Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor

Many (foreign) cooks add flavour to the broth

Singapore's hawker food is an evolving taste sensation

The other day, I bought three bakchang from a coffeeshop in Toa Payoh, from a woman who spoke with a mainland Chinese accent.

When I steamed the dumplings at home at tea time, they tasted weird. The glutinous rice was fine. There was the requisite salted egg and minced pork and chestnut.

But the mix of spices used to flavour the ingredients was strange. It tasted at once too sweet and too savoury. It was just wrong.

I grimaced after the second bite and stopped eating, muttering about PRC Chinese taking over local food stores.

I thought back to times when I had hor fun with over-starchy gravy and, once, a plate of Chinese mee goreng swimming in oil that was unrecognisable.

So when I read that Penang had banned foreigners as main cooks at its hawker stalls, relegating them to food preparation and serving roles, l nodded sagely.

Surely that was one way to make sure food from our hawker stalls and kopitiam retain the flavours of yore, I mused.

But when I recalled that mee goreng, I paused. Mee goreng is a dish associated with Indian Muslims. In Singapore, the Chinese have an interpretation of it that is different. Chinese mee goreng is a bit of a misnomer. I can't very well fault a cook for failing to deliver a familiar taste for a dish that has cross-cultural roots in the first place.

It's hard in any case to be puritanical about food, or be a culinary- cultural purist. In gloriously multi- ethnic Singapore, many of our dishes are inventions of creative cooks of the past.

Every Singaporean knows that you can't get Hainanese chicken rice in Hainan; that roti prata, a staple at our Indian food stalls, doesn't exist in the same form in India; and that bak chor mee as we know it in Singapore, with al dente mee pok served with black vinegar, chilli sauce and minced pork and liver, can't be found in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan or even Malaysia.

If only "locals" had been mandated to cook dishes in Malaya's early colonial history, I mused, how poor our cuisine would be today.

There would certainly be no Hainanese curry rice - what a wonderful hybrid of a dish, with its deep-fried breaded pork chop adapted from the English, drizzled with Indian curry over Chinese steamed rice, often paired as it is at Loo's in Tiong Bahru, with nonya-inspired chap chye.

As my colleague Tan Hsueh Yun, The Straits Times' food editor, argued in a column last Friday, cooking is a matter of skill and training, not nationality.

You don't need to be Italian to do a mean tiramisu; and you don't have to be Singaporean to stir up a storm with your lard-flavoured char kway teow with just the right dash of sweet sauce, and you don't need to be Indian Singaporean to flip a perfect prata.

If hawker fare in Singapore is found wanting, and solutions are sought to improve it, there are more practical ones to be found than mandating that our hawkers be local.

The state and future of our hawker fare has been a grave concern for many Singaporeans.

If the problem lies in declining food quality, then efforts should go into helping master hawkers transmit their skills. Most hawkers will pass on their skills and business to family members. But many youngsters don't want to enter the hawker trade - for good reason.

My siblings and I could have become second-generation hawkers, taking over our parents' char kway teow stall in Pasir Panjang. I remember my father asking us if we wanted to take over the stall at some point. We were all still schooling, and spent each day before or after classes helping out at the stall, doing our homework and mugging for exams between serving, collecting plates and scrubbing them.

We saw the hours our parents worked. We saw how little they made.

We all said "No, thank you".

My parents hung up their wok once the children started work. Their char kway teow was so-so. But their braised pork leg rice was quite popular. My parents sold it with a generous portion of pork, with a slice of tau pok and a braised hard-boiled egg - what my intrepid father marketed as san wei yi yuan - three tastes for $1. The recipe died with them. I only recall that it included lots of dark sauce and a fair bit of cinnamon.

Very successful hawkers may monetise their business for retirement. The recent roast meat sellers who sold their business and shop for $4 million is one example of how the capitalist market can work to incentivise people to pass on their skills.

A few selfless hawkers may pass on their skills, helping to train others.

The good thing is that there's no shortage of people entering the food and beverage industry - just think of the lawyers and bankers who give up their jobs to open ice cream parlours or run cafes.

It got me thinking that maybe the problem facing hawker fare in Singapore has less to do with the quality of the food and the quality of the cooks, than with the economics of the trade.

If so, the solution lies in structuring the tenancy and financial deals for hawkers, not in keeping out foreigners as cooks.

When I recall the mixed heritage of many of our most popular mouth-watering dishes, I find it hard to argue that Singaporean street food should remain the preserve of Singaporean cooks.

What innovation might a new Chinese migrant, a cook from the Philippines, or Myanmar, or Tanzania, bring to our local cuisine tomorrow?

So, sure, I will grimace over the occasional odd-tasting mix. But then I will recall my latest favourite haunt for tea: Whampoa market. Yes, there is Hoover Rojak and the fish head steamboat, staples there for years. But these days, I go for the plump, freshly-made jiao zi with chives (boiled dumplings) from the couple who speak with a PRC accent. The siew pau from Seremban in Malaysia (a bun-shaped pastry filled with char siew) - is another must.

Each mouthful takes me back nostalgically and wondrously to the past: my first taste of home- made jiao zi 30 years ago when a mainland Chinese friend made them for dinner; and the siew pau my mother used to buy for us kids, 30, 40 years ago.

Sometimes, it takes a foreign cook to bring back a taste that reminds one of home.

In the end, I mused, food is a dynamic, living product. It can't be made a heritage good the way an artefact can be, and preserved in a museum.

Food is made fresh every day, served and sampled every minute. And I think we are fortunate in Singapore to be descendants of people who embraced a thriving, open, diverse local food culture.

muihoong@sph.com.sg