When you chomp in on that piece of potato crisps and go “mmm”, are you enjoying a shaved slice of fried potato dusted with flavour or the, wait for it… crrrriiiisps!. Do you even care it’s lightly salted, spicy, plain, or even salted egg yolk. Perhaps you do, but imagine if it came in less than crispy, soft in the middle and chewy at the corners. Yep, you are enjoying the” crrrriiisp!”. After all, they named it potato crisps, not fried potato thins.
Hawkers in Singapore, many untrained and unschooled as they are, had long known that texture and mouthfeel (a combination of texture, flavour and temperature) is an important element in luring you back for the next meal. We hardly notice let alone appreciate it, but we totally enjoy it. Maybe it’s the “hawker thing”- many see them with less than respectful regard for their craft. We are spoilt for choice and overly concerned about prices and speed. We can’t wait too long for the moreish and crispy crumbly fried chicken in West Coast hawker centre, that slice of carefully fried rempeyek to go with nasi padang in Geylang Serai or the onde onde at Maxwell hawker centre, where we will be unforgiving if the texture isn’t mochi gummy and where the gula does not erupt when you bite in.
Mr Chang Lee Wong is an expert in making Teochew style mooncakes filled with yam paste and done with a layered pastry, sort of like a French filo pastry. He turned that concept of a “shell” pastry and made curry puffs, complete with an uber moist potato curry with eggs and chicken chunks inside. One look at his Wang Wang Curry Puffs in Old Airport Road hawker centre, and you can expect that texture to sing in your mouth. The thin and multi-layered pastry hides the spicy sensation within- it comes crumbly, crispy, hot, spicy yet soft. If you’ve had them before, you can taste what you are seeing. He folds a very soft ball of flattened dough, first left to right, then rolls them top to bottom to create at least 10 layers. Then it’s cut into consistent little cylinder chunks, flattened, stuff with curry potatoes and deep fried. But, the skills and methods behind it are just some of the artisanal crafts found in many of our little 10x10 ft hawker stalls in Singapore. These crafts aren’t taught in culinary schools, it was passed down through generations of cooks, perfected through trial and error and lovingly delivered to please the masses and affordably too. It is this proud craft that our hawkers practice and humbly offer to you when you patronise them.
There’s also the oft used term about “QQness” in noodles- in ramen, pasta, and of course our famous Bak Chor Mee. Jason Tang is a Gen Y third generation hawker of the first family of Bak Chor Mee in Singapore. His grandfather was one of the pioneers of this dish that appeared here after Japanese War last century. His uncle is the proud recipient of a Michelin Star award and his father runs another outlet in Hong Lim Market. Their noodles come with a plethora of ingredients like minced and sliced pork, fried dried and crispy sole fish bones, mushrooms, meatballs, and sauced with a special own made sambal that’s infused with black vinegar. Very addictive, but what brings this whole show together is the noodles. There is an unseen or unnoticeable art in the way the noodles are blanched- no timers are used but “you rely on visuals and feel” says Jason, who had to cook a portion every day while learning it and eat the mistakes, till he got it right. They cook the noodles till it has a soft resilience and springiness yet retain enough water so it blends well with the sambal-vinegar sauce. The snaking queues at this stall is a daily sight.
So the next time you observe a hawker cooking your portion of “shell” curry puff, bak chor mee, fried chicken in nasi lemak, finely texture nasi briyani, crispy roti prata etc, notice the silent and humble craft they introduce to your meal that makes you go “mmm”!
Please pledge your support for the nomination of our Hawker Culture to UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage: http://www.oursgheritage.sg