Singapore

Tradition with a twist

Meet some of the young hawkers who are shaping the future of local food. MERYL KOH (tnp@sph.com.sg) reports

His reserved demeanour and tattooed arms make Mr Sebastian Kwek quite a mystery.

As he sits huddled over a round white table at the coffee shop below Block 59, New Upper Changi Road, with the rain pouring, Mr Kwek contemplates the questions put forward to him.

Why did he choose to take over his grandmother's ban mian stall, and what would he be doing if he had not entered the hawker trade?

"I would still have been a chef, whether it is at my grandmother's stall or at a restaurant," says the 26-year-old, who has been helping his grandmother since he was 14.

"When it comes to work, I realised I am better at physical things," he says.

His proper training began when he was 23. He apprenticed with Mr Enoch Teo, former chef-owner of Enoch's European restaurant at Katong.

Mr Teo is now the co-owner of casual French eatery chain Garcons.

"When I first started working for Enoch, I treated the restaurant as my own. I would come at whatever time I wanted and do what I wanted," says Mr Kwek, who candidly admits that he used to run amok with a gang when he was 13.

"But working at Enoch's restaurant showed me the importance of teamwork and discipline. You can say it made me grow up."

Now, instead of sauntering into the kitchen at 11am, he starts his day at 5am, heading down to 456 Mian Fen Guo to start preparing the soup.

Faithful to his grandmother's recipe, he uses big ikan bilis, sweet corn and salt to create the light and tasty broth.

The noodles, he says, are made the night before at home, using the machine his grandmother has used for nearly 30 years.

"Most of the ingredients are the same ones my grandmother used, except the flour," says Mr Kwek, who tested different types before settling on an Australian import that "is more expensive but gives the noodles a QQ (springy) texture".

He shares that business has become better since he took over, and the stall goes through nearly 300 eggs a day (Mr Kwek counts each egg as a bowl of ban mian sold).

HOPES

Though he does not have the time to put too much thought into it yet, he eventually hopes to either franchise the business or experiment with selling Western renditions of ban mian, such as carbonara with a poached egg on top.

"The good thing about being a hawker is that if these ideas fail, I will lose just a bit of money, and I can quickly go back (to what I was doing before)," Mr Kwek says.

"So if it works, good. If it doesn't, at least I gave it a try."

Mum knows best

Harummanis Junior 10, Ring Road, Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre, #01-03

There's little to no chance of getting lost in the spanking new Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre, the second of 20 new hawker centres the Government pledged to build by 2027.

Here, colourful arrows hang overhead, pointing to different parts of the hawker centre.

That is how we easily find our way to Mr Afiq Anuar's nasi padang stall, Harummanis Junior.

The stall was named after his parents' stall in Teck Whye, where Mr Afiq helped out for four years, before deciding to strike out on his own.

The 26-year-old displays enticing dishes that "follow (his) mother's recipes as closely as possible".

Assam padas (a spicy, sour fish), for instance, is made using fresh fish from a supplier every morning, something his mother insists on.

"It's what makes the gravy so sweet," says Mr Afiq, the youngest of two sons.

His mother also makes sure that he tastes everything he makes.

While Afiq gets to decide the prices for dishes like assam padas, the mee siam and mee rebus are priced at $2.50 as part of price moderation by NTUC Foodfare, which manages the new hawker centre.

These measures are put in place to ensure the elderly and less fortunate get to enjoy a decent meal.

Though his older brother worked at Iggy's and is now a chef at a high-end restaurant in Dubai, Mr Afiq is adamant that such a path is not for him.

"I'm more into cooking traditional food and chatting with regulars I see every day," says Mr Afiq.

"If I threw my brother into my stall's kitchen, he wouldn't know what to do and vice versa."

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 any more."

SOCIAL MEDIA

He also has to work harder to build up his own stream of regular customers, instead of relying on his mother's 25 years of experience.

Though he admits that social media has been helpful in putting the Harummanis Junior name out there, it also has its drawbacks.

A woman once posted a photo of the mee rebus from his stall on its Facebook page, with some negative comments about the taste.

"It was just two months after I opened and I panicked," says Mr Afiq, who had wanted to reply and justify himself.

"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.

"I know my food and I am more confident now."

Refining dad's recipe

Truly Test Kitchen 153, Kampong Ampat, Jun Jie Industrial Building, #07-05

Few would imagine the lanky man manning the curry rice stall at an industrial building's canteen used to be a foreign exchange trader working "short and sweet" hours at a local bank.

Mr Joel Chia would rather you see him as a dead ringer for Hong Kong actor Stephen Chow anyway.

"The physicality of the hawker trade really cannot be underestimated," says the 30-year-old.

"I run 10km to 30km a day. Every single day. But it's a different game as a hawker, man."

Mr Chia, together with business partner Deniece Tan, took over her dad's Hainanese curry rice stall at Telok Blangah in August 2013.

Both were keen to start their own business and wanted something in the food and beverage industry.

AWKWARD

The pair spent five weeks learning the ropes from Ms Tan's father, before the 25-year-old sat him 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 Ms Tan.

"It was not an easy conversation."

Since taking over, Ms Tan and Mr Chia have refined the curry recipe, adding different types of ginger and more chillies to make the formerly pale and bland curry spicier and more vibrant in colour.

Both are not maudlin when it comes to recipes, believing they can always improve.

Last year, Mr Chia and Ms Tan moved to their current location at Jun Jie Industrial Building in Kampong Ampat road, and added Western curry dishes, porridge and economical beehoon to their menu.

They are also working on a separate menu with food delivery service Food Panda, with items such as dry curry noodles - which they think will appeal to executives who crave a hit of spice for lunch without the risk of getting stains on their smart suits.

"I believe that if you want to do business, you should always do something that is dear to people's hearts; that's a part of their everyday life," says Mr Chia.

Both he and Ms Tan are also adamant that they remain hands-on in the running of the stall.

"For generations, hawker food has needed a very personal touch. People need to see and know the people behind it," says Mr Chia.

Adds Ms Tan: "You can't simply employ someone to do this for you, at the start. You must be present for at least three to five years.

"It's about the passion that people want to see."

It's all in the name

Habib's Rojak 503, West Coast Drive, Stall 68, Ayer Rajah Food Centre

The hawker business Mr Habib Mohamed's father ran had his name on it - literally.

When Mr Habib was born, his father opened an Indian rojak stall at Ayer Rajah Food Centre and named it after his second son.

In a way, this has paved the path for Mr Habib.

The 28-year-old was about to sit 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," says Mr Habib, who has been peeling potatoes at the stall and going on marketing trips with his father since he was five.

Decision made, Mr Habib spent a few weeks learning from his father.

He described his father as a fierce teacher who expected him to learn quickly.

In 2013, he went on to serve Indian rojak at Hawker Heritage - The Next Chapter, an event organised by The Shangri-la Hotel Singapore.

It was there that Mr Habib learnt the importance of quality produce, like a certain brand of yeast that not only makes the flour texture finer but also reduces preparation time.

"Usually, the flour takes about four hours to be ready. With this yeast, it takes only one and a half hours at most for it to rise," says Mr Habib.

Even so, he still reaches the stall at 2am every day.

The morning starts with him preparing the different flour mixes - egg, coconut, potato - and getting fresh produce like prawns from the wet market in the compound where his stall is located.

Peanuts are also freshly ground to a slightly coarse texture "so they stick to the rojak when it is dipped into the sauce".

It is hard work behind the scenes, invisible to the throngs who come to his stall.

Yet times have been even tougher.

Mr Habib once survived on just an hour of sleep every day for two weeks when one of his workers went on urgent leave. He ended up going to work at 2am and going home past midnight.

"Those two weeks were hell for me," says Mr Habib.

"I kept asking why I had to kill myself this way; I thought I hated this line and didn't want to do it anymore."

NOT WORRIED

But tough times do not last - tough people do.

He says: "Now I am not worried even if I don't have enough manpower - I know I can do it on my own, if I have to."

A good thing, too, because many come for the tantalising spread of items on display at this stall, which is open from 11am to midnight. Popular items include vadai (crispy prawn fritters), potato and coconut fritters.

Asked if he would name the stall after his son, Mr Habib says with a laugh: "The stall has had my name for so many years. Customers recognise it, so it is better to carry on with my name."

But he would like his son to take over the business one day.

He adds: "To me, doing this is sustainable. After all, I grew up on a hawker's income."

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