A new breed of hawkers is making their presence felt, hinting at a street food revolution that might just be picking up momentum
Long hours, unglamorous and often back-breaking work—the life of a hawker is all these. But on a good day, it could be liberating—being one’s own boss and feeding off a passion for food. This new breed of hawkers is doing just that, but also bringing a sea change to our street food scene, and it’s time to take them seriously. Wine & Dine talks to four recipients of the inaugural Tiger Street Food Support Fund that was awarded earlier this year.
Tiger Street Food Support Fund Awardees
After seven years as a corporate banker, Ler Jie Wei, 31, hung up his suit and joined his family’s bak chor mee – or minced meat noodle – business. The banking sector was facing its own headwinds, and Ler felt it timely to focus on his family’s business, started by his great-great-grandfather as an itinerant hawker in the 1920s in the Chai Chee area. His great-grandfather, in turn, set up the family’s first permanent stall at Changi 10 Mile Road in the 1950s.
Ler has helped out at his mum’s stall for the past 10 years during his spare time. When he decided to be a full-time hawker, he spent six months training intensively under his mum.
He will be opening his own stall Famous Eunos Bak Chor Mee at the Asian Food Mall food court in Lucky Plaza this month. Ler will be using part of the funds from the Tiger Street Food Support Fund to research into ways his noodles can be delivered without turning soggy.
Stall 5, Asian Food Mall food court, B1-038 Lucky Plaza, 304 Orchard Road.
Silas Lee, 28, a former bartender at hip drinking holes like Ding Dong, is all optimism in the face of the economic downturn. “The recession is going to bring on a new wave of discerning consumers who are more cautious about what they spend on and who are attentive to the quality of food they get,” he says. “If we keep our prices within a reasonable range, I believe we can strike a good balance between innovation and value.”
His hawker stall Corner Burger serves inventive comfort food with a Southeast Asian touch. Highlights on his menu include wagyu beef adobo bowl ($9) and furu tonkatsu burger ($8), which makes use of traditional Chinese ingredient furu (fermented beancurd). Plans are afoot to introduce new items like a burger with century egg, and possibly even cocktails that use Southeast Asian ingredients.
He feels a benefit of working in a coffeeshop is rediscovering that kampong spirit. “We are learning to co-exist with [our fellow hawkers] and to respect their years of cooking experience.”
Brunners Coffeeshop, 228 East Coast Road. Tel: 9827 4562
Former banker Aaron Khoo, 32, has always liked to cook. He got a chance to take his interest further when he and his business partner started a joint venture with Mr Chia Tok Whee of Yan Ji Seafood Soup (a hawker business first set up in Woodlands in 1984, with a branch in Marsiling in 2014). Under this new joint venture, Khoo set up a third stall at Old Airport Road Food Centre.
The three main dishes Khoo offers are seafood soup, red grouper seafood soup and crayfish seafood soup, all priced between $6 and $14.
He says unlike other soups which may be pre-cooked in large batches, theirs are cooked-to-order to ensure a better quality. “We are considered relatively pricey, but we use big prawns and a large portion of minced meat. We think customers will keep coming back if you give them the value they pay for.”
He goes through 9am to 9pm days; between lunch and dinner service, he settles tasks like washing the dishes and preparing ingredients for dinner. Being a hawker is very demanding, and he feels that while younger, new-generation hawkers have more energy, they may also give up more easily. He observes: “There is a lot we can learn from older hawkers who take pride in what they do.”
#01-12 Old Airport Road Food Centre, 51 Old Airport Road.
Siblings Tan Wee Yang, 25 and Tan Yu Yan, 28, who make up Ah Tan Wings still hold their jobs in sales and accountancy respectively, but have plans to start a stall selling har cheong kai, or prawn paste chicken rice by day and ‘global street food eats’, like har cheong kai, okonomiyaki, by night.
Asked why they wanted to venture into the hawker trade, Wee Yang says, “Both of us really love to eat har cheong kai and like to cook. Also we feel that there is a market for har cheong kai as not many stalls specialise in good local fried chicken wings.”
To get the recipe right, they spent a year perfecting their recipe which uses two different batters and triple-frying, and now plan to set up a permanent stall in May. “We think the hawker-stall concept is a very good model, and don’t know why more people do not take the hawker route.” If the food at hawker stalls or coffee-shops is good, they feel that diners “tend to be more loyal and eat it as a staple food, whereas restaurant-goers tend to be more fickle”.
Apart from these inspiring newbies, we also caught with with two seasoned hawkerpreneurs who are taking the long view and have plans to grow their businesses step by step.
Mdm Letchmi Veerapan had been running Heaven’s Indian Curry, selling thosai, putu mayam and appam at Ghim Moh Food Centre for more than 15 years. Princess Appam with egg, butter and cheese, is one of her signature specialities. Five years ago, her son Daniel Surendran, 30, ventured into the business with her by opening a branch at Simpang Bedok. He used to be a waiter at a bar, but his love for heritage food and interest in challenging himself handle the food business drew him to being a second-generation hawker. That and the fact that he thought he couldn’t see himself working for others, he quipped.
Since then, he has established other branches of Heaven’s Indian Curry (Simpang Bedok has closed but there are other branches at Changi Airport Terminal 3 and NUH), and upped the ante by mastering how to make fresh putu mayam from scratch. “Even my mum was not doing it at the time,” he says. Now, he makes around 1,000 fresh putu mayams daily from a central kitchen, which helps to improve the quality and consistency of the putu mayams produced. While Surendran grapples with rising costs and long-held stereotypes among customers “that youngsters lack skills to put out good food”, he remains undeterred. “My love for food and the demand for fast-diminishing traditional dishes keep me at it.” As for Mrs Surendran, she spends most of her time at home looking after the grandkids.
20 Ghim Moh Rd. Tel: 9451 4415. (with branches in Ghim Moh Food Centre, Changi Airport Terminal 3 Kopitiam Stall 2 and NUH)
While those in Thomson Road are familiar with Rochor Thai Restaurant, Katongites have the benefit of the humbler but no less delectable Baan by Rochor Thai stall which occupies a space in Alibabar Hawker Bar. Chef-owner Joel Ong, 29, set up the latter a year ago, dishing out his signature authentic Thai food at a lower price point, and in a less conventional setting. (Alibabar morphs into a bar by night.) Baan means ‘home’ in Thai, and seeks to offer dishes that Thais can find near home for a simple everyday meal.
The menu here revolves around four dishes: green chicken curry ($5.80), basil pork rice ($5.80), braised pork leg rice ($6.30), Baan wonton mee ($6.80), but other dishes like pad Thai are in the works.
Ong says the main reason he decided to do a stall in addition to his restaurant was to offer “familiar Thai dishes to the heartlands at mass market prices.” For instance, his Baan Wonton Mee uses Rochor Thai’s signature pork collar instead of traditional char siew, and adds a braising sauce to add more complexity to the sauce. He has plans in the pipeline to start outlets at other coffeeshops and food courts, such as Takashimaya food village.
One of the greatest challenges he has faced thus far is trying to offer near restaurant quality food at coffeeshop prices, but what keeps him going is being able to share his love for authentic Thai food, especially “Central Thailand flavours, which are less sharp, spicy and sour”.
125 East Coast Road. Tel: 9820 8739
Cover picture: Yan Ji Seafood Soup
First published in Wine & Dine’s April 2017 issue, ‘Trending’, this article was updated to include additional interviewees.