Is Singapore a Food Haven? The Challenge

It is commonly joked that Singaporeans have two passions in life – shopping and eating…

Well….

Okay, that’s true.

Which makes me a bad Singaporean I guess since I like to make my tummy trim (while still eating a lot) and keep my wallet fatter. The result tends to be the opposite though, my tummy gets fat and the wad of notes in my wallet remain imaginary. Food is an obsession here and the variety, quality and cost make this place a food haven of sorts. I thought it would be nice to introduce the food haven part of Singapore with videos, and these two Korean ones from a TV show seem to do a great job for the international audience.

And to think no one really thought much about what Singaopore food really was barely two decades ago. In fact just a shade under 20 years ago the push to market Singapore as a food heaven sent locals bawling with laughter, asking what food did we have to be proud off. I vividly recall watching the television and naively asking friends and family about it, “it’s just another stupid tourism attempt, it’ll never catch on” was the gist of the response.

But it did. Somehow.

It’s not to say that food in Singapore 20 years ago was poor, rather this speaks to a very different Singaporean mindset back then – while the Singaporean today is slightly more confident of what the nation has to offer (cue the ugly Singapore tourists making snide remarks in surrounding Asian countries), the average Singaporean barely a decade ago was less able to see what we had that was worth being proud of – our food was never as good as that in Penang or Ipoh (and here), our people always less capable, industrious and intelligent than those beyond our shores*. That mindset is slowly changing today.

There is a phrase in the teochew dialect which translates as – eating is more important than the emperor, and that neatly explains the position to which food is held at in Singapore. People live to eat not eat to live in this country. All food options are put under the radar with bloggers, instagrammers and youtubers rushing to check and review. There are many localised variants of yelp to help people find new food. A new food app apears ever so oftem promising some better way to find food.

But in spite of all this, some things remain constant. While there are cafes, restaurants and eateries, the Singapore food experience today begins with the humble hawker at the food centre.

The hawker is simultaneously a livelihood, cultural attraction and a way of life. A competitive cut-throat career embarked on by many in the past to feed their families. Until the 1960s, hawkers sold their food off pushcarts on the street, a sight still visible in other parts of Southeast Asia. These individuals specialised in one dish and the most popular ones immortalised by where their pushcarts were located. These were hard tasks, performed under the scorching heat for hours on end – beginning before the sun rose and ending long after the sun had set. Their meals were affordable fares for the everymen (cheaper than cooking at home even) and the people lapped it up. The desire for good tasting food is a great democratiser, since hawker food sees the haves queue next to the have nots for the same item.

In the 1970s, a clean up drive brought these hawkers into large open aired food centres, known colloquially as hawker centres. Now there was a single place to go to get food.

Amoy Street Food Centre, one of the older Food Centres in the city

The work conditions may have been more sanitary but they were not spectacular ways to live. Few hawkers wished their children to join them. Don’t get me wrong, the most successful made enough money to be able to flaunt their wealth like the newly rich – gold Rolex watches, large smart Mercedes Benz’s, palatial bungalows… some reached these heights of ostentatious wealth all from a simple plate of food, but they were the exception, not the rule. Somehow this way of life became the poster child in Singapore’s international food renaissance. And the humble hawker was elevated to folk icon. Suddenly a tourist was told that they should experience this local dining culture for a truly Singaporean experience.

Today its common for Singaporeans to bring foreign friends to the hawker centre to sample local delights, some of which have won Michelin Stars and Bib Gourmands from the inspectors from the French tire company**, bringing with them a previously absent level of prestige. But the death knell is sounding and the bells are tolling for the hawking industry. Fewer young people are entering the industry, discouraged by generations of cultural schizophrenia and disapproval for the hard life. The few brave ones who dare put up with judgemental looks and online condemnation (for wasting their education) until they their business takes off – at which they are feted for their foresight.

The food scene in Singapore is changing rapidly, with more eateries/cafes and restaurants popping up and hawker numbers on the decline. Singapore chefs have proven their palate, creativity and technique to be at the highest levels on this earth.

Whereas few young people are entering the hawker market, the cafe scene is positively exploding with a plethora of cafes mushrooming all over the island, vying with each other to serve either a brilliant concept or amazing bold flavours. This growth is part of a larger refional trend observed also in many cities across Malaysia (Penang, Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur and Johor to name a few).

Education may bury and inform but it does not erase a passion, and there is a substantial (although perhaps not large enough) of you people who desire the chance to grind their teeth in the food and beverage industry. The organically growing cafe scene has also done something no government initiative has done, it has made entreprenuers of an infamously risk-averse population.

Clever marketing, a hawker culture and an abundance of food options in between have conspired to make Singapore a foodies delight – a statement even the famously praise-stingy Singaporean will probably agree with.

But a food haven that is Singapore is not just about a few top stalls, it is about a concentration of good food all around the place. So here’s the challenge I set for myself: Try tasty food from as wide a spectrum as possible over a few days, all of which must come from new stalls, eateries, cafes or restaurants to me. A good store is defined as one that does not cause me to feel the urge to go back to my own old haunts. I do not discriminate over where or what I eat, as long as it is new (to me) and nice.

If Singapore is truly food haven, this should be an easily accomplished task.

*While there is increasing confidence and frustration by the average local not being given a chance to compete for top positions, today, as a former Ambassador said, there is a risk that the top echelons of Singapore’s political, administrative and business sectors actually lack faith in the abilities of their own people and their own system. But that is for another discussion and another time.

**The story of the Michelin Guide essentially tells us that the guide is really no guarenty of anything, but it is however a rather good marketing tool – and which big city would turn down a business opportunity?

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