We meet K. F. Seetoh down one of Geylang's alleys. Tiger beer bottles roll across the ground as we hear the clang-slam-roar of woks and metal tongs and open flames. The middle of the alley cradles a czecha called J. B. Ah Meng, an outdoor eating house ripe with the odors of smoky stir fries and sweet ocean crab. Above it all the air carries the candied funk of durian from a fruit market down the street. Why has one of the experts on Singapore's food culture brought us here?
"If a kitchen doesn't smell, you know the food sucks." There's no time to think about what he means before the fried fish skins arrive.
You can't talk about hawker food in Singapore without eventually talking about Seetoh. He's the creator of the culinary guide and media company Makansutra, the subject of TV spots on Top Chef and No Reservations, and now the host of TLC Asia's The Food Surprise. He's the country's most outspoken advocate of local hawker culture and a man who thinks of nothing of grabbing one more bite after an all-night food crawl. (Remind you of someone?)
J. B. Ah Meng is the first stop on our culinary tour of Geylang, the red light district Seetoh describes as "the unofficial food capital of Singapore." Eating houses are everywhere, and the brothels are only separated from Buddhist temples by motels that handle client spillover, a far cry from the spotless, modernized face of the city-state seen elsewhere.
"I find the food here exceptionally marvelous," Seetoh says as we crack the claws and legs of an unbelievably fragrant white pepper crab. "It's cheap, humble food, but Singaporeans don't care how it looks. If it sucks, we won't eat it." That explains the piles of brown we dig through: eggplant, peppers, and cubes of taro with crisp sturdy crusts and soft steaming insides; a vermicelli pancake studded with egg and crusted by the wok with the flavor of a thousand stir fries.
Seven dishes and many more beers later, we're on the move, past young hungry men and the rush of one of Geylang's boulevards. We veer into a cluster of hawkers for stops two through four. Some eating houses collect a small group of hawkers with a joined seating area for something between a restaurant and a food court.
Singapore has almost no actual street food—that is, food cooked and served on the street. But open air eating houses like these blur the distinction between indoor and outdoor space, public and private, one storefront and another.
At Sing Lian Eating house we visit Swee Guan for hokkien mee, my favorite Singaporean dish, a jumble of noodles, prawns, and bean sprouts braised in prawn stock and stir fried in lard. The stock and fat emulsify into a creamy, meaty surf and turf sauce that transforms the simple, slightly charred noodles into something marvelous. There is nothing fancy about this food, but it's some of the best I've eaten anywhere. That pepper crab. Those noodles. They stick with you.
Seetoh rips off a hunk of mutton satay and dishes on the hawkers themselves. Singapore's most successful hawkers make six-figure incomes and have children in American Ivy League schools. The country's ravenous appetite means there's no shortage of demand for great food, but success brings its own problems.
The kids of those wealthy cooks aren't learning how to make a plate of honest char kway teow. Other hawkers who sell their businesses after they make it big cut the professional chain from parent to child. And the country's dining out culture is changing, ever so slowly drifting from local homey food to Western imports, like glossy KFC.
Singapore is hardly losing its taste for the food that has me strongly considering a long term move. But there is a growing generational gap. "No one's teaching these kids how to make this food," Seetoh says. "But it's worth championing. It's worth defending."
The question of how to preserve that culture while maintaining the country's breakneck pace of progress doesn't have easy answers. This isn't the U.S., where a newfound cultish devotion to food has driven more and more young people into the food industry. Hawker work is hard and fierce and unglamorous. For many of Singapore's historic hawkers, it seems that they cooked because they had to, and the pride came after. In a booming economy, where there are so many ways to make a living, how many people will want to take up the hawker life?
Plates licked clean, we move on to our fifth stop, Sin Huat eating house, for fish curry and more crab. We just miss closing time, but get to talk with the owner Danny Lee, whose following is so devoted he's able to charge $63 SGD (or more) for a plate of crab beehoon (this is a country where $3 buys you dinner, $10 a feast). There's a young apprentice cleaning up. Seetoh asks Danny how he's doing, if he's able to cook like Danny can. "He's alright, but he's not there."
Our tour ends at Rochor Bean Curd House for desserts of soy milk and silken tofu with pandan syrup. Though the soymilk isn't the most flavorful, and the tofu's a little grainy, it hardly matters. We sit facing the street and soaking in the night. Geylang pulses away, crowds come and go. Food is everything here, and the night is one great meal.
More Snapshots from Singapore
- An Introduction to Singaporean Food »
- Snapshots from Singapore: 25 Singaporean Dishes You Should You Know »
- Snapshots from Singapore: 10 Must-Eat Singaporean Breakfasts »
- 13 Singaporean Sweets You Should Know »
- A Tour of a Singaporean Wet Market »
- A Tour of a Singaporean Supermarket
- Snapshots from Singapore: A Must-Try Pork Jerky-Kaya Toast Sandwich Hack »
- Snapshots from Singapore: The To-Go Bag »
- Snapshots from Singapore: A Guide to Singaporean Coffee »
Note: Max's recent trip to Singapore was arranged by the Singapore Tourism Board.