Finally the government is giving it the highest recognition it had ever done- pitching our hawker centre food culture as a Unesco Intangible Heritage and Culture icon. If it gets the nod from Unesco, then it will be the ultimate rating. No stars, chopsticks, point or chef hat ranking can ever come close to this accolade. Because Unesco will recognise it only if it resonates with and are an integral part of the people’s life- that it undeniably bonds and harbours our heritage and culinary history. This conversation was conducted back in April when a learned group of foodies and commentators, including yours truly, was invited to a focus group discussion by the National Heritage Board (NHB) on what is the next Unesco Intangible Heritage award we should celebrate (after Botanical Gardens was inducted). Sports, music, grandma’s recipes and even languages was brought up but heritage hawker food culture stole the show. There were some initial reservations, so I asked for the powerpoint page on “Criteria”, it ticked in every box.
I cannot think of any other country in the world where her people, government and the industry stand hand in hand to support and facilitate this makan culture. We have big, small, central, ulu (far flung), Malay centric, Chinese, Indian hipster and even foreign favourites hawker centres (like a few in town).. it totals over 110 and more are being built as we read. There is also a bug push to encourage young hawkers into the trade alongside the old “lao jiao” (seasoned) hawkers in the business. It is just so delicious and colourful plus affordable, just think of the hand made epok epok at just 50 cents each.
So I look back an old fashioned dish, made in a manner that is fast disappearing today and that’s a part of our makan DNA - the humble and comforting Cantonese style Fish Head Beehoon. This one looks a bag of fish bone trash emptied over the noodles. But to initiated, with seasoned fish bone scars to show, this is how it should be. Fish heads, especially the snakehead toman variety (used here), harbour tons of flavour, texture and gelatinous flesh and cartilage. And the rubbery and resilient skin, ooolala, such a delight to snap in on. The folks here fry up the heads, chop them up, put them over a ginger laced, roasty and murky fish bone stock with a dash of milk and a scintilla of alcohol with thick beehoon noodles. You have to be an expert to manoeuvre the bones in the mouth and not choke on it, plus, don’t bother taking Instagram (IG) pictures, because either way you look at it, it’s uglylicious! These older hawkers also go easy in the salt department (you self-serve extra soy sauce if you like). Something that alludes to the IG generation too.
Also, their fish slice hor fun is a class act. You can see the chef sear the flat rice noodle in the wok till it browns and that’s where the distinct “wok hei” aroma kicks into the dish- slathered with a gooey and eggy seafood sauce with chunky fish slices. It’s ditto for the Mui Fan (Canto style seafood risotto)- where the same sauce it doused over steamed rice topped with prawns, squid and fish slices.
As I write, the NTUC Foodfare folks have began to takeover management of this hawker centre from NEA. I hope it works well and I look forward to even better operations from this new team.
Hua Ji XO Seafood Beehoon
01-118, Old Airport Road Hawker Centre
12.30pm-10pm, close Thursday