With fast-food outlets serving nasi lemak burgers and restaurants like Morsels and one-Michelin-starred Labyrinth whipping up their versions of local-inspired flavours, hawker fare has become much more than a low-cost food option for the masses.
At fusion restaurant Morsels in Dempsey, chef-owner Petrina Loh, who trained in Western culinary arts, puts her renditions of laksa and wonton mee on the menu.
But these are not replicas of the classic hawker dishes. The 35-year-old sees recreating classic flavours as a tribute to the local hawker culture.
Morsels Laksa is made with wild Sri Lankan tiger prawns, turmeric long bean pickles, ajitsuke quail egg, Vietnamese chicken sausage and crispy laksa leaves.
Chef Loh’s wonton mee is served with pork jowl char siew made inhouse, complete with char siew sauce that is made from scratch.
The chef, who graduated from the California Culinary Academy which runs the Le Cordon Bleu programme, started her restaurant in 2013.
She says: “My cooking is inspired by my childhood memories of food and eating at hawker centres, and I want to recreate familiar flavours even though I am using foreign ingredients.”
She eats at hawker centres three or four times a week.
Over at modern Singaporean restaurant Labyrinth at Esplanade Mall, chef-owner Han Li Guang, 33, who is known for his Ang Moh Chicken Rice and deconstructed versions of chilli crab, also says he is influenced by his childhood memories which include eating at hawker centres. He says: “Hawker culture started long ago and it is something important to a chef doing a modern interpretation of local food. It has a huge bearing.”
“The local dining scene would be very different if we didn’t have hawker centres. Hawker food is essential to our identity.”
At his restaurant, he incorporates old-school techniques of food preparation such as milling flour from rice and preparing his own oyster sauce.
His menu features items like Nasi Lemak Chee Cheong Fun, which is egg yolk gel and nasi lemak sambal wrapped inside a steamed coconut rice skin, topped with ikan bilis, cucumber and crispy chicken skin.
Hawker fare can also be found at high-end hotels like Shangri-La Hotel which features authentic hawker food at its Lobby Lounge’s Heritage Buffet introduced last year. The buffet features monthly Heritage Pop-ups in which a local hawker is invited to helm a live station.
Executive chef of Shangri-La Hotel Franco Brodini, 46, says the aim is to serve authentic local food that can represent the Singapore heritage in a comfortable setting.
He says: “Some of the hawkers have been serving the same dish for more than a decade and they are the masters of their trade.”
Assam laksa seller Alvin Wong, 41, who previously worked at hotels and was a chef de cuisine at a social club before he quit to start his own hawker stalls, says the impact of hawker food on the dining scene can be seen in hotels and Westernstyle cafes serving local fare.
He recalls: “When I was working as a chef at a hotel, I would go to hawker centres for inspiration and ideas when learning to cook dishes like mee rebus, fried kway teow and chicken rice which were popular with guests.”
Food blogger Leslie Tay, 49, says: “Singapore cuisine is maturing. Flavours that used to be considered low-level hawker food like chilli crab are being adopted by restaurants and even fast-food outlets.
“We have moved away from discussing whether bak kut teh and chilli crab are Singaporean or Malaysian. Now, we own, celebrate local flavours and even export them overseas.”
This article was originally published in The Straits Times.
Photos: Morsels, Restaurant Labyrinth