'We’re no hawkers'
Singapore’s Masterchef Asia contestants feel the heat during their hawker food challenge at Lau Pa Sat food centre.
Just because you’re Singaporean doesn’t mean you can step into a hawker’s shoes.
This was driven home when our local MasterChef Asia contestants were given the ultimate challenge: to cook in teams for the Friday night crowd at Lau Pa Sat on Jun 5.
The fourth episode of reality cooking competition MasterChef Asia, which aired on Lifetime (StarHub Ch 514) last night (Sept 24), saw each contestant draw a red, green or blue apron to determine if they would be cooking Chinese, Malay or Indian cuisine.
With only two hours to prepare their dishes, they raced against the clock to prepare enough food for the hungry masses. Members of the public voted for their favourite stall using MasterChef tokens.
The winning team with the most tokens would be safe from elimination, while the weakest member of the losing team, as determined by the judges, would have to leave the contest.
Masterchef Asia's Singapore contestants Sandrian Tan (second from left) and Woo Wai Leong (far right).
The challenge saw the green team triumph with their Malay dishes, while the red team serving Chinese food received the least tokens. Red team member Alice Peng, a 32-year-old scientist from China, was subsequently eliminated.
TNP visited the MasterChef Asia set at Lau Pa Sat on filming day, and later spoke to homemaker Ms Sandrian Tan, 41, engineer Mr Lennard Yeong, 27, and lawyer Woo Wai Leong, 27, about their experiences of being hawkers for a day.
What went through your mind when you heard about the hawker food challenge at Lau Pa Sat?
Sandrian: My first thought was, oh my god, it’s really challenging to go against actual professional hawkers. They get up super early in the morning to prep their ingredients, and they’re used to cooking under pressure, so how would we compete with all these well-branded stalls?
Leong: When I realised it was a hawker challenge, I thought: “Crap! Local food isn’t my forte, and cooking for hundreds is a huge challenge: we weren’t told how many portions to prepare, so we had to make as much as possible.
Lennard: I’m comfortable eating local food, but cooking it is another matter. I was worried about which cuisine I was going to get. All of us are home cooks, so we’re not used to cooking for large groups of people: it was a completely new game.
How familiar are all of you with Lau Pa Sat?
Sandrian: I don’t eat there often, but I sometimes bring overseas friends there for the famous satay.
Leong: I used to work next to Lau Pa Sat at Hong Leong Building, so I’m quite familiar with it. In fact, I’ve probably had more lunches and dinners there than I care to count!
Lennard: I don’t go there often at all, as it’s hard to find parking around that area.
Singaporean MasterChef Asia contestant Woo Wai Leong at the Lau Pa Sat food challenge.
What did you end up cooking?
Sandrian: Leong and I were unlucky to be selected to make Indian food, which is not our forte. We eat it very often, but never thought we’d be cooking it. We were literally thrown into the deep end. Fortunately, a friend taught me to make Indian food in uni many years ago. So I had to do my best to remember the dishes I knew!
Leong: Oh my gosh, I lost all sensation in my fingers making chapati (Indian flatbread). I rolled so many of them that day. We made six to seven dishes in all (including cauliflower and potatoes, and pilau rice), which was hard work.
Lennard: My team made Malay food, and everyone was looking to me for advice since they didn’t know much about it. We cooked laksa, satay and goreng pisang (fried banana fritters) for dessert.
How did the public like your food?
Sandrian: We were very surprised that we pulled off so many Indian dishes. We had an Indian national come up to us to say our food reminded him of his mum’s cooking. He even asked we had an Indian person on the team, which we didn’t!
Lennard: We didn’t remind anyone of their mums, that’s for sure! But we did get some good comments about our food. Listening to the judges’ comments all the time can get a bit mundane, so it was nice to hear feedback from the public for a change.
Do you think being Singaporean gave you an advantage in the Lau Pa Sat challenge?
Sandrian: Because we’re Southeast Asian, knowing the flavours of Indian food was definitely an advantage. But although I’ve eaten Indian food thousands of times, I’ve never really thought about how to recreate it. Walking into the challenge was like going into an exam I hadn’t studied for: my mind was a total blank! (laughs)
Leong: It doesn’t really matter, because food is universal. When someone tells me to chop vegetables, I can do it no matter what cuisine I’m cooking. The only help I could give my team mates was to advise them to buckle up for a rough night, as I knew it was going to be hot and very crowded!
Lennard: I’ve made rempah (Malay spice paste) before, so I offered to do that. I felt my main role was to support our team leader Blanche, who is Taiwanese, and help her keep calm.
You had to tout your stalls to entice the public to try your food. How effective were you at this?
Sandrian: All of us started shouting at the top of our lungs, since we didn’t have loudspeakers. There was some friendly competition going on as our Indian stall was next to the Malay one, and we told customers, “After you’ve tried their food, come here!”
Leong: Sandrian was shouting like crazy, so there was really no need for me to do it...
Lennard: Yeah, Sandrian did enough shouting for both teams combined!
Sandrian: There was some trash talking among the teams, but it was all friendly banter. There was no real malice in it.
Masterchef Asia judges (left to right) Susur Lee, Audra Morrice and Bruno Menard try the green team's Malay satay.
Are you inspired by your experience to become hawkers after this? There’s a trend towards young foodies running their own hawker stalls.
Sandrian: I can’t imagine waking up early in the morning, standing all day in the heat and serving food. It makes me appreciate the effort put into hawker food now. I definitely won’t complain any more that hawker food is expensive! It’s really hard work, and I respect that.
Lennard: I don’t think I’ll ever be a hawker. There’s so much care and effort put into something simple like a $3 bowl of noodles. There’s a time and place for everything, but making this specific kind of food is not for me.
Leong: I think I’m ill-equipped to make hawker food. Imagine going head to head with some uncle who has been honing his craft and his “wok hei” (the flavour from a hot work) for many years!