Singapore's world-class hawker fare
They are not on the Michelin Bib Gourmand list, but these three local hawkers have taken their fare around the world. MARIAN GOVIN (firstname.lastname@example.org) reports
The Popiah Ambassador
He sees himself as a humble popiah-maker who learnt the trade from his father.
Mr Michael Ker (above), 40, never thought it would take him to the US as a food ambassador.
He is the manager of Kway Guan Huat Joo Chiat Original Popiah & Kueh Pie Tee, a local stall that has been around for three generations.
Last month, Mr Ker travelled to New York after being invited by Tiger Beer to be a part of its street food campaign #uncagestreetfood.
He introduced his popiah to the locals at Tiger Trading Co - a pop-up store in New York's Chinatown.
The store opened on June 7 to commemorate Asian and Asian-American artists across the world.
"We picked Michael because he best showcased what is authentic about Singapore street food," says Ms Venus Teoh, head of marketing for Asia Pacific Breweries Singapore, home of Tiger Beer.
Mr Ker tells The New Paper on Sunday: "I felt apprehensive at first. I was worried about producing the exact same taste."
Since he was 13, he has been learning the secrets of the trade from his father, now 68.
Not much has changed over the years.
Everything from the popiah skin to the sweet sauce is made from scratch. And Mr Ker is not willing to change that - even in New York.
"The first challenge was to find all the ingredients. Chilli padi was the hardest to find," says Mr Ker, who had to settle for another kind of chilli.
Afterwards, he had to face an unfamiliar kitchen.
"I was not able to take my hot plate to cook the popiah skins, so I had to adapt and use a crepe-maker."
He says he was determined to represent Singapore. And did he ever - the New Yorkers loved it.
"I was eager to find out how they would react to a dish that is hard to pronounce and prepared by a hawker," says Mr Ker.
"I felt accomplished and proud to be Singaporean."
At the end of the three-day event, more than 850 participants received special entry coasters from bars and restaurants that stocked Tiger Beer.
Each coaster could be used to redeem one item in the store.
Mr Ker was also asked to put together a surprise popiah party for Singaporeans in New York.
He says: "I knew I had to give them the taste of home. It felt great..."
When Mr Ker returned home, his family was eager to hear about his adventures.
"All my relatives were very excited when I got home. They wanted to know everything," he says.
"Whether the people enjoyed the food, if everything went smoothly and all of my adventures."
Mr Ker is glad he could introduce popiah to the West and dreams of taking popiah to other parts of the world where Singaporeans live.
"I've always wanted to be some sort of a popiah ambassador and travel to different parts of the world where Singaporeans live," says Mr Ker.
"I would love to whip up a surprise popiah party and rekindle their yearning for our comfort food back home."
Tired, but proud and honoured
Mr Abdul Malik Hassan with his mum and their family's nasi lemak. TNP PHOTO: JEREMY LONG
The nasi lemak is a top choice with many people, and there are queues at the stall all day.
It is so popular that Selera Rasa Nasi Lemak has taken its fragrant rice overseasas part of Singapore Day for the last eight years.
Mr Abdul Malik Hassan, the owner's son, first went to New York in 2008. He has since travelled to other cities such as Shanghai and London.
"The events have been eye-opening, and I am proud and honoured to be a part of it," says the 44-year-old.
Singapore Day is an annual event for Singaporeans living abroad to reunite and relive memories of home. It is organised by the Overseas Singaporean Unit, in a major city with a significant number of Singaporeans.
Mr Malik has been to seven Singapore Day events and will be heading to San Francisco in September for this year's Singapore Day.
He learnt how to make the family's nasi lemak from his parents when he was 21 and how to manage customers by observing operations at the stall.
He says his travels have helped him be more creative in the way he makes nasi lemak.
Mr Malik says at first, they made the food in a central kitchen and took it to the event site.
Now they cook on location.
He makes everything from scratch even when he is overseas. Some of the ingredients which are difficult to obtain include belacan (prawn paste) and assam (tamarind).
He says: "We were able to get our hands on a different type of belacan, so we had to modify our recipe slightly to adapt to the situation."
Besides the quality of the food, Mr Malik says Singapore Day organisers also pick hawkers who can adapt their food based on what can be found overseas.
"We try our best to replicate the taste of the nasi lemak at home," he says.
Serving a crowd as large as 12,000 means Mr Malik has to be at the site by 4am to prepare the food.
He starts cooking only at 9am, an hour before the event starts. Then it is a mad rush of constant queues till late afternoon, when the event ends.
"It was tiring to wake up as early as 4am, but when Singaporeans turned up and tried our nasi lemak, the feeling changed to pride and honour," says Mr Malik.
The locals also get to try his food.
He says: "They were amazed by the quality of food that we served and said it made them want to visit Singapore even more."
Mr Malik usually takes one helper to the event, but this year he will be travelling with his mum and wife.
His wife, Ms Shireen Ikhsan, is excited.
"I am proud to be in the team and excited to head over. I will also be able to go shopping," she says with a laugh.
'Some people cried after eating'
Mr Abdus Salam Akbar Ali (above) 30, is the owner of Ministry of Rojak by Abdhus Salam Rojak. TNP PHOTO: JEREMY LONG
Not only does his family have a stall in the east and west of Singapore, they have also taken their food overseas.
Mr Abdus Salam Akbar Ali, 30, is the owner of Ministry of Rojak by Abdhus Salam Rojak. He has been taking part in Singapore Day since 2009.
Over the past seven years, Mr Salam has taken his Indian rojak to cities such as London and Shanghai. He will be heading to San Francisco this year as well.
"It has gotten easier over the years. I get the greatest satisfaction from being able to take part in these events," says Mr Salam.
He took over the family business in 2012, despite his parents wanting a stable office job for him.
Says the older of two sons: "I felt like it was my responsibility as the elder son to carry on my father's rojak legacy."
As for the Singapore Day event, Mr Salam says he has learnt to adapt to the place and crowd.
"During the first Singapore Day, we were not sure of the operation and how the crowd would be like," he recalls.
Then Mr Salam and his team studied and learnt ways to be more efficient so they can attend to customers while still retaining the taste of their food.
They also adapted their recipe to the local produce.
"The quality of the food there might be different," says Mr Salam.
"For example, the chilli might be spicier than what we use, so if we use the same amount we use here, it would be too spicy."
Mr Salam says he tries to reproduce the taste of their rojak - and it seems successful.
"We have people who come to us crying (after eating), telling us how they feel like it is a part of their childhood," he says.
"Some even request to take the gravy home to eat with their own food."
Mr Salam usually prepares the food two days before the event, and only starts frying it a day before, a process that can take up to 12 hours.
On the event day, he starts as early as 4am and keeps going until it ends at around 4pm.
The sense of camaraderie is strong among all the hawkers who participate in Singapore Day.
"We all work as a team and have the same goal in mind - to provide good, authentic Singapore food," says Mr Salam.
Mr Salam's father, Mr Akbar Ali, founded Abdhus Salam Rojak.
The 58-year-old says: "I am proud that my rojak can be a part of such an event.
"Not everyone can take authentic street food overseas, and I am thankful for having this opportunity."