Singapore Hawker Center’s Best Food
“Singapore is extremely pitiful, there are no Singaporean eateries anywhere else in the world… The Hawkers Association should look to other countries.”
In a podcast session that I recorded in January 2021 with KF Seetoh, one of the most prominent advocates of hawker cuisine in Singapore, he made this statement. We were speaking about the importance of Singapore hawkers gaining a berth on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
It seems that Seetoh has completed his aim since the episode aired last year. The first “Singapore-style street food market” in New York City was formally opened by Seetoh on September 28. Urban Hawker is located in New York City.
In New York City, the 14,000 square foot facility contains 17 hawker booths that serve local favorites like chicken rice and satay. Other options include nasi lemak and laksa. However, while some Singaporeans who live there were overjoyed, others were horrified by the rates, and they took to social media to express their discontent with them.
It has been stated that one booth in particular, Prawnaholic Collections, sells prawn mee for the equivalent of S$26, although the going rate for a bowl of prawn mee in Singapore is S$7.
Singapore’s hawker culture has a rich history that extends back to the 1800s. As a result of Singapore’s status as a successful port city, people from all over the world began migrating there in large numbers. Immigrants who were homesick for their native cuisine were served by enterprising hawkers who carried their makeshift kitchens on bamboo poles. These hawkers made their living by selling comfort food to immigrants.
Hawker centres were developed in the 70s, but vendors preserved their street food roots and reputation for serving economical foods. It was Singapore’s own form of fast food, where for a few bucks, one would receive a boiling hot plate of food in only minutes.
Over the years, ingredient and energy costs have been steadily on the rise, aggravated by the COVID-19 epidemic, supply chain interruptions and the Ukraine crisis.
However, because of Singaporeans’ price awareness when it comes to hawker food, pricing in Singapore have mostly remained steady. A duty is placed on our hawkers to keep costs low, as vendors and clients alike share an unspoken belief that the role of a hawker is to serve the community.
Jean Lim of Ah Hua Teochew Fishball Noodle recalls that her father insisted on keeping pricing low because “some old individuals in the estate have trouble even paying for a meal. The neighborhood does raise a big deal,” even though the price has increased by only 10 cents.
In this view, the gripes over prices at Urban Hawker – which beyond the predicted single-digit range – come as no surprise to me.
Prawnaholic Collections explained their S$26 pricing tag by citing the high cost of their labor. I empathise. While there is no legislated equivalent in Singapore, the minimum wage in cities such as New York might start from S$20.
Sydney-based My conversation with Sook Yoon Yang, who formerly managed the establishment known as Cafe Rumah but has since closed its doors, was centered on the following question: “How can you pay the appropriate rate – the legal wage – and still be able to produce quality?”
The high cost of imported ingredients is another impediment to pricing. The chef at Rascals Collective, Alastiar Tan, recalled attending a gathering in Australia when beef rendang was among the dishes that were offered. The components for the rempah (spice paste) are almost as expensive as the beef itself!
It may be an automatic response for people from Singapore to argue that the price of hawker cuisine in New York is too high. However, what if the opposite is true, namely that the price of hawker food in Singapore is too low? Why aren’t we prepared to compensate our hawkers at the rate they deserve?
It is time that we honor ourselves by placing greater value, literally, on our own cuisine. Maybe then, we can keep hawker culture alive, possibly beyond what a UNESCO award can do.