Makansutra: Disabled staff at Dignity Kitchen serve up delicious fare
Disabled staff at Dignity Kitchen whip up authentic dishes that will make you go back for more
The physically and intellectually impaired, or disabled, can also be a part of the Unesco-recognised hawker culture in Singapore and churn out complex dishes like claypot rice and good ol' laksa.
That's what Mr Koh Seng Choon, the founder of Dignity Kitchen and all-round food hero, believes.
"It's how you teach them," he says. "We have to reinvent the whole notion of normal training."
I have known him since he embarked on this social enterprise mission - to empower and train the displaced, disadvantaged and disabled to cook and operate hawker stalls.
He began with three humble outlets in Balestier a decade ago, and has come a long way since.
He sought help from big-hearted professionals in the industry, and today, if you order local beverages from the hearing impaired at this foodcourt, you will be instantly taught how to sign kopi-o, teh-c and kopi siu dai.
The current location of Dignity Kitchen, at 69 Boon Keng Road, is the third Mr Koh has moved to and it is by far his largest foodcourt.
It comes with a training department, cooking classes for the public, an office and even a karaoke section (not currently in use due to Covid-19 restrictions) for corporate dining sessions.
It is a halal-certified eatery, and if you go without prejudice, you won't be able to tell that the laksa ($4) is made by disabled folks.
It comes with rich lemak and pieces of steamed chicken, fish cakes, egg and taupok (no cockles used) that make it look delectable.
When you stir in a little sambal, the dish transforms and puts many an able-bodied laksa hawker to shame.
The chicken rice ($4) is also very comforting, though the meat is not chopped as perfectly as the top hawkers do.
The rice is not oily yet flavourful, the chicken is soft and smooth, and the dish's edge is its accompaniment of achar (pickled spicy greens) - an old-school and authentic rendition hardly found today and which reminds me of chicken rice from the Raffles Hotel area (the old Hainanese streets) back in the day.
The chilli is not watered down and spicy, and the black sauce is of the thick, caramelised type.
The kolo mee ($5) is another favourite - it's the noodle texture and the basic soy- and sesame oil-enhanced sambal sauce that does me in.
A special automated stove is used for the claypot rice ($6) - the operator just has to put the ingredients in and the device does the work.
I suggested to Mr Koh that he let the rice sit another 10 minutes in the pot to achieve even more of the roasty rice crust.
They also incorporate a Malacca hae ko (prawn paste) for the rojak ($4), and somehow, it is particularly moreish - there's just enough sweetness and it is not overwhelmed by the tamarind juice or chilli.
Mr Koh's bag of tricks also includes automatic pocket vibrators to get the attention of the hearing impaired, and training the visually impaired to measure the size of dollar notes with their fingers and palm. He also taught an amputee to chop chicken with one hand using a chopping board with a steel pin in the middle that holds the meat in place.
Simple innovations that work to make the food served even more delicious.
69 Boon Keng Road, opens 8am to 8pm
Closed on Sundays and public holidays