Foodie Confidential

Hawker food champion

Nineteen-year-old student Fiona Quah is on a mission to highlight hawker traditions with her videos

Pulling youtiao (fried dough fritters) dough is no easy task, especially for a first-timer. Just ask Ms Fiona Quah, 19, who tried it at her friend's stall in Tampines.

"I felt like I was bothering them, instead of helping. My youtiao was not up to standard and it couldn't be sold," says the third-year media and communications student at Singapore Polytechnic.

But while she may not cut it as a hawker, the budding film-maker certainly has the passion to help in other ways.

In July, she joined a competition organised by insurance comparison site GoBear for the launch of its personal loans comparison service. The contest required participants to submit a 30-second video about a dream they want to achieve.

Ms Quah was encouraged by her teacher to take part. She chose to focus on the hawker trade and her Hawker Stories video beat more than 100 entries to win the grand prize of $10,000.


Ms Fiona Quah will feature traditional kueh shop Poh Cheu in one of her upcoming videos. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

With the prize money, she will continue her mission to highlight unique hawker traditions by filming more videos, she says.

"I want to focus on hawkers as I have family and friends who are hawkers and I've heard many stories from them," she adds. "There are not enough young people becoming hawkers and I want to capture this Singapore spirit, in case it really disappears one day."

The experience has also opened her eyes to the hardship faced by hawkers. She says: "At Xiang Ji Chuan Tong Youtiao, my friend's stall, the hawkers get up at 3am to prepare the dough. That's the time I go to sleep."

The parents of another friend run a drinks stall in Bukit Merah View. The environment they work in is damp and humid, says Ms Quah, who lives in Serangoon.

"Several of her father's toe nails have rotted and his feet have lesions. A lot of people don't see all this. We shouldn't take our hawkers for granted."

Tell us about a hawker you will be featuring in your upcoming videos.

My cousin's fiancee's parents run traditional kueh shop Poh Cheu Soon Kueh and Ang Ku Kueh at 127 Bukit Merah Lane 1. I don't really like kueh, but I like theirs because everything is made by hand. My favourites are the traditional and peanut ang ku kueh and abacus seeds.

What do you think of the plans to build more hawker centres?

It's good that the Government is taking measures, but I wonder who will fill the hawker centres. Not many young people are willing to put in the long hours for low income and their parents may not want them to continue their trade either.

More foreigners may end up doing the job, so there may be a change in the techniques and flavours. Then again, change could be good.

If you could run your own hawker stall, what would you sell?

Desserts. I love kueh salat and I would make it with my grandmother.

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

  • McDonald’s McSpicy burger. There is a 24-hour McDonald’s outlet near my home, so I go there for supper if my friends are at my house.

What are your grandmother's best dishes?

Chilli crab, carrot cake, satay beehoon and chicken rice. I've been trying to learn from her, but she does not have her recipes written down and speaks only Cantonese.

During Chinese New Year, I help her make guan chiang, a Teochew vegetarian beancurd roll. It has ground turnip and yam mixed with peanuts and spices, and is rolled in beancurd skin and fried - like ngoh hiang.

Where are your hawker haunts?

I go to Chomp Chomp Food Centre in Serangoon Garden for Hokkien mee, satay, chicken wings, orh luak (oyster omelette) and satay beehoon with my family or my friends. Dinner there always means a good night out.

For breakfast, I go to Hougang 105 Hainanese Village Centre (off Lorong Ah Soo). We eat chee cheong fun and peanut pancake.

Since you champion hawker food, do you dine at hipster cafes?

If I'm not eating at a hawker centre, I will be at a cafe with my friends. However, I find that all the food tends to be the same - just pasta dishes and brunch food such as eggs benedict.

My friends like to go to cafes, so I go as well, mainly to take food photos. I do like SPRMRKT in McCallum Street for its truffle fries and chicken wings, Strangers Reunion in Kampong Bahru Road for its waffles and Forty Hands in Yong Siak Street for coffee.

Do you cook?

The first dish I learnt to cook was chicken pot pie. It has all my favourite ingredients in a pot and I always have chicken and carrots in my refrigerator.

I'm a night owl and I like to bake cupcakes at night. With my friends, we bake brownies, red velvet cupcakes, banana cake, as well as the trendy lava cheese tarts.

So you must be a good baker?

Not really. I tend to overcook or under-cook cakes and I can be very careless and forgetful.

Occasionally, I work part-time on weekends at Ciel Patisserie in Hougang Avenue 1, but as a cashier and server. I've dropped entire trays of cakes before. When I was trying to recreate its strawberry shortcake, I used salted butter instead of unsalted. I thought, how much of a difference would it make? A lot, clearly.

If you could invite someone for a meal, who would you pick?

Swiss tennis player Roger Federer, as I watch tennis with my father. I would eat strawberries and cream at Wimbledon with him.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 09, 2016, with the headline 'Hawker food champion'. Print Edition | Subscribe