Raising the profile of hawkers

Working with hawkers is no longer just a one-off event, as more businesses seek longer-term collaborations with them in celebrating heritage food.

Last year saw a boost in such partnerships, which elevated the profile of hawkers, trained the spotlight on their craft and pushed diners to spend more to support them.

Expect an increase in such foodie alliances this year and extra initiatives rolled out to entice more to join the trade, especially with Singapore's hawker culture now on Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.

Hawker collaborations

An ongoing hawker collaboration is the Sky High Hawker series by restaurant-bar Ce La Vi at Marina Bay Sands.

It is curated by chef-consultant Jeremy Nguee, founder of Preparazzi Gourmet Catering, Batu Lesung Spice Company and online kueh shop Mrs Kueh.

Prominent hawkers who have been part of the monthly series - since it started in August - include Ms Aisha Hashim, fifth-generation owner of Haig Road Putu Piring; Mr Douglas Ng, owner of The Fishball Story; and Ms Lynna and Shima Haron of Haron Satay.

Different hawkers are invited to cook once a month at the rooftop restaurant Ce La Vi using premium ingredients, with dishes priced from $10++ each. Mr Ng's Abalone Noodle Supreme dish - priced at $18 - includes braised abalone, signature fishballs and fish paste dumpling.

This year, there are plans to further develop the series by showcasing more hawkers.

Mr Nguee, 39, says: "The Unesco win is a wonderful way to truly celebrate Singapore's hawker culture and continue to raise awareness and quality of Singapore's heritage cuisine. The hawker movement is now rising with a new nationalistic sentiment and we are at a watershed moment."

Another initiative, started by the Swedish Chamber of Commerce in Singapore during phase two last year, saw some unique hawker pairings bringing together Swedish multinational corporations and local businesses.

Ah Tan Wings' "Har Cheong" chicken tortilla (above) is a collaboration dish featured at the Timbre X Hawkers series. PHOTO: TIMBRE GROUP

Hawker Carmal Ahmad of Mad Bros hawker stall at Tanjong Pagar Plaza Food Centre was partnered with Swedish home appliance manufacturer Electrolux to create a special dish.

Mr Carmal, 33, who sells Japanese curry and ramen at his Muslim-owned stall, created a SwedishJapanese MAD Pannburg - a beef patty inspired by Swedish Pan Beef and Japanese Hamburg. It was topped with cream sauce and accompanied by Swedish-style pickled cucumbers, fried onions, sweet corn and Japanese rice. It was sold last month at his stall at $9.90.

As part of the collaboration, he was able to create and demonstrate his skills at the Electrolux kitchen in one-north. The company also mobilised its 150 staff here to support Mad Bros by buying meal vouchers and packed lunches, and running social media contests to drum up publicity for the stall.

This is the first collaboration for Mr Carmal, who is keen to explore more in the future.

The finance graduate-turned-hawker says: "I chose to be a hawker as it is fun. I like the journey and I learnt a lot about myself. It's like going back to school - especially with such collaborations - it's like I'm getting a master's in business and culinary arts."

He was also one of the recipients of the Promising New Hawker accolade in the inaugural Singapore Hawkers Awards - announced last Monday - organised by The Federation of Merchants' Associations, Singapore; and Chinese-language daily Lianhe Wanbao. The awards are supported by the National Environment Agency.

Other hawker pairings featured Swedish telecommmunications company Ericsson and Leong Hainanese Chicken Rice at Shunfu Road Market and Food Centre; and Swedish network camera manufacturer Axis and Coffee Break at Amoy Street Food Centre.

Mr Niclas Kvarnstrom, the Ambassador of Sweden to Singapore, says: "If we had a Swedish hawker centre, Mr Carmal's dish would be something people would buy. We're doing this only as something that lasts, otherwise it just becomes a marketing thing. We want it to be a project that highlights that we are rooted in the community we are in."

Over at Timbre X S.E.A. (formerly known as Timbre X @ The Arts House), the restaurant-bar kicked off its Timbre X Hawkers series in November. It runs till Feb 11.

The current series features Wok In Burger by KEK Seafood, Ah Tan Wings, Jiao Cai Seafood and Kopifellas - with three collaboration dishes and one cocktail on the menu. The latter three hawker brands are showcased at Timbre Group's Yishun Park Hawker Centre and Timbre+.

Ah Tan Wings' deconstructed "Har Cheong" chicken tortilla is priced at $30, while Jiao Cai Seafood's sambal lobster roll - topped with melted gouda cheese and tobiko - costs $38.

The group's marketing manager Joey Wong says: "Other than providing customers with a refreshing dining experience, we hope these collaborations allow for the crosspollination of ideas and elevate the appreciation for food producers, regardless of background and cuisine."

Hawker incubation programmes

Pushing for more to join the industry, Timbre Group has been running its own incubation programme for aspiring hawkers since 2016. The group also partners ITE College West to encourage its graduating cohorts to start a stall with it.

The current Hawkerpreneur Incubation Programme with the National Youth Council - which started in 2019 and runs till end May this year - allows budding hawkers to set up a stall for six months with subsidised rental, sponsored basic equipment as well as marketing efforts to maximise exposure.

Such initiatives, Timbre Group's marketing manager Joey Wong says, reduces the risk for newbie hawkers with a lower start-up cost and they can focus on perfecting their food and smoothing out operations.

Nanyang Polytechnic's Asian Culinary Institute Singapore (NYP-ACI), set up in 2015, is the training partner for the Hawkers' Development Programme - jointly developed by the National Environment Agency (NEA) and SkillsFuture Singapore.

Last month, NYP-ACI launched a new one-day course, Adapt To Change - Digitalisation For Hawkers, which is targeted at existing hawkers who may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with using digital technology.

This month, they launched a Hawker Heritage Series where both aspiring and existing hawkers cook their speciality dishes and receive feedback so they can improve their offerings.

Last Tuesday, the new Work-Study Post-Diploma (Certificate in Hawkerpreneurship) - which comes under the SkillsFuture Singapore work-study programme - was announced by Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment Amy Khor.

The 12-month programme, which takes in its first batch in March, is by NEA, SkillsFuture Singapore and Temasek Polytechnic.

Of course, more can be done to protect hawker culture and heritage in the long run, says Ms Charlene Ang, director of NYP-ACI. Offering fairer prices for hawker food, a hawker succession scheme and guidance for newbies are some of her suggestions.

She says: "I hope that Singapore's Unesco win raises the profile of hawkers, encourages the public to be more appreciative of them and give them their due respect and recognition.

"We are already seeing heightened interest and ongoing conversations about safeguarding our hawker culture and more individuals, especially the younger generation, are being encouraged to enter the trade.

"We can do more as a nation to ensure that we protect our hawker culture and heritage. It is time for Singaporeans to recognise that hawker food is a cuisine of its own class, uniquely Singaporean. This is something we must preserve for our future generations."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 17, 2021, with the headline Raising the profile of hawkers. Subscribe