Anthony Bourdain thinks Singapore's hawker centres are the right approach to saving street food

Travel host Anthony Bourdain, who was in Manila recently to speak at the World Street Food Congress. PHOTO: AFP
Travel host Anthony Bourdain, who was in Manila recently to speak at the World Street Food Congress. PHOTO: AFP
The World Street Food Congress in Manila brought in hawkers such as these ones from Vietnam. PHOTO: THE STAR
The World Street Food Congress in Manila brought in hawkers such as these ones from Vietnam. PHOTO: THE STAR
Colourful Mexican tacos served at the World Street Food Congress jamboree session. PHOTO: THE STAR
Colourful Mexican tacos served at the World Street Food Congress jamboree session. PHOTO: THE STAR

(THE STAR/ANN) According to Anthony Bourdain, the No.1 determiner of where Americans are going to go and spend their tourism dollar is the food.

“Arriving in a country that doesn’t care about food is like finding that they don’t care about music and you will think to yourself, what are we going to talk about now?”

If there is one name that counts when it comes to gastronomic tourism on television, it is Bourdain, whose shows Parts Unknown and No Reservations have fired an entire generation around the world to seek the adventurous and the truly tasty when they travel.

The chef and superstar of real food, known for his no bulls**t approach, was the keynote speaker to round up two days of intense dialogues to Reimagine Possibilities at the recent World Street Food Congress in Manila, an event supported by the Philippine tourism board.

Bourdain spoke about the deep ways in which the traveller connects to a place through food.

“On the streets in Mexico, vendors roll a taco with their hands, and hand it to you with their hands… there is an intimate transfer going on; they are telling you that this recipe is a reflection of what my parents taught me, my grandparents, my region, my language, culture, and history. This is what I do, what I am good at; this is who I am and what I am and I would like to share it with you.

“This is why street food is so, so vital. I hang out with – I don’t want to brag – some of the greatest chefs in the world and when they knock off their shifts at the end of the night, they don’t want to sit down at another three-star Michelin restaurant. This would be for most of my friends a living hell; think four hours of 19 courses, 17 bottles of spectacular wines.

“What chefs crave after work is a simple good thing. Whether it is a bowl of pasta or pho, some lechon; something you can eat with your hands and experience emotions, and not have to think critically about.

“For some 30 years, I was in the restaurant business, [and today] I don’t want to think about my food, write down evaluating or tasting notes or score it… I want to experience it emotionally like a child. I want to be lost in the moment, to take a bite of food and let it take me to another place and another time – whether it is my childhood or somebody else’s childhood. Any grandma’s food is preferable in my mind to a fine dining restaurant in almost every case.”

Colourful Mexican tacos served at the World Street Food Congress jamboree session. PHOTO: THE STAR

Street food, he said, is under threat. Street food is seen first of all as unsanitary, and a quality of life hazard. People are asking, “Who are these dirty people in the corner with their stands or trucks? They don’t look good; they don’t fit in with the real estate. Street food is taking away business from brick and mortar restaurants”.

“I say that’s bulls**t. Particularly in New York, a city of immigrants, where everybody is from some place else.

“And shockingly, scandalously enough, we don’t have a real [food] market. We don’t have a place like Singapore has, or Hong Kong with their dai pai tongs… a democratic space where people value a good bowl of noodles for a dollar ninety-five just as much as [something more fancy] because they are equally good.”

To bring home the point he gave the example of chef Ferran Adrià comparing a truffle and a peach. Which is better, the truffle or the peach? Both are of the same size, the truffle costs US$1,200 (S$1,663); the peach, US$2.

“We know which is better [the peach], and which is more expensive… and this is the thing that always attracts me and makes me respond emotionally again to Singapore where you have, first of all, street vendors.”

To him, Singapore has solved the problem of hawking in an elegant manner.

“Singapore understood that street food is a good thing and tried to find a way to save it by moving it all indoors, and imposing some regulations for safe food handling. They have this understanding that street vendors are multi-generational operations of people who have more or less been doing the thing they are doing very well over time. That this is something worth saving and preserving, [in the face of] the terrible onslaught of generic fast food chains.”

So in Singapore, you can still go where you can line up with people rich and poor, all of whom value the S$2.95 bowl of noodles just as much as something in a fancy restaurant.

Is the appearance of a Starbucks in the history of the world a good sign for a neighbourhood? 

“No, it’s a sign of an apocalypse,” said Bourdain to great applause from the international media, trend trackers and food enthusiasts attending the forum.

Street food is the cure for fast food chains, he said. A street hawker is that single person or limited number of people who have figured out that “this is who I am, what I am good at doing, and proud of”. And the business dynamics play out by itself on the streets, as each vendor had to make sure that they make the best version of their food on the block, because they have to, as four stalls down, someone else is selling the same thing.

“You see this market force works very much in Singapore. That is a beautiful thing and we can certainly celebrate it and preserve it to the extent that we can replicate it and bring it to places like New York, Paris, San Francisco or Los Angeles. For sure, the world will be a better place for this.

“Why don’t we have this in New York, or Europe? This is why we are trying to put together this enormous project in New York.”

Slated for opening in 2019, the US$60-million food market at Pier 57 on the Hudson River in New York has been billed as the “food market of the century” by Eater.

At the heart of the market will be 100 of the world’s best street foods. What is Bourdain looking for in a hawker as a potential partner? Must he like the food or is he looking to please the palates of New Yorkers?

“Obviously it’s about my taste,” he said. “There are certain things I am passionate about. Some of these things I’m not sure New Yorkers will take to… but you should not consider what the people want or expect.

“Is there a market in New York for char kway teow? I don’t really give a s**t. I love it and I’m pretty sure that if New Yorkers are introduced to a really good char kway teow, they will love it too.

“The determining factor to me is if a Singaporean grandmother and her grandson would be able to recognise it; that this is not some bulls**t Disneyland version of Hawker World. We are talking of a wide selection of the real deal.”

We crave authenticity but what does authenticity even mean? 
“Food is always changing… cultural appropriation is happening everywhere… and many times people come to America and ask, ‘what do the stupid Americans like? Do I have to change my food?’ And they do. So you don’t get the real level of heat, funk or fermentation. Is that a good thing?

“Yes and no – anything that gets us across to enlightenment is a good thing; to get the dining public to try something new is a good thing. What is real Korean food for Korean children who grew up in east LA anyway?”

The issues facing such a monumental project as the Bourdain Market are many. How is he going to uproot a hawker entrenched in his little corner in Hanoi to New York?

The same motivation as always, he said: money, opportunity, freedom to try a new thing. 
“Obviously we would need to be making some compelling arguments to move someone who has a good thing going in a street corner in Hanoi to go to a strange and terrible new world where everything is uncertain and we are going to have to give certain assurances. We can make certain financial promises but to say to someone that ‘this is a project that is worth doing or is good for you’ is something that, if I cannot make that argument in good faith, I will not be making that argument,” he said.

While Bourdain has the last say on who gets on the list, he is working with the Street Vendor Project nonprofit and has enlisted the help of Asia’s guru of grub, the Singapore-based KF Seetoh, founder of Makansutra and the World Street Food Congress, whom he credits for showing him “some of the best meals of my life”.

The list is still a work-in-progress but they know the must haves.

And since we are in the Philippines, “You gotta have lechon,” said Bourdain. And the No.1 dish that will set the world on fire and has the highest possibility of success everywhere in the world?

“Sisig is the ultimate drinking food. It’s really perfect, resonate with the current young and hip, the people who go out, and it captures the zeitgeist of the moment – it’s affordable, fun and you can share it.

“Americans and Europeans and the younger set are increasingly into hooves and head and snout. Sisig’s got more: it’s got flavour, texture, integrity. It’s not pretentious and it’s absolutely delicious. If you ask me, it’s absolutely the most delicious food on the planet.

“This is the dish of the Philippines, the breakout dish. Fifteen years ago, you would say the egg thing, the balut thing. End of discussion, right? Now I promise you people will be crazy for sisig everywhere – with or without us.”

Of the Malaysian hawkers who have made it to the list are the Choon Hui Cafe Sarawak laksa in Kuching, which goes down in Bourdain’s book as a “breakfast of gods”, and Line Clear nasi kandar in Penang which Bourdain declared “awesome”.

“Line Clear,” said Seetoh, “oh man, that’s definitely on our wish list. Assam laksa, Ipoh curry noodles … I am still looking at something in Melaka; I mean, come on, Melaka is the birthplace of nonya cuisine. From Malaysia, it is more than Line Clear and Sarawak laksa if you ask me.”

How hard is it to come up with 100 of the world’s best hawkers? Both Bourdain and Seetoh looked a bit stunned and laughed. (Read: Are you kidding me?)

“The hard part is to convince people to actually take the chance to set up in New York,” said Bourdain. “And the logistics, paper work and commitment on our side.”