Singapore Hawker Culture – What it means to me
Singapore Hawker Culture – What it means to me
By Angie Ho
“Hard-boiled eggs, green leaf herb? And what’s that? Noodles?” my son ZK asked.
“Yes, they do look like rice noodles,” I said.
“I see prawns too!”
“Where got,” I asked, squinting my eyes to have a better look, “if there are prawns then it has to be Hokkien mee!”
“Do they put hard-boiled eggs in Hokkien mee?
“Eh, I don’t think so. Let’s approach him and ask,” I said. Pushing through the crowd, I made my way towards our Ambassador, who was wearing a funky yellow shirt depicting a hawker dish, for this special celebration.
We were at a luncheon in Paris to commemorate the 54th National Day of Singapore; an invitation from our Singapore Ambassador to France, H.E. Zainal Mantaha, to all Singapore citizens and their families based in France. Themed “A Tribute to Singapore Hawker Culture from France”, the lunch spread featured some of our famous hawker food like, chicken rice, satay, roti prata, nasi lemak, char mee and much more. Apart from the food, there was a Pub Quiz, a MasterChef contest for cooking a typical hawker dish, and the sharing of anecdotes and one’s favourite hawker centre and dish.
It was a convivial gathering of Singaporeans. Having been away from Singapore for 20 years, one of the things that I missed most is hanging out at hawker centres and eating local dishes with my family or friends
In my adopted home in Paris, we eat according to the seasons, not just the choice of produce available, but also depending on the weather, to dine alfresco or within. It’s mainly café, bistro and brassiere culture here and not forgetting the infiltration of fast food as well. Most Parisians prefer to cook and entertain guests at home as eating out regularly can become expensive.
Although I have adapted to the eating culture here, I still long for the year-round outdoor dining that we are privileged to have in Singapore – thanks to our hot and humid weather. The Singapore hawker culture is a way of life. Almost everyone eats at a hawker centre every day. I recall having two hawker meals per day when I was still living in Singapore. Where else could you find economical and delicious dishes from various ethnic groups to choose from, all housed in one place? There is no hassle for grocery shopping and cooking. Eating at a hawker centre is also a great and cheap way to taste and share different dishes with everyone at a communal table, enjoying a meal together.
The culture of eating at hawker centres is a rite of passage for most Singaporeans and I’m no different. One of my fondest memories of a special family time was our Sunday wanton mee dinner. Every Sunday, after a whole afternoon spent at my grandmother’s place, we would stop at the hawker centre close to our place in Commonwealth to have dinner.
It was always the same dish in the weekly routine: wanton mee at Commonwealth Close hawker centre. We would have it dry, with ketchup for the kids and chilli for my parents. My father would also order two extra bowls of wanton to share. While the wanton mee uncle and auntie toiled and cooked amidst the steaming vapours, churning out bowl after bowl of noodles – they were very popular and there was always a long waiting queue – my siblings and I would play at the swing next to the hawker stall while waiting for our noodles to be served. That was the most delicious wanton mee I’ve ever eaten, and I still consider it the best.
I don’t remember how many years this ritual lasted but it was long and important enough to leave a special mark in my childhood life. Till this day, I still reminisce about my happy and carefree childhood of having the special Sunday family meal whenever I have a bowl of wanton mee.
Fast forward to motherhood and the Ghim Moh Food Market. After I got married and moved to Paris, my mother downgraded to a smaller flat in the Ghim Moh estate. That was when I discovered the vast and delicious array of hawker food at the food market. There is braised duck rice, char kway teow, yong tau foo, and my all-time favourite, Tong Fong Fatt chicken rice.
The Ghim Moh Food Market holds a special place in my heart not just because my mother still lives there; it is also my son’s initiation to hawker food as a toddler. And it is Tong Fong Fatt’s chicken rice that my son and I eat whenever we are there and that has become a ‘bonding dish’ for us. I do hope that in future, my son, like me, will appreciate our Singapore hawker culture and associate that plate of chicken rice with his childhood; a nostalgic moment to treasure.
I am most supportive of Singapore’s UNESCO bid to recognise our hawker culture. This will encourage appreciation for our hawkers, safeguard our unique heritage of harmonious communal eating – where people of all ethnic groups eat together – and reinforce our tolerance and acceptance of our differences. It is important to preserve the Singapore hawker culture, it is our way of life, a reflection of our multicultural society and we should protect it for our future generations.
Seizing the Ambassador’s moment of respite from the selfie-seekers, I walked up to him and ask what ‘dish’ he was wearing.
“Guess,” the Ambassador said.
“Eh, Hokkien Mee,” I tried.
‘Laksa,” my son, ZK cut in.
“Yes! Laska,” the ambassador confirmed.
Ah, I should have known. There were indeed graphics of prawns on the shirt, and of course there are no hard-boiled eggs in Hokkien mee! I had to concede defeat and congratulated ZK.
And speaking of Laksa, which is one of my favourite dishes, it was missing from the menu at the luncheon. A craving that was not satiated. Oh well, there would be homemade laksa dinner later in the week, I announced. ZK responded with the thumbs up.