articles on what makes for good hawker food.

Many (foreign) cooks add flavour to the broth

Nov 02, 2014

Singapore's hawker food is an evolving taste sensation

By Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor

The other day, I bought three bakchang from a coffeeshop in Toa Payoh, from a woman who spoke with a mainland Chinese accent.

When I steamed the dumplings at home at tea time, they tasted weird. The glutinous rice was fine. There was the requisite salted egg and minced pork and chestnut.

But the mix of spices used to flavour the ingredients was strange. It tasted at once too sweet and too savoury. It was just wrong.

I grimaced after the second bite and stopped eating, muttering about PRC Chinese taking over local food stores.

I thought back to times when I had hor fun with over-starchy gravy and, once, a plate of Chinese mee goreng swimming in oil that was unrecognisable.

So when I read that Penang had banned foreigners as main cooks at its hawker stalls, relegating them to food preparation and serving roles, l nodded sagely.

Surely that was one way to make sure food from our hawker stalls and kopitiam retain the flavours of yore, I mused.

But when I recalled that mee goreng, I paused. Mee goreng is a dish associated with Indian Muslims. In Singapore, the Chinese have an interpretation of it that is different. Chinese mee goreng is a bit of a misnomer. I can't very well fault a cook for failing to deliver a familiar taste for a dish that has cross-cultural roots in the first place.

It's hard in any case to be puritanical about food, or be a culinary- cultural purist. In gloriously multi- ethnic Singapore, many of our dishes are inventions of creative cooks of the past.

Every Singaporean knows that you can't get Hainanese chicken rice in Hainan; that roti prata, a staple at our Indian food stalls, doesn't exist in the same form in India; and that bak chor mee as we know it in Singapore, with al dente mee pok served with black vinegar, chilli sauce and minced pork and liver, can't be found in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan or even Malaysia.

If only "locals" had been mandated to cook dishes in Malaya's early colonial history, I mused, how poor our cuisine would be today.

There would certainly be no Hainanese curry rice - what a wonderful hybrid of a dish, with its deep-fried breaded pork chop adapted from the English, drizzled with Indian curry over Chinese steamed rice, often paired as it is at Loo's in Tiong Bahru, with nonya-inspired chap chye.

As my colleague Tan Hsueh Yun, The Straits Times' food editor, argued in a column last Friday, cooking is a matter of skill and training, not nationality.

You don't need to be Italian to do a mean tiramisu; and you don't have to be Singaporean to stir up a storm with your lard-flavoured char kway teow with just the right dash of sweet sauce, and you don't need to be Indian Singaporean to flip a perfect prata.

If hawker fare in Singapore is found wanting, and solutions are sought to improve it, there are more practical ones to be found than mandating that our hawkers be local.

The state and future of our hawker fare has been a grave concern for many Singaporeans.

If the problem lies in declining food quality, then efforts should go into helping master hawkers transmit their skills. Most hawkers will pass on their skills and business to family members. But many youngsters don't want to enter the hawker trade - for good reason.

My siblings and I could have become second-generation hawkers, taking over our parents' char kway teow stall in Pasir Panjang. I remember my father asking us if we wanted to take over the stall at some point. We were all still schooling, and spent each day before or after classes helping out at the stall, doing our homework and mugging for exams between serving, collecting plates and scrubbing them.

We saw the hours our parents worked. We saw how little they made.

We all said "No, thank you".

My parents hung up their wok once the children started work. Their char kway teow was so-so. But their braised pork leg rice was quite popular. My parents sold it with a generous portion of pork, with a slice of tau pok and a braised hard-boiled egg - what my intrepid father marketed as san wei yi yuan - three tastes for $1. The recipe died with them. I only recall that it included lots of dark sauce and a fair bit of cinnamon.

Very successful hawkers may monetise their business for retirement. The recent roast meat sellers who sold their business and shop for $4 million is one example of how the capitalist market can work to incentivise people to pass on their skills.

A few selfless hawkers may pass on their skills, helping to train others.

The good thing is that there's no shortage of people entering the food and beverage industry - just think of the lawyers and bankers who give up their jobs to open ice cream parlours or run cafes.

[But Ice Cream Parlours and Cafes are not part of the Hawker Heritage.]

It got me thinking that maybe the problem facing hawker fare in Singapore has less to do with the quality of the food and the quality of the cooks, then with the economics of the trade.

If so, the solution lies in structuring the tenancy and financial deals for hawkers, not in keeping out foreigners as cooks.

[No. Low rents or rent control is only a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition.]

When I recall the mixed heritage of many of our most popular mouth-watering dishes, I find it hard to argue that Singaporean street food should remain the preserve of Singaporean cooks.

What innovation might a new Chinese migrant, a cook from the Philippines, or Myanmar, or Tanzania, bring to our local cuisine tomorrow?

So, sure, I will grimace over the occasional odd-tasting mix. But then I will recall my latest favourite haunt for tea: Whampoa market. Yes, there is Hoover Rojak and the fish head steamboat, staples there for years. But these days, I go for the plump, freshly-made jiao zi with chives (boiled dumplings) from the couple who speak with a PRC accent. The siew pau from Seremban in Malaysia (a bun-shaped pastry filled with char siew) - is another must.

Each mouthful takes me back nostalgically and wondrously to the past: my first taste of home- made jiao zi 30 years ago when a mainland Chinese friend made them for dinner; and the siew pau my mother used to buy for us kids, 30, 40 years ago.

Sometimes, it takes a foreign cook to bring back a taste that reminds one of home.

In the end, I mused, food is a dynamic, living product. It can't be made a heritage good the way an artefact can be, and preserved in a museum.

Food is made fresh every day, served and sampled every minute. And I think we are fortunate in Singapore to be descendants of people who embraced a thriving, open, diverse local food culture.

Hawker food needs passionate local cooks

NOV 4, 2014

One does not have to be a Penangite to cook Penang food. What is needed is the passion for it - and proper training, with a school of sorts that teaches people how to prepare the food just right. 


I GREW up in a part of Penang where there were plenty of F words - floods, football and, of course, food.

The floods would hit almost every month when Sungai Pinang burst its banks and send a torrent down Perak Road, forcing everyone to scramble upstairs with whatever we could carry.

The area is still famous for its floods.

The football was great. Malaysian international Isa Bakar lived down the road with his mother. Shaharuddin and Namat Abdullah worked around the corner with the other Bakar brother, Ali, and the City Stadium across the road was where the crowd gathered to watch Malaysia Cup matches. You could even have a kickabout with these stars in nearby Padang Brown.

No, the area is no longer famous for its football.

And the food. Now, that was glorious.

Padang Brown housed a food court where one could get great food and - what any Penangite would love - at low prices. When games were played at the field, itinerant hawkers would flock there, too.

The laksa was amazing. The man selling it was a neighbour. Every man in the family sold laksa, at various locations around the island.

Which brings me to the point - is the Penang government right in banning foreigners from cooking local food?

I tend to go with the state. You see, I have tasted some of the best food the island has to offer. And it was always the locals who delivered. It's a passion with them.

Just down the road from my house, there was one coffee shop that sold all sorts of hawker food - char kway teow (fried flat noodles) hokkien mee (that's prawn mee to you, southerners), mamak mee (Indian noodles) and others.

Next door there was another coffee shop that sold only kway teow thng (kway teow soup). Each bowl was lovingly cooked in a claypot over a charcoal stove. There were four stoves in a row, so the hawker could cook only four bowls at any one time. There was a little electric fan that the owner and his wife - the two who did the cooking - would slap around so it swung to the correct stove to keep the flames going.

It usually was a long wait for the food, but it was always worth it.

Just across the road was yet another coffee shop. The speciality here? Mee Jawa (Java noodles). The man who cooked the dishes was an Indian-Muslim who walked with a pronounced limp. None of us knew his name so it was always Capek Mee Jawa to us. And it was delectable.

He, too, could cook up only about three plates of mee Jawa at any one time - that was all his wok could handle. You could choose between prawn soup or beef soup and he would slowly cook the dishes after telling you to wait.

A lot of people waited - with absolutely no regrets. It was that good.

All those coffee shops are no more, just like the cooking methods. Today, the soup is prepared at home and, at the stall, someone throws all the ingredients into a bowl, pours the soup over them, adds a bit of garnishing and voila! your food is ready.

[So the person who prepares the food at "home"... local or foreigner?]

Any Myanmar national or Bangladeshi can do that, right? But that's when the quality starts to slide.

Food preparation needs passion. It needs someone who wants to see others enjoy their food - someone who takes ownership.

The way I see it, the ban is not just about shutting out the foreigners. It's also about making sure the hawkers are responsible.

With Myanmar, Vietnamese and Bangladeshi labour coming cheap, some owners literally set up stall in many different places, prepare the ingredients at home, hand everything over to the foreign workers, sit back and wait for the money to roll in.

[So these are locals then. It would seem then that your argument is not about locals vs foreigners, but locals who painstakingly prepare the food by hand and in small batches, versus the locals who "commercialise" their operations to maximise profits. In either case, the operators are locals, and the food is prepared by locals.]

A ban like the one in Penang forces the hawkers to ensure that they are hands-on and deliver the goods. If their food is bad, they cannot blame the foreign workers. It's their business that is affected.

That, however, does not mean that foreigners cannot cook local food. It's not about being a foreigner, or Chinese, Malay or Indian. It's a desire to learn - and earn - that matters.

In Petaling Jaya, I recently came across what I believe was some of the best mamak mee goreng and mee rebus in the Klang Valley. But the cook was no Indian-Muslim. It was a Chinese man from Penang.

He said he had been making tombstones but then drifted from one job to another before learning how to make mamak mee. He enjoyed a roaring trade, until he went missing one day.

It just goes to show that one does not have to be a Penangite to cook Penang food. Or a Malay to make nasi dagang (rice cooked with coconut milk) or an Indian- Muslim to cook nasi kandar (rice with curry dishes). Or an Indian to make thosai. Anyone can do it, even a Myanmar national or a Vietnamese.

What is needed is the passion for it. And proper training - with a school of sorts that teaches people how to prepare the food just right.

I believe that if there is an institution like that, many locals will be lining up to learn. Those selling food now may no longer need their children to take over.

The foreigners who learn the trade can also take the signature dishes home to their country and be ambassadors for Penang.

But how many hawkers in the state would be willing to give up the secret that makes their dish better than that of rivals?

Not many, I daresay. For now, it looks like the ban is the answer.


[The second article is rambling and almost incoherent. He makes observations that do not support his hypothesis, concedes the opposing point, then concludes apropos of nothing, that the ban is the answer.]

No comments: