By Adele Chiang
Despite having tried many different versions of wanton mee, I still go back to this one store that I have been patronising since I was a cherubic kindergartener. The springy egg noodles coated with homemade chilli, paired with caramelised char siew served with a slight char, gives me familiarity and comfort.
As I alternate between shovelling spoonfuls of noodles into my mouth and savouring the full-bodied soup with a hearty portion of dumplings, I am reminded of my childhood – of how much I thoroughly enjoyed this local delicacy every day after school.
Yet, it is no surprise that one day, I will not get to enjoy my favourite bowl of wanton mee when the elderly grandma, who is the store owner, retires. After all, she has been cooking for over 50 years.
So, no more wanton mee?
Thankfully, this might not be the case. In recent years, younger Singaporeans have been stepping up to the plate and starting up their own hawker stalls.
An example of a young hawker is Ms Lois Er, the owner of Wonderfull Nasi Lemak, a stall at Old Airport Road. After graduating with an Accounting degree from Nanyang Business School, Ms Er decided to set up a hawker stall at the age of 26, so she could combine her love for food with her skills in business and accounting. Her younger sister Ms Eunice Er, 23, joined her after graduating from National University of Singapore this year.
However, having long working hours and taking home a smaller paycheck compared to their counterparts have proven to be a challenge for young hawkers like Ms Er and her sister. Coupled with the insufficient manpower and high rental costs, many of them find it difficult to sustain their business in the long run.
Despite that, young hawkers are going the extra mile to ensure the highest quality of their food. Mr Lionel Hor, owner of Mr Kneady at The Bedok Marketplace, makes everything from scratch — from the sourdough base of his pizzas to the tomato sauce.
Yet, as they operate at hawker centres, the public still expects them to keep their prices low.
There have definitely been attempts to support the interests of these young hawkers so far. One such initiative is a $10,000 grant to 25 individuals awarded by Asia Pacific Breweries Singapore, as part of the inaugural Tiger Street Food Support Fund to support our unique hawker trade in Singapore.
Even with corporate initiatives being implemented, we have to be receptive by patronising these stalls as well. Instead of merely frequenting famous stalls operated by elderly hawkers, food options prepared by young hawkers as well.
Young hawkers, unlike their older counterparts who tend to serve up more traditional dishes, are often food innovators as well, bringing fusion dishes to the table that combine both Asian and Western styles of cooking.
These fusion dishes are personal favourites of mine, especially because the cook’s mastery of his ingredients shines through in his creations.
Some examples include Plum & Rice’s umeboshi porridge, A Noodle Story’s Singapore-style ramen, or even Hambaobao’s ayam buah keluak burger.
Have you ever had a milo dinosaur croissant for tea?
You can now try it at newly-opened Keong Saik Bakery. The two young owners of the bakery pair traditional Singaporean flavours like lup cheong with European-style bread like sourdough or dark rye.
When it comes to hawkers, we tend to adopt the “older is better” mindset. But perhaps, in the long run, it might be necessary for us to make a more pronounced effort to support these young hawkers.
“If Singaporeans wish to be able to enjoy the hawker heritage for years to come, it’s time to appreciate both young and old hawkers alike,” Ms Er added.
Whether it is through patronising their stores or simply leaving a review on Instagram, a little effort will go a long way.