K F Seetoh our foodie TV show host, the man behind the food guide Makansutra, who travels on a scooter and Singapore’s answer to Anthony Bourdain has said some interesting things in a recent article in Time Magazine. I have extracted the interesting bits here and must confess I never realised how fragile and taken for granted out existing hawker stalls are:
“The story of food in Singapore is one of desperation,” he says, describing how some now accepted constituents of popular dishes were originally added because poor migrants couldn’t afford any better. One example is hemoglobin extracted from blood cockles — a species of clam that could be freely scavenged on any beach. The liquid was (and still is) used to add piquant flavor to char kway teow.
Seetoh also makes the wider point that such culinary improvisation never compromised craft, and one of his favorite eating spots illustrates this amply. It’s a closet-sized stall run by a man whom Seetoh says has repeatedly declined million-dollar offers to expand his business because he wants to retain its homegrown authenticity. Every day, the stall’s Hokkien mee is prepared in the same painstaking way: the noodles are seared in an egg-rinsed wok before shrimp, squid and bean sprouts are added, then they’re cooked in a salty seafood stock and refried with garlic. “He’s like an artist,” Seetoh says.
But just as Singaporean cuisine was born in humble circumstances, so the country’s current prosperity might prove its undertaker. Singapore does a creditable job in presenting a lively food culture to tourists, however the reality is that the advent of branded fast food, and the proliferation of more lucrative careers for the descendants of food-stall owners, is pushing that culture to slow extinction. “I’m clinging onto an era that I can’t get enough of,” Seetoh says sadly.
I learnt something new from this interview. I never knew the blood of cockles was used to make Char Kway Teow. I also hope our incredible old world food culture doesn’t die out. My preference is always for authentic food and I don’t really like the new fancy fusion cuisine which is expensive and doesn’t taste as good as those served in the hot stuff hawker centres in the narrow lanes of our red light district or other obscure corners of Singapore.
Today I found out in the newspapers, that a very old iconic coffeeshop (Cardon Cafe & Restaurant) at Serangoon Gardens will be closed and a awful citibank outlet will replace it. The aging owner who ran the coffee stall for 30 years could not refuse the 40% more in rental of $30,000 Singapore dollars a month. (This place used to sell the most incredible Nasi Briyani I have ever tasted in my life in the 70’s and 80’s and my uncle used to treat us to it every Christmas. I don’t know what happened to the Indian man selling the Nasi Briyani since, he might have gone back to India.) I am all for variety, but not at the expense of our heritage.
What Seetoh expressed is so true, and it seems to be happening all around me, with the closure of the old railway station at Tanjong Pagar as well. Affluenza will change our landscape, driving our food culture into extinction. This is just so sad.