ONE of the most enduring and endearing traits of Singapore is its street food culture. As a melting pot of diverse cultures, our nation is a food paradise filled with the warm lemak flavors of Malay cuisine, and the bolder, brighter notes of Indian spices. Then, there is the myriad of noodle dishes, served soupy or stir-fried. How about carrot cakes that have no carrots at all, and aren’t baked but fried? And if you’re after a touch of sweet, there are offerings that go from Peranakan to Malay to Chinese, served hot, cold, steamed, gooey, cakey, fluffy, or filled with stuffing.
What’s not to like? Whether you’re a kid, or a teen, or an adult, everyone loves hawker food. It’s inexpensive, it’s everywhere, and it’s yummy.
For teens like me with a budget of eight dollars per day, hawker food is an affordable luxury. On average, food in school would set me back by four dollars. For just one more dollar, I could have my favorite banmian, Chinese-styled handmade noodles, and an iced milo—a meal so many times more satisfying than canteen food. That may be a hefty 25 percent more, but it would still be some 200 percent cheaper if I were to have a fancy banmian equivalent in a restaurant.
But surely, there’s more to the dollars and cents when it comes to heart-and-soul food.
At this one kopitiam or coffee shop in Bedok South—not exactly a foodcourt, but similar to one, less the air-conditioning—the banmian is truly handmade, hand-cranked from one of those pasta machines not unlike one an Italian nonna would use. This is what gives hawker fare a taste of tradition and the soul of an artisan.
For a good four years while I was a Bedok resident from the time I was six years old to nine, I never tired of banmian lunches. And then, they disappeared from my life after I moved. When I did return years hence at thirteen, I was seized with a Proustian moment. There I was, a kid all over again, little Nat slurping the noodles that had such an exquisite bite and bounce. It was noodle heaven filled with other goodies: a poached egg in a piping-hot pork broth with the salty crunch of the ikan bilis garnish, calcium-rich anchovies fried to a robust brown.
Then I begin to wonder, “How long can our hawker tradition continue to live?” It is exactly the kind of thought that has sparked the recent Tiger Beer ad campaign with a tagline that goes: “It’s time to preserve what we love.” Tiger Beer is not alone. The publisher of the Makan Sutra, K.F. Seetoh, is also an ardent activist in a quest to keep the flame of the hawker culture alive.
So what can we do to preserve what we love? Not much really, except to hope that the children of Uncle Char Kway Teow or Auntie Nyonya Kueh would continue the tradition, just like Michael, the son of the famous Joo Chiat pohpiah man, who has braved long hours of apprenticeship and many burns on the hands, all while mastering the deft art of applying gloppy dough on the hot pan.
The other thing we could do, of course, is to continue supporting our hawkers and not take them for granted. They make food so accessible to us everyday, everywhere; and from their labor of love, they give us so much happiness and joy. It is hard to imagine life without them, but there is every possibility that they could slowly fade away into the good night.
Nathaniel Soo, Secondary Three
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This essay was written in response to the ‘O’ Levels 2013 exam, Question #2:
Describe some of your experiences in food courts and hawker centers. How important are these places in your life as a teenager in Singapore?