First-timers at Yishun Park Hawker Centre offer more creative dishes

Don’t laugh at how far-flung Yishun is, for Yishunites have the last laugh with the opening of a new hawker centre serving up all manner of creative food

Yishun Park Hawker Centre is the latest hang-out for foodies up north. The 800-seat space, which opened last Wednesday, houses 43 hawker stalls with a line-up of more than 10 types of cuisines, from Japanese and Indonesian to Mod-Sin and Thai.

Of these hawkers, 13 of them are helming their stalls for the first time. These stalls, often run by people in their early 20s, offer more creative dishes than those found in a typical hawker centre.

These include har cheong gai (prawn paste chicken) with French fries from Ah Tan Wings, as well as nasi lemak ayam taliwang, a Malay-Indonesian fusion dish from the namesake stall.

The hawker centre, which is housed in a three-storey complex, is managed by Timbre Group, a home-grown food and beverage company.

It is the second funky food enclave operated by the group, which started Timbre+ in one-north business park. Opened in March last year, Timbre+ is an urban food hall with live music acts.

Timbre Group’s managing director, Mr Edward Chia, 33, sees the group’s latest project as a “social project”.

He says: “Hawker centres are inclusive spaces for community bonding with people from all walks of life eating there. It is also a space where we can modernise our hawker culture by grooming young hawkers.”

 
 

To that end, two hawker stalls have been launched under the group’s year-long incubator programme. The sellers take up a stall for a year with kitchen equipment sponsored and some operational charges waived. They will also receive mentorship from Timbre Group’s head chef, Tommy Teo.

The two stalls in Yishun Park Hawker Centre are: Ah Lock Tofu Dian, which sells Hakka rice bowls, and vegetarian eatery Yummy Salad House.

The hawker centre has become a crowd favourite in its first week of business, serving about 5,000 customers daily.

Besides using cash, diners can pay for their meals with the group’s Tuck Shop app, which gives diners a 10 per cent discount. Mr Chia says that half of the app’s accumulated top-up value, which is a “five- to sixfigure” sum, has since been redeemed. The app has received more than 7,000 downloads.

New functions that will be rolled out in the next three to six months include one for making advanced food orders .

Given its many new features, the hawker centre has suffered some teething problems.

For one, diners are still trying to get used to the automated tray-return system. To get a tray from hawkers, they need to pay a $1 deposit to the hawkers. The money gets returned when diners leave their trays at a station.

Some diners have trouble understanding why they need to pay a dollar on top of their food orders, or have lost a dollar when they forgot to return the trays after their meals. To make it easier for people to understand the system, Mr Chia says Timbre will put up pictorial signs that explain the process more clearly.

A second tray-return station will be up by Oct 15 at the front of the hawker centre. Staff will be deployed near the station to answer questions.

Mr Chia is optimistic that diners will eventually be comfortable with the system. After all, it took diners at Timbre+ two weeks to familiarise themselves, too, he added.

Other customers complained about long queues at the single drinks counter during peak hours. Mr Chia says the problem has been resolved with separate queues for self-service chilled drinks and another for hot drinks.

Another plan Timbre is rolling out to attract traffic is Park & Play, a series of family-friendly activities that will be held from 11am to 3pm on weekends. They include arts and crafts activities, face-painting and water sensory play.

In conjunction with Mid-Autumn Festival, kids can learn how to make paper lanterns this weekend. Free sparklers and lanterns will be distributed to children from 6pm. Also in the pipeline are a video arcade zone and soccer-match screening sessions.

Mr Chia says: “We do not want hawker centres to be a place where people just eat and go. It can be a place for a family day out with something for everyone.”

• Yishun Park Hawker Centre is at 51 Yishun Avenue 11. It is open from 6am to 10pm daily. For more info, go to yishunparkhc.sg


Yummy Salad House


Mr Peh Zixuan. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

As a vegetarian of six years, Mr Peh Zixuan, 21, has found his food options at hawker centres limited.

“Most of the food is unhealthy. There is either greasy economy bee hoon or mixed vegetable rice with deep-fried mock meat,” he says.

To give vegetarians tastier and healthier choices, he started a salad bar in Yishun Park Hawker Centre.

Customers can create their own salads (from $3) and tortilla wraps ($5.50) from a selection of more than 20 vegetables, fruit and mock meats such as soya bean-based “pork belly” and “crabstick” and toppings such as deep-fried tau kee and papadum.

The choice of nine dressings, including honey mustard and yuzu mint, are made in-house.

A photogenic highlight is the Happy Panda Set ($8.50) which features sushi rice fashioned into a panda.

Rounding out the set are vegetables, fruit, mock meat, a bowl of soup and light desserts such as longan jelly and mango pudding. About 40 to 50 sets are sold daily.

Mr Lim, who graduated from the Institute of Technical Education with a certificate in accounting and who completed his national service in August, spotted a business opportunity when he found out this hawker centre was opening in his neighbourhood.

He decided to apply for a stall there and was included in its incubation programme.

“This is the best platform to set up my business as I can start it with little cost and get help with using the kitchen equipment and managing food supply,” he says.

He pumped in about $14,000 of his savings for this venture.

The self-taught chef spent two months experimenting with salad ingredients and dressings from recipes online. One of the biggest challenges was figuring out a substitute for egg in his salad dressings.

“Eggs are a key ingredient to achieve a thick and rich texture, so I had to find a replacement in the form of egg-free mayonnaise.”

This is his first full-time job and the hours are long – he is at the hawker centre by 6am to start washing and chopping the vegetables and does not leave till 1am. He also has cut and burnt himself in the kitchen.

But he takes it all in his stride.

“I never imagined that I would be working in a hawker centre one day, but it has been a fun experience.”


Nasi Lemak Ayam Taliwang


Mr Noorman Mubarak and his wife Puti Henry with their speciality – Nasi Lemak Ayam Taliwang. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

For more than three decades, Mr Noorman Mubarak’s father ran a series of stalls that sold nasi lemak, nasi ayam and roti prata in hawker centres in Ang Mo Kio, Newton and Bedok.

Mr Noorman had helped out at the stalls since he was five.

He recalls heading to the stalls at 3.45am in his school uniform to help get ready for business. When he was older, he was tasked with frying the sambal and cooking the coconut-infused rice.

In 2003, his father retired from his nasi lemak stall in Ang Mo Kio.

But Mr Noorman did not take over his stall. Instead, he worked as an air steward for seven years before becoming a project manager in an oil rig for another seven.

But now, at 38, he wants to set up his own hawker stall.

With the help of his Indonesian-born wife Puti Henry, 31, and his long-time friend Muhammad Ikhram, 38, he opened Nasi Lemak Ayam Taliwang, which serves creative types of nasi lemak.

Its signature dish (which gives the stall its name) is a mash-up of nasi lemak and ayam taliwang, an Indonesian grilled chicken dish marinated with chilli, tamarind juice, tomatoes and belacan.

Mr Noorman was introduced to ayam taliwang three years ago when he and his wife visited Lombok in Indonesia on their honeymoon. They had worked as cabin crew at Singapore Airlines.

Ayam taliwang is typically served with white rice. But he thought of combining the spicy grilled chicken with nasi lemak rice and serving it with tempeh and ikan bilis.

The couple then worked together to create the dish.  Ms Puti used her mother’s recipe for ayam taliwang, in which chicken legs are simmered in spices for an hour before being grilled.

Mr Noorman adopted his father’s recipes for sambal and the coconut-infused rice.

Besides this fusion dish, the stall also offers other variations of nasi lemak by serving it with ayam balado (grilled chicken with sambal) and ayam cabe ijo (grilled chicken with green chilli).

Appearing as an extra side in some in these dishes is a deep-fried chicken wing that is marinated with eight spices, such as cumin, turmeric and galangal.

In the pipeline are new variations, such as nasi lemak nippon, which has coconut rice accompanied with Japanese-inspired ingredients such as ebi tempura and onsen egg.

Ms Puti’s Indonesian heritage will also be showcased in upcoming dishes such as Indomie telor kornet (instant noodles with poached egg and corned beef) and lontong sayur with beef brisket.

Mr Noorman says: “Working in the hot hawker stall reminds me of being in my father’s shop. Cooking is like riding a bicycle; all my cooking experience is starting to come back to me.”


Ah Lock Tofu Dian


Hakka Tofu Rice Bowl ($5.50) combines Hakka stuffed tofu and lei cha fan (thunder tea rice) with the Japanese donburi concept. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

Traditional Hakka food is given a millennial twist at this stall run by a 24-year-old chef, Mr Lee Lock Teng.

Here, you can find a Hakka Tofu Rice Bowl ($5.50) that combines two Hakka classics – Hakka stuffed tofu and lei cha fan (thunder tea rice) – with the Japanese donburi (rice bowl) concept.

On top of a bowl of Japanese rice, there are ingredients such as Hakka tofu, tau kwa (fried soya bean puffs) stuffed with minced pork, seaweed, chillies, mani cai and chopped long beans.

Another signature dish is the Hakka Meatball Bowl ($4.50), which features three fried Hakka meatballs drizzled with sambal mayonnaise and tofu puffs on a bed of rice.

  • Unit: 01-08

    Open: Weekdays: 6 to 9pm or till sold out; weekends: noon to 2pm; 6 to 9pm or till sold out. Closed on Tuesdays

    Info: Go to www.facebook.com/ahlocktofu

Mr Lee, who grew up with traditional Hakka food cooked by his grandmother, knows that the cuisine can seem like “old people’s food”.

He says: “By presenting Hakka food in a modern way, more young people can be aware of this dish.”

Business has been fast-moving. He prepares about 100 rice bowls a day, which sell out within two hours.

A fuller menu, which includes tofu pork sliders and tofu fries, will be rolled out next week.

Mr Lee is especially proud of his version of stuffed Hakka tofu, which is filled with minced pork belly.

“I spend five to seven hours every day cutting, scooping out the tofu and stuffing it with meat,” he says. “Everything needs to be done carefully as the tofu falls apart easily.”

He learnt these recipes from his mother, who in turn learnt it from his Hakka grandmother.

Since his primary school days, he has been helping his mother prepare meals and picked up kitchen skills along the way.

His interest in cooking grew and he started whipping up dishes such as seafood paella and roast chicken for his friends three years ago.

Mr Lee is now studying for a degree in electronic and electrical engineering at Nanyang Technological University, but he is in the midst of a six-month break to run this stall.

His business is supported by Timbre Group’s incubation programme, which provides assistance to first-time hawkers.

Another reason for becoming a hawker, he says, is to support his tertiary education as he has “run out of savings”.

His father, 51, is a technician and his mother, 47, is a housewife.

Mr Lee plans to convert his course into a part-time one later this year.

His elder brother, Lock Phon, 25, will helm the stall when he is at school, but he is determined to juggle schoolwork with cooking.


Ah Tan Wings


Mr Tan Wee Yang experimented with different recipes for his har cheong gai. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

At Ah Tan Wings, all the dishes revolve around har cheong gai, or pieces of chicken coated in prawn paste and deep-fried.

At lunch, choose from rice sets that have prawn paste cutlets or chicken wings and drumlets. Each set (from $5) comes with chicken stock-infused rice, half an onsen egg, cucumber and a tangy chilli lime sauce.

The dinner sets are an XXL shrimp paste chicken cutlet ($7) and chicken wings ($5.50), both of which are served with fries and seaweed salad.

A prawn paste chicken wing costs $1.50 (minimum two pieces). Besides chicken, other interesting dinner dishes include Asian Tacos ($4), which are filled with tobiko, shrimp and creamy potatoes, and okonomiyaki (grilled Japanese pancakes, $8.50).

Brother-and-sister duo, Tan Wee Yang, 25, and Tan Yu Yan, 28, run this stall. Mr Tan helms the kitchen, while his sister, who used to be an administrative manager, takes care of operations and publicity matters.

A former sales manager, Mr Tan grew up loving the har cheong gai served in zi char stalls.

Last year, he started experimenting with his own recipes. He tinkered with 26 types of flour blends, various brands of shrimp paste and spices to come up with his “secret” marinade and batter. He says: “My friends and family were my guinea pigs.”

What makes his har cheong gai unique? He marinates the chicken with Hong Kong-imported prawn paste for two days before coating them in a batter and deep-frying them. He fries the chicken again with another type of batter to yield a “net-like crust” that traps pockets of air to up the crunch factor.

Finding a suitable location was also a challenge.

Rents in hawker centres were high and his concept did not fit in well in most places that already have Western food, chicken rice or zi char stalls.

Eager to kick-start their business idea, the siblings started selling their har cheong gai at pop-up events such as Baybeats and Singapore Night Festival earlier this year, and fine-tuned the recipe along the way.

Their persistence has paid off as they received a $10,000 grant from the Tiger Street Food Support Fund by local brewery Tiger Beer in February.

All the money went into setting up this stall. They also invested about $25,000 of their savings.

Though it has been tough transiting from an office job to sweating it out in a food stall, Mr Tan has no regrets. He says: “The hawker scene is  vibrant and not as cut-throat as what people think. There are many hawker friends keen to collaborate and give us advice.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 29, 2017, with the headline 'Funky food in Yishun'. Print Edition | Subscribe