LOL Mondays: Defending Our Culinary Heritage

Let's make hawker training part of National Service.

By Alywin Chew        4 September 2023

A few weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised to see a young man in his late twenties running an economic rice stall at a food court. 

Always ready to support our young hawkers, I decided to patronise his stall, only to be stumped by the cost of my meal – I ended up paying a whopping eight dollars and fifty cents for an economic rice meal consisting of rice, a meat dish, a vegetable dish and some sort of tofu.

“You’ve got to be kidding. Why is this so expensive?” I asked.

“Yo, that tofu dish is considered a meat dish because there’s minced pork in it,” replied the young chap.

“Wah, like that also can ah?” I scoffed.

“Your vegetable also considered meat, actually.”

“Huh? How is that even possible? I don’t see a single shred of meat in this.”

“Because it identifies as meat.”

Okay, jokes aside, I think many people would agree with me that economic rice today is generally no longer as economical as it was in the past, especially if you’re having it in an air-conditioned food court in a mall. 

Looking to get your hands on economic rice that is legitimately economical? 

You’ve got to take things literally – just order the rice, lor.

That being said, I understand the need for hawkers to charge such prices. Rental is not cheap these days. The cost of ingredients has been rising too. Hawkers need to make a decent living. We really need to stop expecting hawkers to charge as little as they used to.

Until the powers that be do something about the ridiculous rental prices that hawkers have to contend with and we change our mindsets about paying more for hawker fare, we are headed for a dystopian future in which the common folks will not be able to afford something as simple as a plate of chicken rice.

No, I’m not being dramatic. Let me explain how things will pan out.

Having to price dishes cheaply while contending with high rental prices means low profits, and this makes the hawker trade unappealing, especially given Singapore’s high cost of living. 

After all, why become a hawker and endure the harsh working conditions just to end up worse off than your peers? Think chionging up a hill during reservist is tough? Try working for a day in a hawker stall. 

With so few people willing to take over the reins, many dishes will eventually fade into oblivion. 

Imagine this. The year is 2050 and there is only one place in Singapore that sells chicken rice, which is no longer considered hawker fare but a rare commodity because the art of making this dish has been lost over the years. People must make reservations three months in advance to savor this delicacy. At this establishment, a plate of chicken rice costs $500. You sit before an omakase counter where a so-called “heritage artisan” prepares everything from scratch in front of you as the soothing sounds of Kit Chan’s Home streams in the background. 

I fear this is the future we are facing if we do not take steps to preserve our food heritage. 

In fact, some well-loved old school delicacies are already on the way to extinction. One of them is the wah kueh, a traditional Hokkien pudding-like snack made with flour, fried shallots, mushrooms and dried shrimp. Last I heard, there’s only ONE stall in Singapore that still sells this classic.

Yes, more and more young Singaporeans are becoming hawkers these days. But many of them aren’t exactly selling authentic local fare. Look, being creative and selling hipster-fied versions of local classics is not wrong. But gentrified hawker fare is not hawker fare. 

Look, squid ink mee pok topped with chanterelles, Iberian ham, Japanese fishcake and meatballs made with Hanwoo beef from Hoengseong County in South Korea is not bak chor mee. 

It is a victim of identity crisis.

Saving our hawker culture must be a national effort. As such, I propose that we make hawker training part of National Service. That’s right. Make food, not war.

Let’s roll out a PES ‘H’ for those deemed worthy enough to become the saviors of our culinary heritage.

It can be argued that training the next generation of hawkers constitutes national defence. What are we defending? Our national identity.

Can someone please make this a reality?

Because I’m totally looking forward to hearing platoon sergeants yell, “My grandmother can cook better than you!”

LOL Mondays is an ongoing series of slice-of-life stories from freelance writer and NSman Alywin Chew. Look out for the humorous tales which will be posted every first Monday of the month, to help you drive away your Monday blues!

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