Beef up hawker apprentice programme

In the absence of any concerted attempts at preservation, the decline and disappearance of the Singaporean hawker culture is all but assured (A flavour of S'pore identity is lost without muah chee; April 2).

There are two additional obstacles to the survival of hawkers and hawker dishes.

The first is consistency across the industry.

As much as we tout the culinary prowess of "hawker legends", the reality is that many of the offerings at our hawker centres are mediocre.

This may be attributed to diners having lower expectations of cheap meals, or to the lack of skill of cooks who are inexperienced or simply indifferent.

It may also be due to a stall being the only one selling a certain dish at a particular food centre, giving patrons no better alternative, and hawkers no incentive to improve.

In the long run, the extreme variation in quality damages the "hawker" brand.

This stands in contrast to many foreign culinary cultures, where even the smallest backstreet establishments strive for a certain standard. This ethos of excellence helps to preserve the authenticity and appeal of their dishes.

The second issue is that of inheritance.

It is well known that hawkers often pass down their recipes to their families, and that many household name hawker stalls have disappeared due to a lack of willing successors.

A possible solution to both of these problems would be to introduce a more comprehensive version of the hawker apprenticeship programme attempted some years ago.

We should work with veteran hawkers to build a repository of heritage recipes as well as dishes that are at risk of disappearing, such as muah chee or malt candy.

This knowledge could be made freely available to new entrants in the hawker trade, easing the start-up process, guaranteeing food quality and providing a built-in customer base through the connection to an established stall.

The authorities should consider more generous monetary incentives and concessions for prospective hawkers, given that breaking into the food and beverage industry is so cost intensive.

Such subsidies are a small price to pay to preserve our identity.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 14, 2017, with the headline 'Beef up hawker apprentice programme'. Print Edition | Subscribe