Photo by Gordon Calder
Many islands have signature dishes, but only one can claim to be the home of the street food obsession currently gripping the culinary universe. KF Seetoh, who founded the Singapore food guide Makansutra in 1997, has become one of the world’s foremost experts on street eats. He believes the history of his island country is best told through chicken rice and chili crab, which is why he helped launch the World Street Food Congress. Held for the first time last May, the event attracted the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Claus Meyer, and was held in, you guessed it, Singapore.
“Singapore is a totally migrant nation. The bulk of our migrant workers came from China and India. It was the men who came over. They didn’t bring their families, so these guys started cooking. They started putting stands on the streets and they sold their own cultural delicacies. The Chinese then began adapting what you could do with chilis and sambal, things they didn’t have back home, and started cooking curries. And the Indians were looking at the fried noodles the Chinese people made, and they started coming up with their own Indian-style fried noodles. All of this was going on for decades; by the 1950s, there were 24,000 of these stands.
Around the 1960s, the government said, ‘We should get rid of these street food vendors. They’re an eyesore; it’s a health problem.’ So some genius said, ‘Let’s build hawker centers.’ These are essentially huge sheds the size of a football field. The government systematically started relocating all the street food vendors into these hawker centers. Today, there are 117 of them. How can that not be iconic? Singapore is only 250 square miles and we have 117 of these hawker centers, each housing on average 100 stalls, each of which is manned by experts who cook nothing but one singular dish through generations. And these hawkers are very successful. Nobody bats an eye if somebody tells you, ‘Oh, that hawker is a multimillionaire.’
Who has the best food? That’s a question that will always start an argument. But street food truly is the greatest democracy we have here. If your food sucks, you’re out. People aren’t going to pick you. There’s this dish—it’s arguably our national dish—called chicken rice. It sounds boring. It looks horrendous. It’s poached chicken on white rice with a couple of slices of cucumber and tomato and some chili dip, and it was invented by a Hainanese immigrant. The Hainanese were not known for their food back home. They were farmers. But when Anthony Bourdain took his first bite of it some years back, all he said was, ‘Wow.’ As I understand, it was some 90 years ago that this man created chicken rice. Now everybody sells it. It’s something you eat when you don’t know what to eat. Then you must eat it.”