Why is this interesting? - The Hawker Edition

On Singapore, street food, and passing the baton

Colin here. One of the true joys of Singapore’s food culture is its hawker centers. These semi-open-air structures are filled with an incredible range of cuisines, with almost everything prepared to order. The nationalities represented are many: Malay, Thai, Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern among others, with countless variations of interesting dishes on offer. Plus, due to Singapore’s fastidious food safety protocols, they are safe to explore and push your culinary limits a bit. 

Hawker centers are wonderful centers of culture: they are egalitarian places, where all walks of life gather. Part of the beauty is you can have an incredible meal for a tiny price. On my last visit to the city-state, I strolled around the Maxwell Hawker center (conveniently across from the former Six Senses hotel) and sampled truly excellent food to the tune of around $15 for a glutton’s journey. Chan Hon Meng's stall was bestowed the honor of being the cheapest Michelin starred meal in the world. A portion of soya chicken rice costs roughly $1.42.

The Economist sums the beauty of these halls nicely

Dolloped unceremoniously on a plate or banana leaf or scooped steaming into a plastic bowl, dishes such as roti prata and Singapore laksa conjure up the Indian and Chinese migrants whose own cuisines, slowly over centuries, mingled with that of the indigenous Malays. And since one can eat one’s fill at a hawker centre for the price of a flat white, it is no surprise that eight in ten Singaporeans visit such establishments at least once a week, according to a survey conducted by the National Environment Agency in 2018. Singapore is so proud of its street food that it hopes unesco will include it in its catalogue of humanity’s most precious arts.

Why is this interesting? 

The economic ascent of Singapore has been incredible. And with a hyper-educated and talented young workforce, it turns out it is not an easy sell to talk people into taking up a stall in a hawker center. And when some of the old masters decide to pack it in, there’s a danger they will bring their prized recipes with them. The barriers are many: the older generation is still on rent controls, paying around $200 a month whereas if you were to start a stall today, it would set you back a market rate of around $1,250 per month. In addition to the difficult working conditions, the food isn’t exactly high margin for the seller, and Singapore wants to cap prices, partially because it is seen as one of the society’s safety nets. In short, it is hard to be successful. 

And when vendors hike prices, there is a revolt from finicky customers. According to the Economist piece, “Several months after Douglas Ng opened A Fishball Story in 2013, he decided to increase the price of his $S3 fish-ball soup because his margins were so thin. Sales then fell by half, he says.” 

It is a tricky subject. Singapore’s food culture serves several purposes: one, it is an edible manifestation of the harmony that has been created between different ethnic and cultural operating systems over time. Two, it is a huge draw for tourists: the hawker scene upon homecoming played a big role in Crazy Rich Asians and was also propelled to fame through countless culinary and travel shows. Three, it allows for those with lesser means an honest meal without big government programs. So it will be curious to see how the dynamic develops as one generation of chefs moves onto retirement, and the potential void it will create in Singaporean culture. (CJN)

Ornament of the day:

A longtime friend of WITI, Zanab H. launched what is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a minute: Christmas ornaments shaped as Purell bottles. When the pandemic subsides and goes away, unpacking ornaments and putting this particular one on the tree will bring back memories of a strange time in recent history. Note, it should be obvious that she is not making light of the pandemic, but rather ascribing a quirky physical object for us to remember in years to come. Enjoy in the spirit in which it was intended. (CJN

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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