Building diplomatic ties over popiah and laksa

Professor Tommy Koh.
Professor Tommy Koh.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

It took 19 years of living abroad to make Professor Tommy Koh realise the importance of Singapore hawker food.

The Ambassador-at-large for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who lived in New York for 13 years as Singapore's permanent representative to the United Nations and six years in Washington D.C. as Singapore's ambassador to the United States, has hosted thousands of Singaporeans living abroad.

When he asked them what they missed most about Singapore, three answers kept popping up: family, friends and food, especially hawker food.

The genial 77-year-old says: "The first two replies were expected, but I was puzzled why so much importance was placed on hawker food as it was just part of the landscape and not treated with respect in the past."

Those encounters "lit a light bulb" in his head and he decided to champion hawker food when he returned to Singapore in 1990.

The Italians may have pasta, but nothing comes close to char kway teow or laksa, which have the aroma, mouthfeel and unexpected combination of ingredients and spices that have evolved through trial and accident. These dishes are unique and world class.



  • I will choose three dishes in honour of three women in my life. Dumpling noodles, which is my wife's favourite dish; xiaolongbao, which is one of my Shanghainese mother's favourite foods; and char siew pau in memory of my grandmother.

Over the years, the career diplomat has been promoting hawker culture.

He has been a judge for Singapore Hawker Masters, an annual search for Singapore's best hawkers, for the past five years. The event is organised by The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao.

As part of his judging duties, he relishes the opportunity to travel to all corners of Singapore to seek out good food and unearth colourful stories of hawkers who toil at the stove.

"I want to salute and give recognition to these humble hawker chefs who spent years to excel in their craft," he says.

Elevating the social status of hawkers is one way to sustain the Singapore hawker culture, he says.

"Most hawkers lead a hard life. They make a decent living to get by, depending on sporadic crowd," he says.

"Very few stalls hit the jackpot and attract long queues."

He thinks that the hawker profession can be made more attractive with better-ventilated and spacious stalls; diners must be prepared to pay more for hawker food over time too as rental and operating costs go up.

At the same time, the prices must be kept affordable for the lowerincome group.

Prof Koh calls hawker food "magnificent culinary achievements", which can hold their own against other established cuisines that he has eaten around the world.

Prof Koh, who is married to Dr Poh Siew Aing, 73, has two sons, Wei, 45, and Aun, 42.

The grandfather of two says: "The Italians may have pasta, but nothing comes close to char kway teow or laksa, which have the aroma, mouthfeel and unexpected combination of ingredients and spices that have evolved through trial and accident.

"These dishes are unique and world class."

What are your childhood memories of hawker food?

I lived in a small bungalow in Shanghai Road in the River Valley area and looked forward to street hawkers who came by in the afternoons. My grandmother loved porridge and passed on this love for porridge to me. I like fish, century egg and chicken porridge.

I also looked forward to the handmade fishballs with noodles from those vendors.

I liked wonton mee from a now-defunct coffee shop at the junction of Zion and River Valley Roads. Its wonton dumplings and char siew were so flavourful and special. Perhaps it is sheer nostalgia and I am romanticising these memories.

How important was food in your career as a diplomat?

Eating is a joyful event which is an act of fellowship and, sometimes, business is best transacted not in meetings, but over meals, where people are more relaxed.

I have also attached importance to either entertaining at home or taking my guests out to appropriate restaurants.

Share with us your style of "makan diplomacy".

It is part of my standard operating procedure to have a meal with my counterparts on the night before formal meetings.

Examples include discussions for the United States- Singapore Free Trade Agreement from 2000 to 2002, or settling land reclamation disputes with Malaysia from 2003 to 2005.

Over a good meal, we can talk informally and I probe my counterparts in the areas that we can make progress and which areas should be deferred to another meeting.

These meals have been productive and have built rapport, mutual trust and friendship with my counterparts.

When working with the chief American negotiator Ralph Ives for the free trade agreement, I took him to Indian restaurants in London as he likes Indian cuisine.

What are some dining preferences of international guests that you discovered?

The Africans do not like seafood, not even fish or crab, but they like sweet desserts and good beef steaks.

The Arabs can take spices, but have zero tolerance for chillies and dining in Singapore can be an issue as we like to add chilli to our food.

Tell us about an event where you took great pains to plan the menu?

I worked for weeks with chefs from the Grand Hyatt Singapore to come up with the menu for a welcome dinner as part of the Asia-Middle East Dialogue in 2005, which was held in the Asian Civilisations Museum.

The buffet line had Arabic, Turkish and Iranian dishes and some classic Singapore hawker dishes. None of the guests took the Singapore dishes and they went for their countries' cuisines.

The dinner would have been a disaster if we just wanted to showcase local food.

Where did you entertain guests when you were in the US?

At my home. The Americans do not consider it a treat to dine in restaurants. They want to be invited to your home and try your national cuisine.

For 12 years, my wife was also my cook out of necessity.

My family's Cantonese amah, Ah Wah Jie, followed my wife and I to New York in 1974 and worked there for 10 years, before retiring in China.

What did your wife cook for these meals?

Roast duck, stir-fried sweet and sour fish fillet and desserts such as cake, longan tofu pudding or ice cream with customised flavours such as ginger, which were ordered from restaurants.

What are your favourite dishes cooked by your wife?

My wife's a great self-taught cook. Some of her dishes that I like are stir-fried beef with kai lan, soya sauce chicken, chicken curry, popiah and spring rolls.

It was hard work as she had to go to three markets across Washington D.C. to get the ingredients.

What are your favourite Singapore foods and where do you go to eat them?

I like rojak from Empress Road Hawker Centre - it is my favourite salad in the world. The prawn paste sauce is amazing but unhealthy.

I also like wonton noodles from Ah Wing's Wanton Mee, and fish porridge from Seng Kee Porridge stall in the hawker centre. I am there every Saturday as my wife also goes to the wet market. I am her driver and assistant.

I also like Pek Kio Food Centre for its fish head soup noodles, Hokkien mee and carrot cake.

Which are your favourite cuisines?

I like Japanese cuisine, and would go to Akashi Japanese Restaurant in Orchard Parade Hotel. My wife and I love to sit by the sushi bar to have omakase style sashimi and sushi.

In Japan, I like to go for kaiseki meals. It is just a treat to eat Japanese food there as it is so healthy, tasty and beautiful to look at.

For Southern Indian food, I like Samy's Curry in Dempsey Road for its fish head curry and curry chicken. And for Northern Indian food, I like the Song of India in Scotts Road, for its tandoori chicken and naan.

Which chefs do you admire?

I have followed Justin Quek of Sky on 57 from his Les Amis days. I also admire Andre Chiang for his innovative cuisine, though I don't dine there often as it is expensive.

Corner House's Jason Tan serves imaginative and creative dishes, and I am surprised by the combination of flavours in his food.

Other chefs that I like are Willin Low of Wild Rocket, Daniel Sia of The Disgruntled Chef and private chef Jimmy Chok.

What's always in your home fridge?

Lots of fruit, from papaya to avocado, and plain yoghurt. My wife follows a very healthy lifestyle.

If you could choose anyone to have a meal with, who would it be and why?

My favourite dining companion, my wife.

If it is a special occasion, we will have lobster noodles. She likes healthy fare such as yong tau foo, fish soup or dumpling noodles.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 26, 2015, with the headline 'Building diplomatic ties over popiah and laksa'. Print Edition | Subscribe