NEW YORK (THE WASHINGTON POST) – By the time Chris Hooi gets to work in Midtown Manhattan, he’s already been out to see his seafood supplier on the Brooklyn waterfront.
He likes to make sure the 70 or so Dungeness crabs that will be delivered to his stall at the Urban Hawker food hall are alive and fresh.
Around the corner from Rockefeller Centre and eight blocks north of Times Square, Urban Hawker is a universe away from the steamy streets of Singapore, where Hooi learned to prepare chili crabs from his father. Now Hooi operates one of the 17 stalls at an ambitious complex for Singaporean food first dreamed up by Anthony Bourdain.
In Singapore, there are over 110 hawker centres. Each stall within typically specialises in one dish. The tradition dates back to the mid-1800s, when immigrants arrived from China, India, Indonesia and Malaysia and cooked food from their homeland that workers could enjoy at affordable prices.
As unemployment swept the nation after World War II, the streets became crowded and unsanitary. So when Singapore became a sovereign nation in 1965, the government set up a program to settle street hawkers in centres with proper plumbing, sanitation and seating.
At the new hawker centre in Manhattan, each stall was selected by KF Seetoh, a Singapore-based journalist, entrepreneur and self-described “food guru”. He initiated and spearheaded the bid to get hawker culture inscribed on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2020 and founded the World Street Food Congress, a festival he’s organised in Singapore and Manila, the Philippines.
Seetoh had long wanted to bring Singapore’s food culture to New York, and it became a realistic proposition once he met Bourdain. He shepherded Bourdain around the city when he was in town to film A Cook’s Tour in 2002.
They became friends, and Bourdain asked Seetoh to help open a grand global street food centre in Manhattan. Those plans fell off, however. After Bourdain died in 2018, Seetoh was determined to make the food hall happen. It finally opened in September.
For Seetoh, sharing Singaporean food is sharing lessons in history, anthropology, business, sociology and, of course, food culture, in one fell swoop.
“I see talent in these hawkers, and I see love,” Seetoh told The Washington Post. “There’s a world of opportunity in this food. To call it ‘love of food’ is too simple. It’s a love with someone’s lineage. That forms a whole novel to me.”
For Seetoh, Urban Hawker is an opportunity for cooks to tell a story. These are a few of the hawkers whose personal novels are sure to grip you.
WOK & STAPLE
There are meals and then there are events. The chili crab from Wok & Staple is the latter – messy, piquant, aromatic, labour-intensive and very rewarding.
You might say the dish is Hooi’s birthright. And although chili crab is not hard to come by in Singapore or, for that matter, in New York’s hyper-multicultural dining landscape, what makes Wok & Staple’s chili crab distinct is its direct link to Singapore.
Chris will tell you he was a mischievous teenager. His dad, Kok Wai Hooi, a chef and restaurant owner who immigrated to Singapore from Malaysia, brought him into the kitchen to get him off the streets.
“It wasn’t a choice, it was a chance,” he said.
In the 1960s, “chili crab” was just a generic description, but his dad made a mark on the local food world by giving it a specific, indelible flavour. Before he and his friends developed their sauce, the dish was prepared with a bottled chili sauce.
The Hooi family’s superlative version came about when they tossed in fiery sambal chili paste, popular in Malay food, and fragrant Southeast Asian ginger flower. Lime juice adds acidity, and it’s finished with egg white for a silky mouthfeel, a Cantonese technique Hooi’s dad learned from his China-born father.
“My dad wanted to figure out how to make it with more flavour and appeal to a multicultural Singapore population,” Chris said. “Today it’s become iconic.”
The food at Daisy’s Dream has the seal of approval from the toughest critic of all: chef-owner Roy Tan’s mother, Daisy.
In 2011, she opened the first hawker stall in Singapore that specialised in Peranakan food.
Peranakans trace their origins to the 15th Century when immigrants from China settled in what is now Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Their rich food heritage is a fusion of Malay, Chinese and Indian flavours and techniques.
Peranakan matriarchs are known as nyonyas, and the food is referred to as Nyonya cuisine in their honour. Daisy Tan was always cooking for her sizable family – Roy is the youngest of nine – and it was a longtime dream for her to sell the meatballs she learned to make from her mother.
When she retired from her career as a financial adviser, Roy secured her a stall at a hawker centre. Her meatballs are meat-based with savory shrimp bits, sweetness from chopped red onions and water chestnuts for snap. They became a hit, and are now the signature item at Daisy’s Dream.
“It took her 60 years, but she figured out how to share the joy she felt from her mother’s cooking with the world,” Tan said.
Another Peranakan specialty on his menu is laksa, a fragrant noodle soup made with dried chili, blue and yellow ginger, candlenut, galangal and lemongrass. They’re cooked down into a paste called rempah, which is as labour-intensive as it is delicious. The addition of coconut milk makes it different from the sour versions served in other parts of Southeast Asia.
There is regularly a cluster of people waiting for coffee at Kopifellas, located right at the entrance of the hawker centre. You will order your kopi, the term for coffee throughout Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, and you will wait.
You might not notice time is passing because you will be distracted – then mesmerised – by the spectacle of workers pouring the coffee from on high from a long-spout kettle, a technique called “pulling” that’s adopted from the Indian method of making masala chai.
The strong brew sits for a bit before the kopi-maker does his handiwork, pouring it into a cup with a mixture of evaporated and condensed milks.
“The longer you pull the coffee, the more you bring out the aromas,” said Shane Yazid, a casual kopi historian. He has worked for Kopifellas, which has eight outposts in Singapore, and came to New York to open the first international store.
The beans are imported from Singapore because they’re specially roasted with sugar and butter, an old method developed to cover the bitter, smoky flavour of the beans. It lends the coffee a creaminess that no fancy oat milk latte could rival.
Hainanese chicken rice is the unofficial national dish of Singapore. The pale sliced poached chicken breast over a pile of rice, dotted with tiny cilantro bits, doesn’t look particularly remarkable. But don’t be fooled.
The rice is cooked with pandan leaf, ginger and other fragrant ingredients. The chicken is poached in an aromatic broth with ginger and garlic, then shocked in an ice bath. The effect it a sensory riot.
“Wow,” I said to Seetoh when I tasted the rice.
“That’s what Bourdain said the first time I made him try it,” Seetoh said with a grin.
At Hainan Jones, it comes with chili dip, a sweet black soy sauce, miso soup, plus the option for a vegetable add-on.
Seetoh calls Hainanese people “the biggest gifters of heritage food culture in Singapore”.
He explained that people from China’s Hainan province were among the last wave of immigrants to arrive in Singapore and were famously resourceful and business-savvy.
“Chicken and rice in Hainan is just poached chicken with plain rice and a ginger dip, but the Singapore version uses so many spices not available in China,” Seetoh said. “They adapted their plain-Jane dish and came up with a fireworks version, just by making do with what they had.”
Hainan Jones is run by Wei Keat Lim, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America’s satellite location in Singapore. At 27, he is the youngest hawker to come to Seetoh’s complex. The pandemic upended his plan to do an internship in Manhattan, so he opened a chicken rice hawker stall.
He ended up preparing hundreds of meals a week for frontline workers and found joy in cooking and serving massive amounts of food. He told me it was more fulfilling than the fine dining he planned to pursue.