Getting a taste of Singapore’s famously flavourful street food

Liza Weisstuch

The Washington Post – Zul learnt to make roti prata, a South Indian flatbread, when he was seven years old. 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 6am 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 manoeuver 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 by rotating it over two fingers so it circles through the air like a fan until it’s paper-thin. It’s mesmerising. 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 centre, and tosses it onto a griddle, sprinkling it with melted ghee and working it until browned.

But he’s not done. He quickly claps its ends. “It’s to fluff, fluff,” he explained with the same dramatic hand gesture an Italian cook might use when proclaiming, ‘Delizioso!’ He flings it into a pile for the hungry lunch crowd that’s about to arrive. The roti will still be warm for them. He hands me one on an orange plate along with a saucer of curry sauce. It is indeed fluffy in the centre, crisp on the outside and a perfect late-morning snack.

To anyone who witnesses his performance-caliber routine, Zul is a virtuoso, but he arrives every day of the mind that he can improve. “To achieve is easy, to maintain is not easy,” he told me as his griddle sizzled and his wife added fresh spices to a large pot of sauce.

Zul learned his trade from his father, but neither of his adult daughters, who are both teachers, are interested in carrying on his legacy. He persists. 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, traditional Korean wrestling and bobbin lace-making in Slovenia.

The hawkers here are inextricably linked to Singapore’s development as a nation. Their origins can be traced back to the mid-1800s when immigrants arrived from China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere and cooked the foods of their homelands in the streets, selling them for affordable prices to workers. 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 programme to resettle them in centres with proper sanitation and plumbing, as well as seating.

Today, there are 114 public hawker centres and more than 13,000 licenced food vendors in those centres 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 licenced food establishments throughout the island’s 279 square miles. With their inexpensive meals and central locations, hawker centres 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.

At the namesake market of the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood, a historically Chinese district that has lately become fashionable, diners line up for plates of thinly sliced Cantonese roasted duck. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
For decades, Zul and his wife, Tipah, have been making roti prata, a South Indian flatbread, in the bustling Tekka Center in Singapore
ABOVE & BELOW: Law Tan makes Teochew kueh, savoury glutinous rice cakes that originated in China, at a stall in the Tiong Bahru market in Singapore; and Frog porridge, a popular late-night meal in Singapore.

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. Seetoh calls himself a “street food advocate and activist”; others simply call him a street food guru. His bona fides are amazing.

A longtime writer and television personality, he’s the founder of the World Street Food Congress, a two-day showcase of the best vendors. He was Anthony Bourdain’s guide in an episode of Parts Unknown, and the two remained close until Bourdain’s death in June 2018.

I arranged to meet Seetoh 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. I needed expert guidance. On a steamy September night – like all other nights in Singapore – 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 whistle-stop 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 centres. 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 (SGD5, SGD8, SGD10) and oyster omelette (SGD5, SGD8, SGD10) – bookended the sign.

Since 1977, John and Weiling Lim have run the operation. Newspaper clippings about them were affixed to the walls and counters. On this night, as John frenetically yet methodically worked at the omelets and his wife hurriedly put finishing touches on the orders, they were smiling as brightly as they are in the photos of their younger selves holding the same dish.

“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. “Once people like him were looked at with disdain. But he and others like him – they gave us our culture.” The reverie was cut short as Lim flipped an omelette 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.

“Don’t get too full,” Seetoh instructed. Next, he whisked us off to MA 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 fluorescent-orange tomato-chili broth to exhume the marrow. Seetoh’s eyes rolled back in his head in happiness as he victoriously ate his spoils, and he offered his highest compliment: “Wow.” 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, who brandished a Manchester United jersey, a familiar hand slap and asked for chicken satay. Traditional peanut dipping sauce gets a tangy zip here with the addition of pineapple, he informed.

Late night meant a visit to a spot known for its frog porridge, clay pots filled with frog legs in a savoury-sweet soy sauce. The accompanying bowl of dense congee cut the intense, punchy flavour. The outdoor tables were occupied by groups of young revellers 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. My mind swimming with thoughts of unfamiliar flavours and stories of heritage, I said my farewells.

Singapore is a city for insomniacs and hedonists, for those who chase exotic flavours and know to find them hiding in plain sight under fluorescent lights or sizzling on roadside hot coal fires. It’s also a city for the rushed and the overscheduled, for lovers of efficiency and routine. Daytime hawker centres 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 neighbourhood 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 7.30am 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, boiling stock and reading the newspaper. Lin’s cooking method is time-consuming: He stir-fries the noodles like risotto so they absorb the stock gradually. His efforts are delicious.

Karni 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 savoury 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 health-minded 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.

As some members of younger generations carry their family’s torch and others pursue different paths, culinary entrepreneurs keep traditions alive in standard restaurants, giving them more opportunity for creativity. At the Quarters, a charming, colourful restaurant that serves drinks and cappuccinos, chef-owner Chung Deming blends Malay, Indian, Indonesian and Chinese flavours in inventive dishes he terms ‘Modsin’ (modern Singaporean). His gaze is fixed on the future of local food.

“The countries around here are so close, but they’re so different,” he said. “I think as a category, Singapore food, which mixes ingredients from so many places, is still in its infancy; it’s still undefined.”