Having been married to a Hong Konger and living in Hong Kong for more than fifteen years, I often ask myself what I miss most about Singapore. The answer always comes back to the three ‘F’s – family, friends and last but not least, food. Not just any food but local food. Not just any local food, but local food from our hawker centres.
Prioritizing my three ‘F’s can be very tricky. I guiltily admit that I sometimes think about food back home more than my family and friends. My daily routine often revolves around food, as being a mum, I have to plan meals for the family. Whenever I’m in a dilemma on what to eat in Hong Kong, I start missing the food in Singapore.
I lived at Ann Siang Hill when I was a child back in the mid 70s to late 80s. Back in the day, food stalls lined the street just a stone’s throw away from my place. My mum frequently brought me there for lunch or desserts. I can vaguely remember the whole street crowded with people and food stalls selling all kinds of goodies. These street side stalls later evolved into Maxwell Food Centre and the Chinatown Complex Food Centre after the government decided to clean up the streets for hygiene purposes.
On my family trips back to Singapore, I would bring my husband and children to some of our famous hawker centres so that they too can enjoy our delicious hawker fare and the hawker culture that they otherwise don’t get to in Hong Kong. Last summer, we spent three weeks back home and my daughter finally got to enjoy the tissue prata she had been craving for. Whenever we have prata in Singapore, it takes me back to my childhood, when I had prata1 with a side of sugar for breakfast all the time.
My daughter enjoying her tissue prata at Suriya Coffee House at Upper Serangoon, a smaller version of hawker centres around private estates.
My husband, on the other hand, has fallen in love with the Bak Chor Mee2 at Chinatown Complex Food Centre. He especially loves the meatballs and Ngo Hiang3. We would make it a point to have a meal there whenever we’re back. His usual order is dried Mee Pok4 with chilli, but not vinegar. The Singaporean in me always stares disbelief at his version of the dish. I mean, who eats Bak Chor Mee without vinegar? His love for the dish however, runs deep. On one particular trip where we stayed near that hawker centre, he requested to have this for breakfast almost five days in a row. My daughter loves it too, and she would have the fish ball version with ketchup, while I, like a true blue Singaporean, will order the very original Bak Chor Mee with all the mixed ingredients and definitely with plenty of vinegar and chilli.
Our family’s favourite noodle stall, famous Ming Fa Bak Chor Mee
What makes our Bak Chor Mee in Chinatown Complex Food Centre experience so special is the rich and strong coffee from Wu Shi Nian Dai coffee stall. Not to mention their delicious toasts with kaya or peanut butter spreads!
As weird as it sounds, I love to pair this Wu Shi Nian Dai kopi with my Bak Chor Mee.
Occasionally, we would also go for a bowl of ice kacang5 if our stomachs are up for it. Nothing beats cooling ourselves down with ice kacang after downing a bowl of spicy noodles and piping hot coffee. My Chinese doctor in Hong Kong will never approve of this meal plan, but I allow myself to enjoy it without any guilt.
Ice kacang at Chinatown Food Complex Centre during one of our summer trips back.
Often, my husband and I will compare the hawker food in Singapore with that of Hong Kong’s Dai Pai Dong（大排档）. The dishes at Dai Pai Dong are cooked by stir frying or deep-frying food in a deep wok with high heat which gives the dish a nice wok hei (smoky flavor resulting from caramelization of sugars, Maillard reactions, and smoking of oil, all in very strong temperatures) taste. However, it is more than just the wok hei taste which hawker centres in Singapore provide. The huge variety that’s available in a single sitting is unrivalled. One can experience either smoke-infused satay grilled over charcoal, or the barbecued variety with different sauces. Sambal stingrays are served up in varying levels of juiciness, spiciness and fragrance. Carrot cake (or chye tau kuay) is enjoyed either black or white, and soups can be boiled in ten different ways. The variety of cooking methods across the different dishes enable us to enjoy the different nuances that come with each stall, dish and hawker centre.
Another significant difference I noticed was that despite the immigrants in Hong Kong hailing from different provinces, much like our forefathers in Singapore, their food preferences however, have converged to adopt mainly Guangdong (Cantonese) styles and flavours. Local hawker food in Singapore on the other hand, still retain much of the flavours and traditions of their roots (Hainanese, Teochew, Hokkien etc.). This makes hawker centres here a melting pot of different food cultures, which you can’t quite get here in Hong Kong.
One thing that always amuses me is the unique quirks that one only sees in Singaporean hawker centres/food centres. For example, how we use packets of tissue paper, umbrellas or perhaps a handout to reserve seats while we order our food. It is almost a universal understanding among Singaporeans that a seat or table is occupied when there are these particular items. I am sure tourists find this extremely entertaining as well.
I don’t think our Singapore hawker culture can be found anywhere else in the world. It is something Singaporeans should be proud of. Whenever I have friends visiting Singapore during summer from Hong Kong, we always bring them to a hawker centre to have a taste of local food. I dare say, most of them have nothing to complain but instead love the fact that they can get a variety of dishes and flavours at very reasonable prices. Not forgetting, we can even get durians at some hawker centres too.
Days when I really can’t decide whether to have Char Siew rice or Wanton noodles in Hong Kong, you will find me at any Toastbox with my family and enjoying a bowl of laksa. This comfort food for me can never go wrong. It is also my quick fix to my home-food-sickness.
There is always this saying the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I’d say, the way to a homesick woman’s heart is through her stomach too.
SUPPORT HAWKER CULTURE
In case you haven’t heard, Singapore will be nominating our vibrant hawker culture into UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Amongst the Prawn Noodles and Nasi Gorengs, our diverse hawker food brings out an inexplicable pride and identity amongst us. If you agree that Singapore’s Hawker Culture is an integral part of our daily lives that should be passed on for generations to come, pledge your support here: bit.ly/OSHawkerSupport.
1 A soft and yet crisp flatbread, roti prata (or paratha) is often eaten together with mutton or dhal curry.
2 Bak Chor Mee is a minced meat and noodles dish of Teochew origin served in a number of countries such as Chaoshan (China), Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
3 Ngoh Hiang is a fried Hokkien and Teochew dish, comprising of various meats and vegetables and other ingredients. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ngo_hiang)
4 Mee Pok is flat egg noodles, commonly served tossed in sauce or soup with meat and vegetables (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mee_pok)
5 Ice Kacang literally means “bean ice”, a Malaysian dessert common in Singapore, and consists of shaved ice, red beans, jelly and other sweet toppings. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ais_kacang)