Tuesday, August 19, 2014

My Historical Account of Hawker Centers

East Coast Lagoon Food Center - the 'country club' of hawker centers.
Oluak on the left, duck rice on the right. Kopi Tiam runs several hawker centers these days.   

In my book, I reminisced about the satay man who cycled around Yarrow Gardens every afternoon.  One day, while he was grilling our satay, a van from the Ministry of Environment (or was it Health) sneaked up.  The officers tapped him on the shoulder and transported him back in to the van.....lock, stock and smoking barrel.  He was never to be seen again.
These were the vanishing sights of 70s Singapore, an era that heralded the hawker center....now globally associated and synonymous with Singapore.  

Of course, my sisters wax sentimentally about the old Satay Club by the Esplanade.  It was probably the forerunner of the hawker center as we know it.  When street vendors and their shanty carts, or mobile vehicles like the bicycle (key features of my favorite P Ramlee movies) were deemed dirty reservoirs for food poisoning, the government decided to relocate them to more sanitary structures.  These centers were well ventilated and comprised of little concrete stalls, one for each hawker.

Truth is, I never felt comfortable with the old open air centers.  They felt wet and slippery, humid and drenched in sweat. The ubiquitous Good Morning towels were used to wipe tables and the perspiration off the brows and armpits of these toiling hawkers. Hopefully, they weren't one and the same towel.

So many hawker centers sprung up.  They were often located in multi storey complexes that included car park lots or apartments above. There is even one named after my great great grandfather - the Hong Lim market, famous for its Hokkien prawn noodle soup. 

 A typical hawker stall with its tight space. 
The hawker center that I frequent these days when I come back is close to my home.  It is often described as the 'country club' of hawker centers by virtue of its location facing the beach.  Landscaped with palm trees, pebbles and wooden huts, it actually gives out a resort vibe  Sadly, the hawkers who made the place famous have all but disappeared.  The satay bee hoon, char kway teow, fried Hokkien mee are all gone, save for the oluak (oyster egg omelette) man who remains standing in his tight hair perm, surrounded by several loyal buddies who help him and update him on the turf racing results. (See My Favorite Hawker Has Retired!).

The hawker centers have evolved over the years.   The first indoor 'picnic court' first surfaced at the old Ascott shopping center, a concept that introduced air conditioning and brighter lights.  Nowadays, two monopolies dominate the food scene, they are Republic and Kopi Tiam.  Like LVMH, these companies play host to well known hawker brands and house them together in one of several identical food courts across Singapore.   

An indoor food court at Marina Bay Sands. 
The downside is that while you get your standard fare, you also get a manufactured taste.  It's no longer the unique hawker's trademark recipe that made one gravitate to him in the first place, hunting him down in a faraway location and late into the night. (Which my ex boyfriend did in the hunt for fried chicken in Serangoon.) You can go to Republic and find your chicken rice and chances are, it's the same flavor, texture and taste as elsewhere.  And for that matter, the satay sauce that came in a standard-issue pack.  These probably came from the same industrial kitchen.

Newton Circus is probably most well- known among tourists and notorious for charging exorbitant prices to naive consumers.  But when my friends visit Singapore for the first time, I prefer to impress them the posh way - at the Straits Kitchen on the ground floor of the Grand Hyatt Hotel.  

Straits Kitchen at the Grand Hyatt. 
Undoubtedly, you will still find the original hawkers with their unique blend of flavors.  Older, they have saved enough to educate their children who tend not to enter the business, leaving these retiring hawkers to close for good, or sell their recipes never to be replicated as well as when they prepared them.  Hawker fare is also relatively expensive these days and for someone like me who has to order almost everything that catches my eye, you come away forgetting what you went for in the first place.  My appetite is enticed by the array out there and thus, I walk away sated but confused by all the variety I pounced on.  So buyer beware, be more discerning with your food order!

Designed to evoke nostalgia, Tangs now has hawkers selling old- time favorites
complete with retro servingware and ads. 
A good reference book to source the most authentic hawkers is by Dr. Leslie Tay titled, "The End of Char Kway Teow and other Hawker Mysteries".  He also writes a blog called ieatishootipost.sg

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