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30 years of Penang hawker food

The thrice-a-year buffet at York Hotel Singapore still draws crowds

For Mr Cheah Cheng Poh, going to each edition of the Penang Hawkers' Fare buffet at York Hotel Singapore is a must.

The 58-year-old lecturer in a private education institution has gone to almost every edition of the buffet, which features a team of Penang hawkers flown in to cook a sumptuous spread.

The buffet is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and its most recent edition started last Friday.

Mr Cheah, who loves the food so much that he has even gone to Penang to hunt down the hawkers who come here, says: "I keep going to this buffet because the food is delicious, genuine and convenient.

"I also trust the authenticity of the food as I've seen some of the hawkers at their stalls in Penang."

  • BOOKIT /PENANG HAWKERS’ FARE 30TH ANNIVERSARY

  • WHERE:21 Mount Elizabeth, York Hotel Singapore, White Rose Cafe

    WHEN:Until March 27, second edition from Sept 2 to 18, third edition from Dec 16 to Jan 1. Open from noon to 2.30pm (lunch)and 6.30 to10pm (dinner)

    ADMISSION: $29 (adult) and $20 (child) on weekday, $33(adult) and$23 (child) on weekend, walk-in only

    INFO: Call 6830-1156

The buffet costs $29 on weekdays and $33 on weekends for an adult and is almost always packed.

Diners can have unlimited servings of classics such as Penang laksa, char kway teow, oyster omelette, ban chang kueh (peanut pancake), chendol and a free flow of bandung drink (rose syrup with milk).

In the 1980s, a similar buffet started in another hotel - the former Holiday Inn in Scotts Road - when it was under the same parent group as York Hotel, the Goodwood Group of Hotels.

But after the Holiday Inn was sold in 1983, York Hotel decided to organise the buffet again in 1986, in its 250-person capacity ballroom.

Back then, adults paid $13.90 and children paid $8. But as the response was good, the buffet became bigger and more frequent over the years.

It used to be held twice a year - during the March and September school holidays - sometimes with an extra run in December.

But since 1992, it has been held three times a year, for 17 days each time. It was also moved to the White Rose Cafe, which is next to two function rooms that can be opened up to accommodate more guests.

It now serves over 20,000 people a year and diners have included host-actress Kym Ng and Japanese new age musician Kitaro.

None of the current hawkers are from the original 1986 batch. To replace hawkers who drop out, the hotel has had to source for others in Penang.

This is done mainly through the buffet's longest-serving hawker, Mr Lee Eng Huat, 60, who makes ice kacang and chendol, and often provides recommendations from his friends and networks back home.

Food and beverage staff from the hotel then go to Penang to test the food before inviting the hawker to the buffet.

Mr Charlie Tham, 52, the hotel's executive chef, has been on more than 10 such food trips.

He says: "Finding the hawker in Penang can be a challenge. Some work at makeshift stalls that move around during different parts of the day, and we have to look for them under the hot sun. Some of the very popular hawkers are also constantly serving customers and don't have the time to talk to us."

Nonetheless, the hawkers at the buffet have received consistently good reviews.

Ms Teo Swee Lian, 56, a retired public servant who has gone a few times a year since 1991, says: "We love the food and always go as a family. Sometimes, the group can be as large as 20 people.

"We would task the kids to queue for the char kway teow because the wait is generally the longest and they have the strongest legs."

Adjunct associate professor Lynda Wee, 52, from the Nanyang Business School, who lectures in retail management and has eaten at the buffet, feels it offers convenience to guests wanting to eat authentic Penang food without travelling overseas.

Despite the buffet's success, the hawkers are not optimistic about the future of Penang hawker food, citing the lack of young people wanting to enter the trade.

Since the start of this year, foreigners have been banned from being the main cooks in hawker stalls, a move by Penang authorities to safeguard the food heritage there.

Mr KF Seetoh, founder of food guide Makansutra and creator of the World Street Food Congress, says this ban might stop foreigners from cooking hawker food, but will not do much to preserve Penang's food heritage.

He says: "The ban on foreigners does not necessarily encourage locals to come into the trade.

"As long as there is no policy in place to continue the culture of hawkers via education, the future of hawker food is in trouble."

But for now at least, the hawkers are eager to serve their Singaporean customers once again.

Mr Simon Tan, 31, a ban chang kueh seller, says: "I always enjoy coming back. Singapore customers are polite and will queue properly.

"Serving at the buffet here is not as chaotic as being at the stall back home. In fact, it is a breeze."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 13, 2016, with the headline '30 years of Penang hawker food'. Print Edition | Subscribe