For every six hours that a hawker stands by his or her stall to sell his or her fare, there are another six hours involved for marketing for ingredients, preparation work and setting up the stall. Then, at the end of the day comes cleaning and prep for the next day.
Little wonder hawkers are a dying trade in Singapore, with fewer and fewer venturing into the field, or taking over from the first-generation hawkers.
Despite the hard work, these young hawkers are working to redefine the local food scene, breathing new life into typical hawker food.
When Habib was born, his father opened an Indian rojak (mixed salad) stall at Ayer Rajah Food Centre and named it after him.
In a way, this has paved the path for Habib. The 28-year-old was about to sit for his private O-level examinations when shortage of manpower at the stall led him to stop his education and help his father out instead.
“I didn’t really want to then, but I felt I had to,” shares Habib.
After a few weeks of learning the ropes from his father, he’s now learnt the daily routine of running the stall. The morning starts with him preparing the different flour mixes – egg, coconut, potato – and getting fresh produce like prawns from the wet market.
Habib sells his wares from 11 a.m. to midnight, and popular items include vadai (fried cutlets), potato and coconut fritters.
Habib would like his own son to take over the business one day. “To me, doing this is sustainable. After all, I grew up on a hawker’s income,” he says.
Ayer Rajah Food Centre, Stall 68, 503 West Coast Dr, Singapore 120503
Few would imagine the lanky, shaggy-haired guy working the curry rice stall at an industrial-building canteen as having been a sharp-suited foreign exchange trader working “short and sweet” hours at a local bank.
“The physicality of the hawker trade really cannot be underestimated,” says 30-year-old Joel Chia candidly. “I run 10 to 30 kilometres a day. Every single day. But it’s a different game as a hawker.”
Chia, together with business partner Deniece Tan, took over her dad’s Hainanese curry rice stall in Telok Blangah in August 2013. Both were keen to start their own business and wanted something in the F&B line.
The pair spent five weeks learning the ropes from Tan’s father, before the 25-year-old sat her dad down for an “awkward but important” chat. “I had to tell my dad that this is our business now. We appreciate him wanting to teach us how to do things, but we are taking over not just to do things the same way he did for the past 10 years,” says Tan.
Since taking over, Tan and Chia have refined the curry recipe, adding different types of ginger and more chillies to make the pale and bland curry spicier and more vibrant in colour. Both are not maudlin about changing up the recipes and menus. Last year, Chia added Western curry dishes, porridge and economical beehoon (vermicelli) to their menu. They’re also working on a separate new menu with food delivery service Food Panda, with items such as dry curry noodles.
Jun Jie Industrial Building, #07-05, 153 Kampong Ampat, Singapore 368326
Afiq Anuar’s nasi padang (steamed rice with dishes) stall was named after his parents’ stall in Teck Whye, where Afiq helped out at for four years, before deciding to strike out on his own.
The 26-year-old’s dishes “follow [his] mother’s recipes as closely as possible.” The asam pedas (spicy, sour fish), for instance, is made using fresh fish he gets from a supplier every morning, something his mother insists on. “It’s what makes the gravy so sweet,” shares Afiq, the youngest of two sons.
His mother also makes sure that he tastes everything he makes.
Despite his experience, working alone still has its challenges. “In the past, I could tell my mum I wanted to come in late if I was tired. I can’t do that anymore.” He also has to work harder to build up his own stream of regular customers, instead of relying on his mother’s repute to win people over.
Though he admits that social media has been helpful in putting the Harummanis Junior name out there, it also has its drawbacks. “But my parents taught me to learn to accept criticism and just do my job well. So, I’m working on that,” he says sheepishly.
Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre, #01-03, 10 Ring Rd, Singapore 671259
The art of making a good roti prata – a crisp, flaky flatbread – is what 33-year-old Almalic Faisal has been learning under his father’s watchful eye for nearly a decade.
Yet his dad still comes up behind him occasionally to tut softly. “He will come and say, ‘This one prata, ah?’ and shake his head and walk away… His standard is very high,” says Faisal.
“It’s not about speed. It’s the rotation of the hands, how the surface of the dough hits the sizzling plate, and how you fold the prata,” he explains.
Together with his younger brother, Mohamed Dufail, 30, the siblings are third-generation hawkers. Their family business began in 1933 when their grandfather arrived in Singapore from India and started selling prata by the streets. When their father, Haji Mohammed, took over, he set up shop in Cluny Road before moving to the current location in Sin Ming in 1993.
“There was scant business for the first six months. Some days, my dad would come home with practically no income, after paying the workers their daily wage,” says Mohamed.
These days, though, getting your morning prata fix at their immensely popular stall – hailed by some as the best in Singapore – means braving a 30-minute wait. But despite the overwhelming demand, father and sons still insist on making their dough by hand daily. The dough is usually prepared at 6 p.m. the evening before and takes an hour to make.
Eventually, the brothers plan to take the business to a bigger scale and move to a restaurant. “It won’t be so soon. We’re looking for a space, and we need to be sure we have the manpower,” says Mohamed. “I also want to do my own production – manufacture the dough and sell it.”
Jin Fa Kopitiam, #01-51, 24 Sin Ming Rd, Singapore 570024
Not many first-time hawkers would dare to enter the market with a premium rendition of a local staple, but that’s just what Gwern Khoo, 35, and Ben Tham, 34, did. Serving wanton noodles from $5 a bowl, their stall, A Noodle Story, has since gone from a novelty to one of 17 hawker stalls given the Bib Gourmand award in the inaugural Singapore Michelin Guide in 2016.
Khoo admits that when they first started the business in 2013, the crowd’s response wasn’t overly enthusiastic. “It took time (for the business) to pick up, but as word got out, more people came to try what we had to offer,” says Khoo.
“One thing good about Amoy Food Centre is our customers are mostly office executives. They are well-travelled, eat more widely, are more receptive to new creations and are willing to pay for quality.”
Khoo, who was a stagiaire at Iggy’s and Waku Ghin, has brought over the culinary philosophies upheld by each restaurant. “From Iggy’s, I learnt that good food does not need to be complicated. From chef Tetsuya, I learnt the importance of good ingredients.”
Amoy Street Food Centre, #01-39, 7 Maxwell Rd, Singapore 069111
29-year-old marketing graduate, Faye Sai, joined her brother, Jack, 32, to take over a family business that dates back 81 years, when their grandfather started San Hai Yuan coffee house in Keppel. Coffee Break was established by their father in Boon Tat Street, before it moved to its current location at Amoy Street Food Centre in 2008.
Together with Faye’s twin sister, Anna, who joined the duo in October 2015, the siblings pull nearly 700 cups of robusta-based brew daily, using the traditional coffee sock.
To make their lattes, a shot of arabica is added for extra fragrance, along with a mix of evaporated and condensed milk that is heated gently over a warmer.
Flavoured syrups like macadamia nut or mint are used to create drinks inspired by their travels. Sea salt mint latte, for instance, was conceived after Jack had tried sea salt mintflavoured yogurt drinks in Iran.
“To me, traditional kopi is good for making lattes because it has a stronger body and richer mouth feel, so it holds up well to the syrup flavours,” says Faye. “We also use evaporated milk instead of fresh milk because [the latter] will thin out the coffee and make it weak. Evaporated milk is thicker.”
Working together has helped bring the siblings closer but, recently, they have split up to look after a new outlet in an office building next to Kent Ridge MRT station and a third outlet, Kopi Cafe, at Raffles Place.
Amoy Street Food Centre, #02-78, 7 Maxwell Rd, Singapore 069111
Why did Sebastian Kwek choose to take over his grandmother’s ban mian (handmade noodle) stall, and what would he be doing if he didn’t enter the hawker trade? “I would still have been a chef, whether it’s at my grandmother’s stall or working at a restaurant,” says the 26-year-old, who has been helping his grandmother since he was 14.
He begins his day at 5 a.m., heading down to the stall to start preparing the soup. Keeping to his grandmother’s recipe, he uses big dried anchovies, sweet corn and salt to create the light, tasty broth.
The noodles, he shares, are made the night before at home, using a big machine his grandmother has used for nearly 30 years.
He shares that business has become better since he took over, and the stall goes through nearly 300 eggs a day. He eventually hopes to either franchise the business or experiment with selling Western renditions of ban mian, like a carbonara with poached egg on top.
59 Food Court, Blk 59, New Upper Changi Rd, Singapore 461059
By Meryl Koh, The Peak Magazine, July 2017
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